| The archival appraisal of records containing personal information: A RAMP study with guidelines |
1. A leading Canadian archivist once said that "of all national assets archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization." 1 During this century, the size of that "gift" has increased dramatically, and in direct proportion to the increased interaction of the citizen with the modern state. As a result of the growth of government, information about citizens, whether recorded by or about them, is everywhere apparent in the modern records. The history of our "civilization" cannot be told without these records containing personal information, and it therefore becomes essential for archivists to preserve the most important of them as our gift to future generations. In addition to their primary (or original) administrative use in the agency which created the records, such records have value to archives in four major ways.
2. Certain categories of records containing personal information protect the rights of citizens. Archives were first collected millennia ago to ensure the rights of the sovereign, but now it is the people who are sovereign in democratic societies. Examples abound of the use of archival records containing personal information to support such people's legal and fundamental rights: land claims of indigenous peoples, compensation for victims of wartime or other government excesses, exposing illegal or unethical intrusions of the powerful modern state into citizens' lives (secret brainwashing experiments, exposure of unknowing soldiers or citizens to nuclear or chemical health risks, unacceptable police or spy intelligence methods, and so on). Records containing personal information also uncover tyranny or illegal activities of leaders; both Kurt Waldheim and Ferdinand Marcos’ activities during the Second World War were unearthed in their personnel files. By providing a valuable source by which governments can be held accountable for their actions and their processes, such records are essential for the democratic process. As an obvious corollary, there are also administrative uses of such records, long after the primary, original use for which the records were first created has ceased to exist. Records created for one reason may be needed later by the government itself for quite another, usually unforeseen reason. To cite but one example, the same records created in Canada to control the forced relocation of citizens of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War are being use} forty years later to pay compensation to the people involved.2
3. Records containing personal information are of course the central underpinning of-the new social history based on the insights of the Annales school.3 So far this work by historians, and increasingly scholars in other disciplines, has concentrated on past societies and used older (and far less voluminous) records containing personal information. Yet the scholars of tomorrow will do the same kind of research using the personal information records being created today. The patterns and themes uncovered by such research not only enrich our understanding of the past, but inform us of the important dynamics and mechanisms in the society in which we live. It is essential that archivists preserve sufficient similar records to permit future generations to reclaim their heritage. Without these kinds of records, the story of governments can be told, but not that of people. The historical research potential for certain categories of records containing personal information is, in short, extraordinarily high and forms an important part of our collective memory in a democratic era.
4. Records containing personal information can also be important to the development and evolution of public policy. Case files collected over time provide the longitudinal and demographic data necessary to assess the validity of and the need for change in accepted policies, programmes, and attitudes. Treatment by the state of women, juveniles, immigrants, prisoners, indigenous peoples, the poor, and different ethnic, tribal, and religious groups, for example, has varied greatly over the past few decades. Sociological research into these variations could help improve treatment and services to such groups, reduce discrimination and bias, and indeed is needed to test basic academic hypotheses upon which such treatment and services were based in the first place.4 On a broader level, the impact of state taxation policies, economic subsidies, and research grants may often be assessed through analysis of records containing personal information.
5. Such records are of course also the lifeblood of genealogical research. As people search more and more for their "roots" in an increasingly rootless world, where a sense of personal connection to the past assumes for many a larger importance in their lives, archives will be under pressure to retain more personal information records to respond to this need.
6. In summary, records containing personal information are valuable to society in many ways. Yet, "traditionally, case files have not been retained by government archivists; policy and operational files, with a token sample of case records, have usually been deemed sufficient documentation for any agency." The research value of these records, combined with new ways of manipulating the information in them with the computer, "challenge archivists to define anew their acquisition and selection criteria."6