| The archival appraisal of records containing personal information: A RAMP study with guidelines |
|4. Appraisal methodologies, criteria, and options|
2. Archivists should appraise series of records containing personal information as part of a larger information universe.1 Not to do so is to start at the bottom of the records pyramid with the most voluminous and repetitive records having the least value, rather than at the top with the policy files and then in the middle with subject files. The archivist must consider the value of records created by the formulation of policy and then those resulting from its general operations, interpretation, and modifications (as revealed in policy and subject records). before being able to understand and appraise correctly the records generated by the daily implementation of the policy (as revealed by the case files). When dealing with the case files themselves, the archivist should consider first the societal image model, and then later issues of informational value separate from the collective and evidential value of the series.
3. As indicated in Chapter 3, moreover, records containing personal information must by definition be appraised against a wider background, especially where such records have their principal significance because for a given function they enrich the image of the citizen-state interaction. That image will be sharpest, and thus most worthy of documentation by the archivist, where there is evidence of significant changes, variations, and distortions between targets and results of the given programme and where the agency allows the citizen sufficient latitude to express his or her opinions.2 Thus, ipso facto, the archivist must determine the operating culture of that programme and agency by looking first at the sources which reveal it:
-- policy and subject files whose importance to the image was explained in the last chapter;
-- electronic records which aggregate much more precisely the more amorphous information from the case files and make clear the relevant demographic and statistical patterns;
-- central government sources (budgets, audits, inquiries, reports, and so on);
-- procedural and forms manuals;
-- legislation; and
-- related published and near-published information.
After determining which policy and subject records and which electronic data bases will be preserved by the archives, as well as the availability of other relevant (but non-archival) information, only then will the archivist be able to assess both the sharpness of the image in the citizen-state interaction and the value of the connected case records containing personal information. Finally, as noted, if the case file series do not have value in sharpening the collective societal image, they should still be appraised, as a last step, for the informational value they may have about specific individuals and events and places. In this comprehensive approach, therefore, actually looking at the records containing personal information is, ironically, the last rather than the first step in appraising such records. To look at personal information case files in isolation from these other factors and these other records is a prescription for poor archival appraisal.
4. The implementation of this comprehensive appraisal framework may conflict, however, with the priorities of government agencies in scheduling their own records. The records schedule is a timetable created by a records manager indicating how long files or groups of files should be retained, where they should be retained (agency or records centre), and their ultimate disposition (transfer to an archives or destruction). If archivists can record their appraisal decisions onto records schedules as part of the process whereby those schedules are approved, the result is a more efficient and economical disposal process, reducing considerably the work of archivists and ensuring in all likelihood that valuable records are not lost or inadvertently destroyed. In this process, it has traditionally been the case that all relevant records in all media for a particular programme or administrative sub-unit are not be scheduled comprehensively by the agency, although that is desirable and should be encouraged. Usually, however, the bulky records containing personal information, which often have the shortest retention periods, will be scheduled first, simply because the agency does not want the high storage costs of maintaining them for long periods of time. But that does not mean that these records must be appraised first in isolation: the schedule is merely a tool to record an appraisal decision, among its other functions. The archivist should thus appraise in the comprehensive context (as outlined above) all the series and media of records created in a particular office relevant to assessing the image model, even if only a small portion of the records are being formally scheduled at any one time.
5. In the same comprehensive approach to their work, archivists should consider adopting the "cluster concept" when they appraise records. If there are several interrelated series of personal information records -- military records involving individuals might include the personnel file, court martial files, burial files, and so on -- these should be appraised together so that overlapping information may be more readily identified and thus a better appraisal made. The same clustering occurs in immigration and naturalization files and in certain court records.3
6. The timing of the appraisal of series of case files or similar personal information records will vary. For the essential records category, the decision can be made immediately. For more routine and homogeneous series, in a manner similar to appraising electronic records at the system design stage, the records may be appraised as (or even before) they are first created. Here a diplomatic analysis is necessary to understand the form and process and structure behind the records per se, which in turn will reveal much about the informational content before the records are even created. In such cases, archivists must monitor the situation periodically to decide if changes in the programme, agency, or records structures over time require a revised appraisal. But for most series containing personal information case files, the issue of retention will revolve around whether the records reflect a societal image which distorts, alters, or negates an articulated intent of the programme or agency. Almost by definition, such cases will involve public issues or government functions which are controversial, hotly debated in public forums, and emotion-laden for many citizens (including archivists) at the time of their occurrence. In such cases, distance adds needed perspective to the. appraisal decision. That time can be gained by storing records for periods of infrequent use in records centres, but archivists must guard against excessive use of this strategy in order to avoid filling centres with useless records with ever-mounting storage costs. Records centre storage is not justified simply because records creators, records managers, and archivists refuse to make difficult decisions. Good archival research and analysis, however, will shorten the needed "cooling-off" period for records. Even if there is delay in making the actual appraisal until this perspective has been gained, the archivist should still gather relevant documentation and interview responsible departmental officers as soon as possible, before both disappear and important experience and impressions are lost.
7. The comprehensive approach to appraisal, as well as the reorientation of the archivist from passive receptor to active selector and the ideal timing of the appraisal, may sometimes be in conflict with the aims of records managers with whom the archivist must cooperate. All archivists have had the experience of roomsful of records dumped on them without warning, thus undermining any chance to treat such records comprehensively with the others in their information universe or actively in terms of isolating (according to Chapter 3) the key records worth preserving in order to retain the most faithful image of society. There is no easy solution to this dilemma, but since the volume of records ever increases, and as space and other resources diminish for both records managers in departments and archivists, it is mandatory that archivists break this vicious circle and regain control of the archival agenda. That may be done by implementing a planned, strategic approach to records scheduling with agencies, that is, a plan based on archival priorities derived from research into all the complex variables mentioned in Chapters 2 and 3, but which also recognizes the need of agencies to have authority (usually received from the national archivist in most countries) to destroy records without archival value in a timely fashion.4