Appraising case files: practical and preservation issues
21. There are certain practical and preservation factors which may affect the ultimate decision to acquire a series of records containing personal information, or to acquire only part rather than all of it. The archivist must consider these factors, but only after going through the four steps of researching and applying the "macro-appraisal," the comprehensive analysis, the general rules, and the specific criteria noted above. If after that process, the archivist has made a positive decision that the records containing personal information indeed have value and that some or all of them should be acquired, then the following issues must also be considered. These are not appraisal issues, however, but preservation ones. The distinction is subtle, and important. While these practical and preservation factors clearly affect the nature (and sometimes even the possibility) of the actual acquisition of the records, they do not affect per se the intellectual decision of whether or not the records have permanent value. For example, the billions of bytes of climatic data received daily from hundreds of satellites and earth sensor stations have permanent value for long-term ecological study, but no archives is equipped to acquire them directly. Thus, such data are appraised as being permanently valuable, but practical or preservation issues prevent their actual transfer to an archives.
22. The most obvious practical factor is the cost of retaining the records. There are the obvious costs of the space needed to store the records and the containers and shelving to hold them. Less visible but equally pertinent costs concern the salary time and materials needed to arrange and describe the records, to preserve (and possibly copy) them, and to make them available to the public. In preserving the best possible record within budgetary limitations, many archives will find that they cannot keep all desirable series of case files and some hard choices will have to be made. If the foregoing analysis has been carefully researched and documented, and if it is sufficiently comprehensive across an agency (as defined in sections 2 to 7 in this chapter), then the priorities between competing series will be easier to identify for making that final decision.
23. There are sometimes legislative or statutory prohibitions which prevent archivists from viewing certain series of records in order to appraise them or which legally bar the transfer of certain categories of records to the archives, or both. In such cases, archivists (and their outside supporting communities) must lobby for legislative amendments or administrative arrangements to overcome these prohibitions. Ideally, archival legislation itself grants archivists the right to appraise and acquire even sensitive records.
24. Where the original paper records are too extensive, it is possible to convert the information, or the key portions of it, to electronic data, microfilm, or optical disk. Unless this conversion has been done by the creating agency, most archives will find that the conversion costs outweigh the storage ones, and only a small portion of their holdings will be so treated. Even where microfilm or computer versions of the record are available, however, archivists are cautioned that such miniaturization is no substitute for sound appraisal. Keeping useless records, even those with modest space requirements, complicates description and research unnecessarily, and clutters the desired total image of society.
25. Certain practical considerations may affect the timing of the transfer of records containing personal information, although again this has little to do with appraisal as contrasted to acquisition. If records are still actively used in an agency or likely to be subject to many freedom of information or privacy requests, it may be desirable to extend their formal retention period and thus delay their transfer to the archives in order to avoid excessive reference workloads. Conversely, if the archivist fears that records are physically threatened with either outright destruction or rearrangement that would obliterate their original order, then the retention periods should be shortened and the records safeguarded in the archives as soon as possible. This second scenario occurs when records are highly sensitive or embarrassing to the government in power or where the agency is transitory in nature (an investigatory commission, a small bureau) and about to pass out of existence.
26. Another preservation strategy may be to share between several archives in a formal network (or even informally across national borders) a large series of records which is beyond the capacity of any one of them to retain as a whole. In Great Britain, for example, over 300,000 feet of shipping and seamen's records (as of 1954 only) were handled as follows: the Public Record Office kept all crew lists up to-3860 and a 10 per cent sample thereafter, together with the crew lists for certain well-known ships; a sample of the remaining lists for every tenth year was then preserved by the National Maritime Museum; certain crew lists were handed over to local archives (for ships registered at ports within the area); and the very large residue was transferred to the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project of Memorial University of Newfoundland.14 While purists might argue about original order, or that this approach simply evades a tougher appraisal decision, researchers are pleased with this more generous solution which was beyond the capability of the Public Record Office itself.
27. Finally, as mentioned in Chapter l, more restrictive privacy acts coming into force around the world place very tight restrictions on the release of records containing personal information to third parties. These acts can dictate that certain types of personal information not be collected at all or can require that records containing it be destroyed after a short period of primary use, or can preclude transfer of such records to the archives (see legislative restraints above), or can make it impossible for researchers to use the records even if they are transferred. Archives must learn to live in this new environment by demonstrating to their sponsoring governments that they will follow the acts and not release personal information records in ways that will harm an individuals' rights to privacy. Archivists should also try to convince their sponsors and legislators that the sensitivity of personal information will eventually expire, and in such circumstances the personal information records can then be made available for public consultation. Therefore, such records should not now be destroyed merely to protect personal privacy. In such a manner, it is possible, as in the Canadian Privacy Act, to get specific exemptions for archival use of records containing personal information.15 In a related vein, by keeping a citizen's sensitive file as part of a sample, especially depending on the political climate of the country, archives may actually disadvantage that citizen and leave him or her open to prosecution, public embarrassment, or worse. It is essential that records containing such highly sensitive personal information kept solely for their collective significance in a series not be made available through descriptive tools which allow retrieval by a personal identifier for any purpose, including genealogical research, during the person's lifetime. As well, care must be taken to store (and destroy, if relevant) such sensitive personal information in a secure manner.