Archival Spring Cleaning

Winter has finally passed and while you revel in the return of green things, you might also think about doing some Spring cleaning. Brushing out the cobwebs of a neglected basement or attic, you find some ancient treasures, boxed up and passed down over the generations.

As you page through fragile letters and photographs from the last century, it hits you: this is historic stuff, the kind of stuff that belongs in museums and archives! So you reach out to your local institution to see if they are interested…and they say no! We love to hear from patrons about their collections and discoveries among their own books and records, but we aren’t able to add everything they offer to our shelves.

With archives limited by physical (and digital!) space, and focusing on collecting within specific topics called collecting areas, what are the criteria that archivists use to determine what stays and what goes? Below, some of our faculty involved in this selection process, known as appraisal, have answered some questions about how we go about deciding what to keep.

What does appraisal look like in your process?

“With born-digital collections, I am mostly concerned with the file formats, is this a format we can access? That isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but we actually need to start with the bigger question: do we need to access it at all? That question is where we can start discarding born-digital files fairly quickly. What we usually want is the content-heavy files – the Word documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, emails, photos, audio and video files etc. that comprise the work of the donor or the organization. File format is also important to discuss with the faculty member bringing in the collection: can I just turn everything into a PDF or is it really important that we keep access to the WordPerfect file?

From those decisions, we also look for duplicates (notorious in digital collections – we all have multiple copies of all the documents it seems) and files that hold content that are privacy concerns such as student information or social security numbers. I will also discuss with faculty members what a “duplicate” is for the collection we’re working on – sometimes, we want to keep various versions of a very similar thing to watch an evolution of a final product. A good example of that is a recent acquisition, the Pekurny collection – we want to keep both the final product and some of the raw film that went into it so someone else can come along and potentially re-purpose the raw footage into a new product.”

Krystal Thomas, Digital Archivist

“Archival appraisal and selection can, should, and often do happen at many points during the acquisition of new materials. It’s appropriate to set a scope for collections and accruals early in the process, even during initial conversations with donors, and continue to test it throughout accession and processing.

I used to think that appraisal and selection were tasks that only happened before acquisition, however, archival selectors don’t always have the luxury of in-depth investigation before making a call on acquisition. I’ve learned to think of appraisal as an iterative task – pretty much any time during the acquisition process that you’re refining your intellectual control of a collection (e.g. inventory, description of informational content) there’s an opportunity to select or deselect materials. As you go about later preservation, arrangement, and description tasks you get a closer understanding of what you’ve acquired and can refine the collection scope and make another round of selections.”

Rory Grennan, Manuscripts Archivist

What criteria do you use to determine if an item should go in our collection?

“We have a collecting policy as well as a university wide policy, so that is the starting point in terms of what we add. That being said the interpretation of that policy is where the curator comes in. I have to consider if the records have enduring historical value, which can seem a bit vague, but I employ a few questions:

  • Would this be useful for research?
  • Would it function well in an exhibit or in the museum?
  • Does it fill a historical gap in the record?
  • Does it work with other collections to tell a more complete story?
  • Is this information that could be needed by a unit, or university administration in the future to conduct or inform university business?
  • Can I justify taking up space and caring permanently for these materials?

Another aspect of this is liability – keeping some sensitive university records past their required retention means those items are subject to review as long as they are kept, making the university liable for information contained therein when normally they would have been legally destroyed. So there needs to be a compelling reason for me to keep certain items, and it may also require notifying general counsel. There are also times when I come upon records that need to be turned over to counsel due to ongoing investigations or other concerns.”

Sandra Varry, University Archivist

As you can see, appraisal is a long and, often, non-linear process. Interested in seeing what our collecting areas are? You can find them briefly listed here, and you can also check out our Collection Highlights. Thank you to all the faculty who kindly loaned their time and words for this post. If you have any questions about how we choose what goes into the archive, or anything else regarding what we do, ask us in the comments!

Published by Florida State University Special Collections & Archives

The Special Collections & Archives Division of the Florida State University Libraries advances research by acquiring, preserving, and providing access to rare and unusual books and original primary source materials. The division includes the Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Heritage & University Archives, The Claude Pepper Library, and the Digital Library Center. Through exhibitions and programs, the division supports active learning and engagement. Collections of unique manuscripts, historic maps, rare books, photographs, and university archives offer abundant opportunities for discovery and scholarship. Strengths of the collections include Napoleon and the French Revolution, poetry, political papers, Florida history, Southern business history, and the history of Florida State University.

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