Appraisal: Theory and Practice
By Barbara Craig. Munich: K. G. Saur, 2004. x, 224 pp. Index. Available
from the Society of American Archivists, $99.50 members, $119.50, nonmembers.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol.
68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005)
I read Barbara Craig’s Archival Appraisal while I was
in the midst of teaching my graduate course on this important archival
function. At every page, I found myself wishing that this book was one
of the texts in my course, although for reasons I will discuss later
I won’t be able to use it in this way. Craig, a professor at the
University of Toronto, has given the archival community a seminal writing,
one that every archivist ought to read, providing one of the best single-volume
orientations to archival appraisal. Though not without flaws, Archival
Appraisal will engage everyone who has ever struggled with the challenges
posed by this function. Craig criticizes the appraisal literature as
being “uneven and lopsided” (p. 113), and her book, which
includes an interesting bibliographic essay, moves to smooth out the
bumps and holes of this literature. I suspect that it will be the starting
point, if not inspiration, for many who tackle archival appraisal in
new and innovative ways.
This is not a basic manual. Nothing in it has the characteristics of
a “how-to” guide. Craig states that its “objectives
. . . are to introduce the concept of appraisal—its foundations
and presumptions—the purposes it serves in records and information
management within organizations and in archives programmes, and its historical
development, leading to a discussion of the points that are generally
agreed today about doing archival appraisal” (p. 2). The latter
half of this sentence reveals the strength of Archival Appraisal.
Craig reiterates at a number of key points in the volume that she is
digging for the common ground of what now passes for such archival work.
She says that the book “endeavours, as far as is possible, to expose
the underlying ideas or presumptions for appraisal in the context of
making and keeping current records for business purposes and selecting
material for archival purposes” (p. 3). Craig states that she is
looking for the common aspects of this archival function in the “diversity
of appraisal methods and practices” (p. 5). She argues that if
we are ever to be able to evaluate appraisal work, then we must search
for these common elements across organizational types even while acknowledging
that appraisal generally must serve the needs and match the mission of
any particular institution. Craig succeeds in teasing out some of the
most salient aspects of appraisal work, believing that “there is
surprisingly wide consensus, some of it silent, about procedure, participants
and process” (p. 107).
One of the best attributes of this book is Craig’s deft review
of the history of appraisal by comparing all the diverse traditions and
schools of thought that make up the professional knowledge supporting
appraisal. Craig builds from an understanding of why people create and select
records—“Each of us is tied to the world and to remembrance
in some way by documents and records” (p. 9)—to the ways
and means organizations generate and maintain their documents. She assesses
the origins of Jenkinson’s and Schellenberg’s appraisal ideas,
nicely tying their views to their own professional experiences. She contrasts
their notions to the appraisal concepts later compiled by F. Gerald Ham,
showing how appraisal shifted from concerns of records creators to those
of society at large. Craig is even better when she describes and compares
various appraisal approaches, such as macro-appraisal, documentation
strategy, and the Minnesota Method, providing the best road map to these
well-known appraisal methodologies. And, along the way, Craig is not
afraid to assess their strengths and weaknesses. She is quite supportive,
for example, of those approaches with some focus on “functions” and
the “functional relationships of documents to people and group
memory” because “focusing on the web of relationships may
help restore the unity to the documentary world that appears so fractured
by competing technologies, formats and systems” (p. 95).
While Craig is working her way through the various archival appraisal
concepts and models produced over the past half-century and more, she
also argues strenuously at every turn that she is not searching for the
perfect archival appraisal approach. Craig states, “No process
is infallible: no rule-making will embrace fully the complexity and diversity
of needs for records in the future whose purposes and questions cannot
be known before hand.” So, she “recommends methods and ideas
for consideration, not for obedience” (pp. 20–21). Craig
asserts that appraisal cannot be reduced “to a series of technical
tasks guided by criteria that apply to all—that would not be appraisal
but a denial of it,” the essential reason why she is not striving
to write a basic manual (p. 42). Later, Craig argues that “no single
textbook discussion of appraisal or standard of practice, or agreed benchmarks
can be used as a technical manual to guide mechanical tasks or for rote
application. Appraisal must be a live procedure which recognizes the
nuances of situation and timing, and caters for the constraints of resources” (p.
130). In other words, while there may be some common elements in the
multitude of appraisal approaches, appraisal best functions in the parameters
of real life and real organizations.
While not a basic manual, Archival Appraisal is a kind of
report on a quest to develop an “appraisal architecture” (p.
5) allowing for the archivist to be accountable to future generations
of archivists. Craig suggests benchmarks in most organizations—basic
glossaries, mission statements, and policies on acquisition, appraisal,
and access—form a “powerful battery of documents that drive
work along a well-marked highway” (p. 121). These and other procedures “comprise
a working frame for on-going and self-regulating appraisal” (p.
122). What she is arguing for, among other things, is building a foundation
for developing a real knowledge about appraisal. Craig contends, “Surprisingly,
the evident continuing interest in appraisal has yet to be reflected
in empirical research into the work as it proceeds” (pp. 111–12).
And, more importantly, archivists “do not have ways of measuring
what constitutes a successful appraisal nor do we have a calculus for
evaluating any given process save that provided by the terms it creates” (p.
113). Craig is advocating that archivists document their own appraisal
work: “Appraisal decisions need to be declared and visible in some
way so that they can be audited and their outcomes revisited many times,
perhaps in anticipated reviews of achievement, … and perhaps as
recorded experience to be used in developing measures to be used in evaluation” (pp.
130–31). Of course, it is in this very aspect of appraisal that
archivists have been less than stellar in their practice (but one can
I wish that Craig had tried to craft a model appraisal report and lay
out some advice for how archivists should work to share appraisal case
studies. Archival Appraisal is weakened by the lack of such
an effort. Several appendices include a description by Nancy Marrelli
of the appraisal of audiovisual records at Concordia University, but
Craig does not describe what this report represents.. In fact, its inclusion
looks like an afterthought, since in the introduction Craig states that
her book “does not focus on either special supports or media for
records and communications, on particular problems such as case files,
or on a type of archive, identified by its scope, theme or authority” (p.
4). Craig also provides copies of the mandate, appraisal policy and procedures,
and appraisal report of the City of Toronto Archives but, again, these
documents hang on the book and look more like filler. Given Craig’s
reasoned and generally excellent discussion of appraisal, it is a shame
that she did not tackle a discussion of what a model appraisal report
should look like and how it should be shared.
Another glaring weakness is Craig’s avoidance of describing how
archivists should share appraisal case studies. This is a curious omission.
Near the end of her text, she writes, “Plurality of views allows
many needs to be heard in appraisal. Different decisions may not be building
chaos, as one might assume, but rather a healthy plurality of perspectives
that are more in tune with the emergent hybrid societies of the future” (p.
133). One might expect Craig to then tackle how information about divergent
appraisal decisions could be shared, but she avoids this except for references
to the published appraisal literature. Why couldn’t archivists
systematically post appraisal reports and decisions on their Web sites
and some group or particular archives take responsibility for building
a clearinghouse to the case studies? The absence of the model appraisal
report and some discussion on the possibilities of professional sharing
of appraisal experience make me long for one more chapter from Craig
to replace the present appendices.
I sense that our author might have struggled with her publisher as
well, as seen in the key readings and the book’s price. The inclusion
of key readings at the end of each chapter, arranged in no order whatsoever,
appear to have been endnotes pulled from their normal citation format.
Besides, Craig’s interesting bibliographic discussion at the end
of the book could have accommodated these readings and eliminated the
need for a separate display in each chapter “Key” readings
need to be better arranged or discussed. This problem, those with the
appendices, and some omissions make Archival Appraisal look
like an unfinished book. Yet, such problems as these pale in comparison
to the cost and availability of this book—a reason I shall not
be able to use it in my class. While it is available from the Society
of American Archivists for $99.50 for members and $119.50 for nonmembers,
those prices will deter even most university libraries from acquiring
the title, and a good and valuable book risks being ignored by the profession
because of limited availability. (The K. G. Saur Website also offers Archival
Appraisal as an e-book for €88.00—even pricier than the
hard-copy edition!) I only hope that somehow this book gets into the
hands of as many archivists as possible; if the book goes out of print
and the copyright obstacles can be negotiated, perhaps Barbara Craig
could mount the text on the Web or find another publisher, make some
improvements, and re-issue the book.
RICHARD J. COX
School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh