Archival 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. ISBN: 3-598-11538-5.


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 always hope).

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.


School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh