To Know the World – Thinking about Archival Appraisal

To know the world, one has to penetrate it as deeply as possible.

I recently came across this quote by Ryszard Kapuscinski in a Vice article. I was completely unfamiliar with Kapuscinski either the journalist or the author before stumbling into this bit of text in a, but this quote really got me thinking about the course on appraisal I started teaching on Monday. In some respects, this quote gets at the heart of the issues surrounding a appraisal.

Appraisal of records for some is a task so daunting that it cause that is cause physical anxiety, and can lead some to not wish to appraise at all. To these thinkers, it’s impossible to know what to select. This mind set also could lead to an over reliance on schedules and systems that seem to completely remove the archivist from the decision making process. In this scenario the archivist becomes passive, and seemingly unbiased, but even schedules have to be applied by someone.

To others decisions can be made on feelings and gut reactions. A sense of knowing what’s right for collections just comes quite naturally. To this person whether through actual research and study or a perceived understanding of a subject, they are guided by their knowledge/feelings to make their decisions for inclusion. This mindset can often become stale or over reliant on outdated or incorrect knowledge of a subject. Bias is often most prevalent for this type of archivist. They often doesn’t understand new trends in research and may even diminish voices that are not as prominent in the records they regularly see.

Each extreme perspective is flawed deeply. One rejects the archivist agency in the appraisal process, and suggest that they’re role be eliminated. The other relies to much on the archivist. Of course there’s a middle ground and this is where I come back to the Kapuscinski quote. I  feel that when we examine materials for inclusion in archives we need to find a way “to penetrate it as deeply as possible”. To me this idea of “penetrating” a subject deeply could be used to frame a discussion about how we accomplish a systematic appraisal of records and involves an examination that can include functional analysis and other traditional and historical focused appraisal techniques. Kapuscinski suggest that we go into a subject as far as we can so that we can fully understand it. This is what archivist need to do, and not settle for just one approach when it comes to appraisal.

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