Reappraisal and Deaccessioning

This literature review examines reappraisal and deaccessioning as discussed in three Archival Issues articles about multi-year projects conducted at large institutions. After describing the projects, I offer a critical assessment, exploring reappraisal and deaccessioning experiences that can better inform archivists considering such undertakings.

A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines reappraisal as “the process of identifying materials that no longer merit preservation and that are candidates for deaccessioning” due to flawed original appraising, collection policy modifications, or changes in the records’ perceived value (Pearce-Moses). The glossary defines deaccessioning as “the process by which an archives, museum, or library permanently removes accessioned materials from its holdings.” These records may be returned to donors, transferred to other institutions, or destroyed.

Reappraisal may lead to deaccessioning, but not always. Conversely, deaccessioning often results from reappraisal, as well as other reasons. Deaccessioning is not weeding, or the removal of unwanted documents during processing; rather, it removes entire series, collections, or record groups from a repository.

In “I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell about It: Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser,” Mark A. Greene discusses how the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming regularly performs reappraisal and deaccessioning based on comprehensive analysis of major collecting areas.[1] Greene reports that 60 percent of deaccessioned records were placed at other repositories, while 20 percent were returned to donors (p. 11).

Caryn Wojcik explores reappraising government record backlogs at the State Archives of Michigan in “Appraisal, Reappraisal, and Deaccessioning.” The archivists ranked government agencies by their potential to produce archival records, similar to the Minnesota Method of appraising modern business records.[2] They constructed an appraisal mission statement, criteria, mechanics, and methodology, which they applied against the backlog.  

In “Reappraising and Reaccessioning Wisconsin State Government Records: An Agency-wide Approach,” Helmut M. Knies discusses a four-year project to reduce Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection by 40 percent.[3] The archivists approached the records by agency, rather than by series, assuring that the project “eliminated the records of no single agency in toto, and as a general practice deaccessioned entire series only rarely” (p. 36). Knies describes the “almost archaeological quality” of constructing a “genealogy” the agencies in the context of their antecedents, related agencies, and administrative and regulatory functions (p. 36, 39).

The articles advised that a strategic reappraisal and deaccessioning plan was needed to avoid the possibility of negative reactions from resource allocators, peer institutions, donors, researchers, and colleagues. Reappraisal and deaccessioning are controversial because the archives symbolize permanence, and archivists view themselves as impartial guardians of the past, which are both illusions. Greene writes, “We have inadvertently weakened our repositories and our professional standing by our unwillingness and lack of action,” and the profession is difficult “not because we are good at saving things, but because we are able and willing to decide what does not get saved” (p. 8, 11).

He also notes that the professional literature rarely discusses reappraisal and deaccessioning.[4] [5] For instance, Terry Cook’s 2000 appraisal bibliography reports that 3.5 percent of the listings were about these topics.[6] Some articles inadvertently discuss it, such as Timothy Ericson’s 1991 article “‘At the Rim of Creative Dissatisfaction’: Archivists and Acquisitions Development,” which urges archivists to define “collecting focus” for better acquisitions (p. 66). Wojcik used reappraisal strategies to define why records were preserved (the “collecting focus”) at the State Archives of Michigan.

Greene believes that archivists avoid reappraisal because reconsidering past decisions may dramatically change their collections. Wojcik reports fiery debates among her own colleagues regarding reevaluation for this reason. She writes, “The goal of these projects was not to influence a radical shift in the State Archives’ collecting practices (the scope and purpose of the collection), but to document why certain records were preserved and others were not” (p. 154). Additionally, the staff questioned reevaluating past decisions, when the backlog was believed to contain many records of marginal value. Greene writes:

Gerry Ham, who issued a famous jeremiad against archivist becoming “nothing more than a weathervane moved by the changing winds of historiography,” a decade later embraced reappraisal and deaccessioning as a “creative and sophisticated” act “that will permit holdings to be refined and strengthened. It allows archivists to replace records of lesser value with collections of more significance, and it prevents the imposition of imperfect and incomplete decisions of the past on the future.” (Ham, p. 13, as cited in Greene, p. 9).

Interestingly enough, space seems to be the catalyst for reluctant archivists to reappraise, as in the case of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which outgrew its repository. Since the 1950s, the Wisconsin state government became a “profusion of regulatory functions, the concurrent proliferation of bureaucratic systems, and the resultant explosion of records” (p. 36). Knies describes how the collection increased based on appraisal policies that were reevaluated during reappraisal. The “Wisconsin Way” of accessioning public records while also soliciting manuscripts with “expansive and sometimes even exhaustive” documentation dates from the mid-nineteenth century (p. 37). He writes:

One finds appraisals in the archival case files describing both the content and context of records series and assigning values for acquisitions decisions that derive from the larger collecting interests of the Historical Society’s manuscripts holdings and its North American history library. For example, these [appraisal values give] primary significance to the records’ contribution to potential researchers’ understanding of topics of health, welfare, economics, crime and punishment, social mores and others. Only secondarily would the appraisal credit the importance of how the records defined the original regulatory function (p. 38).[7]

Additionally, the public record appraisal process evaluated “individual series one at time, largely out of context, and without any supporting records management structure” (p. 37).

Similarly, Wojcik describes factors—a larger facility, professional staff increase, and vague appraisal criteria—that contributed to the considerable backlog at the State Archives of Michigan. Archivists accessioned records that were not scheduled for preservation due to poor quality retention and disposal schedules developed by records management services. Archivists also accessioned anything with potential value, planning to weed them during processing.

Whatever the circumstances, reappraisal and deaccessioning are useful tools for preserving records of enduring value when used strategically rather than on a case-by-case basis. Reappraisal and deaccessioning should be “public and transparent … as normal a part of standard archives administration as cataloging and reference” (Greene, p. 8). Wojcik noted that reappraisal and deaccessioning guidelines built trust with state agencies to transfer records to the State Archives of Michigan. Knies’ project was touted to stakeholders as a way to reduce costs, although it was one of many benefits. Greene observed that donors supported deaccessioning as a tool to improve access for researchers using their records.

The articles presented reappraisal and deaccessioning projects as beneficial to archives. The goals of the projects were to make deaccessioning consistent across all collections; construct better guidelines for acquisitions, appraisal, reappraisals, and deaccessioning; achieve greater intellectual and physical control over the records; and understand why records were preserved. Materials of marginal value are deaccessioned before valuable time is invested in processing them. Archivists may then concentrate their efforts solely on records with confirmed archival value. Knies was the only author to review the success of the project after its completion. Seven years later, he notes that paper records are no longer a problem as they once were because of the growth of technology. The larger problem we face is a decline in the quality of records being captured for transfer, as well as missing documentation that exists primarily in electronic form. However, this is another issue for the professional literature to debate.

 Works Cited

American Association of Museums. (1994). Code of Ethics for Museums. (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums).

Ericson, T. (1991) ‘At the rim of creative dissatisfaction’: Archivists and acquisitions development. Archivaria, 33, 66-77.

Greene, M. A. (2006). I’ve deaccessioned and lived to tell about it: Confessions of an unrepentant reappraiser. Archival Issues, 30(1), 7-22.

Ham, F. G. (1984). Archival choices: Managing the historical record in the age of abundance. American Archivist, 47(1), 11-22.

Knies, H. M. (2006). Reappraising and reaccessioning Wisconsin state government records: An agency-wide approach. Archival Issues, 30(1), 35-43.

Pearce-Moses, R. (2005). A glossary of archival and records terminology. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists) Retrieved February 5, 2019, from Society of American Archivists Web site: http://www.archivists.org/glossary/index.asp

Wojcik, C. (2002). Appraisal, reappraisal, and deaccessioning. Archival Issues, 27(2), 151-160.

End Notes

[1] Greene wrote an earlier article on institutionalizing reappraisal and deaccessioning: Greene, M. A. (2002). What WERE we thinking? Embracing reappraisal and deaccessioning as a collection management tool. Provenance, 20, 33-49.

[2] Wojcik writes, “[The Minnesota Method] article contained appraisal criteria that focused on the content of a record (the reasons it is created and the information it contains) versus the physical characteristics of the record (completeness, preservability, etc.). This example of appraisal criteria provided a model for the team to follow” (p. 155). See Greene, M. A. (1998). ‘The surest proof’: A utilitarian approach to appraisal. Archivaria, 45(2), 127-169.

[3] Knies notes that the daily activities of the project was summarized in Mattern, C. J. (2002, Fall) Discard all items past their prime. Presentation at the biennial meeting of the Midwest Archives Conference, Rapid City, SD.

[4] Greene lists a selected archival reappraisal bibliography including three articles mentioned by Knies and Wojcik. Leonard’s article generated so much controversy that an entire issue of American Archivist was devoted to reappraisal in 1984; the strongest response was from Benedict. 

Benedict, K. (1984). Invitation to a bonfire: Reappraisal and deaccessioning of records as collection management tools in an archives—A reply to Leonard Rapport. American Archivist, 47(1), 43-  49.

Ham, F. G. (1984). Archival choices: Managing the historical record in the age of abundance. American Archivist, 47(1), 11-22.

Leonard, R. (1981). No grandfather clause: Reappraising accessioned records. American Archivist, 44(2), 143-150.

[5] Greene notes that museums and libraries are more forthright about deaccessioning than archives, guided by the recommendations of their professional organizations. For example, American Association of Museums states, “Deaccessioning is part of a long-term, thoughtful decision on the part of the museum about how to best fulfill its mission with available resources” (American Association of Museums, p. 8-9, as cited in Greene, p. 12).

[6] Greene notes that a version of the bibliography is in: Boles, F. (2005). Selecting and appraising archives and manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 159-183.  

[7] The Wisconsin Way of appraisal seems to prioritize the informational value above evidential value of the records, as discussed in: Schellenberg, T. R. (1956). The appraisal of modern public records. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 

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