Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society

With the amount of information being created it would seem that technology has only created more problems than it has solved. Now archivists have a plethora of information to analyze (but beyond the question of quantity, there is also the question of stability and ease of destruction) and more questions that seem to have no answers: new mediums of information, with criteria and categories that sometimes have no relation to the past? The belief that all appraisal is local and subjective,1 without acknowledging the digital world breaking down previous spatial barriers?  Finally, post-modernism2 points out that we are all prisoners of our subjectivity (or appearance)3 incapable from escaping the shadows in the cave, raising the specter of a totalitarian subjectivity. Regardless of the many questions that must be addressed, I believe a continued improvement of our archival causality will aid in overcoming the supposed subjective/objective (post-modernist) impasse.  In the mean time, all of these questions will be carried over into the new temporal and spatial contexts, with seemingly no answers. (I briefly touched on some of these points in a previous blog, History and Future of Archival Thought and Practice.)

At the heart of the new technological paradigm are still the same archival issues: what records (or data) describes our society, what mediums are people and entities using to convey their beliefs, needs and histories, and what means will we use to describe and arrange these new mediums. I don’t believe that we need to collect anything drastically different but we have to know how the new information topologies have created or altered content and we must document the process, intention, philosophy and subjectivity of documentary evidence.  Precedent will carry us forward and answer many of our selection and appraisal questions. It is not a-priori knowledge but a-posteriori that will be applied in many situations, we may believe we are recreating the wheel but in fact we really are borrowing and building upon previous pedagogies.4 But the most profound difference will lie in our ability to draw closer to archival causality.5 It is that search for causality or innate search for knowledge of the external world that will draw us towards better conclusions.

As Archivists we already have a-posteriori category knowledge (in other words many record series will be duplicated both for convenience and because of pattern recognition6) from our previous analog work but whatever form our selection and description takes us-it must be documented. It has been stated that we need to annotate our arrangement and description as a means to overcome the deficiency of subjective arrangement and description.7 I will take it one step further and declare that we need to annotate our appraisal and acquisition decisions as well.

Annotating our appraisal and selection decisions will give us greater insight into records and the systems that created them. With electronic records these annotations could describe how records were created (databases, HTML text, or on-line search engines). Another question that will need to be confronted is what are the functions of these systems and how do they lend themselves to the new records creating process. Also, documentation of why certain systems were used for retrieval and not others, will be significant. The how will not be as difficult as the why. The complexity of how, will be in the front-end costs of digital archiving and the specialized skills that are needed. This possibly will lead to increased cooperation among system creators,  (DSpace and Fedora are just two examples). But all of that will fail if we don’t answer the basic ontological and teleological questions and develop a more sophisticated systematic methodology of documentary causality.

One way to accomplish this important endeavor is to turn to the philosophy of science. Philosophers such as Bertrand Russell (and his five causal postulates),8Aristotle’s Four Causes and Mario Bunge’s work in the causal9 field give archivists a good starting point for developing an improved causal rule set. By adopting a more sophisticated methodology, archivist’s will draw closer to relevant facts (documentary evidence and its relations) and improved decision making (better appraisal and selection). Some will argue that it is not feasible to apply rules from the empirical sciences to archival work, to some extent that may be true (even others will declare this is being done already when they answer the who, where, when, how and why of documents) but we can still improve our decision making process by having a formal set of rules to guide us. In my next blog on appraisal and selection, I will address its feasibility.

  1. Mark A. Greene and Todd J. Daniels-Howel, “Documentation with an Attitude: A Pragmatist’s Guide to the Selection and Acquisition of Modern Business Records,” in The Records of American Business, ed. James M.O’Toole (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1997), 162.
  2. Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science, vol. 1, no. 1 (2000): 3-24.
  3. H.A. Prichard, “Appearances and Reality,” Mind, Vol. 15, No. 58, (Apr., 1906): 223-229.
  4. Linda J. Henry, “Schellenberg in Cyberspace,” American Archivist, Vol. 61, (Fall 1998): 309-327.
  5. Not a simplistic causality (where the first is the cause of the next, usually associated with David Hume) but a more complex epistemology, more in line with Bertrand Russell’s Five Postulates of Causality. See, Human Knowledge.
  6. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
  7. Michelle Light and Tom Hyry, “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid,” American Archivist 65 (Fall/Winter 2002): 216-30.
  8. Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948).
  9. Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1979).
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2 Responses

  1. Nice but i think something is missing.

  2. […] is going to be changed and therefore documentary creation and collection (read previous blog: Archival Appraisal and Selection in the Information Society), I will segregate myself only to the final resultant (an attempt at a all encompassing analysis […]

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