by Hye Lim Joy Nam
In a three-day conference of the International Council on Archives Section on University and Research held in Dundee 1-3 July 2019, 70 participants from 20 countries from universities and research institutions around the world discussed the past, present, and future of the archival profession. With “appraisal” as this year’s central theme, presenters from ten different countries covered subtopics ranging from diversity (student organizations) and record types (folklore materials) to reappraisal (“How to throw away one fifth of your archives”). These were punctuated by an energetic “Introduction to Dundee and its University” by Eddie Small and an animated debate on appraisal issues.
A couple of general aspects of this conference that stood out were the theoretical debates underlying appraisal approaches and the technological challenges that archivists must face both now and in the future.
Firstly, although archiving is geared towards practice and “learning by doing,” many presenters touched upon theory, finding the underlying concepts to be helpful in decision-making processes. The archival profession has been shaped by unresolved and challenging debates, whether it be the issue of “representation” and inevitable human bias as articulated during the conference by Geoffrey Yeo, top-down macroappraisal vs. bottom-up analysis, or the debate between Jenkinsonian and Schellenbergian approaches to appraisal. It follows that the archivist must remain flexible and responsive in an interdisciplinary field facing ever-changing legal, institutional, and societal frameworks. Shifting theories, methods, and approaches lead to a constant reappraisal of not only the archival material or the archival methodologies but also of the archivist’s vision, goals, and standards as well.
Secondly, some of the significant appraisal issues raised during the conference related to technological changes and digital record types. Selecting what is to be preserved given growing masses of digital data, limited resources, and limited technological and contextual expertise is a complex undertaking. New approaches to appraisal in the digital realm and the challenge of digital record types were topics that ran through several presentations in the conference on the second day, in particular those on appraising emails and social media. Susanne Belovari’s “Simple and expedited appraisal” and “On the path to an intelligent appraisal” by Basma Makhlouf Shabou demonstrated positive ways in which archivists could effectively approach appraisal in the digital realm.
As demonstrated by conference presentations and in the final discussion, the archivist engages critically with theory, weighs methodological options, and copes with changing archival mediums and technology in the process of appraisal. The challenges of establishing appraisal methods that account for competing priorities, a variety of media, and diverse communities reflect the complexity of archival practices and the resourcefulness and flexibility of its practitioners. Archives, in theory and in practice, are the result of an ongoing international conversation—one that, I hope, will never cease.
Hye Lim Joy Nam is an archival volunteer at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. She has degrees in Transcultural Studies and German Studies and is interested in scientific archives.