Archival legislation does not describe which government archival records must be preserved, nor does it prescribe retention periods. It does, however, identify important and valuable aspects that must be considered when drawing up a retention schedule. This attribution of value and importance is referred to as the ‘appreciation’ of archival records. Appreciation takes place prior to appraisal.
When considering permanent preservation and conferring terms of retention upon records, archival legislation demands that the following aspects are considered:
- The task of the government body concerned
- Its relationship with other official bodies
- The value of the archival records as part of the national cultural heritage
- The importance of the archival records to:
- Government bodies
- Private citizens
- Historical researchers
The appreciation process assesses how import the data is to the management of a given organisation. In addition to this, it is particularly concerned with the value of the information to the governnment as a whole. The government must be able to justify and account for its actions both now and into the future, and it must therefore be able to demonstrate accountability through its archival records. A government organisation must, for example, be accountable in the case of a parliamentary enquiry or a lawsuit. The government must also be accountable to individual citizens and in the case of public interest. Certain types of information must therefore be preserved for the long term.
Value for society
The appreciation of archival records benefits not just the government or administrations. Government information also has societal value. For this reason, it is also important to consider the interests of legal and evidence-seeking citizens in the preservation of certain information. For example, whilst adoption files have little enduring value to the government, they have great value to anyone that is adopted.
The societal value of government archives can persist into the distant future. The appreciation of archival records must therefore also consider:
- their importance for future historical research
- their contribution to our cultural heritage
Particular consideration must be given to these grounds when appreciating archival records. As no-one can know for sure which information will become important in the future, appreciation of the records should be based upon the answer to the following question:
- which information about our society is it in the public interest to leave behind for future generations?
As good ‘legacy-leavers’, we must realise that we leave future generations with an unsolicited burden: management of all of the information we have selected for preservation. For this reason, a comprehensive and objective appraisal and selection policy is criticial in keeping account of the value of archival records over the long term.
The State Archives Service is currently testing a new methodology for critically and objectively approximating the value of archival records. More information about this is available in the Projects section.