To keep or not to keep – that is the question

One of the key professional responsibilities of the archivist is to decide which records to select for permanent preservation and which to dispose of. In fact, you could argue that the role of the archivist is not one of preservation but of “destruction” (though I’m not sure we would quite argue that).

Here at Derbyshire Record Office we typically receive several enquiries and deposits/donations a week. Each time the archivist will judge (often in discussion with colleagues) whether the item/s have sufficient historical and research value to justify permanent preservation. We must ask questions such as:

  • Is it archival? i.e. is it a record generated by the everyday activities of a corporate body (or family, or individual), no longer in current use and providing evidence of the past
  • What is the research value of the material? This requires the archivist to think about the actual content of the item/s, what else could be inferred from it about society, individual or place, what kind of historical research could the material support and whether it could be useful for more than one type of historical research (e.g. useful for family historians and social historians)
  • Does the material provide only information that is already available elsewhere?
  • Is the material legible and in suitable condition for preservation?

We also need to be sure it is of Derby or Derbyshire content or origin. It would be outside the collecting remit of Derbyshire Record Office to collect material that didn’t have some connection to the city and county, and their peoples.

Case Study: Moody and Woolley Solicitors of Derby
A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I with the support of Lien, DRO’s Senior Conservator, surveyed and appraised the records in “the dungeon” of former Derby legal firm Moody and Woolley. After nearly 170 years in business, the firm ceased trading in April 2015, and having returned records to clients where possible, offered the remaining records to us and to Derby Local Studies and Family History Library.

“The Dungeon” when we first visited

What we found were primarily of bundles of title deeds and related papers for properties and businesses across the city and county, executorship papers for deceased clients, probate copies of wills and a small number of business records for the firm from the 1990s to early 2000s. There were also a small number of boxes containing family artefacts and photo albums, mostly from the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Undoubtedly these items would have held some intrinsic value for descendants of their original owners, however the firm had been unable to identify who the items belonged to and so could not return them to living relatives. For the same reason, we also had to make the decision not to add such items to the collection as they were not identifiable and therefore had only very limited (if any) historical research value.

After four hours, much sifting, many puzzled looks, head scratches and a fair bit of dust and grime, we had selected a van load of material to be transported back to Matlock.

Other material “left behind” included the probate copies of post-1858 wills and the majority of executorship papers and ledgers. In the case of probate wills, although we do hold some examples of such wills already amongst family and estate collections, these particular wills are only the probate copy, i.e. not the original signed by the individual. The information available from the probate copy is the same as the copy that can be obtained from the Probate Registry – for which handy online indexes already exist on Ancestry and Gov.uk (the latter also includes a search and ordering facility). Therefore the use of such records at DRO would be extremely limited, if indeed they were used at all.

In a world of unlimited space and budgets we may have taken much more than we did. However, such limitations are not necessarily a bad thing. The sifting and selection undertaken by the archivists has the added benefit of saving customers and researchers some time in sifting through material. Another example in this case were the executorship papers: the probate copy of a will identifies the executors and the beneficiaries, the papers of the executors merely record the process of following through the wishes of the deceased. Where there are disputes it can be useful to retain such records; however, in most cases there is little added information and the frequency of use would be extremely low. There is no defined threshold for how often a record should be used to justify its preservation in the archives, but this is certainly one factor that is considered when appraisal and selection decisions are made.

The decisions and judgments we made have ensured that the enduring archive collection for the firm reflects the nature of the business undertaken (as far as was possible with the records presented to us). The final collection includes:

  • sampled business papers of the firm (e.g. a sample correspondence file relating to notarial transactions),
  • 18th-20th century title deeds and abstracts of title for property across Derby and Derbyshire including the Railway Tavern at Belper, mills and other businesses in Ripley, Shirland Park and Lodge, and
  • the personal papers of John Moody, the firm’s founding partner.

All the material is now in our quarantine room waiting to be assessed by our Conservation team and any necessary remedial action taken (including the removal of mould). It will be some time before a full catalogue is available for the collection, but in the meantime, you can access basic summary information through our online catalogue for the collection, reference D7935.

Ultimately, as archivists we must always make judgments about what to preserve and what to destroy with the knowledge that histories can only be written in the future using the evidence we have preserved. The material that isn’t preserved cannot act as evidence, therefore the first question we must always consider is how will this affect histories yet to be written. That is not to say the first responsibility of future history relies with the archivist, this first responsibility inevitably always lies with the creator of the records who may indeed destroy them before an archivist even knows they exist. Nevertheless, archivists do have a very important role to play and it is one that we take very great care over.

Postscript: The judgments we are required to make are likely to become even more important and difficult with digital records – but more on that another time.

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9 thoughts on “To keep or not to keep – that is the question

  1. Pingback: A busy week with some interesting finds | Derbyshire Record Office

  2. Becky is right here, we do have to take care to get the permission of documents’ owners before destroying anything. As to the rest of the post, I know of no archivist who would not echo these views. Nor, I have to admit, do I know of any archivist who is 100% happy with presuming to have “the foresight to know what will and will not be potentially valuable in years to come”. Yet it is a presumption we must make. I am only glad I am not a doctor, who has to presume which patients stand a good chance of recovery with treatment, and which patients do not; or a town planner who presumes to decide which buildings should be preserved for future generations and which not; or a person in the control room of a fire station, presuming to decide which of multiple fires should get the first available fire engine. Those people have some very weighty responsibilities and I don’t pretend the analogy is perfect – but the option of treating all the patients, putting out all the fires and preserving all the buildings won’t always be there. If we duck our duty to select archives carefully and instead accept everything we are offered, we deplete the resources available for the preservation of historically valuable documents, and I’m sure no one wants that. A final thought: there’s an excellent book by Richard Cox called “No Innocent Deposits: Forming Archives by Rethinking Appraisal”. It is an American publication, but the basic principles at stake transcend national boundaries.

  3. Very interesting read, thank you, I honestly didn’t realise the job of an archivist was so involved in dealing with what should be disregarded.

    • The postscript (when it comes in full) is actually more to do with the records that are created digitally. Generally speaking if records have sufficient research value to justify scanning and preserving digitally (which, as I have previously alluded to elsewhere on this blog, is just as challenging) then the original is also worthy of preservation.

  4. This post is absolutely horrifying! You are presuming the you have the foresight to know what will and will not be potentially valuable in years to come. You are betraying the trust of those making deposits in the honest belief that what they send in will be preserved for the future, not destroyed due to modern blinkered vision.

    Having seen this I will be highly unlikely to entrust historical documents to such a short-sighted organisation in the future.

    • Ken, I am sorry if the content of the post concerned you. Lengthy as the post was, I did not go into all details. However, please be assured that we always consult the donor or depositor before material is disposed of. I choose the word disposed carefully, as in the archive world it does not necessarily mean destroyed. It can mean, for example, that it is transferred to a more appropriate repository. It can equally mean it is returned to the depositor or donor – this is a key question we always ask when new material is received, i.e. If it is outside our collecting remit, how would you like us to proceed? In terms of making the judgments about what is preserved and what isn’t, professional archivists are trained to make these assessments and maintain throughout their career an awareness of research trends and developments. I agree that we cannot know the value that will be assigned to records in the future; therefore the judgments that are made are not only informed by professional trainingu but also by organisational policies and procedures. It is also important that we create and maintain a record of the decisions made when appraising archive collections, and this information is ultimately also included in the catalogues as it is equally important for researchers to understand how the permanent archive collection has been created.

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