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close this book The archival appraisal of records containing personal information: A RAMP study with guidelines
View the document Preface
View the document Foreword
Open this folder and view contents 1. Introduction
Open this folder and view contents 2. Records containing personal information: definitions, characteristics, and special categories
Open this folder and view contents 3. A theoretical model
Open this folder and view contents 4. Appraisal methodologies, criteria, and options
View the document 5. Guidelines
View the document Appendix: Appraisal considerations, FBI project
View the document Select bibliography


The purpose of this study is to present guidelines for archivists and records managers, especially in the government sector, for the archival appraisal of records containing personal information. The aim is to suggest appropriate measures to reduce one of the major problems of bulk which all managers and keepers of modern records face, while at the same time preserving the best possible archival record. The concentration of the study, therefore, is almost exclusively on paper (or textual) records which, usually aggregated into series of case files, form the most voluminous records of twentieth-century governments.

The study covers an area of archival and records management where theory and practice are not well developed. Accordingly, the aim has been to produce a model and guidelines for universal application. It is appreciated that the standards presented may not be fully attainable in all archives, especially in those which are not adequately resourced and where significant uncontrolled backlogs of unscheduled records await processing. Nevertheless, appropriate use of the model and guidelines, as standards at which to aim, should assist any archives to devise practicable appraisal criteria, methodologies, and options, for its specific local circumstances.

The study is organized into five main parts. First, an introductory chapter suggests briefly the research value of, and associated problems in dealing with, records containing personal information. It also states the specific focus and, more important, the limitations of this report. The second chapter begins by defining the main archival terms used throughout the study, which may be useful for readers outside the North American and English-language archival community. The main part of the chapter focuses on defining personal information itself and on the characteristics of records containing such information. In addition, the chapter deals with the actual appraisal of two special categories of personal information records: personnel records of government employees and those essential types of personal information records that should always be retained permanently. It also considers a third category, where the archivist's hands are tied for political or other reasons. The third chapter advances a theoretical or conceptual model for appraising all other types of personal information records which archivists must assess series by series in order to determine their continuing or permanent value. This model is the core of the study; it places records containing personal information into a broader societal context and proposes a "macro-appraisal" approach allowing archivists to focus on the most important such series out of the thousands created by modern governments. Without this conceptual framework, practical appraisal guidelines would have no firm grounding. In the fourth chapter, appraisal criteria, methodologies, and options are presented, by which the insights of the conceptual model may be realized in practice. Certain practical and preservation issues relating to the appraisal of records containing personal information are also included. Finally, in the fifth chapter, the central points of the study are summarized in a series of Guidelines, which are cross-referenced to the appropriate section of the text. In addition to an appendix, there is also a select bibliography.

It is important to outline the collaborative origin of this study. In his role as Secretary General of the International Council on Archives, Michael Roper convened and chaired a meeting of a "group of experts" in Koblenz, Federal Republic of Germany, which over two days in March 1989 debated the issues surrounding records containing personal information. For this meeting, Siegfried Büttner prepared a background discussion paper, "The Appraisal of Public Records Containing Personal Data: An Essay on an Unsolved Problem." Terry Cook served as rapporteur for the Koblenz sessions. The following archivists were the participants in these discussions: Siegfried Büttner, Bundesarchiv, Federal Republic of Germany; Terry Cook, National Archives of Canada; Joergen Marthinsen, Riksarkivet, Norway; Gérard Naud, Archives rationales de France; Trudy Peterson, National Archives and Records Administration, United States of America; and Michael Roper, Public Record Office, United Kingdom. Henning Bauer, a social scientist from the University of Köln (Cologne), Federal Republic of Germany, was also present at the discussions.

The archival participants not only contributed many ideas which appear in this report during the intensive discussions at Koblenz, but they also submitted comments on my notes from the sessions, forwarded copies of various relevant reports and bibliographies, and reviewed the draft manuscript itself. I am very grateful to them all for their ideas, advice, and encouragement. Trudy Peterson was especially attentive in forwarding material and extensive comments. As Michael Roper later reflected, "it was very heartening to see the way in which a group composed of an American, a Canadian, an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German and a Norwegian was able to resolve the apparent gulf between the European search for theoretical soundness and the North American (and English) pragmatism to produce guidelines which should be of universal application." Indeed it was, and it is hoped that this report reflects that cooperative sense of enheartenment, and that readers will share it too.

I would like to thank as well five other colleagues who read the first draft of the manuscript and offered very extensive suggestions and many improvements: Gordon Dodds, Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Canada; Luciana Duranti, University of British Columbia, Canada; Robert Hayward, Treasury Board Secretariat, Government of Canada; Tom Nesmith, National Archives of Canada; and Helen Samuels, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States of America. Their thorough and often provocative comments have very much improved the final version. The second draft was read by three colleagues at the National Archives of Canada, who in turn raised points of substance and caught many infelicities of style: Ed Dahl, Candace Loewen, and Sheila Powell. I also want to acknowledge the support of Lee McDonald of the National Archives of Canada who provided me with the opportunity to be Canada's representative at Koblenz and to Eldon Frost of the same institution who arranged two weeks of special leave to write most of the first draft of this study.

While sincerely appreciative of the very substantial help I have received from all the above people, I think it is appropriate to single out Siegfried Büttner, for special acknowledgement. Without his background paper, supported by vigorous discussion at Koblenz and extensive comments afterwards to me, the conceptual core of this report would have been far poorer. His vision of the societal matrix in which archival appraisal takes place is inspiring and often reflected in the following pages.

Terry Cook


August 1990


1. Michael Roper, "International Developments in Records Management," Records Management Bulletin 31 (April 1989), p. 4.