Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Appraisal in the Real World

(second report for summer class)

The suggestion for this week’s report was uncannily like a topic I had been playing around with writing on anyway. I did a little blog post on it for the blog as well but I wanted to use my reflective report to share my first actual appraisal experience and to compare it to SI 632, Appraisal of Archives, a class I just took this past semester. For the most part, I found that while we can be taught the theory in a classroom, there is no greater teacher than experience.

For my first appraisal, I accompanied my supervisor to the National Museum of Natural History. The paleobiology department had contacted Tammy about looking through several filing cabinets to see if it was anything the archives were interested in or if they should just get rid of everything. Loaded down with acid-free boxes, as we had no idea how much stuff could be in the filing cabinets, we drove over to the museum. We then proceeded through a maze of hallways into a massive basement room, full from top to bottom of specially made fossil cabinets with regular filing cabinets interspersed. After being shown the way through the maze to the filing cabinets we were concerned with, Tammy dove into the first cabinet. Immediately I saw that experience was the key factor here. She knew the types of forms in the drawer and where copies of them would be and how long they would be kept. She quickly recognized maps that were published, paper drafts that should be kept and any correspondence was an automatic keeper. However, she also had difficultly with the subject matter. The papers could have common paleobiology knowledge on them or some research that never got around to being published. It was a tricky balance that she was trying to find between keeping and tossing.
In the end, we took four and a half boxes full of papers back to the archives, the bulk of which was correspondence. The rest Tammy suggested the department at least glance through before tossing as they may catch important research she did not recognize. Compared to the amount of papers Tammy looked through we kept about 10-15% for the archives. Tammy talked me through what she was doing the whole time. She kept a list of everything she found and the reasons why she either did or did not take it to explain both to the department head as well as to put in the appraisal log back at the office. She stressed the archives was most interested in correspondence between the Institution and “everybody else.” Why however, she never said and I was too busy lugging boxes to ask. I will ask when she gets back from vacation though.

So, How did this compare to class? One thing I noticed, and just mentioned, was the reasoning behind what Tammy was taking. She wrote down the reasons why she was not taking things – mostly because it was either published or located elsewhere. In SI 632, we discussed collection policies and their importance in appraisal as it helps an archives say ‘no’ when it needs to. I have not seen SIA’s collection policy nor do I know if they have a formal policy in writing. I have noticed things at SIA tend to be very loose and laid back. An environment I enjoy but it does not jive always with the formal atmosphere I sense in class at times. Professor Hedstrom stressed the imperfectness of appraisal and how the best teacher would be experience. However, my first experience here had no rhyme or reason to it. There was no method Tammy used, no theory we discussed in class that seemed to guide her. It was pure “I have done this a million times before so I can do it this time too.” I was both impressed and terrified. I want to talk to Tammy more about this however she has been on vacation since so my weekly meeting has been pushed to early next week this time around. I am interested to hear her opinion on how she approaches appraisal in general and see if that links to a theory in a more subtle way.

In terms of class vs. reality, it comes back to what I discussed in my last report. The classroom can prepare us, give us the mental tools we need to approach a task in the archives but there is no substitute to the actual work itself. That observation seems to be my major take-home message of the summer so far. I need to soak up all the background work, all the theories and experiments and use that to approach the real-life tasks. I may have been overwhelmed by my first real appraisal experience but I feel, armed with the SIA collection policy, I could have done a good job just working from the basics I learned from SI 632. The class is a good jumping off point for the real-life work involved in appraisal and I was glad I had that under my belt for this first time out.