The Lay-RMO’s Guide to Appraising Archival/Historical Records

The records management assistance unit at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) receives many questions from state agencies when it comes to recertifying retention schedules. A question we commonly receive concerns the “R” code;  what does “R – Archival Review” mean, and what does the State Archives have to do with it?

TSLAC has a robust archival program, preserving and documenting the shared heritage and culture of Texas by identifying, collecting, and making available the official archival records of Texas government. When the “R” code is listed on a record series, it means that the record needs to be reviewed, or appraised, by the State Archives before disposition can be initiated. The complexity of the appraisal process depends on the type of record being reviewed, but as a general rule, a continuous line of communication should be created between the state agency and the State Archives to aid in the review of state records.

Let’s look at what archives considers when reviewing a record. This includes but is not limited to the following:

1. What is the purpose of the record?

Old Books, Book, Old, Library, Education

The purpose of the record is the most significant aspect of the archival review process. One of the most important things the State Archives considers is, “Does this record document a significant change in the agency’s policies, procedures, or mission?” Other questions that get to the meat of a record’s purpose are:

  • What is the long term value of the record in the context of the agency’s functions?
  • Is there content within this record documenting action of has historical value?

2. How important is this information?

Closely connected to considering the purpose of a record is consideration of the importance of a its content. When a state agency reviews “R” classed records, they should ask: do these records contain information or documentation that could be historically important, either to the state agency or the general public as a whole? Once this question is answered, other considerations are more easily determined and addressed. Other considerations to help determine whether a record has historical value include: Was the record created to document a historical event, created or received by an elected official or executive-level state agency administrator, created or used as a matter of high importance, involved in contemporary news coverage?

3. What form is the information in?

Digital records are increasingly created and used by government, and thus more and more electronic media is being sent to the State Archives. Agencies often ask us how potential archival records should be transferred. The answer depends on how the record was “born.” If the record was born digital—meaning it was originally created in an electronic format—that’s how the State Archives would like to receive the record—no need to print it out to submit. If a record is in paper format, archivists may ask for scanned samples for initial review. Our archivists will need to know the format of the records in question.

4. Is it accessible?

In order to appraise records for enduring value, the State Archives needs to be able to read the contents of the record—in other words, the records need to be accessible. “Accessible” means the record can be received, read, and generally understood and interpreted. Can the information from the record be easily determined? Is the record in a readable format, or is it so old or brittle that the document can no longer be used?

Magnifying Glass, Sheet, Writing Desk, Paper

Accessibility concerns apply to both paper and electronic records. Is the system that contains the records corrupted? For example, if the records are located on a CD, can the agency access the information and actually read its contents? If the system that contains the records is corrupted and unable to be opened, it could limit the State Archives’ ability to preserve the material. The State Archives maintains technology (hardware and software) to read, store, preserve, and make accessible electronic records in a wide variety of formats.

Discussion of these considerations will take place once you have identified archival records in your “R” series review and are preparing to submit them to TSLAC. While we do have forensic devices that allow recovery of some corrupted materials, please consider the accessibility of your records as an agency and plan for their eventual review as part of your records management plan. Incorporating these considerations into your records management strategy early will allow us to better help you during the review and submission process, and, ultimately, will increase the accessibility of your records to Texas citizens in perpetuity.

In summary, TSLAC believes that records managers and analysts having a continued conversation with the State Archives will facilitate a better understanding of the review process and empower state agencies to begin this process with confidence. The TSLAC website has more information on the archival review process; please see our web pages Archival Values, A List of Archival Series, and the State Archives FAQs for State Agencies, or contact the State Archives directly to initiate a review request for “R” code series records that have met retention.

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