Archival assessment in theory and practice

What follows is a preliminary sketch of archival assessment, and a recounting of an initial practical survey of the archival collection of the DC Chapter of the Special Libraries Association.

What is archival collections assessment?

One definition is: “the systematic, purposeful gathering of information about archival collections.”*

What does it include?*

  • Collection surveys for appraisal
  • Setting priorities for processing and other tasks
  • Conservation decision-making
  • Collection management

Why conduct a collections assessment?

Many reasons – in my case, the following:

  • As a new archivist, I need to familiarize myself with the collections
  • The archives committee will soon begin planning a digital preservation strategy
  • The print collections should be digitized to further preserve the materials and so they can be used in digital exhibits
  • With the 75th anniversary of the DC Chapter of SLA approaching (in 2015), now is an excellent time to begin assessing, digitizing, and making accessible the chapter’s collections

So far, I’ve been twice to the archives – to review the accuracy of the finding aid (i.e. to assess the intellectual accessibility of the collection, to determine how easy it is to find information in the collection). Using the finding aid, I searched for the answer to a reference question: What information on milestone anniversary celebrations exists in the print collection? I tried to match the finding aid info to the contents of the collection, with varied success.


The scope should be guided largely by the purposes of the assessment, including factors such as the availability of human and financial resources, time, and physical space.*

The purposes of this assessment include:

  • Making intellectually accessible all print and digital materials in the collection
  • Make physically accessible all digital collections
  • Establish policies and procedures for future (mostly digital) preservation
  • Be able to articulate the collections research value (why should people care about the DC SLA archives?)

Collecting information

  • Must be systematic*
  • Includes the extent, contents, condition, accessibility, and research value of materials*
  • Can be used to determine unmet preservation needs,* which can be addressed in the forthcoming policies, procedures and strategy

About assessment methodology*

I have conducted a preliminary survey of the following factors.

  1. Count and assess the condition of containers, which are in good condition, if dusty.
  2. Identify and assess the condition of materials, which are in good condition.
  3. Evaluate the arrangement in terms of ease with which materials can be located. This is not very easy, since materials from some years are missing, and in some folders materials appear to be ordered in reverse chronological order, while others have been placed in chronological order.
  4. Determine the accessibility of the finding aid. This is where I will be focusing my efforts. The finding aid includes several topics which are not present in the containers, and for which I could not find related materials.
  5. Assess the research value. This will enable current and future archivists and digital preservationists to articulate the value of the collection to stakeholders and key decision makers – a necessity for any archive.

The focus of this project, aside from increasing intellectual access by updating the finding aid, will be to preserve and provide access to digital collections, and work has recently been done to organize and house the print collections.

I am still researching best practices and theories of archival and digital archives assessment, and would love to hear about other sources or ideas!


*Conway, M. O’H. and Proffitt, M. 2011. Taking stock and making hay: archival collections assessment. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Research


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