General policy

This is the working process that occurs at the National Archives when appraising and selecting sound recordings for archival retention. From this we can move on to a general policy reflecting the mission of the institution; the evaluation and application of selective criteria, often tailored to the particular collection or group of sound recordings being appraised for permanent retention. In summary, therefore, appraisal moves from the general, to specific, to specialized criteria for collections. From this brief discussion of the importance of appraisal and the inevitability of selection, and after seeing how selection criteria is applied in the US National Archives, it is possible to suggest some general principles and guidelines of selection that can be considered common to all sound archives. For example:

  1. Archives acquiring sound recordings have an obligation to ensure preservation by selecting the original or best quality copy available.
  2. Appraisal should be done according to a well-defined selection policy, whether based upon the national production, if a national archives, or for a specialized purpose if an individual archives, or for a specialized purpose if an individual archive such as broadcasting, or musical genre. This means and requires more than just a statement that an institution will collect material of national historical significance. This is the point in which careful appraisal should be emphasised before acceptance. This is the time at which local principles and values can be applied more rigidly. The best way to control the content of a collection is to specify as clearly as possible the selection policy that will be applied.
  3. In developing the appraisal and selection criteria based upon policy, a sound archives should avoid acquiring sound recordings that duplicate material held in other archival repositories. This avoids a redundancy of source material, allocates preservation funds efficiently, and eliminates wasteful expenditures of staff time in cataloguing and preserving duplicate material.

From these three general principles we can suggest some common guidelines or signposts for evaluation and selection of sound recordings.

Uniqueness - That is the degree of rarity of the recordings. This requires some investigation and assumes knowledge of recording history and genres by the appraiser. Uniqueness involves determination of the extent to which the information in a recording is physically or substantially duplicated elsewhere.

Age - The age or date span of the sound recordings, or group of recordings will often be a natural guideline as to the value and importance. It should be recorded that age is a relative term depending upon the type of sound recording being evaluated. For example, instantaneous disc recordings of the late 1920s and early 1930s of radio broadcasts are rare and have historical value because there are so few, and would be appraised and selected quite differently from say commercial 78s from the same time period. The same test can be applied to selecting the recording output of certain record labels governed by the period of their existence, which may be quite recent. Survival rates must also be taken into account since man-made and natural disasters have created scarcities in sound recordings for particular time periods. Thus it is common sense that the appraiser working with voluminous sound recordings of recent origin will develop appraisal criteria different from those of an archivist engaged in seeking out and preserving early cylinder recordings.

Volume - This can be a crucial factor in appraisal selection. Faced with the massive quantities of recorded sound material which can be received in a national sound archives, the sound archivist must evaluate at the collection level, or at best the series level. There will simply not be enough time to arrive at a value judgement of each recording being offered. For these reasons it important to develop a specific set of evaluation criteria taking into account the administrative and historical development of the entire group or collection of recordings.

Form - The physical form of the sound recording can be a factor in establishing criteria for appraisal and selection. Here the appraiser must determine whether he is dealing with originals, or copies, or copies of copies in various recorded formats. It touches upon the questions of origin and source, recording generation, or even reissues. With originals the type of physical format will often be a factor in determining preservation costs and priorities. For example a collection acetate base audio tapes, mini-cassettes or field cylinders, will require different handling and preservation work on a higher priority than a collection of relatively stable vinyl disc pressings.

Accessibility - The research value of sound recordings depends on their accessibility. Perpetual, indefinite or long-term restrictions on access and use significantly reduce the value of a collection and could be a factor on determining whether or not it is accepted. In addition, accessibility could be hampered, impeded or obscured by disarrangement or peculiarities of arrangement in the recorded sound collection being appraised. This may require rearrangement back to the original order, if it can be determined; or in exceptional case a new arrangement in order to make the recordings useful to researchers. This makes it important for a proper appraisal to have paper documentation offered with the recorded sound items.

Relationship to other recorded sound holdings - The sound recordings being appraised should be evaluated against the total holdings already accessioned by the institution. Gaps in existing archival series or time periods, or record label runs are a major consideration in doing a thorough appraisal.

Preservation costs - The cost of staff, and the degree of technical expertise and equipment needed to preserve or restore audio documents must be considered as a selection criteria. Information of a permanent value recorded on impermanent non-archival media presents a serious and expensive problem for sound archives. Such costs must be a factor in determining whether it is worth keeping the sound recordings in their original form once an acceptable archival quality copy has been made and it has been determined that no intrinsic value remains in the recordings themselves.