The basic working document being used as the framework for this paper is the selection policy developed by the US National Archives called the General Records Schedule 21. (See Appendix A, p.58) This document provides the selection criteria applied to US government produced or acquired audiovisuals. This policy document was the work of several committees over the years and applies to all AV materials considered for permanent retention in the US National Archives. It includes, for the basis of this discussion, a section on sound recordings and related textual documentation.

At the outset several general statements concerning archival appraisal and selection should be examined in order to establish a common structure for discussion. Appraisal of material for archival value is perhaps the most challenging of the tasks facing the contemporary archivist. The decision to destroy material is irrevocable; the temptation to save all documentation is untenable. We must choose. We must make judgements. We must make selections. This holds true for audio documents as well as paper archives. Either we judge what sound recordings are going to be worth to the future, or any selection is meaningless. Nothing has value of itself. Value in an object is wholly dependent upon the existence of persons attaching value to it.

As Helen Harrison has already indicated in the introduction; but it bears repeating:

“If we do not select with reasonable care then what is the point in spending resources of time and money documenting, storing and preserving material which is not of archival value.”

The task of selecting archivally valuable material, specifically sound recordings, is a difficult one. It is one of identifying, among the voluminous mass of material being created on a national and regional level, the specific types and series of recorded sound materials that are worthy of preservation. It is the function of

“reducing to the irreducible minimum the records (sound recordings) that are needed for research uses.” (Theodore R Schellenberg, “The Selective Retention of Federal Records of Continuing Value”, October 1963, unpublished, National Archives Library).

Thus we must accept the assumption that certain sound recordings or types, classes, or series of sound recordings can be judged to have enduring archival value and that the principle of using selection techniques to choose such material is a basic and necessary function of any recorded sound archives, whether on a national level or a specialized field such as a broadcast or a music archive. (American Archivist, vol. 20 No. 4 October 1957, “Archival Sampling”, by Paul Lewinson.) Without a selection policy there would simply be collections of material but no archives. It is through selective appraisal that many documents are disposed of and a few, of enduring permanent value, are retained. Those retained constitute the archives.

A number of factors enter into the judgement that documents have permanent value and appraisal tests may be applied in various ways. This was the reason for choosing the title of this paper because it suggests a knowledge on the part of the archivist or curator which comes from experience, much like that of a skilled craftsman. Appraisal cannot be done in a vacuum and definitely does not depend on the archivist’s background, education, and general work experience. Yet, on the other hand, there can be an element of science in appraisal and some guidelines which are generally safe to follow and provide touchstones or a yardstick by which to measure a decision. Certain audio documents whether individually, in series, or groups should undoubtedly be preserved; others can generally be discarded without great concern; and then there is a large area which is in limbo. It is in this grey area that general guidelines are especially helpful to the archivist of recorded sound. This is where one combines the “art” of appraisal with guidelines or the “science” of appraisal, and where one can begin to feel that an effective selection of material has begun.

The selection criteria that is used and the tests that are applied vary greatly among different sound archives depending on their acquisition policy and the objectives for which the material is to be used. But there are general selection criteria and guidelines common to the majority of sound archives and institutions with recorded sound collections that could be the basis for a common international working document. IASA should continue this dialogue and continue to take the lead in developing a statement of selection principles for sound archives.