some thoughts about the SAA listserv story

It seemed like the perfect irony: “Archives Organization to Delete Its Own Archives.”

Variations of this headline appeared on quite a few blogs last week when the Society of American Archivists (SAA) announced its intention to delete the accumulated e-mail traffic on its listserv, which dated back to 1993. The SAA’s explanation was that cost of maintaining the list was outweighing its usefulness. Following standard archival procedure, archivists appraised the collection to assess its informational and evidentiary value (that is, to determine whether the collection warranted preservation either because of the long-term value of the information it contained, or because of the value of the collection as a unique artifact in and of itself) and determined that the collection could be discarded.

The outcry that followed, and the subsequent decision by the SAA to forego discarding the collection in favor of trying to find a permanent home for it, provided a telling example of how archives are perceived — and misperceived — by the world at large.

For many blog readers, it was probably the first time they had heard of the SAA — what an unfortunate debut for a venerable and valuable organization (disclaimer: I was a member of SAA and several other related organizations when I was a full-time professional archivist at various for-profit, non-profit, and government archival institutions in the 1990s).

Furthermore, the debate highlighted conflicting definitions of a key term. The SAA announcement used the term “archives” — in quotes — when referring to the collection. IT people, and by extension the web-savvy general public, use the term very differently from archivists. An archives typically represents a mere 3-5% of all docments created, a small set of records that have been deemed to have permanent value — not a complete set of every document and piece of correspondence.

E-mails are considered correspondence, which according to traditional archival practice should be routinely discarded after a prescribed period of time. So there was indeed a failure of archival practice in this case — not the decision to discard the listserv files, but rather the failure to routinely discard them on an ongoing basis.

On the other hand, the issue points to one of the great unsolved (and in my opinion unsolvable) conundrums in records management. A perfectly legal, professional, and above-board disposal regimen can have significant unforseen consequences — particularly legal ones. What if, to take an extreme example, the records managers at Enron had seen to it that the company’s e-mails were routinely purged according to a fixed schedule? The damning evidence they contained would have been lost forever.

The advent of cheap mass storage appears, at first glance, to make even routine disposal irrelevant. In the years before electronic files, one of the big drivers of disposal was physical storage space. There are only so many filing cabinets you can cram into a basement, after all. But now, because a single hard drive takes up so much less space than a warehouse — and is so much less expensive than one too — it almost seems like disposal is a mistake. If you use Google Mail, you know that it actually takes more steps to delete an e-mail than to save it. Has technology made appraisal and disposal irrelevant? Or has the resulting information glut made it that much more relevant?

People who argued for the preservation of the listserv collection cited its potential historical value, and this is a compelling argument — to a point. For someone patient enough to sift through and synthesize the gigabytes of routine correspondence, the collection does offer a unique window into a time when the archival profession learned how to embrace first the Internet, then the Web. For the SAA, however, the important artifacts of that time are the products it created — new standards, guidelines, and publications, and new means of information dissemination. These are the SAA’s real historical artifacts — the SAA’s real archives.

The Prelinger Library Blog has the text of the SAA’s original announcement, plus a selection of representative links to blog discussions about this subject here and the text of the SAA’s rescinding announcement here. As you’ll see, there was quite a range of opinions on this subject even within the profession.

Speaking of unintended consequences, one can only speculate what the effects will be of this highly visible airing of the profession’s apparent lack of consensus on such bedrock principles as appraisal and disposition.

One thing’s pretty certain, though — they won’t be deleted.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.

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