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Building the Archives

Policy on Records Appraisal and the Identification of State Archives

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Archival appraisal is perhaps the most important — and certainly the most final — decision-making function that an archives institution undertakes. A decision not to keep records as archives is forever: once the records are gone, they cannot be brought back. A decision to keep records as archives is also forever: it involves an explicit commitment to apply the resources needed to preserve them — and to keep applying resources — for as long as the archives survive.

Archival appraisal also determines the shape of an archives collection, again with effects that will last forever, by determining the nature and extent of the documentary evidence — on which historians and other researchers must rely when examining the actions of government and its interaction with society — that will be available for the use of society in the future.

How much of the documentary output of modern government should we keep as archives? Obviously keeping too little means an inadequate archival legacy for the future. Yet we cannot afford to keep too much. Every facet of the long-term management of archives — cataloguing and listing, storage, security and, especially, preservation — costs money. With necessarily limited resources available for the job, trying to keep too much simply jeopardises our ability to care for the whole collection: both the essential and the 'nice to have'.

In New South Wales we are fortunate in having an immensely rich collection of official archives. While some parts of the State archives collection indeed owe their survival to good fortune, much of the credit lies in having had, for more than forty years, strong archival legislation (first the Archives Act 1960, despite the shortcomings noted in the Introduction, and now the State Records Act 1998), designed to ensure that State archives are systematically identified and preserved among the mass of State records before it is too late to save them.

While we provide extensive guidance to help NSW public sector bodies decide how long to keep their records to meet their needs and those of their stakeholders, we have not, until now, had an overall policy to guide State Records' staff and Board members in making the ultimate decision affecting every State record. We have not articulated a direction in which to guide the growth of the State archives collection.

Yet the collection must grow. History did not stop in 1901 or 1945 or 2001 and it is not going to stop. Nor can the State archives remain static, however glorious the existing collection may be. The State archives of tomorrow are being made in the everyday activity of government today. They will continue to be made for as long as there is government in this State.

This policy, developed in consultation with the NSW public sector and the broader community, will provide a rational and consistent framework in which to make the records appraisal decisions that are at the core of the statutory responsibilities of State Records and its Board. It will give us a better basis for building the State archives.

David Roberts

Dr Shirley Fitzgerald
Chairperson of the Board

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2001.
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ISBN 0-7313-8890-9