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What do we mean when we say something is “permanent”? Merriam-Webster online defines Permanent as “continuing or enduring without fundamental or marked change.” Interestingly, no definition of time there. The synonyms they list, however, include words like ceaseless, endless, and everlasting, all of which have obvious meanings in our minds.

Yesterday, one of the archivists was having a conversation with a client who was inquiring about whether we held certain records from their organization. She replied that yes, we held those records as they are considered permanent. The client then asked, how long do you keep permanent records?

Of course, we kind of chuckle because of what we assume the word permanent implies and because of the theory which backs archival practice; however, it actually can be a legitimate question. Logically, everything must come to an end. In trying to define what the “until when” factor would be for the records in the archives, ideas like “the building burns down,” “the end of the republic,” and “when the sun supernovas” were all thrown around in a joking manner.


Photo credit: NASA, Supernova 1987

When I thought about it for a bit, though, it can sometimes be a lot sooner than that. During my most recent project, dealing with Forest Service Records, my knowledge of theory and use of two giant binders of Records Retention Schedules was put to the test in what I have found to be one of the most stressful parts of my job so far: appraisal. (If you have no idea what I just said, read below, otherwise you can skip the next paragraph as I attempt to explain the actual process records pass through to get into a government archive).

Side-note: I’ll try to be pretty basic with my explanation here.

  1. Records are created by an agency, like the Forest Service, and kept in the office for frequent use.
  2. When the agency does not need to use the records anymore, but may need to keep them for legal or other reasons, they send them to their local Federal Records Center, or on occasion straight to the local National Archives branch.  (Records Retention schedules are basically sets of rules which help define how long records need to be kept and where.)
  3. The Records Center is a huge warehouse which holds mostly non-permanent records (here we go again…) or records which will often be destroyed after a defined period. Agencies can make requests to have their records sent back to them for reference and use if need be, then they send them back to the Records Center. The Records Center uses the Records Retention Schedules to destroy records at a certain time or to decide if and when the records will be transferred to the archives.
  4. If the records are transferred to the archives, they are processed by an archivist (or intern) and appraised. Appraisal is where we apply our theoretical knowledge (and the retention schedule) to decide if these “permanent” records actually qualify. If not, they are discarded.

Following the whole practice of appraisal means that I am deciding that records the organization thought should be permanent, may not actually merit a permanent place in the stacks. It definitely was a weird feeling the first time I followed the schedule and discarded something. The questions that flooded my mind felt a little overwhelming. “Someone may want to look at this someday” is the main one, but if we followed that pattern, we would have to keep everything.

I typed Permanent into the Society of American Archivists journal search and here are a few of the articles I found:

“On the Idea of Permanence,” James M. O’Toole, in American Archivist, Vol. 52, no. 1, Winter 1989.

“Accessioning Public Records: Anglo-American Practices and Possible Improvements,” Harold T. Pinkett, in American Archivist, Vol. 41, no. 4, October 1978.

“Identification of Business Records for Permanent Preservation,” Arthur M. Johnson, in American Archivist, Vol. 24, no. 3, July 1961.

I also looked up texts on appraisal in the SAA bookstore. The results cover everything from film and media, to science and technology, to the basic fundamentals of theory.

Permanence is something we, as archivists, continue to ponder. As people, we constantly reevaluate what is important in our own lives. What is worth saving and what is worth getting rid of? And more importantly, what is the reasoning behind these thoughts? After all, we don’t have a records retention schedule to guide us.