Order of Multitudes

How do the physical qualities of objects determine what is saved and what is discarded in an archive?

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

For every object—whether obtained singularly or as part of a larger collection—an archivist assesses its value. Rather than gauging monetary worth, this judgment determines whether it supplies continuing useful or significant information to justify its preservation. This information may include the reason for its creation and initial use, often referred to as primary value, or the data it may provide in retrospect, usually described as secondary values. Secondary values may encompass evidential, informational, or artifactual values. The evidential value of an item supplies information about its creator, its association to an individual or organization, or its activities, whether through provenance or context within a collection. Informational value of an object is data beyond its original creation. The artifactual value refers to the physical or aesthetic qualities. Furthermore, these secondary values may change over time with ever-shifting scholarship and may invite reassessments by future archivists.

To explore primary and secondary values of an object, we may consider a wooden box owned by Kezia Taylor Stiles (1702-1727), the first wife of Isaac Stiles (1697-1760). She died during the birth of their son Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), the seventh president of Yale College from 1778 to 1795 and a founder of Brown University. An unidentified craftsman in England or Massachusetts constructed the box during the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Ms. Stiles or another person lined the box with a seventeenth-century broadside printed with pictorial woodcuts of animals and Biblical aphorisms as well as papers printed with writings from 1720-1721 by colonial businessman and printer Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), known for his involvement with the trials for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1692 to 1693. Furthermore, the mother and son also signed the lining paper in 1725 and 1760.

The primary value of the Stiles’ box was to simply store things. Researchers may consider secondary values from interrogating physical and contextual attributes of the box. Examples of questions include: What wood species and iron hardware did the craftsman use in construction of the box? Why did someone choose to line the box with this reused paper and where did they source the paper from? Since Ms. Stiles signed the lining paper with her given name the same year that she married her husband, did this box hold a part of her trousseau? Why did her son keep the box?

An assessment of an object’s values as well as associated costs and risks by an archivist begins with a constant refrain that engages most archival material: “it depends.” Alongside assessments of evidential, informational, and artifactual values of an object, they also consider the costs and risks related to its retention, which includes its description and preservation.  This includes the expected staff resources associated with describing the object, especially if an archivist lacks the knowledge to recognize its primary function. Preservation costs may include stabilization and restoration of an object.

Archival repositories typically collect materials with an emphasis on their evidential or informational values, which may also reveal rich artifactual value. Objects with all three values usually are the most heavily used images in a repository by researchers and in exhibitions. Nevertheless, if an item solely holds minimal artifactual value, the archivist may then recommend deaccessioning it, or removing it from the collection.

Rarely do the physical qualities of an object lead to its discard if it holds significant evidential and informational value. However, if the physical attributes of an object are hazardous, such as an item constructed with highly flammable material like nitrocellulose in early plastics and photographic negatives, then local regulations or insurance policies may require the institution to discard the material. In this case, photographic documentation of an item may serve as a surrogate for future research.

In summary, no physical parameters definitively lead to the retention or discard of an object by a library or other repository. Instead “it depends” on an assessment made by an archivist to determine evidential, informational, and artifactual values of an item.


Matthew Daniel Mason

PhD, Archivist, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

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Matthew Daniel Mason

Matthew Daniel Mason is the Processing Archivist of Visual Resources at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. He chiefly oversees the description and arrangement of visual resources, which include photographic items and collections, as well as individual works of art and three-dimensional objects. He also serves as a resource for other archivists and librarians at the Beinecke and throughout the Yale University Library system.

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