The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 5
Oct 1982

The Concept of Intrinsic Value

The National Archives and Records Service earlier this year completed its work on a definition of intrinsic value and a guide for its use in archival work. This statement, reprinted below, is significant for several reasons:

  1. It concerns choosing items for preservation in original format (the phrase favored by the Library of Congress)--the most expensive kind of preservation and the one for which the most information and judgement are needed.
  2. No other American library or archives is known to have a guide as detailed and explicit as this.
  3. It fills a gap in the array of administrative tools for long range planning, because it facilitates communication about goals and costs, and formulation of preservation policy.

A little over half of the six-page booklet is taken up with a statement of principles and the rest (omitted here) is given to application of the principles in three exemplary cases.

Intrinsic Value in Archival Material

Staff Information Paper 21, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Washington, DC 20408. 1982. 6 pp. GSA DC-01201785.


The term "intrinsic value" has long teen used by archivists to describe historical materials that should be retained in their original form rather than as copies. In 1979 the term gained particular importance for the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) as it began to consider possible large-scale replacement of paper records with miniaturized or other copies. To meet the challenge of distinguishing between records that need not be retained in their original form after an acceptable copy has been created and those that require preservation in the original, NARS established the Committee on Intrinsic Value. The Committee's work was threefold: first, to write a comprehensive and broadly applicable definition of intrinsic value; second, to define the qualities and characteristics of records having intrinsic value; and third, to demonstrate application of the concept of intrinsic value in decision-making. The Committee completed a preliminary report in January 1980 and its final report in September of that year.

The Committee intended that its work should be useful for decisions relating to all physical types of records and manuscripts and should be relevant under varying and unforeseen circumstances. The Committee therefore sought first to establish the theoretical basis for the concept and then to be as specific as possible in identifying the qualities and characteristics of historical materials having intrinsic value. The Committee recognized that application of the concept of intrinsic value would be subjective and must always be dependent on trained archival judgment and professional debate.

Report of the Committee on Intrinsic Value

Intrinsic Value in Archival Materials

Intrinsic value is the archival term that is applied to permanently valuable records that have qualities and characteristics that make the records in their original physical form the only archivally acceptable form for preservation. Although all records in their original physical form have qualities and characteristics that would not be preserved in copies, records with intrinsic value have them to such a significant degree that the originals must be saved.

The qualities or characteristics that determine intrinsic value may be physical or intellectual; that is, they may relate to the physical base of the record and the means by which information is recorded on it, or they may relate to the information contained in the record. Records with intrinsic value may be retained for either their evidential or informational value.

The archivist is responsible for determining which records have intrinsic value. Ordinarily this determination is made at the series level. As in all other archival appraisal activities, context is the key to making these determinations, and context is normally best preserved by considering the entire series. The archivist, however, also may determine that certain individual record items within a series have intrinsic value, especially those items to be retained because of special physical characteristics.

Qualities and Characteristics of Records with Intrinsic Value

All record materials having intrinsic value possess one or more of the following specific qualities or characteristics. These qualities or characteristics relate to the physical nature of the records, their prospective uses, and the information they contain.

  1. Physical form that may be the subject for study if the records provide meaningful documentation or significant examples of the form

    Documents may be preserved in their original form as evidence of technological development. For example, a series of early press copies, glass-plate negatives, or wan-cylinder sound recordings may be retained. All records having a particular physical form would not be considered to have intrinsic value because of this characteristic; however, a selection broad enough to provide evidence of technological development would be considered to have some value.

  2. Aesthetic or artistic quality

    Records having aesthetic or artistic quality may include photographs; pencil, ink, or watercolor sketches; maps; architectural drawings; frakturs; and engraved and/or printed forms, such as bounty-land warrants.

  3. Unique or curious physical features

    Physical features that are unique or curious might include quality and texture of paper, color, wax seals, imprints and watermarks, inks, and unusual bindings. All records having a particular physical feature would not be considered to have intrinsic value because of this feature; however, an exemplary selection of each type would be considered to have such value.

  4. Age that provides a quality of uniqueness

    Age is a relative rather than an absolute quality. Generally, records of earlier date are of more significance than records of later date. This can be because of a historical change in the functions and activities of the creator of the records, the scarcity of earlier records, a change in record-keeping practices, or a combination of these. Age can be a factor even with comparatively recent records. The earliest records concerning, for example, the development of the radio industry or of nuclear power could have intrinsic value because of age.

  5. Value for use in exhibits

    Records used frequently for exhibits normally have several qualities and characteristics that give them intrinsic value. Records with exhibit value impressively convey the immediacy of an event, depict a significant issue, or impart a sense of the person who is the subject or originator of the record. In these cases, the impact of the original document cannot be equaled by a copy.

  6. Questionable authenticity, date, author, or other characteristic that is significant and ascertainable by physical examination

    Some records are of doubtful authenticity or have informational content that is open to question. Although it is impossible to foresee which documents will be questioned in the future, certain types of documents are well known to have the potential for controversy and, if the original records are extant, handwriting and signatures can be examined, paper age can be ascertained, and other physical tests can be performed. In some cases the controversy can be resolved by recourse to the original item (such as by an examination of the handwriting, the age of the paper, or the original negative of the photostatic print), while in other cases the item will not be conclusive but will provide the researcher with the best evidence from which to draw conclusions (original photographs of UFO's, for example).

  1. 7, General and substantial public interest because of direct association with famous or historically significant people, places, things, issues, or events

    This criterion is not only the most difficult to apply, but also the most important in terms of the volume of records to which it could be applied. It could be used to justify preserving in original form almost all permanently valuable records because of their historical importance. On the other hand, if limited to records of unusual significance, it would be used to justify disposal of almost all original records. Archival judgment is the crucial factor in determining whether there is general and substantial public interest, whether the association is direct, and whether the subject is famous or historically significant. Generally, those series with a high concentration of such information should be preserved.

  1. Significance as documentation of the establishment or continuing legal basis of an agency or institution

    Agencies or institutions are founded and acquire or lose functions and responsibilities through the actions of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Government. Records documenting these actions may be found concentrated in series or scattered in various series. They have in common the characteristic of documenting the shifts in function of the agency or institution at the highest level.

  2. Significance as documentation of the formulation of policy at the highest executive levels when the policy has significance and broad effect throughout or beyond the agency or institution

    Numerous records reflect policy decisions; however, most policy decisions have a relatively limited impact and reflect a relatively small area of authority. The characteristics that give policy records intrinsic value are the origin of the records at the highest executive levels, breadth of effect, and importance of subject matter.

Application of the Concept of Intrinsic Value

Records that possess any characteristic or quality of intrinsic value should be retained in their original form if possible. The concept of intrinsic value, therefore, is not relative. However, application of the concept of intrinsic value is relative; opinions concerning whether records have intrinsic value may vary from archivist to archivist and from one generation of archivists to another. Professional archival judgment, therefore, must be exercised in all decisions concerning intrinsic value. Coordination between units holding records within an archival institution also may be necessary. For example, members of units holding similar records whose form may be the subject for study (quality 1) should consult one another to ensure that an adequate but not duplicative selection of records in that form is preserved. Although the concept of intrinsic value may be easier to apply to older records, decisions concerning intrinsic value can be made for all records determined to have sufficient value to warrant archival retention.

Copies of records having intrinsic value may be made for necessary archival purposes, including use by researchers. In fact, the fragility, rarity, or significance of the records may require that researchers normally work from reproductions.

Records that have intrinsic value should be considered for conservation or restoration; however, the determination that records have intrinsic value is only the first step in a decisionmaking continuum for preservation activities. Priorities and order of preservation activities should be guided by additional factors such as significance and frequency of use, rate of deterioration, seriousness of potential future preservation problems, and efficacy and expense of available treatments.

Although records with intrinsic value constitute the core of the holdings that archival institutions should maintain in original form, institutions also must retain records f or which archivally acceptable copies cannot be made. This report does not attempt to establish comprehensive standards for archivally acceptable copies. At a minimum, however, such copies should have durability and utility f or research use and for duplication equivalent to the records in their original form. If adequate copies of such records cannot be made, originals lacking intrinsic value may not be considered for disposition. For example, because, at present, reproductions made from duplicates of audiovisual records normally are of lower quality than reproductions made from the originals, most audiovisual records should be retained in their original form. When copies with equivalent or superior quality can be produced from reproductions, the originals could be considered for disposal.

Some records without intrinsic value also must be preserved in original physical form because such preservation is required by law.

News From NARS

The National Bureau of Standards is doing a cost-benefit analysis of preservation alternatives for textual records in the National Archives and Records Service. In connection with this analysis, which is still in the early stages, a flow chart has been drawn up, with diamond-shaped boxes for characteristics of the records, and square boxes for actions. Each box typically has one arrow leading to it, and one or two arrows leading from it, tracing alternatives (if any) involved in the decision process. It is not yet known how many documents fall into each category, or what the total cost of each process will be.

The characteristics of the documents are disposability, condition, frequency of use, ease of reproduction, and intrinsic value. The types of action are phase preservation, reproduction, conservation treatment, refolder and rebox, wait list and internal disposal.

A blue-ribbon Ad Hoc Charters Committee reported in August on the condition of the "Charters of Freedom" (Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights) and made recommendations for improved care and monitoring of the documents. The committee found no evidence of deterioration beyond that which existed in 1952 when they were sealed in helium-filled glass enclosures and transferred from the Library of Congress to NARS.

The committee, composed of Norbert Baer, Peter Waters, Leslie Smith, Paul Banks and Chandru Shahani, was formed by the Archivist of the United States in response to an inquiry from Charles E. Bennett, a Member of the House of Representatives, who was concerned about possible deterioration of the documents. It consulted 16 experts, from the National Bureau of Standards, NASA and elsewhere, in the course of its investigation. Its "parent" committee is the MARS Preservation Advisory Committee.

The Federation of Genealogical Societies has launched a nationwide fund-raising effort to assist the National Archives in undertaking projects relating to genealogical research. This is the first fund-raising effort for NARS by a private group of users.

The National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History earlier this year recommended an increase in the NARS budget of about $22 million (ANL April 1982, p. 12), of which $13 million was to go to preservation.

The budget picture has improved some since then, with new funds amounting to 11% of the recommended amount for preservation being made available in March. Probably as a result of the hearings in March, the General Services Administration (NARS' parent agency) gave NARS a "windfall" of $4.8 million by exempting it from some rent and maintenance charges for the rest of the fiscal year, that is, till October 1. The exemption will continue in the future. Of this $4.8 million, about $1.5 million were budgeted for preservation. One of the projects made possible by the windfall is a contract for a complete study of environmental systems in the National Archives Building, with recommendations for improvement. The environmental conditions at MARS have been studied a number of times in the past; particulate matter and ozone are two problems that have been identified, as well as poor control of temperature and humidity in certain areas.

On August 17, Page Putnam Miller, Project Director of the NCC, summarized the budget situation:

There is still no reauthorization legislation for NHPRC. NARS is continuing to operate under the continuing resolution budget of $76 million. An Emergency Supplemental bill to give MARS an additional $6.5 million is before the Senate now but indications are that Reagan will veto it. [He did but it was passed over his veto.--Ed.] The House subcommittee mark-up for MARS Fiscal Year '83 budget was last week and was for $84 million with $3 million additional for NHPRC--that appropriations legislation still has a long way to go, however.

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