Finding the gold amongst the stones

Dear Information Agony Aunt

I need to start appraising my organisation’s digital information. There are several hundred thousand records and I don’t have the time to go through each individual record as we do with our paper records. What can I do?



Dear Overwhelmed

Looking for records of historical or ‘archival’ value can sometimes seem a bit like panning for gold. The most important thing to remember when appraising digital information is to get away from the concept of individual records.

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Your agony aunt at work (ref DEFE 1/322)

In the first instance it is important to understand the core business functions of your organisation.  By ‘core business functions’ I mean those that your organisation was created to carry out, for example, developing and implementing a particular area of government policy, rather than the functions that enable you to carry out your business, like finance or human resources. It is these core functions that are likely to create the records of the highest historical value. You can find out about your core business functions by talking to business areas, looking at annual reports, mission statements, business plans, departmental legislation.

Once you understand the core business functions you can start looking at the records that these business areas create – at a high level. This will enable you to start making decisions about which groups of records (for example, this could be a section of a file plan, a whole shared drive or dataset) are of historical value and worthy of permanent preservation. General or departmental selection criteria should be used to inform these decisions, for example, public record bodies should use The National Archives Records Policy and Generic Records Selection Criteria.

This type of approach is often referred to as ‘macro appraisal’.

Although it is fair to say that this approach is easier to carry out when information has been structured and managed well, there are tools that can help us to search our stores of information once we know what we are looking for and these are improving all the time. The process is also made easier if you have disposed of any records of ephemeral or short term value.

There is of course  a risk that you might miss some of the best gold nuggets and end up with a few more stones but this is offset by the fact the process of appraisal is much better informed and based on  a greater understanding of the business function that created the records.

Incidentally the same approach can be applied to your paper records so why not give this a go too.

Further information on how to do this can be found on our ‘what to keep’ and ‘appraisal and selection’ web pages.

Information Agony Aunt


If you have any questions for Information Agony Aunt please leave them in the comments field below.


  1. David Matthew says:

    Interesting but unfortunately these ‘macro appraisal’ policies have led to the loss of many files that would have previously been retained, T 295 (Exchange Control) is a classic example as is T 227 (Social Services). If you look at how ‘macro appraisal’ has been applied or in the case of some departments not applied you can see the gaps in the archives. The idea that your department’s files can be preserved by looking at the core functions does not work, where for example the files on the search for King John’s Treasure in The Wash would not have been kept on that basis. In my view before reviewing records you need to know what your organisation’s core functions are.

    The issue of digital records is a nightmare scenario where thousands of files will be lost without proper filing and spelling!.

    1. Jo Moorshead says:

      Thanks very much for your comment David

      You make a good point that appraising digital records is easier and more effective when records are managed properly in the first place. This is why The National Archives has a role in providing advice and guidance to government departments on best practice in information and records management.

      Alongside understanding the core functions, it is also useful to consider important events or cause célèbre to reduce the risk of missing important nuggets. This is certainly something that The National Archives has included in its collection themes/selection criteria.

  2. David Matthew says:

    Thanks for the reply, I couldn’t agree more about the cause celebre and also the events of that period, the last few years has quite a lot of issues, not least how the Coalition Government was seen to be working or not and in my view the fact that a file may not have been seen as important in the past may be today literally, e.g the Meat Hygiene Service.

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