A critique Schellenberg’s model of primary and secondary values.

T.R Schellenberg worked in an American archive and shortly after the second world war he was overwhelmed by a huge influx of records which prompted him to devise a strategy of appraising records.  The result was the appraisal of records using what he called records values, that is, primary and secondary values.  In this article the author is going to critique Schellenberg’s model of primary and secondary values.

Definition of Terms
The author will define what the Schellenberg’s model of primary and secondary values is all about.  According to Bettington (208:20-21) T.R. Schellenberg was a US Archivist who advocated that archivists needed to be involved in the selection of records of value to researchers.Bettington says Schellenberg devised a system of values to assist archivists in making appraisal decisions.  Schellenberg explained that public archives have two types of values:  a primary value to the original agency and secondary value to other agencies and non users.  Schellenberg’s taxonomy of values have since become adopted as the appraisal frame work throughout the USA and in other English speaking countries, including Australia.  It is a theory herein referred as the Schellenberg’s theory of records values.

According to Kent (2010) the Schellenberg theory which is often referred to as the traditional theory focus on finding value in records, these values commonly expressed as primary and secondary, with secondary values being divided into evidential and informational values.  This methodology which was propounded by Theodore Schellenberg places special emphasis on the archivist’s responsibility for appraising records to identify secondary values, as his definition of archives makes it clear:  “These records of any public or private institution which are adjudged working of permanent preservation for reference and secondary purposes.

Schellenberg’s theory of records values do have its own advantage which are listed by Jackie (2008:20) are as follows; it is easy to implement, it helps resolve immediate problems, it may be more closely managed, controlled and directly implemented by the archives and requires minimal involvement of other personnel.  There is a large body of documentation, experience and tools available to anyone implementing this method.
Although Schellenberg’s theory of records values has been popularized it had been critised by a number of critics.  Kent (2010) argues that by defining appraisal primarily in terms of secondary research value based largely on content analysis, the Schelleberg model does not provide a proper answer for why we appraise records.  Kent (2012) says critics of Schellenberg have put forward four arguments to support this judgement.  In the first place they argue that predicting or anticipating research needs or trends is not a realistic goal, and at best will mean the archivist will remain nothing more than a weathervane moving by the changing winds of histology

Kent (2010) also says content-oriented appraisal cannot give a true or even representative image of society.  Archivists who support Hilary Jenkinson’s theory on the nature of archives assert that selection by content to support research is in direct conflict with basic archival theory and the very nature of archives.  Finally, critics of traditional appraisal methodology assert that in the modern world of high volume documentation and electronic records that exist as logical and not physical entities, archivists can no longer hope to focus on the record and appraisal by content.  This view is supported also by Jackie (2008:20-21) when he says “The traditional approaches had worked fairly will in a paper-based world, but the explosive growth in the volumes of records generated in the later decades of the twentieth century, especially in conjuction with the widespread adoption of digital technology, gave rise to a re-examination of these approaches.

Jackie (2008:20-21) says critics argue that the traditional approaches involving retrospective file-by-file appraisal could not keep up with the demands of digital record keeping and the increasing dynamic administrative structures, entities and work places in which records were generated and used.

Cox (2000) says archivists themselves have warned of the dangers of being too closely tied to the academic market place with the ultimate result that archival holdings too often reflected narrow research interests rather than the broad spectrum of human experience.  Cox 2000 also says Schellenberg’s theory left the historical user-oriented archivists unable to engage with non-historical uses and users of records such as those in medicine, science, business, sociology and environmental studies.  While trying to predict future research trends, the archivist was neglecting to document the wider society in which the record creators and institutions functioned.

Jackie (2008:20-12) summerised the shortcomings of the Schellenberg’s theory as follows: it is reactive than proactive, it is inefficient in the long run and lack integration with and other record keeping practices.  It may result in the fragmentation of evidence and memory consequently reduces the likelihood of retaining full and accurate records.  It may fail to manage vital records appropriately and may fail to manage migration of records especially electronic records.  It may result in the wrong records sent to the archives.  Decisions are more prone to inconsistency; there is often duplication of effort, limited accountability.

Kent (2000) says Schellenberg’s critics have offered the functional records appraisal theory which they argue that the principal objective is the preservation of evidence-documenting functions, processes, activities, and transactions undertaken and completed by the institution or individual.  Kent (2000:54-55) assert that in the search for evidence and value, the most accurate and complete documentation will be provided by examining the function, activity and transaction that generated the record rather than the record itself.  In short, supporters of functional appraisal argue that the context and not the content of the record must be the starting point in the search for evidence and hence value.

The author had defined Schellenberg’s theory of records values and went on to state some of advantages of Schellenberg’s theory of primary and secondary records values which includes its easiness to implement, helps in resolving immediate problems etcetera.  However much effort have been made trying point out the shortcomings of Schellenberg’s theory of records values and pointed out that Schellenberg’s critics had offered the records functional theory which archivists argues is more of macro-view of records than Schellenberg’s theory which argues majors on the micro-view of records.


Tough A. and Moss M, 2006, Record keeping in Hybrid Environment Managing the Creation, Use, Preservation and Disposal of Unpublished Information Objects in Context, Oxford, Chandos Publishing

Etiwel Mutero holds a Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Records and Archives Management through the Zimbabwe Open University and a National Certificate in Records and Archives Management from Kwekwe Polytechnic.You can contact him on 0773614293 or etiwelm02@gmail.com

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