University of Wisconsin–Madison

Writing about Archives in Library and Information Studies

Ciaran B. Trace (Library and Information Studies 818)

Course Description and Objectives

This course looks at the theories, principles, and practices behind the archivist’s decision to both acquire records and designate them as worthy of long-term retention in an archive. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding archival views about society, the role of the archivist, and the issue of value as it relates to archival material. This course includes a combination of lectures and class discussions, and emphasizes archival professionalism, the skills required to meet current problems, and analytical thinking and writing.

By the end of the course students will be able to:

  • Articulate and analyze why society creates, keeps, and destroys records
  • Articulate and analyze why archivists are so concerned with appraisal and critique the perceived differences involved in appraising archives and manuscript material
  • Identify, summarize, and evaluate historical and contemporary ideas and theories about archival acquisition and appraisal
  • Articulate and interpret what these theories and the practice of archival appraisal say about our view of the nature of society, the role of the archivist, and the nature of archival material
  • Understand how to appraise records in a variety of media (paper, electronic, architectural records, sound recordings, photographs, moving images)
  • Understand some of the day-to-day issues that archivists confront when appraising and accessioning records
  • Design policies to appraise, acquire, and deaccession material
  • Apply writing as a tool for understanding an archival appraisal issue of particular personal interest


Term Paper

The term paper is an opportunity for students to expand their scope on a topic of interest that is part of the syllabus. Students will have broad latitude in selecting a topic. In writing the term paper, students should choose one of the article formats appropriate for submission to the American Archivist. As such, papers can be either a Research Article (analytical and critical exposition based on original investigation or on systematic review of literature), a Case Study (analytical report of a project or activity that took place in a specific setting and which offers the basis for emulation or comparison in other settings), or a Perspective (commentary, reflective or opinion piece, addressing issues or practices that concern archivists and their constituents). Term papers should be approximately 20 typed pages (double spaced). Students should use the Chicago Manual of Style as the standard of style and endnote format.

Examples of possible paper topics include:

  • A review and comparison of archival appraisal with appraisal in other disciplines
  • A review of the applicability of theories from other disciplines to archival appraisal concerns
  • A commentary on archival appraisal from a non-western perspective
  • A review and comparison of particular appraisal theories or methods
  • A comparative case study of archival appraisal or collection policies at the institutional, national, or international level
  • A reflection or research paper on the impact of electronic records on archival appraisal theory and/or practice
  • A review and commentary on the impact of technology storage projects such as Paradigm and MyLifeBits on the theory and practice of archival appraisal
  • A case study of how a particular appraisal theory or method has been applied in a particular environment (government, college/universities, science and technology)
  • A review of the applicability, or otherwise, of traditional appraisal theory to non-textual or electronic media
  • An examination of the legitimacy of the idea of the “archivist as activist” as reflected in archival appraisal and collecting decisions


Examples of papers written for this class in the past include:

  • The Legacy of Gilgamesh: History, Archives, and the Search for Immortality
  • Beyond Separatism and Assimilation: A Proposed Documentation Strategy for Collecting LGBT Materials
  • From Impact to Interaction: Public Access Television and the Appraisal of Moving Images
  • “Fear of Music” and the “Tyranny of the Medium”: What Archivists Know and May Not Know (But Should) About the Music Materials in Their Collections
  • The LaFollette High School Archives and History Museum: A Collection Strategy
  • Going, Going, Gone! The Threat Facing Blogs and Personal Electronic Records


The final paper will be broken down into three components:

Selection of paper topic. By week four (Friday, February 16th), in a single-spaced page, provide a full description of your paper topic, paying particular attention to the research question you want to investigate.

Outline of the paper topic. By week seven (Friday, March 9th), in no less than four double-spaced typed pages, provide an outline of the paper. The outline should include the following elements.

  • Tell me what you are planning to write about. What is the topic? What is the purpose of your paper? Why is it significant?
  • What is your research question, thesis statement, or topic statement? (A research question is an analytical question that you want to answer in your paper. In your paper you will analyze and explore possible answers to this research question. If the purpose of your paper is to provide information about the subject, the topic statement simply identifies the subject and indicates what you have to say about it. On the other hand, a thesis statement is an argumentative statement that you work to prove in your paper. Unlike the research question, you begin by taking a side.) What are the main concepts or keywords in your statement or question?
  • What format will the paper take?
    • Research Article=analytical and critical exposition based on original investigation or on systematic review of literature.
    • Case Study=analytical report of a project or activity that took place in a specific setting and which offers the basis for emulation or comparison in other settings.
    • Perspective=commentary, reflective, or opinion piece, addressing issues or practices that concern archivists and their constituents.
  • Who are you writing for? Who is your audience? What does your reader already know about the topic? What do they need to know? What impact will your paper have on this reader? Inform/persuade? How will you spark a reader’s interest?
  • What background material is relevant? Do you have enough background material to write the paper? What sources are you using?
  • What organizational plan will best support your purpose? Why? What will your paper address first, what it will address next, etc.? What will form your introduction, body, and conclusion?


A draft of the final paper is due in class week 12 (Friday, April 13th). At this stage the content of the paper should be complete. It is not necessary to have the bibliography finalized or to have the paper correctly formatted.

Criteria for grading of final papers:

  • Structure and coherence. (There is a clear introduction built around a research question/thesis statement/topic statement; subsequent paragraphs contribute significantly to the development of the thesis-logical and clear ideas, solid arguments, coherent paragraphs, and good transitions; and there is a persuasive conclusion that “pulls together” the body of the paper.)
  • Depth of analysis. (Well informed, use of evidence, arguments are supported, analysis is clear and logical, serious consideration of counter argument.s)
  • (Clarity of expression, good sentence structure, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and citation style.)
  • Originality and independence of ideas. (Ability to move beyond course concepts.)