Valuing Archives – What is it worth?

‘What is it worth?’ Is a question I have often been asked, while working in various archives. This has always been asked in a monetary sense. My reply has always been that archives are unique and irreplaceable and so have no monetary worth. The value of archives is in knowledge they give us about the people and society of the past and the lessons we can learn from that.

When archives are given monetary value for such things as insurance claims this is rarely for the purchase of a replacement, due to their uniqueness. Most insurance valuations are for the cost of conservation work and repair if archives are damaged in a fire or flood. If archives are lost or destroyed, they are gone forever.

Recently there have been a couple of fires in repositories holding records. On 31 Jan 2015 there was a fire in a Library in Moscow, Russia, which contained some rare texts and documents, some of which dated from 16th Century. The fire damaged 1m historic documents and was described as a cultural “Chernobyl”

On the same day a large fire destroyed 4m boxes of records in a repository in Brooklyn, New York, US . The warehouse contained records from local hospitals, administration of children’s services and local court records. If none of these were backed up in digital form, then this would be a tragic loss of information about peoples’ lives that can never be retrieved. A blog post, by John Surico on discusses ‘How much history was lost in the Williamsburg storage facility fire?’ and its implications

Two other stories from the last couple of weeks focussed on the monetary value of archives, even though they are both worth so much more. In Chicago, US, Johnson Publishing is planning to sell the photograph archives of Ebony Magazine, which they estimate to be worth $40m, to raise capital. The archive contains 5m images detailing African American history, culture and life since the early 1940s. Johnson Publishing Chief Executive, Desiree Rogers told Reuters “Nothing exists like it. It’s almost like an African American Getty”. Yet it could end up being sold into private hands and hidden away from the world.

A Magna Carta edition from 1300 was discovered in a Victorian scrapbook in a Kent, UK archive. On its discovery many of the major newspapers led with the fact it was worth £10m. I am not sure how this estimate was reached, but to the academics studying the Magna Carta it is worth a whole lot more.

One of my relatives has said in the past “a house is only worth what someone will pay for it”. I do think the same is true of archives. It is a sad reflection of society that the monetary value of archives often seems to be more important than the knowledge and lessons that can be gained from their contents.


Fire in major Russian library destroys 1m historic documents, by AFP in The Guardian, 31 Jan 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Fire rips through Brooklyn warehouse Saturday, burning city and state records, by Barry Paddock in New York Daily News, 31 Jan 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015

How Much History Was Lost in the Williamsburg Storage Facility Fire? by John Surico on, 6 Feb 2015  Accessed 13 Feb 2015

Ebony Selling Photo Archive, The ‘African American Getty,’ Worth $40 Million, by Reuters in Huffington Post Black Voices, 28 Jan 2015  Accessed 13 Feb 2015

New original Magna Carta discovered in Kent, by Sophie Ambler on Magna Carta Project blog, 8 Feb 2015 Accessed 13 Feb 2015


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