Origin Stories of SAA Presidents

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The recent resignation of Michelle Light from her post as SAA Vice President/President-Elect got me wondering about the jobs held by former SAA presidents.  Using the information provided on the SAA website, I generated this chart as a more easily digested summation of the information:

chart of SAA presidents

SAA presidents by category

The first 8 presidents served 2-year terms, which accounts for the lack of 10 presidents in the early decades of the SAA.  Two of the 1970s presidents were from Canada, but even so, every decade other than the first decade of the 21st century has seen at least two presidents who were also serving posts in the national government, including:

  • Library of Congress
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Smithsonian Institution

Obviously, Light’s soon-to-be job at the Library of Congress is not without precedent among the list of jobs held by SAA presidents.  But in her blog post explaining her resignation, Light cited potential conflicts of interest between her paid position and her SAA position.  The status of the Library of Congress as a legislative agency has not changed, but Light evidenced concern there could be confusion about her possibly using her position within SAA to advocate specifically for her agency.  In recent years, SAA has expanded its advocacy efforts with the Committee on Public Policy and the Intellectual Property Working Group.  Rather than frequently needing to recuse herself from SAA activities, Light decided the organization would be better served by her resignation.

In addition to answering my question about Light’s predecessors, this little research project has also demonstrated the growing prominence of academics within the leadership of SAA along with negligible representation of business archivists.  I wonder if the explanation for this discrepancy is no more complicated than the fact that those working at academic institutions are more likely have institutional support for professional engagement.  (The list on the SAA website does not distinguish between archivists practicing at academic institutions versus professors teaching at these institutions, but in looking at the list, I recognize both groups are definitely represented.)  On the other hand, it seems that archival work is often a difficult sell in the business community, so it may be harder for these archivists to justify devoting time to participation in an outside organization.


OPEN Government Data Act

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I’m chalking it up to the fact this legislation was signed during the government shutdown to explain why I missed that the OPEN Government Data Act is now law.  It was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 2017 as the Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act, and it became Title II of Paul Ryan’s Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act that was signed January 14, 2019.

This bill requires:

  • open government data assets to be published as machine-readable data
  • each agency to develop and maintain a comprehensive data inventory for all data assets created by or collected by the agency
  • each agency to designate a Chief Data Officer who shall be responsible for lifecycle data management and other specified functions.

These terms are defined by the legislation (and will be codified in 44 USC 3502):

  • data asset: a collection of data elements or data sets that may be grouped together
  • machine-readable: data in a format that can be easily processed by a computer without human intervention while ensuring no semantic meaning is lost
  • metadata: structural or descriptive information about data such as content, format, source, rights, accuracy, provenance, frequency, periodicity, granularity, publisher or responsible party, contact information, method of collection, and other descriptions
  • open Government data asset: a public data asset that is
    • machine-readable
    • available (or could be made available) in an open format
    • not encumbered by restrictions, other than intellectual property rights, including under titles 17 and 35, that would impede the use or reuse of such asset
    • based on an underlying open standard that is maintained by a standards organization
  • open license: a legal guarantee that a data asset is made available
    • at no cost to the public
    • with no restrictions on copying, publishing, distributing, transmitting, citing, or adapting such asset

The bill also creates in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a Chief Data Officer Council for establishing “government-wide best practices for the use, protection, dissemination, and generation of data and for promoting data sharing agreements among agencies.”  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is in charge of gauging compliance with this legislation as well as the value of the information made public.  It’ll be interesting to watch what metrics the GAO develops for this purpose.

The General Services Administration is responsible for maintaining the online public interface for sharing this data, which is currently Data.gov.  The OMB will work with the National Archives and Records Administration to develop and maintain a repository of tools, best practices, and standards to facilitate open data sharing.

This legislation builds on the 2013 executive order signed by President Obama, Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information.  It will take effect in July 2019.

Archivists and Records Managers

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In this time of year between Archives Month (October) and Records and Information Management Month (April), it seems appropriate to take another look at the intersections between the two fields.  Several SAA presidents spoke about this topic — see especially the speeches from Grover and Radoff.  But I also came across an American Archivist article that Frank Evans wrote in 1967 that speaks to this topic.

Evans provided a timeline of how the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and the National Archives (NARA) embraced records management.

  • 1940: SAA proposed a Uniform State Records Act
  • 1941: NARA created a records administration program
  • 1941: SAA’s Committee on Reduction of Archival Material became the Committee on Record Administration
  • 1949: SAA’s Committee on Record Administration produced a pamphlet for state and local governments
  • 1955: Association of Records Executives and Administrators was founded
  • 1955: American Records Management Association was organized

Evans also incorporated relevant articles previously published in the American Archivist.  In 1943, Philip Brooks had glowing remarks about the importance of records management:

“‘Authorities on the qualifications of archivists say that archivists, in order to apply the principle of provenance, should know the methods by which records in their custody are produced. . . .  It is inevitable that the iniquity of omitting care for records as they accumulate shall be visited upon the third and fourth generations of later administrators, archivists, research students, and society as a whole'” (47).

A 1948 article for Irving Shiller gave a less gratifying analysis of the impact of records administrators:

“‘Among American archivists the cost has been the abandonment of the tradition of scholarship and research, desertion of historiography, and renunciation of a broad intellectual comprehension of the records, particularly an understanding of how they relate to the world of reality beyond the walls of the repository.  The professional archivist is atrophying'” (49).

At the 1950 SAA annual meeting, Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover provided an interesting analysis of the training needed by archivists and records managers:

“‘. . . academic qualifications in history and the social sciences are essential for an archivist, if he is to develop subject-matter competence in the areas of documentation for which he is responsible.  I believe he must develop such competence if he is to perform his professional chores intelligently.  On the other hand, management outlook and experience are essential to the records management specialist, if he is to develop as a member of the management team—and it is only as a member of that team that he can ever hope to be effective in the long run'” (51).

In his 1954 SAA presidential address, Grover spoke unequivocally about the necessity of partnership between archivists and records managers:

“‘It is folly for archivists even to think of parting company, literally or psychologically, from the newly developed specialists in records management; and no less folly on the records management side than on the archival side.  Our numbers are too few; our common interests too important'” (54).

In his 1955 SAA presidential address, Morris Radoff suggested both archivists and records managers needed to be trained as “‘masters of the whole records field'” (54).  At the same meeting, the president of the National Records Management Council, Robert Shiff, asserted archivists and records managers are interchangeable, so long as they hone their abilities to serve the needs of both scholars and administrators.  Evans also uncovered evidence from the 1958 SAA annual meeting of a panel session that emphasized the necessity of cooperation and communication between archivists and records managers:

“‘Take away one—records management—from its relationship to the other—archives administration—and you remove a vital link.  Combine the two branches and you present a united front whose total impact toward professional betterment is many times greater than the sum of efforts separately pursued'” (56).

Evans capped off this literature survey with a call for more thorough research on the topic that extends beyond the pages of the American Archivist and includes personal records and oral histories.  He contended that while the “archivist-records manager can and does exist,” “mutual misunderstandings” make it more difficult for the professions to realize their common goals than to emphasize their differences (57).  He concluded that the efforts of the records manager facilitate the work of the archivist and that the records manager also needs to embrace a sense of responsibility “to society at large and thus to posterity” (58).

Obviously, the archival and records management fields have further codified their differences since this article was published in 1967, but I, for one, embrace the notion that the professions have common denominators.  Maybe it’s time for someone to answer Evans’ call and do the research necessary to underscore this conclusion.


The sound of archives

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I have come to realize that music and memory are intertwined in my brain.  Sometimes a song evokes a particular memory, and other times words that are set to music are easier for me to remember.

With this inclination, I’ve been ruminating on the question, what song could represent archives?  As I was developing my Zotero bibliography of the American Archivist, I came across “Archivist’s Hymn” published in the April 1968 issue.  It was written in Spanish by Rafael Angel Barroeta and first presented at the Primer Congreso Bolivariano de Archiveros in Caracas, Venezuela in December 1967.  It was translated into English and published in the American Archivist.  Here are some of the key descriptors this song uses about archivists:

  • sentinels
  • guarding
  • watchful
  • precious things
  • lasting
  • history’s might
  • treasure of ages
  • wisdom
  • renown
  • passage of eras

In the December 7, 2016, issue of the Society of American Archivists’ In the Loop weekly newsletter, they reprinted “All Archivists Stick Together,” a song written by Garrison Keillor in 1983 and originally published in the November 1983 SAA Newsletter.  His depiction of archival work is a little less glowing, comparing archivists to miners:

  • dark and dusty
  • “tons of documents and papers, unprocessed, stretch on for miles”
  • “microfilm those dusty piles”
  • “let us make a better system | information to retrieve”
  • integrated reference structures

These songs got me thinking about what other songs could be appropriated to represent the work of archivists.  I’ve come up with two possibilities:

  • Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 song “Don’t Stop.”  It came to have a second life as the theme song of Bill Clinton, used in his 1992 presidential campaign and ever after.  Christine McVie wrote about her separation from her husband (and the band’s bass guitarist, John McVie) and touches on some of the Janus-like nature of archival work.  In the chorus, archivists would do better to embrace her focus on the future without conceding that the past is gone:

    “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
    Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
    It’ll be better than before
    Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”
  • Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” in the 1960s, and numerous artists recorded it.  It’s also a song about a breakup, and the third verse mirrors the role archives can play in helping to trigger memory (both individual and communal):

    “If you should find you miss the sweet and tender love we used to share
    Just go back to the places where we used to go and I’ll be there
    Oh, how can I forget you, girl, when there is
    Always something there to remind me
    Always something there to remind me”

If you have other suggestions of what songs represent the work of archivists, I’d love to hear them!

Public domain bonanza

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For the first time since 1998, copyright has expired on a group of works published in the United States, and they have entered the public domain as of January 1, 2019.  This used to be a regular occurrence, with copyright expiring after 75 years for works published before January 1, 1978, and works published on or after that date copyrighted for the lifetime of the creator plus 50 years.

The reason public domain days have been on hiatus for the past 21 years dates back to a 1998 legislation for which the Disney corporation lobbied.  In what became known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, 20 years was added to the copyright term, and it was specified that no copyrighted works could enter the public domain until 2019.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School has a helpful website that lists works from 1923 that are part of this latest release.  Technology has changed dramatically over the last two decades, so it’ll be interesting to see what sorts of applications and derivations are made from these newly available resources.  For instance,

BTW, because Mickey Mouse was the cause of this long interval between the releases of works into the public domain, I should point out that Steamboat Willie, with Mickey Mouse’s first appearance on screen, was released in 1928 — so only 5 more years until he enters the public domain.

“Objectives of the Society of American Archivists”

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I’ve been combing through back issues of the American Archivist for a bibliography project — more on that when it’s complete — and I had a bit of serendipity.  I came across the first presidential address to the Society of American Archivists (SAA), delivered by Albert R. Newsome at the 1937 annual meeting held in Washington, DC.  It was initially printed in the SAA Proceedings and was reprinted in the July 1963 issue of the American Archivist.  You can also find my reviews of his other presidential addresses from 1938 and 1939.  At the time of this address, he was head of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he had previously served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission (the predecessor to the State Archives of North Carolina).

Newsome spoke of the “nationalization of archival interests in the United States” — referring to the creation of the National Archives and the establishment of SAA (299).  He reflected on the first third of the 20th century as a time of pioneering for the archival realm:

  • local activity
  • public recognition
  • establishment of state archives
  • passage of relevant legislation
  • developing consciousness of an archival community
  • assistance from the American Historical Association and the Public Archives Commission

In the second third of the 20th century, much of this pioneering work came to fruition with the expansion of state archives, the formation of the National Archives, numerous surveys conducted of archives, and the creation of SAA.  As for this new organization, Newsome said “the Society faces its immediate problems with caution and conservatism; its future, with optimism and boldness” (300).  Elaborating on the SAA constitution, he laid out these objectives for the organization (301):

  • “appropriate the lessons of successful experience anywhere”
  • “accumulate and disseminate useful information”
  • “facilitate the discussion of problems and the sharing of experiences and discoveries”
  • “stimulate experimentation, discovery, and improvement”
  • “seek a wholesome degree of uniformity in archival practice, procedure, and ideology”
  • “encourage productive scholarship in many fields of knowledge”

Newsome then acknowledged three categories of archival problems: internal economy, external relations, and professional development.  By internal economy, he meant problems concerning “the collection, preservation, availability, and use of archives” (301).  To address the issue of what archives should collect, he suggested better cooperation among government officials, standards for appraisal, and procedures for the transfer and accession of archival materials.  He presented preservation as a technical issue that could be addressed through training by SAA meetings and publications.  He contended the availability of archives would be enhanced by better classification and filing systems, research room rules, inventories, and publication of materials to broader audiences.  He concluded archivists should have a goal “of a more extensive use of archives by scholarly investigators” (302).

As for external relations, Newsome determined that all archival organizations should cooperate — “to plan the interchange of information, to prevent overlapping effort, and to discover ways of mutual aid” (303).  He also promoted interaction with other learned societies, the development of public support, passage of relevant legislation, and the public exhibition of archival materials.  He concluded, “Archival science cannot live unto itself.  The character of its external relations may be basic to the solution of its problems of internal economy” (304).

Finally, Newsome challenged SAA to develop the archival profession in the U.S., suggesting it could be shaped by standardizing archival terminology, by developing educational standards, and by a bibliography and a manual of archives.  He concluded his address with an oft-cited analysis:

“A hospitable Providence was the place of the Society’s birth.  May a kindly Providence bless and immortalize its career” (304).

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