Archives and History: Terry Cook

Leave a comment

I’ll conclude my foray into the intersection between archivists and historians by looking at an article published by Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape.”  Cook worked at the National Archives of Canada for many years (1975-98), as an archival consultant at Clio Consulting (1996-2014), and as a professor in the Archival Studies Program at the University of Manitoba (1998-2012).  This article began its development as an address at various conferences and was first published in the September 2009 issue of the Canadian Historical Review (cited here); it was republished in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of the American Archivist.

First a look at the title — the Alex Poole piece I looked at last week included a nod to this notion, and Cook actually provided the context.  David Lowenthal wrote The Past Is a Foreign County, using as inspiration the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, which begins:

“‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there'” (500).

Lowenthal asserted that the distinct vision of past vs. present can be dated to the early 19th century, when the intersection of Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution spawned an idealistic remembering of the past that sharply contrasted with the harsh realities of the present.  This notion encouraged the active collecting of artifacts, leading to the creation of numerous museums, libraries, archives (and zoos!) — but in the process, caused the past to be perceived differently than the present.  Cook concluded the modern archives emerged out of this impetus to collect, guard, and venerate the past, “as if on a pedestal, separated from the present, thus bearing the pristine character that the new scientific historians required for their work” (515).

The distinction Cook made between the archive and the archives is as follows:

  • archive: seen “as a metaphoric symbol, as representation of identity, or as the recorded memory production of some person or group or culture” (498)
  • archives: the institution or profession

He used the designation archive(s) to refer jointly to the documents collected and the institutions that house them.

Cook contended that the split between archivists and historians resulted from misconceptions on both sides about records, largely related to a perceived objectivity of the archival record.  Although this split in Canada occurred about four decades later than the split of the Society of American Archivists from the American Historical Association, his  analyses and insights still have much to offer.  He suggested that the archive(s) is foreign to historians — not for lack of contact, but for lack of understanding.  He said historians approach the archive(s) more so “as tourists passing through, focusing on their guidebooks, intent on capturing appealing views, but overlooking their surroundings, not talking to the local inhabitants about what they do, thus failing to understand the country’s real character and animating soul.”  In this metaphor, archivists are the tour guides, “content to lead the tourists to the obvious, the well known, the visually appealing, the easy to locate, the popular or politically correct, but less willing, or now, in some cases, less able, to take visitors off the beaten path” (503).

Cook contrasted the old role of archivists — which may still be perceived by historians as our current role — with a more postmodernist vision.  While historians may look at archivists as the “honest broker” connecting researchers with original creators of the records (505), Cook asserted that through appraisal, archivists actually “co-create the archive” (504).  He acknowledged the Jenkinsonian notion of the archivist as guardian or keeper and noted the longstanding acceptance of this “curatorial, neutered, and self-deprecating professional mindset held by archivists” (506).  Cook credited W. Kaye Lamb as one of the first to jettison this passive role for archivists:

“‘Sources can wait for the historian for years, but if they are to be there to await his pleasure, some archivist may have to make up his mind in a hurry and act quickly in order to secure and preserve them'” (508).

Cook concluded that historians are likely in a state of denial about the activity of archivists because since the rise of the professional historian and the scientific approach to studying history, they prefer to believe they are conducting exhaustive research of all relevant materials, applying an objective methodology, and thereby discovering “the facts” about the past.  These assumptions require a virginal archive:

“If records in archives were the critical portal to discovering the facts about the past, then the archive certainly could not be acknowledged as the product of the subjective process of archival appraisal, or of active interventions by archivists to shape and reshape the meaning of records in all the other subsequent archival activities across the never-ending life (dare I say, the history) of its documentary holdings” (509).

Cook identified appraisal as “the major act” that determines historical meaning (511).  Yet he suggested many archivists seem more comfortable with focusing on process and administration than on appraisal.  He said late 19th and early 20th century notions of archival work embraced the Darwinian concept of evolution, thereby eliminating any possibility of selection by the archivist and instead emphasizing the objectivity in the accumulated records.

Cook noted a finding that I also encountered during this series on Archives and History — that historians haven’t dedicated much ink to coming to any sort of understanding of the relationship between archivists and historians.  He identified two primary misconceptions that define this relationship:

  • historians don’t acknowledge the intervention by archivists — especially through appraisal, arrangement, and description — that shapes the records they research
  • archivists neither acknowledge their impact on the archival record nor document their interventions in a way that can be made transparent to researchers

Although historians have for decades recognized there are gaps in the record — especially a paucity of sources documenting the poor and powerless — they have not connected this to active decisions by archivists.  While perhaps on the one hand we should be grateful they aren’t blaming us for not having what may or may not have existed, honest dialogue between the professions should lead to more fruitful work on both sides.

Cook suggested archivists spend too much time focused on the means (i.e., the processes and methodologies of archival work) rather than on the end (i.e., the creation of the archival record).  He promoted the notion that archivists engage in and share research that engenders “new knowledge” about the record’s context (518).  He challenged archivists to partner with historians to develop an intellectual history of the archival profession, both from the inside out and from the outside in.  Some topics that should be investigated include:

  • the arbitrary distinction between public (government) records and private papers
  • the valuation of textual vs. other documentary sources
  • the preference for the records of the state over those of individuals and groups
  • the focus on the “legal, constitutional, fiscal, defence, and foreign policy dimensions” of records over social and cultural concerns (526)

Cook asserted this sort of focused archival research will lead to better “archival praxis” (533).  He concluded that the changing archival landscape has not only created a divide between archivists and historians but has engendered splits among archivists.  He challenged archivists to embrace a “transformed archival landscape” (531):

  • Appraisal should aim to create more “inclusive and democratic” holdings.
  • Archivists should be involved with records creators rather than merely accepting their “residues.”
  • “The focus in all archival activities would be on documenting function, activity, and ideas, rather than primarily reflecting the structures, offices, and persons
    of origin.”
  • Description of archival records should be less hierarchical and should incorporate the expertise of researchers.
  • Materials should be evaluated regardless of media or format.
  • “the records themselves would have detailed, contextualized, and interrelated histories, ever-evolving, opening up, rather than closed down in fixed frameworks when they cross the archival threshold”
  • archivists should embrace our “subjective, mediative role, openly and accountably, as an agent less for buttressing institutional power than for
    advancing archives for broader social purposes”

Cook argued the raison d’être for archives now has more to do with “accountability, freedom of information, and wider public/citizen use of archives for protection of rights, heritage education at all levels, and the enjoyment of personal and community connections with the past” (532).  As such, archivists must “examine much more consciously, and historically, their many choices (and the assumptions behind them) in the archives-creating and memory-formation process, and they need to leave transparent evidence of their own activity so they may be held accountable for their choices to posterity” (533).

Archives and History: Alex Poole

1 Comment

I have two more articles I want to review for this series on archives and history.  This week’s was written by Alex Poole and is entitled “Archival Divides and Foreign Countries?  Historians, Archivists, Information-Seeking, and Technology: Retrospect and Prospect.”  He is an assistant professor at Drexel University’s College of Computing and Informatics.  His article was published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the American Archivist.

Poole gave no credence to the idea that the relationship between archivists and historians has deteriorated.  He recounted 80 years of this relationship along with the methods that archivists have used to study historians.  He suggested three reasons why it’s important for archivists to study historians:

  1. historians’ work extends beyond their academic community
  2. historians are important users and advocates for archives as “‘researchers of last resort'”
  3. historians are an “identifiable and measurable user group” (376)

If you want a concise literature review of the entire history of the relationship between archivists and historians, read pages 377-80.  (Several of the articles he cited have also been reviewed here in prior weeks.  And Poole’s endnotes provide a very thorough listing of the relevant literature.)  Ultimately, he contended that a primary reason for the perception of a divide between archivists and historians has been a tendency to homogenize each group, while in fact he asserted that historians both understand and appreciate the work of archivists.  He also identified shared concerns of both groups:

“the nature of source materials, the phenomenon of social memory, and issues surrounding culture, power, and agency” (380)

Poole identified the 1970s as the first time that archivists conducted research on the information-seeking behavior of historians, largely necessitated by the rise of social history and cultural history. The overall result of these shifting priorities for historians was a desire for more and different sources to help shape the narrative of these new bottom-up histories.  Archivists have typically used four methods for surveying historians:

  • Bibliometrics.  These sorts of investigations encompass citation studies (which “count each bibliographic unit each time it appears in a footnote”) along with reference studies (which “count each bibliographic unit in the footnote only once”) (381-82).  Although bibliometrics produces a huge amount of data, it reveals nothing about how researchers acquire sources or what quality they assign to these sources.
  • Questionnaires.  If a questionnaire is well-designed, it can collect useful data from individual researchers, but it is limited by said individual’s memory.
  • Interviews.  While interviews can provide more in-depth feedback, they depend on the interviewee to analyze and report the evolution of perceptions and behaviors during the research process.  Including open-ended questions could address some of these concerns.
  • Combination.  Poole acknowledged that combining methodologies can produce better results but also creates more challenges for the researcher.

Each of these methodologies is summarized in tables compiling data from various studies.  Poole then evaluated the results of these studies regarding the locating of sources, using primary and nontextual materials, and general information-seeking strategies.

  • Historians still depend on footnote/citation chaining to find sources.  They also count on archivists to point them to relevant sources — especially in person but also through finding aids that lend a degree of familiarity to unfamiliar collections or repositories.  A fascinating finding indicated that “the most popular retrieval methods were not invariably the most effective” (389).  While the idea of having access to primary source materials online is attractive, historians remain concerned about the accuracy and completeness of digitized sources along with preferring room for context and peer-reviewed mediation.
  • Primary sources remain the cornerstone of historians’ research.  However, the various studies revealed some contradictions between what sorts of sources historians prefer vs. what sources they actually cite in their research, which raises an interesting question on the difference between use and usefulness.  Archivists also need to figure out how to preserve provenance and authenticity in the realm of digitization.  Research demonstrates that nontextual sources also need to be readily accessible to historians.
  • While seeking information, historians seem prone to collect names, subjects, eras, and organizations.  Poole asserted historians “would be well advised to involve archivists earlier and more frequently in the research process both formally and informally” (402).

Poole analyzed how historians use information technology in their research, concluding that many rejected the practice of quantitative history.  Studies revealed that historians fear sacrificing time using technology that might not make their work more productive, and they also were discouraged by adequate instruction about employing technology and by irrelevant results.  Ultimately, it seems that inertia prevents any real attention being given to how digital tools can augment historians’ traditional research methods.

Poole concluded with a list of possibilities for future research regarding historians, archivists, and information-seeking:

  • digital history
  • personal archiving
  • Web 2.0
  • democratization and public history
  • crowdsourcing and citizen archivists
  • digital curation
  • activism and social justice
  • diversity and demographics
  • education and training

It seems to me that personal archiving should be one of the most important areas of concern for manuscript repositories, as so many of the “papers” they may want to collect in the future will be in electronic formats.  And as a former teacher, I was intrigued by Poole’s questions regarding education and training.  The research seems to indicate that historians do not train their protégés in how to work with primary sources (whether print or electronic sources).  Because these implicit assumptions that history students know how to find, access, and interpret primary sources impact the work of archivists, should we also take on the responsibility of teaching these research skills?  I know some repositories have the staff on board who could facilitate such training, but I imagine many would chafe at the suggestion.  I particularly like the concept of archival literacy defined by Sammie Morris, Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, and Sharon A. Weiner (418):

  • “understanding and locating primary sources”
  • “developing a research question and an argument”
  • “soliciting feedback and guidance from archivists”
  • “showing increasing familiarity with archives”
  • “adhering to publication standards”
  • “progressively refining these skills”

As I frequently indicate, I see no point in archivists preserving materials permanently if they cannot be accessed and properly used, so I’m a proponent of doing our part to promote archival literacy.  Whether this is university archives working with first-year students or any repository working with K-12 students, I believe archival literacy is a worthy goal — and one we as a profession should figure out how to accomplish.

All I Need to Know about Archival Work I Learned Watching the U.S. Open

Leave a comment

I’ve been playing competitive tennis for a number of years, and I also enjoy watching tennis championships on TV.  It occurred to me as I’ve been watching the U.S. Open over the past two weeks that there are a number of parallels between the tennis and archival worlds — as well as ways archivists could learn from the model of tennis professionals.

  • Knowing history. I’ll start with this one since I’ve been writing for many weeks about archives and history.  Great tennis players have an encyclopedic knowledge of their prior matches and can spout off scores and analyze the tendencies of their opponents.  Although archivists don’t have opponents per se, I would argue that we are better when we know the history of our institutions, our collections, and our profession.
  • Anticipation and preparation.  Listen to any tennis match and you’ll hear commentators talking a lot about anticipation and preparation.  Anticipation means that instead of merely responding to the ball hit by the opponent, great players will anticipate the shot coming towards them by paying attention to the positioning of their opponent, the angle of the racquet, and even the sound of the ball hitting the strings.  Taking all of this into consideration, the player must prepare to hit the next shot, moving into position on the court and taking the racquet back to allow for a good swing.  Archivists could learn a lesson about the benefits of not always being reactive.  For example, we should attempt to anticipate how electronic records and social media will impact the materials available to be accessioned to an archive, and we should aim to have the workflows in place so we can adequately preserve and provide access to these materials that we accession.
  • Cross-training.  Great tennis players incorporate a lot of training that doesn’t involve a ball and racquet — both sprints and endurance running, yoga, weightlifting, boxing (to work on footwork), throwing a football (to work on the motion needed to serve), etc.  While I don’t think there should be a prescribed path that everyone needs to follow, I personally feel that having had real-life professional experience in realms outside of archives has enabled me to bring useful knowledge and perspective to my archival work.
  • Specialization.  Some tennis players are singles specialists, other are doubles specialists, and some play both singles and doubles.  Although singles players get most of the attention, accolades, and paydays, there are skills that are honed primarily in doubles play (such as volleying) that can be extremely useful to singles players.  Institutions that have a lone arranger are usually considered to be doing the best they can with limited resources, but I would argue there’s great benefit that comes from a broad knowledge of archival work.  While there can be efficiency as a product of specialization, having archivists work in silos can also lead to uninformed decisions.
  • Execution.  No matter how much preparation and training has occurred, the tennis player still must execute the strategy for the match.  In the same way, archivists must gain the necessary academic training and need to have collection policies in place but then must apply this theory and insure collection mandates are being followed.
  • Adaptability.  Conditions outside the control of the player can affect play — everything from wind to rain to crowd noise to unexpected strategies by your opponent.  Great players find a way to adapt their game to these conditions.  Similarly, archivists need to adapt when there are changes involving donors, media formats, access, restrictions, etc.
  • Mental fortitude. Tennis commentators frequently contend that mental fortitude — or lack thereof — can determine whether players who are athletically gifted and well prepared can actually win the big matches.  Archivists also need the ability to handle adversity with aplomb, which I think can come from keeping ourselves apprised of the professional literature and finding colleagues who’ll regularly join us on a continuing journey of intellectual improvement.
  • Redemption.  Tennis tracks a stat called unforced errors — bad shots by a player that aren’t the result of a great shot by the opponent.  Save for the last point in the match, tennis offers a multitude of opportunities for redemption — but compensating for a bad point requires a bit of short-term memory loss so that instead of dwelling on the mistake in the past, focus is given to bringing one’s best effort in the moment.  I think archivists are prone to identify the sins of the fathers but use things such as huge backlogs as an excuse rather than focusing on how we can redeem our institutions from these previous missteps.
  • Accountability.  When playing doubles, partners must be accountable to each other — neither missing shots that are on their side nor hitting bad shots that will leave their partner in a losing position.  Similarly, archivists need to be aware of the ways in which our work impacts that of our colleagues and be accountable so that our failings do not impact or impede their work.
  • Communication.  Also when playing doubles, good communication is key to success.  Partners need to know what to expect from their partner’s serve and quickly need to identify who is responsible for hitting a ball.  Archivists shouldn’t assume that our colleagues understand our intentions and priorities but instead should constantly work to keep open lines of communication.
  • Challenges.  Since 2006, the Hawk-Eye system has been in place that allows players to challenge line calls with which they disagree.  Although archivists don’t have a system of computers and cameras that can serve as arbiters, I think it’s valuable for us to question.  I’m the first to admit that I don’t see the value of reinventing the wheel, but I’m also not prone to keep doing something a certain way merely because that’s how it’s always been done.  As a former boss described, I’m willing to scrape the barnacles off the bottom of the boat that everyone else has gotten accustomed to seeing.
  • Press conferences.  After each match, tennis players are required to attend press conferences where they are peppered with questions about their play, court conditions, the quality of their opponent, etc.  In many ways, archivists tend to operate in the shadows, so I wonder what it would be like we had to answer questions publicly about our appraisal, arrangement, and access decisions.
  • Code of conduct.  As with many professional organizations, the Association of Tennis Professionals has a Code of Conduct for players.  There are many requirements about everything from attire to sponsors, but my favorite element is this:

A player shall use his best efforts during the match when competing in a tournament.  Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $10,000 for each violation.

I realize that “best efforts” is necessarily subjective — in the case of tennis players, the evaluation is made by the tournament supervisor or chair umpire — but I wonder how it would affect the quality of archival work if we were all required to give our best effort at all times.

The other fascinating thing I learned during this year’s U.S. Open is that former player Magnus Norman operates a tennis academy called the Good to Great Academy.  The name in and of itself is compelling — both challenging good players to become great and offering the training and expertise to help them accomplish this transition.  Could this model work in the archival world?  While I don’t think this mindset is unique to archivists, I think it’s too easy to become satisfied with the status quo and not keep struggling to be better and do better.  I’ve heard great things about the Archives Leadership Institute, but both because of its small cohort size and its grant-funded status, I don’t know that alone it could ever suffice to challenge archivists to be the best we can be.  But maybe we can figure out some other ways to hold each other accountable for our best efforts, thereby progressing from good to great.

Archives and History: “The Historian and the Archivist”

Leave a comment

In 1955, the Southern Historical Association held its meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, and included a session entitled “The Historian and the Archivist.”  Three papers were presented:

Crittenden provided the viewpoint of the state archivist, first by describing the importance of physical preservation.  He identified the necessity “to save and preserve the records of undoubted historical significance” (216) — which initially meant preserving older records, but with the growing volume of modern records, archivists found it necessary to intervene and become involved with records administration so that historical materials would not be destroyed.  He asserted that  80-90% of records have no research value, while at the other extreme are important records “that throw light on the historical development of the State and its people” (217).  In between these two extremes is a “twilight zone” of records with undiagnosed value, about which the archivist must consult with experts in other fields.  For archival materials, Crittenden emphasized the importance of providing access:

  • library-like cataloging was no longer considered appropriate
  • guides or lists of materials/accessions
  • personal interviews with researchers
  • finding aid/descriptive inventory
  • index — though Crittenden was quick to point out, “Until and unless we have another depression and another WPA, or unless there is some totally unexpected development, the prospect for indexing vast quantities of records seems very dim indeed” (219).

Lastly, Crittenden acknowledged the rules and procedures of archives that inconvenience researchers.  He seemingly implied that if the limited hours of the search room interfered with necessary research, the archivist should make other arrangements with the researcher.

Peckham offered interesting perspectives about the “reciprocal obligations” of librarians and researchers.  (By librarian he included those who collect rare books and manuscripts.)  He warned that librarians made life difficult for themselves by trying to be all things to all people, and he chastised researchers who were content to allow librarians to wait on them rather than wading through materials themselves, thereby denying themselves the opportunity to exercise judgment and discover “tangential relations” (222).  The duties of librarians to researchers include:

  • acquire private manuscript collections
  • arrange and describe materials quickly
  • provide access
  • notify researchers of other relevant collections
  • suggest other types of sources
  • inform researchers of others doing work in the same area
  • allow materials to be copied when further research is necessary

Peckham also pointed out that librarians have obligations to the collections themselves, specifically, arrangement, physical protection, and limiting access to “competent scholars.”  Those who would not fall into this category include any who haven’t first completed research in secondary sources, “the newspaper feature writer who is looking for some dramatic or sensational incident that he can embroider into a story for the Sunday newspaper, or the genealogist who wants family data which will be of interest only to her children and a few relatives” (225).  For obvious reasons, kleptomaniacs and those who are careless in handling manuscripts should also not be granted access.  As for the duties of the researcher towards the librarian, Peckham specified:

  • obey repository rules
  • obtain permission before publishing quotations or illustrations
  • not deposit copies of materials into another repository — this broadened into a  wider discussion of the appropriateness of scholars’ requesting copies of materials; Peckham attributed to collector A. Edward Newton the evaluation that “a scholar who is satisfied to use photostats would be satisfied to kiss a pretty girl through a glass window” (227)

Johnston acknowledged the changing landscape of historical research, which became “virtually impossible without the fruits of long hours spent in research amid the treasures” of archival and manuscript agencies (229).  He focused his remarks on the controls developed by repositories to facilitate research:

  • card catalog: unhelpful because these cards do not indicate quantity, dates, or precise locations
  • summaries: make the card catalog marginally more useful by adding chronological pointers
  • card index: when completed for correspondence, it simplifies the effort of finding a particular letter, but without a comprehensive index, each collection must be searched individually
  • subject-person master index: “It is admitted that to make such detailed indexing available for all collections in all depositories would be a tremendous job; that is the reason why historians appreciate it so much when we do find it” (232).

Johnston also identified the importance of good reference services, pointing out that sometimes those in charge know the history but don’t know the materials, while the attendants know the materials but “know too little history to be of much expert service to all scholars” (232).  He concluded with a nice commentary on the scope and serendipity of historical research:

“although we may find in your manuscript and archival treasures more facts than we can master and more truth than we can exhaust, there will always be some facts we shall never find, some truths we shall never discover, unless it be in that day when St. Peter’s archives are available to us and final truth is known.  But until then we are content to use yours” (233).


Archives and History: The Two Sides of the Desk

Leave a comment

I could probably continue writing about the intersection of archives and history for years to come, but there are other interesting topics that also need to be investigated, so I’m going to try to wrap up this endeavor in the next month.  To begin this culminating period, I’ve read an article by William F. Birdsall about the relationship of archivists and historians in between the time of the creation of the Conference of Archivists in 1909 under the American Historical Association (AHA) and the 1935 decision to create the Society of American Archivists.  Birdsall based this article on the first two chapters of his Ph.D. dissertation submitted in 1973 to the University of Wisconsin.  This article was published in the April 1975 issue of the American Archivist, at which time he was the assistant director for public services in the University of Manitoba Libraries in Winnipeg.

Three factors prompted Waldo G. Leland to organize a Conference of Archivists (161):

  1. the growing number of state archival agencies
  2. the model of the European archival tradition
  3. J. Franklin Jameson’s efforts to establish a national archives

But these early conferences were attended more by historians than by archivists, which was reflected in the programs that emphasized preservation more than the technical issues of how to describe and classify archival materials.  Where historians prioritized inventories of state archives, Leland’s preference was to develop an American manual of archives to rival that produced earlier by the Dutch.

World War One interrupted the efforts to organize Conferences for Archivists:

  • income from membership fees to the AHA declined
  • AHA suspended the work of the Public Archives Commission that had been organizing the Conferences of Archivists

The work of American historians also shifted after World War One:

  • more focus on non-American history
  • less of a scientific approach to history as had been common around the turn of the century and more of social science approach that incorporated intellectual, economic, and social concerns developed from “material falling more in the category of historical manuscripts than public archives” (165)
  • the American historical profession showed no growth in the interwar period

Birdsall concluded,

“There was a feeling among historians that the Public Archives Commission had fulfilled its original function—the survey of state archives.  The historian’s primary interest was in the preservation of archival materials; and when there were no longer funds or individuals willing to carry on the surveys, historians abdicated their responsibility for the Public Archives Commission” (165).

At the 1929 Conference of Archivists, Margaret Cross Norton delivered a paper in which she asserted “‘the greatest handicap . . . to getting adequate support for archives work is the belief that archives work is just another function of the state historical society'” (166-67).  While her distinction between the priorities of historians and those of archivists was not universally well-received at the time, Birdsall credited her with being “a perceptive witness to the differentiation developing between historians and archivists” (167).

The establishment of the National Archives in 1934 prompted some soul-searching about the place of archivists under the umbrella of the AHA, and Albert R. Newsome took the lead posing this query.  While Norton and others recognized the divergent needs of archivists and historians — with archivists needing professional literature that focused on issues of little concern to historians (e.g., “cataloging, preserving, indexing, and inventorying of archives” [169]) — they also worried that archivists alone might not be able to keep a separate organization financially solvent.  Newsome wrote the 1935 report of the special committee to the executive council of the AHA, a document Birdsall identified as “the archivists’ declaration of independence” (170).  At the 1935 AHA annual meeting, Theodore C. Blegen presented his address on “Problems of American Archivists” during the luncheon Conference of Archivists.  He pointed out the challenges of having no American manual of archives, no established technical standards, and inadequate archival legislation.  Somehow questions about the financial feasibility of independence were outweighed by separate professional interests, and before the annual meeting adjourned, a special committee was established to plan a meeting for the proposed separate archival organization.  Nevertheless, this move did not signify a fissure between archivists and historians:

“The historical training of most archivists, the intimate relationship of the two fields, and the recognition that historians were still an important body of clients, made a complete break unlikely” (172).

Yet the support of the AHA for archival work steadily dwindled:

  • the Public Archives Commission and the Historical Manuscripts Commission were discontinued
  • in 1947 the AHA Subcommittee on Public Archives was abolished
  • all AHA subcommittees dealing with archival material were discontinued by 1950

Birdsall concluded with this summation of why it took archivists so long to break away from their home under an historical organization:

“Their commitment to historical scholarship, instilled by their own interests, their training, the prevailing concept of archives as historical evidence, and their lack of numbers, made the formal break with the historians a slow and painful process.  That break was encouraged by the opening of the National Archives and by archivists’ growing awareness that their dependence on the historical profession could no longer prove beneficial to their professional development” (173).

It occurs to me in reading back through this history that part of the problem between archivists and historians was one of semantics.  The National Archives website points out that “the Public Archives Commission was established in 1899 as a result of the Historical Manuscripts Commission’s emphasis on the difference between private papers and public archives.”*  Now I’m the first to admit that words do matter, and I frequently rail about the modern misappropriations of the term archive.  But perhaps drawing this fine distinction between the collected papers of private individuals and the collected records of public entities in the end did no favors to either archivists or historians.


The Evolution of SAA Presidential Addresses

Leave a comment

As long as I’ve paused my series on archives and history to look at Archives*Records 2016, I want to reflect on the evolution of presidential addresses for the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  Having read the speeches from Albert. R. Newsome through Kathleen Roe (and heard Dennis Meissner’s recent speech in Atlanta), I’ve noticed a number of changes that have occurred over the years.

  1. The tenure of the president was originally longer.  Newsome served for three years, and the 2nd-8th presidents all served for two years.  Needless to say, these presidents had more opportunities to address their peers at annual meetings.
  2. For many years, the presidential address was a studied research article — or at least that’s what was published in the American Archivist.  In most cases, only the journal version of the address is accessible to me, so I cannot differentiate specifically between what was presented and what was published, but a common footnote mentions something along the lines of the published article being an expanded version of the presented address.

    Here are the current definitions provided in the editorial policy for the American Archivist:

    • Research Articles are analytical and critical expositions based on original investigation or on systematic review of literature.  A wide variety of subjects are encouraged.
    • Perspectives are commentaries, reflective or opinion pieces, addressing issues or practices that concern archivists and their constituents.
  3. Over the last few decades, perspectives have dominated the SAA presidential addresses (and this format peppered the series in previous years as well).  I would further divide perspectives (with examples of each):
    • Reflections on the state of the profession.  These speeches usually identify problems currently plaguing the archival profession.
    • Aspirational pieces on what archivists should do.  These speeches challenge archivists to do our work in better ways.
    • Inspirational pieces on what archivists should be.  These speeches challenge archivists to look beyond quotidian concerns and consider the bigger picture of the importance of archival work.
      • Mark Greene laid out his core archival values
      • Frank Boles made his argument for the profound value of archival work

Both personally and professionally, I find the research articles and the aspirational/inspirational pieces most useful to me.  I’ll admit that the process by which someone is nominated to become SAA president is somewhat of a mystery to me, but I trust these individuals have distinguished themselves professionally in a manner befitting of their nomination.  I also realize that the “sage-on-a-stage” model has its critics among conference participants, but personally, I recognize the limitations of my own knowledge and experience, so I still relish the opportunity to learn at the feet of someone with greater knowledge and experience.

I’m not sure what it says about the profession when those with the most experience are no longer the primary ones producing research articles.  On the one hand, I suppose it’s good the American Archivist provides younger, non-tenured professionals with an opportunity to publish.  But I hope the sages of the profession don’t forget the responsibility to share their wisdom with those of us who are still eager to learn.

“Why Archives?”

1 Comment

Having taken a week to reflect on SAA 2016, this week I want to review the newly published presidential address by Kathleen D. Roe.  Roe recently retired from her position as the Director of Archives and Records Management Operations at the New York State Archives.  She delivered her presidential address at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Cleveland, Ohio, and it was published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of the American Archivist.

Roe asserted that while a focus on best practices is important, this alone cannot advance the profession.  She posed a number of important questions (7):

  • “Why do we keep what we keep?
  • “Why should people care?
  • “Why do archives matter?”

Roe argued, “Archives are, in fact and in reality, the essential evidence of our society.  It is absolutely critical that an even and representative archival record first survives and then is made available to any and all possible users” (7).  But rather than approaching people with rational reasons regarding the importance of archives, she contended that the better tactic is to address first the emotional weight of archives, focusing on the limbic brain.  One of Roe’s initiatives during her year as SAA president was the “Year of Living Dangerously,” which challenged archivists to talk about why archives matter.  Roe listed four examples, including specific, heart-touching stories for each.

  1. Archives Provide Essential Evidence.  An NPR research librarian found records at the National Archives that helped identify African American, Japanese American, and Puerto Rican troops that were exposed to chemical weapons testing during World War II, thereby underscoring the principle of government accountability.
  2. Archives Support the Creation of New Knowledge.  A research geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey used images and data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Barry Archives to document visually the effects of climate change on glaciers.
  3. Archives Provide a Laboratory for Students to Understand the Human Experience.  A struggling high school student became engaged in school while researching Ted Bundy for a History Day project and went on not only to graduate from high school but to graduate from college and law school.
  4. Importance to Cultural Heritage for Communities.  A Korean businessman challenged his archivist son to employ archives to tell their story.

Roe challenged her listeners, “We need to talk about the outcomes and values, the impact of archives” (11) — predicting that without such focus, archives could easily die (and be subsumed by other fields).

I wholeheartedly agree with Roe.  While archivists certainly need to iron out the details of how we do our work, I feel like we spend so much time focusing on these practices that we neglect our purpose — which ultimately has to be use of the archives.  Developing the best procedures in the world  is a meaningless task unless these procedures facilitate someone’s use of the archives.


Older Entries