Words from an archival change agent

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Thanks to Kathy Marquis for pointing me to this chapter written by Mark Greene, which was published posthumously in 2018.  Elizabeth Wood, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones brought together the essays in Active Collections as a commentary on the stewardship of museum collections.  Mark Greene contributed “Four Forceful Phrases: An Archival Change Agent Muses on Museology.”

The book grew out of a November 2015 roundtable discussion about the future of museum collections and makes frequent reference to the Manifesto for Active History Museum Collections that was subsequently drafted.  One of the core principles from this manifesto that Greene embraced was this:

“We believe we need to change the conversation from caring for artifacts to caring about people.”

Greene used Maynard Brichford’s 1979 incoming SAA presidential address as the model for his essay and offered Four Forceful Phrases to explain important changes that have come to the archival world and could be replicated in museums.

“One: There Has Been a Longstanding Failure among Archives and Museums to Embrace Formal Collection Development Strategies”

The common theme here is that in both the archival and museum realms, stuff has been equated with success.  Where the Active Collections Manifesto emphasizes the importance of gauging the impact of collections, archives and museums have usually emphasized to their donors and boards the size of their collections as a measuring rod of success, which has negated the development and implementation of good collection policies.  Yet Greene succinctly explained their vital importance:

“Acquisition policies are necessary to ensure that collection development is planned, rational, tied to institutional needs and priorities, and realistic compared to repository resources rather than haphazard, knee-jerk, based on the interest or whims of individuals, and largely impractical” (72).

Ultimately, Greene asserted that a good collecting policy demonstrates professionalism, makes it clear to all parties what the purpose and motives of the repository are, and keeps the focus appropriately on end users.

“Two: Once a Repository Has Defined What It’s Collecting and Why It’s Collecting It, Such an Institution Should Be Willing to Jettison Everything That Does Not Fit the Collecting Policy”

Greene laid out four simple steps to facilitate reappraisal and deaccessioning:

  1. a written, approved deaccessioning policy
  2. a routine rather than emergency use of reappraisal and deaccessioning
  3. a formal collecting policy
  4. transparency

Greene explained the utility of this process when he was at the American Heritage Center — a process based on work of the American Association of Museum in the 1990s and codified in the archival profession in 2012 (revised in 2017).

“Three: Refusal to Accept the Problem of or Devise Solutions for Enormous Cataloging Backlogs, a Problem for All Three Cultural Heritage Professions”

Greene revealed his commendable mantra: “‘Let’s try to give our users what they want'” (76).  He shared this in the context of explaining numerous euphemisms for the backlogs of collections that repositories have not processed sufficiently to enable providing access to them — including “hidden collections” and “processing reserve.”  He explained that they tackled a huge backlog at the American Heritage Center by doing two things:

  1. creating collection-level machine readable catalog (MARC) records, which were published in their online public access catalog as well as on WorldCat
  2. converting these catalog records into encoded archival description (EAD) format so they be discovered through ordinary web searches

“Four: The Compulsion to Obsess about Means Rather Than Ends, Process Rather Than Mission, and Collection Material Rather Than Use or Users”

Relating back to the theme of his first point, Greene asserted that the focus of too many professionals in cultural heritage institutions has been on collections as ends unto themselves rather than seeking to collect objects that will be used.  With a nod to his work on MPLP (more product, less process), he explained that basic MARC records and box-level descriptions became part of the accessioning workflow at the American Heritage Center so that the backlog culture wasn’t perpetuated.  Greene’s vision was simply, “We provide a professional assessment of what should be preserved, and why” (80).  This vision rather succinctly sums up key points of this chapter, incorporating collecting policies, end users, and transparency.


Greene ended his thoughts with another look at Brichford’s address, where he surmised, “‘We are keepers for a purpose and that purpose is not “keeping,” but using'” (81).  Greene explained that focusing on use requires three key things:

  1. “a collection development policy that best reflects the repository’s mission and resources, and the needs of its clientele” (80)
  2. an inventory of existing holdings and a commitment to fill in any gaps in the collecting policy not addressed by current holdings
  3. reappraisal and deaccessioning projects that will ultimately increase the usage of collections by focusing one’s own repository’s resources on its most relevant collections and placing collections that are outside the scope of the collecting policy in other institutions where they can receive the attention and publicity they deserve

In his own words, Greene concluded, “Use should be the end of all our efforts; if not, just what are we collecting all this stuff for?” (80).


Eleanor Roosevelt

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“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I’ve long been familiar with this quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt, but I only recently came across it in its original context.  In 1960, Roosevelt published a book entitled You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life.  At the time of its writing, she was still receiving about a hundred letters a day.  Although I had the opportunity to read at the FDR Presidential Library many of the letters written to her during the desperation of the Great Depression, I had no idea this continued 15 years after the death of her husband.  Apparently many of the epistolary queries posed problems about which the writers assumed Roosevelt would have the ability to answer from her reservoir of life experience.  Her keys in this book are as follows:

  1. Learning to Learn
  2. Fear — the Great Enemy
  3. The Uses of Time
  4. The Difficult Art of Maturity
  5. Readjustment Is Endless
  6. Learning to Be Useful
  7. The Right to Be an Individual
  8. How to Get the Best Out of People
  9. Facing Responsibility
  10. How Everyone Can Take Part in Politics
  11. Learning to Be a Public Servant

Roosevelt made no pretense of having all the answers, but she laid out this justification in the foreword:

“I have no such all-inclusive wisdom to offer, only a few guideposts that have proved helpful to me in the course of a long life.  Perhaps they may steer someone way from the pitfalls into which I stumbled or help them to avoid the mistakes I have made.  Or perhaps one can learn only by one’s own mistakes.  The essential thing is to learn” (1).

The quotation with which I began appears in the chapter on fear.  Roosevelt identified the danger of ignoring fear, which spirals into failure and inevitably leads to a loss of confidence.  The only solution is to accept nothing less than success.

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. . . .  The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it.  If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence.  You must make yourself succeed every time.  You must do the thing you think you cannot do” (29-30).

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library holds a huge collection of Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers — see Correspondence with Government Departments (1934-1945) for the aforementioned Depression-era letters.  Some of these correspondences (primarily interactions with other well-known individuals) have been digitized and are available online.  And the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University is working to publish Roosevelt’s political papers.

Where is it?!?

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In honor of Records and Information Management month, I offer two tutorials on how to find stuff in things that we all have too many of — PDFs and pictures.

If you use a Windows environment, then you’re probably accustomed to the way that Windows indexes Microsoft Word documents, enabling you to search a folder full of documents for a keyword located in one or more of those documents.  But PDFs aren’t treated the same way.  Even if you use optical character recognition (OCR) to make the PDF text-searchable, by default this only works within a single document.  Luckily, Adobe offers a mechanism to overcome this deficiency.PDF find

  1. Open Adobe Reader.
  2. Press Ctrl + F to open the search box.
  3. Click the down arrow and click Open Full Reader Search.PDF advanced search
  4. Click the radio button beside All PDF documents in and navigate to the folder you wish to search.  Type your keyword in the search box and click Search.  (You’ll see a pop-up security warning asking whether you want to allow read-only access to your drive.  Click Allow.)
  5. All responsive documents will be listed.  Hover over a file name to see the file path, title, author, subject, and keywords.  Click the down arrow to see the search term in context in the document.  Click any of these instances to open the document and navigate directly to that location.  (Unfortunately, the document properties like title, author, subject, and keywords are only editable if you’re using Adobe Acrobat.)

NOTE: If you have your files organized into folders, this search process will be quicker because you can target your search more precisely.


Now for the photos.  I always organize my pictures into folders, but then sometimes I need to use pictures from various folders for a particular project — the visual equivalent of an old-fashioned mixed tape.  If I want to keep track of which pictures are used for which project, I can tag them.  Finding these tags is easy within one folder:details columns

  1. Open File Explorer.
  2. Under the View menu, choose Details.
  3. Open the View menu again and then click the down arrow beside Add columns.  Make sure Tags is checked.  (If it’s not an option at first, click Choose columns. . . and find it in that list.)
  4. Click the top of the Tags column to sort the list in ascending or descending order.

But if I want to aggregate tagged photos from numerous folders, this folder-by-folder method isn’t efficient.  But take heart — there’s still a way.search options

  1. Open File Explorer.  Navigate to the place in your file structure you want to search.
  2. Under the View menu, click the Options button and then choose Change folder and search options.
  3. Under the Search tab, check the box beside Always search file names and contents.  Although this will slow the search process, it’s the only way (outside of using another app) to pull together tags from multiple folders.
  4. In the search box of File Explorer, type the text of the tag you wish to search.  If you want the search to return only tags and not folders or files with the same name, type tag: before your search term and put the search term within quotation marks; e.g.,

Of course, this method of sorting photos depends on your ability to have added tags to your photos, and this is a bit opaque in Windows 10.  There are two primary ways to do it:

  • Using File Explorer, open the folder you wish to see.  Click the View menu and click on the Details pane and choose Details for your layout.  Once you highlight a particular file, you should now see the specifics about this file in the right-hand details pane, including a place for tags.  Click your mouse inside this box and type your tag; then press Save.  (Note: you can also select multiple files if you want to add the same tag to all of them at once.)
  • Using File Explorer, open the folder you wish to see. Right-click on a file and the left-click on Properties in the menu that pops up.  Click on the Details tab in this properties box, and you can add a tag here.  Click OK to save your changes.  Although this method works well if you only need to modify a single file, the previous method is probably simpler if you need to make a lot of changes.

file explorer iconOne final note of clarification — if you don’t know what I mean by File Explorer, press the Windows button + E.  Or click on the file folder icon in your taskbar.

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!

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