The Evolution of SAA Presidential Addresses

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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?”

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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.


Archives*Records 2016

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The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists concluded yesterday in Atlanta, Georgia.  This year’s meeting was a joint meeting with the Council of State Archivists.

David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, spoke during the opening plenary session and as usual provided some interesting food for thought.  In assessing the impact of presidential directives and executive orders on the work of NARA, he suggested that rather than being burdensome, these requirements are “insinuation opportunities” that open the door for NARA to begin conversations regarding records management.  What a beautiful way of looking at the glass as half full!  (See his blog for a full version of his comments.)

Chris Taylor, Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society, delivered the keynote address.  He suggested that instead of talking about best practices, we need to start embracing the idea of next practices.  I like this idea of constantly evaluating and iterating professional practices.

The business meeting of the Government Records Section included a panel discussion led by David Brown, archivist of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Geof Huth, Chief Records Officer of the New York State Unified Court System.  They encouraged archivists to examine our orthodoxies and become disruptors.  I was especially interested in two comments made by Booth:

  • Archivists have better things to worry about than some post-apocalyptic need to access records, so analog copies of digital records are unnecessary.
  • Old paper documents can have both artistic and artifactual values.  He dubbed the digitization of paper records as an “electrified” system.

Brown also contributed some nuggets of wisdom:

  • Competence comes from giving people answers, not options.
  • If the wall shakes when you’re beating your head against it, you’re accomplishing something.

The advice I most want to implement came from Kathleen Roe, former president of the SAA and retired state archivist for New York.  She asserted, “Archivists need to be proactive, not reactive.”  In my opinion, this mindset has the greatest possibility of changing the archival profession.

For information about other sessions specifically related to records management topics, check out The Schedule, the blog for SAA’s Records Management Roundtable.

Archives and History: Educating archival professionals in the twenty-first century

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I’ll conclude my diversion into archival education by looking at one more example of recent scholarship.  In 2004, Elizabeth Yakel published “Educating archival professionals in the twenty-first century” in OCLC Systems & Services: International Digital Library Perspectives.  Yakel worked for 15 years as an archivist, including working at the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Maryknoll Mission Archives.  She served as an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences (1997-2000) and then moved to the University of Michigan School of Information, where she moved up the ranks from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor and is currently Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

Yakel provided an overview of the history of archival education — beginning with Ernst Posner at American University in the late 1940s and expanding into other history departments.  Although the Society of American Archivists (SAA) developed guidelines for graduate archival education, unlike the American Library Association, SAA has no power of accreditation.  Yet in tandem with these recommendations for higher educational requirements, interest in archival courses rose, development of archival curricula spread, and the number of full-time tenure-track archival educators increased.

Yakel identified four results of this growth of graduate level archival education:

  1. New archivists arrive at jobs needing much less on-the-job training (i.e., the apprenticeship model is gone).
  2. Although she doesn’t elaborate, Yakel suggested the continuing education needs of newly-minted archivists are different from those of previous generations.
  3. New archivists tend to have technological expertise that isn’t always shared by their more experienced colleagues.
  4. Once again without elaboration, Yakel contended “younger archivists join the profession with a very different attitude toward archives allied professions including history, library science, information, and records management” (153).

Yakel commented on a point also raised by Joseph Turrini in last week’s post — specifically, that archival education has sought to differentiate itself from schools of library and information science and departments of history.  She referenced a 2001 case study by Randall Jimerson that contended the last three decades of the 20th century witnessed this differentiation, but with the beginning of the 21st century, Yakel identified a “convergence of the information disciplines [that] has called the distinctions between related disciplines into question” (152).  She asserted that digital technologies have contributed to this convergence because patrons are likely to want to access dispersed information sources more easily than can be accomplished in the physical world.  Yakel pointed out there will be benefits and costs for the archival world from this convergence:

  • Archives are likely to get more exposure.
  • It will necessitate “a broader range of technological skills, knowledge management skills, patron interaction methods, as well as collection development techniques that extend across genres, institutions, and formats” (154).
  • Archival theory, skills, and practice might become diluted.

Archives and History: The Historical Profession and Archival Education

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It seems worth rounding out this tangent into archival education by looking at some more recent viewpoints.  In May 2007, Joseph Turrini published “The Historical Profession and Archival Education” in Perspectives on History, the news magazine of the American Historical Association.  Turrini worked at the Walter P. Reuther Library, as assistant curator at the Detroit Historical Museum, as records analyst at the United Federation of Teachers Archives and Records Center, and as assistant archivist at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at the Catholic University of America.  He was an assistant professor of history and archival program officer at Auburn University (2005-7) and now works at Wayne State University, coordinating the Archival Administration Program in the School of Library and Information Science.

In 2007, Turrini stated unequivocally:

“History departments should continue to be a part of archival education.”

He then identified two root causes for change in archival education that require history departments to adapt:

  1. more specialized archival courses
  2. greater technological job requirements for archivists

Turrini explained that library science schools have been quicker to embrace the educational requirements of the archival profession by offering more archives-specific content.  He referenced A Guide to Graduate Programs in Public History, published in 2002 by the National Council on Public History, which identified 34 history departments with archival concentrations but only a handful of these offered more than three archival courses — accomplished by cross-listing courses with library science programs at their schools or nearby schools.  The current web-based version of this guide is available here.  Although it indicates 71 public history programs have Archival Practices as a strength, it’s unclear what rubric is used to define strengths.  He also cited the addition of full-time archival faculty as an indication of the dedication of library science schools to the training of archivists.

Turrini acknowledged that the technologies needed to standardize archival procedures have emerged from library science schools.  He cited MARC-AMC and Encoded Archival Description (EAD) as two prime examples and lamented that history departments rarely expose students to these concepts and technologies.

Turrini concluded,

“History-based archival programs must find ways to increase their archival offerings and provide their students with the opportunity to acquire the technical skills.”

One possible solution he offered to this problem is distance education.  In 2002, Elizabeth Dow at LSU’s School of Information and Library Science created the Southeast Archives Education Collaborative.  Joining with the history department at Auburn University, the Schools of Information and Library Science at the universities of Kentucky and Indiana, and the public history program at Middle Tennessee State University, LSU coordinated specialized archival courses that were offered across these institutions.  By 2012, this coalition had replaced the University of Kentucky with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and had taken on the name Archival Education Collaborative.  Unfortunately, this 2012 news release is the last evidence I can find of the organization (and Dow is no longer at LSU), so I’m left to assume this decade-long endeavor ceased operations.  Perhaps Turrini’s transition to a position at a School of Library and Information Science also indicates something about the viability of this solution.

Archives and History: Bentley Historical Library

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In researching the bios for last week’s post, I found there was an additional report that came out of the Research Fellowship Program for Study of Modern Archives at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.  Four archivists with historical training were joined by two historians and “charged with assessing whether or not historical content and skills still had a central role to play in the education of archivists” (719).  This report, entitled “Is the Past Still Prologue?: History and Archival Education,” was written by F. Gerald Ham, Frank Boles, Gregory S. Hunter, and James M. O’Toole and was published in the Fall 1993 issue of the American ArchivistF. Gerald Ham was the long-time state archivist in Wisconsin.  Frank Boles is director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.  Gregory Hunter is a professor at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University.  James O’Toole directed the M.A. program in history and archival methods at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (1986-98), and since 1998 he has been a history professor at Boston College.

Although this report takes me on a tangent from the topic on which I’ve been focusing, I think it’s worth the time to evaluate these recommendations about the role of history in archival education.  They looked back to the 1938 Bemis Report out of the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on the Training of Archivists, which concluded:

“‘It is the historical scholar who dominates the staffs of the best European archives.  We think it should be so here, with the emphasis on American history and political science’” (718).

Yet by 1991 when this group convened at the Bentley Library, there had been a marked shift away from history in the archival field.  They attributed this change to four factors:

  1. Structural changes in archival training.  Graduate archival education programs developed in the 1960s and rapidly shifted the education attained by archivists away from history departments.
  2. Technological changes that impacted the work required of archivists.  Automation and standardized formats led archivists to feel more in common with the information management field than with the history profession.
  3. Changing requirements for archival jobs.  More archivists began reporting to library administrators, so an M.L.S. degree became more likely to enable career advancement than a history degree.
  4. Increasing efforts by the archival profession to distinguish itself from either history or library science.  They pointed to the increasing number of full-time archival instructors, the growth of membership of the Academy of Certified Archivists, the development of a Master of Archival Studies, and “a growing recognition of the need for research independent of other disciplines on issues of professional concern” (720).

This group concluded that “the study of history does matter and has an important place in preparing archivists for their distinctive professional role” (720).  They highlighted three ways in which history contributes to archives:

(1) The Archivist’s Perspective – they contended that archivists possess a unique perspective based on four main categories of knowledge:

• “Knowledge of the organizations, institutions, and individuals that produce records” (721)
• Knowledge of the records themselves – “what records are made of, how that has changed over time, and how the media available to create records affect the kinds of records that may be made” (722).
• Knowledge of how records may be used, in both primary and secondary uses.  They asserted archivists are “committed to managing the record in such a way that those immediate uses, and an almost infinite number of other uses besides, will be possible” (722).
• Knowledge of archival principles and techniques – which is applied after records come to an archival repository.  This is the only category of knowledge that does not have a clear historical dimension.

(2) Archives and Historical Method – they listed four skills necessary for archivists that derive from historical method (723-24):

• framing historical questions
• identifying sources
• evaluating and verifying records
• historiographical context – with this, they acknowledged that archivists may need to update some of their work (particularly description) in order to address changing historical interests

(3) Historical Content – the Bentley group identified two types of historical knowledge necessary for archivists:

• Core historical knowledge.  Archivists not only need to learn on the job the history of the particular “organization, institution, political jurisdiction, or subject matter to which their collections relate” (726).  In order effectively to carry out the archival functions of appraisal, description, and reference and access, archivists also need to “understand the broad contours of the history of the nation in which they are working” (726).
• Particular historical content.  Archivists need a more interdisciplinary knowledge of “the development of societies, cultures, institutions, and technologies” (726).  Specifically, “the history of organizational structure and development, and the history of technology and recordkeeping” are especially useful to archivists (727).

The report concluded:

“Today, archives is no longer a historical subdiscipline; rather it is an independent profession based on a distinct professional perspective.  Archivists’ independent judgment should not, however, obscure recognition of the continuing interdependence between the archival enterprise and a number of related disciplines, including history.  Aspects of the historian’s craft continue to make a vital contribution in the education of archivists” (729).

Archives and History: Bentley Historical Library

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In July 1992, a group of archivists and historians met at the Bentley Historical Library to evaluate how to respond to “a period of profound stress and change” for the history and archival professions (749).  The group consisted of:

  • Page Putnam Miller, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland and has been director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History since 1980
  • Gerhard Weinberg, who earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and has been professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1974
  • David Thelen, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, became professor of history at Indiana University in 1985, and was editor of the Journal of American History from 1985-1999
  • Gregory Hunter, who earned a Ph.D. from New York University and has been a professor at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University since 1990
  • Edwin Bridges, who earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and served as director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History from 1982-2012

Their report was published in the Fall 1993 issue of the American Archivist.  They asserted the simple premise, “There is a natural partnership between those who decide what evidence will be available and those who decide how to interpret it” (731).  Although the historical and archival professions had been approaching challenges in isolation, this Bentley group contended they shared common concerns (731):

  • the inclusion of “new voices and new activities”
  • “Social, political, and intellectual movements of the past generation have insisted that historians’ and archivists’ presentations of the past should include peoples from all backgrounds, the way they lived and worked and played, and what they did and said in their most intimate moments.”

They identified several changes affecting the work of archivists and historians:

  • “Archival sources have widened beyond written records to include such items as photographs, oral histories, videotapes, computerized statistical files, laboratory data, wiretap transcriptions, architectural drawings, and electronic records” (732).
  • Historians began embracing the methodologies of other disciplines, thereby encouraging the use of new sources.
  • A mass of records and scholarly works threatened to inundate researchers.
  • “The custodians of modern records are likely to have less time, and often less subject expertise, to assist researchers than did their predecessors, whom an earlier generation of scholars gratefully acknowledged in the prefaces to their books” (733).  The group did not elaborate on this evaluation, but personally, I find this conclusion troubling in what it indicates about the perceived value of archivists.
  • Historians sought less to communicate objective truths and more to emphasize interpretation and perspective, thereby underscoring the need for inclusivity.
  • Fiscal constraints along with “the advent of computers,” leading to concerns about preserving electronic records, precipitated introspection by archivists (739).

The Bentley group concluded that historians and archivists had “turned to specialization of content, perspective, and function,” leading to “greater fragmentation within fields, greater uncertainty about how to define relationships with people outside their professions, and an erosion of confidence in a common core that defines the practice of history and archives” (733).  In an attempt to begin the conversation of how to restore this relationship, they evaluated the current state of teaching research skills to graduate history students.  One survey response about the teaching of research methodology that I found especially concerning was its “relative inattention to the complexities of how records are created and organized and the nuances of archival finding aids” (734).  The Bentley group suggested four competencies that should be mastered by graduate history students (736):

  1. “developing a research strategy”
  2. “an overview of archival principles and practices”
  3. “understanding archival principles and practices as a means of locating evidence”
  4. “understanding the nature and use of archival evidence”

Given the bulk characteristic of many modern archival collections, they went on to emphasize the importance of a research strategy more refined than “wandering” through all the materials.  Although I fear this is a dying art form, they identified the value of a reference interview with an archivist:

“These archivists have the ability to perceive researchers’ needs, to steer them to appropriate research paths, and to prod them to ask and explore new research questions and possibilities” (737).

They acknowledged historians do not need the same level of proficiency as archivists but, as a baseline, need to “have a basic understanding of the record systems of the people who created the records, of the principles archivists use in managing archival collections, and of the range of specific tools archivists use for describing their holdings” (743).  Returning to the point about objectivity and interpretation, they suggested graduate history students need to learn “that documentary evidence may have been written to achieve — or conceal — a certain purpose” (743).

The group concluded with a challenge to develop both formal and informal opportunities for cooperation between archivists and historians, including (746):

  • conferences and studies
  • “exploring how and why certain groups kept particular records, and why some records and perspectives are more worthy of preservation than others”
  • “theoretical work on the relationship of surviving documentation to the past and to our contemporary understanding of the past”
  • continued opportunities for archivists to serve as adjunct faculty members in history departments
  • fellowship opportunities — with archivists spending a semester conducting research as full members of the history faculty and history faculty members working in archives, “perhaps providing historical input into archival appraisal decisions”

Although this report is more than two decades old, I think many of its analyses and suggestions still bear relevance today.  And if any of these fellowship opportunities exist, sign me up!


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