With the beginning of a new year, I am embarking on a new endeavor.  This post is the first in a series of reviews of the presidential addresses delivered at the annual meetings of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  The SAA was formed in 1936, and the first address I can find is from the second annual meeting in 1938, which took place in Springfield, Illinois.  The first president of SAA, Albert R. Newsome, served from 1936-1939.  At the time, he was head of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he had previously served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission (the predecessor to the State Archives of North Carolina).

On October 25, 1938, Newsome read his presidential address entitled “Uniform State Archival Legislation.”  It was printed in the American Archivist in January 1939.  He argued that in order for state archives to be successful, they needed state legislation, a system/form of administration, intelligent public opinion, professional (nonpolitical) personnel, and adequate funding (2).  He elaborated on this goal to say “every state should have an official archival agency with permissive authority to collect and administer noncurrent state and local archives, so constituted and governed as to provide the maximum likelihood that the archival function will be placed in the hands of capable and trained persons who have the greatest possible freedom from political and extraneous influences which tend to vitiate the professional character of archival administration” (7).  He summed up his main point toward the end of the address:

The impressive volume, variety and similarity of state archival legislation in the United States indicate a wide recognition of the essential nature, importance and identity or similarity of the archival problems in the various states.  The experience of the states is sufficiently extensive to permit the formulation of a sound and constructive public records law, applying successful principles and practices to most of the archival problems which are common to all of the states (15).

He went on to suggest that each state needed an official, professional state archival agency and should construct a public records law.  Newsome had a very broad notion of a public records law, arguing that it should:

  • include a definition of public archives
  • assign legal custody of public records
  • prescribe the quality of paper and ink used for public records
  • outlaw archival abuses (e.g., altering, defacement, mutilation, stealing, destroying)
  • include a mechanism for recovering archives from political predecessors
  • require custodians of public records to repair and renovate worn volumes
  • outline procedures to restore lost, missing or destroyed archives (i.e., deeds, wills, mortgages, etc.)
  • specify the transfer of archives from defunct agencies
  • encourage the use of fireproof storage facilities
  • make government records available to the public — and Newsome pointed out that California, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon went so far as to have laws requiring records to be “so arranged as to be easily accessible for convenient use by the public”
  • specify a procedure for making copies of records that can then be admissible in courts
  • regulate destructions of public records
  • limit the quantity of public records maintained

I was interested to see that in making these last two points, Newsome took on the archival giant Hilary Jenkinson, who had just released a revised edition of his Manual of Archive Administration in 1937.  Where Jenkinson vociferously argued against deaccessioning any records that had crossed the archival threshold, Newsome was concerned about the growing quantity of public archives and concluded that “the administrator and the archivist share in the determination of what records should be destroyed” (14).  He suggested microfilming records could be one way to reduce the bulk of records, while using “uniform, simplified forms” could be a means of reducing quantity at the point of creation (14).

Newsome also went on to challenge the SAA to take leadership in creating “a model state system of archival legislation based on successful experience and designed to solve the basic archival problems that are common to the states” (16).

 

Much of what Newsome addressed is reflected in modern archival practices.  The Council of State Archivists maintains a Directory of State and Territorial Archives and Records Programs, and the Library of Congress (LC) has compiled a list of state public records laws.  All 50 states have some sort of official archival agency — up from the 33 out of 48 states at the time of this address.  As of the 2001 LC list, 45 states had a public records law (although they do lack much of the specificity suggested by Newsome).

 

Tune in next week to hear about “The Archivist in American Scholarship.”

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