At the meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) on October 13, 1939, in Annapolis, Maryland, Albert R. Newsome read his presidential address entitled “The Archivist in American Scholarship.”  It was printed in the American Archivist in October 1939.  Throughout his term as SAA president, Newsome was also the head of the history department at the University of North Carolina.  His papers from his 1934-1950 tenure as department head are available at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

In this 1939 address, Newsome echoed some of the comments he made in the previous year, emphasizing that archival interests had been “nationalized and professionalized” (217).  He also renewed the quest for public records laws that could educate and supervise the custodians of government records.  Newsome felt there was a need to examine the professional role of archivists.  He began by describing the “restrictionist” definition of an archivist, with the archivist as servant of the archives and focused primarily on preservation (and help to researchers only a distant second in importance).  In this scheme, the jobs of making the archives, destroying documents, and determining the time to transfer records to an archivist were all accorded to the administrators of the records; politicians and users would be the ones to determine which elements of the archives were published and made available to the public and what sorts of funding was available.

Newsome was not content with this compartmentalized view of archivists’ responsibilities.  He focused on public archives to make his case (meaning records created by government entities).  Where restrictionists gave to the administrator of the records the right to determine their value, Newsome contended that “as they decline in value and approach or attain uselessness as business records, they increase in value and approach or attain exclusive importance as historical records” (218-19).  Speaking in 1939 — during the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and about six weeks after the start of World War Two — Newsome made in interesting prediction about the future of archives:

The archives of the future will possess even greater historical value because they will record an ever expanding segment of human achievement as public activities expand in response to the democratic concept of government as the common agent for solving the ever growing number of common problems which emerge from an ever increasingly complex social organism (219).

Where most administrators of public records are political officials, mostly untrained in scholarship, and often having a brief tenure in office, Newsome argued that archivists were much better suited to determine which records should be destroyed and which should be preserved for research.  In order for archivists to be qualified for this work of appraisal, Newsome suggested that training for archivists should consist of a college degree with specialization in the social sciences (including history, government, and foreign languages) along with a Ph.D. in American history.  To answer those who charged that historians make bad archivists because they will be predisposed to favor the records crucial to their own research, Newsome explained, “There is no real antagonism between sound historical scholarship and archival competency” (220).

Once again demonstrating his willingness to contradict Hilary Jenkinson, Newsome did not stop at the suggestion that archivists appraise records for destruction and accession, adding that the archivist “become an aggressive collector rather than a passive receiver of archives” (221).  In another forward-looking evaluation, he contended that the long-term value of archival records is dependent on their use, thereby necessitating publication of records as well as the provision of reference and informational services for researchers.

Newsome concluded,

“The American archivist is a scholar, an expert technician skilled in the arts of his profession, and a public administrator. . . .  He will discover that archival production, collection, preservation, and use are interrelated parts of an integral process which can not and should not be too rigidly compartmentalized. . . .  He will also learn that he is better qualified than anyone else to concern himself with the entire range of archival interests and must do so in order to save archives from impairment by administrators, politicians, and researchers and to make his own work most effective and fruitful” (223-24).

Newsome’s emphasis on historical training for archivists is no longer de rigueur, but knowing that World War Two spawned a mushrooming of records that sparked some changes within the archival profession, I find Newsome’s analysis and suggestions still have bearing.  His expansion of the appropriate role of the archivist to encompass the creation stage of records presages the continuum model of recordkeeping that emerged in Australia in the late 20th century.

Next week, I’ll look at “The Archivist in Times of Emergency.”

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