“Archivists and Their Colleagues: Common Denominators”


No sign of a 1949 presidential address, so I move on to the 1950 address delivered by Philip C. Brooks at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, in October 1950.  Brooks served as the first secretary of the SAA (1936-42) and as its seventh president (1949-51).  His early work with the National Archives helped to shape the records management policies and procedures of that organization.  Brooks also served as the first director of the Harry S Truman Library (1957-71), and his papers are housed at that presidential library.  His presidential address was published in American Archivist in January 1951.

Brooks began by reflecting on what sort of address he should give.  He referenced the “crisis call” addresses delivered by Waldo Leland in 1940 and 1941 but ultimately likened his address to a “cadenza in which the speaker is bound by no rules of composition, can be highly personal, and can be entirely irresponsible to any party line in expressing his own views” (34).  Using a musical term that has the connotation of improvisation perhaps helps to explain the free-flowing style Brooks employed in this address.  He spoke briefly of the qualifications for membership in SAA and then segued into a discussion of terms that are problematic in their definitions.  Specifically, he cited “archives” as a term “used loosely and with confusing variation” (35).  (I shudder to think what Brooks would think of the multitudinous and disparate uses of the term archives today.)  He also took issue with the term historical being too loosely applied to archives, instead pointing out the other types of research that take place in archives, including “uses for administrative precedent, government research, economics, sociology, scientific development, and other lines of investigation so numerous as to evade logical classification” (35).

Brooks briefly analyzed “the relationship of archivists to the organizations from which their accessions will be derived,” suggesting the two most prominent phases are guidance and selection.  By guidance he meant suggestions regarding the creation of records as well as the handling of current records.  Selection obviously means choosing which records should be preserved (37-38).  He went on to explain why archivists were increasingly involved in records management:

“We must remember that archivists have entered the records administration field because economical administration of records at all stages is closely akin to the specialized activities of archivists, and because the results of good or bad records administration affect the kind of job that archivists can later do with the records” (39).

Brooks briefly reflected on the training required for archivists, though he mainly deferred to the work already completed on this subject by Ernst Posner.  In discussing whether the discipline of history is important to the training of archivists, he concluded, “Archives at once are derived from history and serve the study of history” (43).  Perhaps the most interesting commentary by Brooks was about what was not being emphasized in archival training — specifically, analysis and description.  He suggested that seemingly making these the afterthoughts of the profession severely compromised the ability of archives to publicize their holdings and appropriately serve researchers.

In reference to his title, Brooks made several comments about common denominators.  He first mentioned what unites archivists, mainly “a concern for the preservation and effective use of valuable evidence of human activity in the form of records” (36).  Another common denominator identified was “the common interest of many related groups in the selection of what is to form the enduring core of valuable records” (38).  Perhaps picking up on the term “documentalists” that Solon Buck employed in his 1946 presidential address, Brooks suggested that archivists, librarians, and other allied disciplines are a part of the field of documentation, concerned with “the control of information” (41).  He concluded:

 “I believe that the study and teaching of history, interpreting history broadly as the knowledge of all phases of human experience, is among the highest realms of cultural activity; and that it cannot proceed without evidence.  I believe that in preserving the evidence and promoting its effective use archivists and their colleagues have a role to play of which we can be justly proud” (45).


“The Archivist as a Public Servant”

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Having found no record of a presidential address at the 1947 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), I will proceed to the 1948 meeting that took place in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Christopher Crittenden delivered his presidential address at this October meeting, and it was published in the American Archivist in January 1949.  Crittenden’s 1947-49 tenure as SAA president came during his long career as the head of North Carolina’s state historical agency — succeeding Albert Ray Newsome as secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission in 1935 and continuing his leadership when the agency was recast as the Department of Archives and History in 1943.  He stepped down in 1968.

Where his predecessors as SAA president had focused on the internal workings of archives, Crittenden chose to look back at shifting public perceptions of the archives field since the founding of the SAA and the National Archives.  Before these births, he contended that archives were viewed as “repositories of rare and valuable historical manuscripts, something in the nature of treasure houses for the historian and the antiquarian” (4).  While he acknowledged that scholars generally and historians specifically were crucial to the founding of archival agencies in the United States, Crittenden went on to point out the chasm that quickly emerged between the research-focused work to which the history scholar was accustomed and the work of an administrator that was required of an archivist, such as:

  • forging relationships with other government agencies
  • interacting with the general public
  • managing the budget and personnel

Crittenden asserted that the primary purpose of an archival agency had metamorphosed from one focused on “the preservation of rare historical documents” to “an agency of the government whose primary function was to perform certain official duties” (5).  Especially during and after World War Two, these official duties included handling vast quantities of inactive and current records, so American archivists had to develop new ways of approaching their work, such as moving away from central registries that listed individual documents and beginning instead to create “finding media for large records groups” (7).  He acknowledged all of this as a shift in emphasis for archives, but Crittenden clearly embraced the idea of the archivist as a public servant:

“He should offer the most effective service possible to other agencies of the government, to unofficial organizations, to private researchers, and to the general public.  If he performs this function and does it well, he need not concern himself about questions of prestige or of professional standing, for such matters will take care of themselves” (8).

Crittenden concluded this address rather abruptly with a recommendation for the SAA to set up a long-range planning committee.  But I’m going to take the liberty of including a few other notable quotes from this foundational archival mind in the U.S.:

“It seems to me that there has been entirely too much of the attitude that ‘I am a professional historian’ or ‘I am a professional archivist, and we don’t want the amateur to venture into our field.’  The preservation of our historical heritage in the South should be something in which all our people should participate.  It should not be limited merely to the professionals.”
Raleigh Times, January 7, 1956

“I feel, and feel strongly, that it is our duty and responsibility to make use of every practicable device and method we can think of, every weapon in our armor, in order to encourage, stimulate, and assist our people to comprehend and appreciate their past, the heritage that is theirs.”
North Carolina Historical Review, April 1959

It’s possible that I’m drawn to the wisdom of Crittenden because I can walk outside my office and thumb through his bound volumes of the American Archivist.  But I also happen to think that he was right to force the archival community to widen its notions of the community to whom and for whom we are responsible.

“The Archivist’s ‘One World'”


Once again, I’m skipping a year in our review of Society of American Archivists (SAA) presidential addresses.  As with the 1943 meeting, I find no evidence of a presidential address in the published notes from the November 1945 meeting.

So that brings us to the October 1946 meeting in Washington, DC, where Solon J. Buck, the second Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), delivered his address at the tenth annual SAA meeting.  This address was published in the American Archivist in January 1947.  Buck succeeded Robert D.W. Connor in 1941 and served until 1948, when he moved to the Library of Congress.  Buck’s tenure as AOTUS spanned U.S. involvement in World War Two, and this address reflected the impact of that conflict.

Buck began with an expansive view of the role of archivists — beginning with the premise that in 1946, “in the place of the multitude of distinctive tribal, racial, and national cultures of earlier times, mankind possesses one human culture or civilization, with many local variants and adaptations,” and going on to suggest that documentation was the prerequisite for the development of civilization (9).  Just in case people weren’t quickly following his point, Buck tagged librarians, archivists, museum curators as “documentalists” who preserve and provide access to recorded ideas (10).

The National Archives was in its second decade of existence by 1946, and Buck emphasized the value to researchers of having consolidated government records under one agency.  But he didn’t stop there, instead postulating about the creation of “the archives of mankind” (12).  Leaving the nebulous world of conjecture, Buck provided two specific challenges to the international archival community (13):

  1. There needed to be an international archives agency.
  2. There needed to be an international archives association.

Buck also listed twelve urgent archival problems that he felt deserved international attention and cooperation:

  1. “preservation of the archives of international government”
  2. “rehabilitation of war-damaged archives”
  3. “defense of archives against the destructive agents of modern warfare”
  4. “archives in the international peace settlements”
  5. “problems of dealing with modern records in bulk”
  6. “handling modern types of records — such as motion pictures and sound recordings”
  7. “photographic reproduction of records”
  8. “international exchange of photographic facsimiles”
  9. “uniform archival terminology”
  10. “more effective finding aids to research in archives”
  11. “training of archivists”
  12. “preparation of a new edition of the International Guide to Archives

Some of these goals will take a while to accomplish, but part of Buck’s dream was realized in the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section, an idea that was born in April 1945 at the San Francisco conference and culminated in 1949 when the organization became the custodian of records not only for the United Nations but for its predecessor agencies, including the War Crimes Commission.

Another monumental accomplishment came in 1948 with the creation of the International Council on Archives, which operates with these aims and objectives:

“Archives constitute the memory of nations and societies, shape their identity, and are a cornerstone of the information society.  By providing evidence of human actions and transactions, archives support administration and underlie the rights of individuals, organisations and states.  By guaranteeing citizens’ rights of access to official information and to knowledge of their history, archives are fundamental to identity, democracy, accountability and good governance.”

Buck’s address ranged from confident to uncertain — perhaps reflective of the confidence that came from the U.S. being one of the last two remaining superpowers after World War Two alongside the uncertainty that resulted from the use of atomic weapons to end that war.  But in the end, he found hope in the work of archivists:

“The only true fortresses in these times are fortresses of the mind.  They cannot be built in a day.  It is my belief that they will be built, as they always have been, on the foundation of the reservoir of recorded ideas that, constantly supplemented by new ideas, makes civilization possible” (24).

“Some Legal Aspects of Archives”

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Having found no evidence of a presidential address delivered by Robert D.W. Connor at the November 1943 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), this week I bring you Margaret Cross Norton’s address from the November 1944 SAA meeting at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  This address was published in the American Archivist in January 1945.

By this point, Norton was more than 20 years into her 35-year tenure as the first superintendent of the Illinois State Archives.  Throughout her career, she emphasized the importance of the legal and administrative values of government records.  Norton was recognized as a leader; she was the first female president of SAA, and there wouldn’t be another woman as president until 1959.  Her work in Illinois became a model — even to the extent that in World War Two, if the nation’s capital ever had to be evacuated, the plan was to send the treasures of the National Archives to the Illinois State Archives Building that had been built to Norton’s specifications.

Norton’s introductory remarks provided some history of the archival field along with some admonitions for archivists.  She contended that because most archivists had come to the field through the training as historians, they were much more interested in the research value of records rather than their legal value.  While making some vague references to the problems of the Historical Records Survey program of the Works Progress Administration, Norton highlighted the contributions that came from this work, including improved archival technique, the first comprehensive survey of archival resources, and garnering public appreciation for the care of government records.  She also pointed out that government officials were increasingly looking to archivists for advice on both the “scientific creation” of and the appropriate destruction of government records (2).  She concluded her introductory remarks with three pieces of advice:

  1. state archivists should not be content to wait for guidance from the National Archives — and in actuality may have greater exposure to and knowledge about business archives and local government records
  2. when it comes to publishing in the American Archivist, archivists should focus less on seeming erudite and more on sharing their knowledge of work in the trenches
  3. committees should be productive and should frequently report their work publicly

The meat of her address was based on the premise that “the archivist is limited in his procedures for the care of records entrusted to his custody by a paramount duty to preserve the integrity of their use as acceptable legal evidence” (5).  Norton argued that the American philosophy of records is shaped by our democratic system of government.  For instance,

  • because public records are the property of the people, they tend to be held locally (e.g., title records, marriage registers, etc. reside in counties)
  • the democratic system also requires authorization for the destruction of government records
  • there should be open access to government records, “except where the law specifically exempts certain records from public inspection as being of a confidential nature” (7) — Norton also pointed out that allowing such access requires attention to undue wear on the documents and to their possible theft, so much so that creating access copies is probably worthwhile.
  • the power of replevin should be used as necessary to seize public records in private hands
  • governments should have plans in place to reconstruct public records that might be destroyed through some sort of catastrophe — no doubt after the 1871 Chicago fire, the people of Illinois were especially primed to focus on this issue.  One solution she highlighted that could address this need is microfilming, though she did argue that there needed to be more attention given to the certification of microfilm as acceptable copies.
  • government records can be used as court evidence

Norton elaborated on the issue of the destruction of government records, making two interesting points.  First, she acknowledged that records are often destroyed without authorization, arguing that “the law is impracticable because it fails to give an adequate definition for the term ‘records'” (6).  She established an outline for a functional approach to determining the retention of government records.  Secondly, Norton pointed out that records are often not turned over from one government official to the next, so she suggested there be a process by which an inventory would be compiled and a receipt provided among the predecessor and successor to a government post.

Norton concluded her address with several topics that she believed warranted further study:

  • laws regarding papers, ink, vaults, and safes (an issue also raised earlier by Albert Newsome)
  • archivist direction regarding record making and preservation

“Adventures of an Amateur Archivist”


Connor historical marker

Connor historical marker outside the State Archives of North Carolina

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor delivered the presidential address at the sixth annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Richmond, Virginia, on October 26, 1942.  This address was published in the American Archivist in January 1943.  Connor’s 1942-1943 tenure as SAA president came soon after his resignation as the first Archivist of the United States (AOTUS).  Before making his mark as the first AOTUS, Connor helped to establish the North Carolina Historical Commission, which was the predecessor to the Department of Archives and History.  His papers are available at the Southern Historical Collection of the Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a professor for many years before and after his time in DC.

Connor opened his address with an explanation of the value of archivists in the midst of the Second World War:

“it is our firm conviction that our work as archivists will contribute
not only to victory but also to that just and sane peace that
must crown that victory.  We are the custodians of the accumulated
evidences of those traditions and ideals of democracy and freedom
for which we fight and without which, we believe, no such peace can
be established or maintained in the world” (1).

Connor then went on to recount his memories of the creation of the National Archives.  He focused on what he called “unrecorded experiences” — anecdotes rather than official records.  The first involved staffing the Archives, which for the first four years of its existence was a “patronage agency,” with staff members appointed “‘solely with reference to their fitness for their particular duties and without regard to civil-service law'” (4).  But Connor pointed out that the Great Depression that still enveloped the nation in these years (1934-1938) created a pool of highly qualified applicants, and he was able to avoid the snares of the “patronage bogey.”

Another memory related to getting early deposits to the National Archives, including from the U.S. Senate, a court, numerous independent establishments, and 10 executive departments, including the State Department and the War Department.  Connor mentioned in this context that there was a perceived archives vs. library struggle at the time (i.e., the National Archives vs. the Library of Congress), and he also noted that upon laying the cornerstone of the National Archives, President Hoover stated that “‘the most sacred documents of our history'” — including the originals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — were destined to be housed at the National Archives (10).  What Connor failed to explain (though admittedly his 1942 audience likely knew) is that while the Bill of Rights was transferred to the National Archives in 1938, at the time of this address, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were still housed at the Library of Congress, where they had been since 1921 and would remain until 1952.  Ultimately, Connor pointed to a newspaper correspondent who correctly surmised this “struggle” was one that pitted that authority of the executive branch, which oversaw the National Archives, versus the legislative branch, which of course had authority over the Library of Congress.

With the transfer of materials from the War Department, the National Archives freed up 136,000 cubic feet of space for which the War Department had pressing need in the midst of World War Two.  As a result, the National Archives was designated as an essential defense agency.

Connor closed his address with a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected an honorary member of the SAA.  In addition to recounting his personal interest in records, FDR challenged the SAA to curry favor for creating preservation duplicates of government archives, specifically suggesting that microfilming records and storing that film in another location “might be called the only form of insurance that will stand the test of time” (17).  FDR would be happy to know that even in the 21st century, this is still a common practice.