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