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asserted that the primary purpose of an archival agency had metamorphosed from one focused on “the preservation of rare historical documents” to “an agency of the government whose primary function was to perform certain official duties” (5).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.

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