“Tardy Scholars Among the Archivists”

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Lester J. Cappon delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Columbus, Ohio, in October 1957.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1958.  Cappon served as the 12th SAA president from 1956-1957.  He was also the director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture and served as an archival consultant to Colonial Williamsburg, Inc.  In his introduction to a collection of Cappon’s essays, Richard J. Cox referred to him as the “quintessential proponent of archival knowledge based on historical scholarship.”

So it’s easy to understand that Cappon focused his presidential address on the archivist as scholar.  Cappon certainly tried to lead by example, for his presidential address is by far the most thoroughly footnoted of any to this point.  Returning to the often debated relationship between archivists and historians, Cappon argued,

“both in historical origin and in the function he performs the archivist is not a mere caretaker of the paper residue of the past but a person with scholarly proclivities and, at best, a scholar himself.  And his field of scholarship, however narrowly or broadly defined, is history” (3).

Hearkening back to Wayne Grover’s 1954 address, Cappon traced the birth of SAA by the American Historical Association.  He went on to suggest that “the archivist is a scholar not only by virtue of his historical origins in the United States but also because of the function he performs and the process he supervises” (5).  He acknowledged that archivists provide service to researchers on-site by organizing records and creating reference tools, but he also challenged archivists to look beyond their institutions to publicize their holdings more broadly.

Cappon then summarized publications by archivists, first during the period 1899-1936 between the founding of the Public Archives Commission and the creation of the SAA.  Here are some of the types of materials that were published in this era:

  • surveys of state records
  • documentary texts, such as those compiling records from the Revolutionary War
  • papers of American statesmen, such as Alexander Hamilton’s Works

The period after the creation of SAA in 1936 had not been as productive in terms of publications.  Although the National Historical Publications Commission was created in 1934, Cappon explained that it didn’t have much of an impact until the 1950s.  Cappon pointed to the proliferation of records,  beginning with World War One, as an example of the other responsibilities that prevented archivists from continuing their earlier publishing ways.  But Cappon also suggested this deluge was affecting archivists’ ability to process records adequately, citing former SAA president Morris Radoff’s conclusion that “American historians themselves are abandoning their use of original records” because of this lack of service (10).  Cappon went on to assert that “If there was a closer kinship between historians and archivists [20 years ago] than there is now, our growing mass of records may explain at least part of the alienation that has occurred” (11).  Undoubtedly he meant the declining intellectual control over records by archivists, thereby making repositories less conducive to research.

Cappon saw the role of archivists expanding along the records continuum — both working with records managers to limit the overabundance of records and attempting to identify and publicize to researchers records of enduring value.  He concluded his address with several suggestions of how archivists could improve their service to historians:

  • publish guides to records groups in each state
  • embrace calendaring as a method to facilitate the use of archival materials
  • resume the publication of texts of official state records
  • establish a national control file — he pointed to the forthcoming union catalog of manuscript collections being developed by the Library of Congress as a possible solution

Finally, Cappon pointed out that one of the challenges issued by his predecessor had been answered, with the SAA appointing Ernst Posner to the newly established position of SAA historian.

“What, Then, Is the American Archivist, This New Man?”

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In October 1956, Ernst Posner delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Washington, D.C.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1957.  Posner was the 11th SAA president, serving from 1955-1956.  He began his professional career in the Prussian State Archives, but after his persecution and imprisonment, he fled to the United States in 1939.  Not long before becoming Archivist of the United States and SAA president, Solon Buck helped Posner get a position teaching archival administration at American University, where he remained for 21 years.

1956 was a key year in the development of the archives profession in the United States because it was the year that T. R. Schellenberg published his seminal work, Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques.  October 1956 was also when the National Archives published his bulletin, “The Appraisal of Modern Records,” which defined the primary and secondary values of public records, further subdividing secondary values into evidential and informational values.

Posner recognized the significance of the times (even referring to Dr. Schellenberg’s work) and used his farewell president address as an opportunity to define the field of American archival work.  He spent quite a bit of time identifying the methodological challenges of accomplishing this feat and then relied heavily on the SAA questionnaire that was circulated in 1956 in order to create an organizational directory.  This pool of data showed that one-third of American archivists were female, and there was little representation in SAA from those engaged in manuscript work.  One-third of members worked as records managers, who tended to have less advanced degrees than those working in archives or manuscripts.

After this quantitative analysis of American archivists, Posner reflected on the birth of archives in the United States, pointing to three key factors:

  1. He asserted that “Archives thrive best in regimented society; poor record keeping seems to be the price of liberty” (6).  Posner pointed to the mid-19th century prediction of Alexis de Tocqueville that documents would not be collected in archives in the democratic United States, concluding that “In an atmosphere so indifferent if not hostile to the cause of archives, it was the historical scholar who became the standard bearer of archives administration” (7).
  2. He lamented the “artificial gulf” that developed in the U.S. between archives of government records and historical manuscript collections that encompassed individuals and informal organizations.
  3. He identified the American archivist’s tendency to expand focus to include semicurrent and current records (typically the realm of records managers) as “archival imperialism” (8).

Posner identified the lack of standard archival training and the flux of people in and out of the profession as problematic to defining the core of what it meant to be an American archivist.  Ultimately, he listed these characteristics and accomplishments:

  • good salesmen
  • open to technical advances
  • “developed the methods and techniques of archival arrangement and description” (9)
  • “in entering the field of record management, we have displayed the elasticity of thinking and the dynamism that are characteristic of the American people” (9).

Posner also identified some problems in the American archival landscape:

  • some states had no sound archival programs
  • lack of funding
  • chasm between archivists and manuscript custodians
  • “our excursion into the area of record management was bound to tax the tensile strength of the profession” (10)
  • lack of common standards and training

Posner concluded his address with a list of recommendations intended to aid the historian-archivist of 2056:

  • find a permanent home for the SAA archives
  • have an SAA archivist that also assumes the functions of an historian
  • publish biographies/tributes of the “founding fathers” of the American archival profession
  • collect oral histories of former SAA presidents
  • write a history of the creation of the National Archives
  • organize a study of state archives
  • “study the philosophy and growth of the record management movement”

So where Grover and Radoff in prior years had advocated closing the gap between archivists and records managers, Posner took another tack — at one time tagging as “archival imperialism” the expansion of archival focus to current and semicurrent records and similarly suggesting the “excursion into the area of record management” (10) stretched SAA thin and then contending that

“If then, more than his European counterpart, the American archivist seems to be concerned with the record from birth to box — that is the Hollinger box — the process of our professional coagulation was bound to be especially complicated and slow” (8-9).

Yet Posner also pointed to archival work in records management as demonstrating “elasticity of thinking” and “dynamism.”  Clearly the identity crisis among the profession was not yet resolved.

“What Should Bind Us Together”

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In October 1955, Morris L. Radoff delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Nashville, Tennessee.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1956.  Radoff was the 10th SAA president, serving from 1954-1955.  He was also the state archivist of Maryland.

The title of Radoff’s address gave clear evidence that the schism between archivists and records managers to which Wayne Grover alluded in his 1954 presidential address was still a hot issue.  He acknowledged the pattern of his predecessors to review the addresses of former presidents, suggesting it was “the need for a tradition, for a solid, unifying base, which makes us pore over the words of our past presidents”; Radoff concluded, “We are seeking there, it seems to me, the elusive something which does, or ought to, bind us together” (3).  Radoff briefly summarized Grover’s address and said he agreed with Grover in principle, though he found some of Grover’s evidence flawed.  Rather than asserting that archivists and records managers have “common interests,” as Grover argued, Radoff contended that the two professional groups “have only one interest; namely, the guardianship of records” (4).  Accordingly, Radoff suggested that professionals in both types of positions should share the same title; he suggested archivist “because the name is universal and meaningful; whereas records management is new, known only in this country, and not altogether understood even here” (4).

Radoff somewhat explained the differences between archivists and records managers by looking at the paths to the professions, with archivists coming from the realms of scholarship, law, and history while records managers tended to rise up the ranks of government positions.  But Radoff saw little point in the arbitrary division that was being drawn between the records management of active records and the archival care of inactive historical records.  Rather than sub-specializing, he believed:

“The records management specialist ought to know which records will have permanent value, the archivist ought to know, by the same token, what records should be created, and if any one of us does not know these things, then we should not be proud of that fact and we should not adopt titles, new or old, to justify our ignorance.  Instead, we should learn what we do not already know” (5).

And with an even more concise criticism of each side of this debate, Radoff concluded, “The archivist must not continue his stiff-necked aloofness, nor must the records management expert despise the deliberate approach of the archivist” (7).

One other reflection back to Grover’s address involved his assertion that archivists had seemingly lost influence since the founding of SAA.  Radoff conjectured that this lack of respect could be due to the lack of standardized education required for the archival profession.  He pointed back to the Bemis report, spearheaded by Samuel Flagg Bemis and published in the American Archivist in January 1939, suggesting that its design for archival education could still lend some desired professionalism and respect.  Radoff concluded:

“we should strive to give our profession the dignity, the unity, the opportunity for service that can come only from the mastery of a body of learning.  And this body of learning should by all means include the whole art and mystery of records.  This surely will bind us together” (9).

One final point of clarification: Grover spoke in the previous year about modifying the membership policy of SAA, and Radoff mentioned in his address that he supported the constitutional amendment.  The following changes were accepted at the October 1955 SAA meeting unanimously and without discussion:

3. Individual membership shall be open to those who are or have been engaged in the custody or control of records, archives, or historical manuscripts, or who, because of their interest in the field, wish to support the objectives of the Society.
4. Institutional membership shall be open to institutions or agencies that are concerned or substantially interested in the custody or control of records, archives, or historical manuscripts.  An institutional member shall be entitled to representation at all meetings of the Society by one delegate.  He may vote and hold office, but if he is also an individual member, he may not cast a second vote.
5. Members shall be enrolled upon receipt of their first payment of dues.

(The text of this amendment was printed in the July 1955 American Archivist; the summary of the business meetings was printed in the January 1956 issue.)

“Archives: Society and Profession”

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I keep running into problems with presidential addresses that were not printed in the American Archivist.  In October 1951 the Society of American Archivists (SAA) met in Annapolis, Maryland, but the meeting summary contained no mention of a presidential address.  The October 1952 meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, mentioned no presidential address in the annual report, and the September 1953 in Detroit, Michigan, has no summary at all in the American Archivist.  William D. McCain of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was the 8th SAA president, serving from 1951-1953.

SAA met in September 1954 in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Wayne C. Grover delivered the presidential address.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1955.  At the time of this address, Grover was early in his tenure as the third Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), a position that he held from 1948-1965, making him the longest serving AOTUS.  Both of his predecessors as AOTUS had also served as president of SAA: Robert D. W. Connor and Solon J. Buck.  After his resignation in 1965, Grover consulted on the creation of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Numerous monumental events happened while Grover was at the helm of the National Archives:

  • It ceased being an independent agency in 1949 and was placed under the General Services Administration (where it remained until 1985).
  • The system of presidential libraries was begun.
  • The Charters of Freedom were transferred to the National Archives from the Library of Congress.

In this presidential address, Grover made reference to the transfer of the charters, along with a quip about the frequent use of the 5th amendment, which I can only assume was a commentary on the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations after World War Two and the Army-McCarthy hearings earlier in 1954.

Grover acknowledged the “disturbing issue of recent times” for the SAA was the “proper relationship of archivists and archival agencies to what is variously called ‘records management,’ ‘records administration,’ or, if you like, ‘record administration'” (3-4).  Grover cited the presidential address of Albert Newsome for establishing “the importance of serving scholarship” and for emphasizing the vital role of archivists in preserving public records (4).  Grover asserted that records administrators and records managers rose to fill the needs of public officials in the federal government and defined their commonality with archivists as “their interest in improving the quality and decreasing the quantity of an organization’s records” (5).  There had clearly been discussions going on as to whether archivists and records managers should part ways, and Grover landed decidedly on the side of the big tent approach.  He contended that without large numbers of people in the archival profession and without legal sanctions undergirding the work, creating a closed professional group would not help advance the causes of the American archival community.  Grover summarized the history of how the SAA grew out of the Conference of Archivists, which had been sponsored by the Public Archives Commission of the American Historical Association.  He argued that the Public Archives Commission had demonstrated more of a “missionary fervor” that was lacking in the SAA, as demonstrated by the relative paucity of archival growth after the ending of the Public Archives Commission in 1934 and the birth of the SAA in 1936.  Grover ultimately advocated for an open membership policy for the SAA:

“I believe we can be most effective if we arrange our affairs so that we can recruit into our ranks and put to work on our committees all the influential and interested citizens we can persuade to join — leading historians, business leaders, public officials, religious leaders, labor leaders, and anyone else who will assist us” (9).

Grover argued for the interdependence of archivists and records managers as the most efficient way both to handle technical problems (i.e., exchanging professional information) as well as to provide opportunities to be evangelists of the archival word “in places and organizations that have not as yet, unfortunately, seen the light” (10).  A number of upcoming presidential addresses will return to this same issue, so stay tuned for more information.