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.

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