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.

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