“‘. . . authentic Documents tending to elucidate our History'”


For his presidential address at the October 1961 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Kansas City, Philip Hamer took his title from a statement written by Ebenezer Hazard in 1791 that proposed the publication of a collection of historical documents entitled “American State Papers.”  Hamer began working at the National Archives in 1935, and he became the Executive Director of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) in 1951 — a position that he retained until his retirement in 1961.  His papers are housed at the South Carolina Historical Society.  His address was published in the American Archivist in January 1962.

Rather than focusing on the work of archivists and records managers themselves, as had most of his SAA predecessors, Hamer called attention to the importance of having access to the materials in archives.  He quoted from a letter that Hazard wrote to a friend in 1774, in which he stated,

“The time will doubtless come when early periods of American history will be eagerly inquired into, and it is the duty of every generation to hand to its successor the necessary means of acquiring such knowledge, in order to prevent their groping in the dark, and perplexing themselves in the labrinths of error” (3-4).

Hamer also cited a 1791 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Hazard.  One particular gem from this letter became the cornerstone of Hazard’s fundraising efforts to support his work publishing historical documents:

“Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices: . . . the lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks, which fence them from the public eye . . . but by such a multiplication of Copies as shall place them beyond the reach of accident” (5).

(Who knew that Jefferson was an early proponent of the principle that Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe!)  This idea for publication was certainly popular around the time of the birth of the United States as well as in the years following, when state historical societies, such as those in Massachusetts and New York, spearheaded efforts to publish collections of documents from their holdings.  When the National Archives was chartered, the National Historical Publications Commission was also created to pursue this work at the national level and to continue encouraging it at the state level.  Hamer challenged the archives and historical societies of the states to

“recognize in the future, even more effectively than they have in the past, the importance of documentary publication as a function for which they have a major responsibility — a responsibility comparable to that which they have also for their accessioning, preservation, and reference service functions, with which publication is so closely and importantly associated” (6).

Hamer acknowledged that the use of microfilm could address the concern about having multiple copies of prize documents, but he contended that it paled in comparison to “well-edited and beautifully printed volumes of historical documents” (11).  With this focus on the added value of editing, Hamer honed in on the “scholar-editor,” whose role was “to advance the understanding of a man and his times and by this interpretation of the man in his setting to throw light on the world we have inherited from him” (12).

A search in WorldCat produces 510 printed books authored by the National Historical Publications Commission — though this number includes reports as well as volumes printed with the financial support of the NHPC.  (One such report from 1981 is entitled Documentary Editing in Crisis.)  Since the National Historical Publications Commission began providing grants in 1964, it has funded 296 publications projects that produced almost 900 volumes and over 9,000 reels of microfilm.  (See the NHPRC website for more information.)  The NHPRC also supports an online portal to the papers of the founding fathers: Founders Online.


“Changing Times”


In her October 1960 presidential address at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) annual meeting in Boston, Mary Givens Bryan looked both forward and backward.  Long before the International Council on Archives began publishing a journal entitled Janus and long before Richard Pearce-Moses suggested Janus as the appropriate patron of archivists, Bryan used her address to evaluate how far archivists had come in the 27 years of her professional career and what new frontiers archivists needed to chart.  She spent her career working her way up in the Georgia Department of Archives and History, serving as Director and State Archivist from 1951 to her death in 1964.  Her address was published in the January 1961 issue of the American Archivist.

Bryan preceded by three years Bob Dylan’s writing of the protest song “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”  While she was not trying to pen a protest song, she did reflect on what was happening within and without the archival community and challenged her SAA listeners to act accordingly.  She noted that during her year as SAA president, she read the 8,440 pages of the American Archivist printed to date, and she pointed to wisdom of the addresses of several of her predecessors.  The two biggest external changes on which Bryan focused were the burgeoning space race and the development of computing devices.  (By this point, numerous satellites had been launched by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and a probe had reached the moon.  Within 6 months, the first person would orbit the Earth.)  She wished to see the archival community prepare itself — whether by working with the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization  to identify essential records that warranted protection in case of atomic warfare or by working to learn about the new formats on which records were being created:

“not only textual but in the form of motion pictures, sound recordings, punch and aperture cards, video or magnetic tapes, electrostatic prints, electronic computations, and many more” (9)

She also predicted new technologies, such as “mechanized systems for searching, correlating, and synthesizing recorded knowledge” (6).

I can’t pretend that Bryan was entirely prescient — after all, she did suggest that microfilm readers would become common fixtures in American homes.  But I do appreciate her efforts to evaluate what had been accomplished and what was left to do.  Throughout, Bryan weaves in comments about the ongoing tug-of-war between archivists and records managers, urging a path of common goals.  She suggested the more pertinent divide was between specialists and generalists.  She asserted, “A Society composed only of specialists would soon collapse, for nobody would be left with the overall view — nobody who could see the woods as well as the trees” (7).  She went on to suggest, “What we need in our Society is more specialists who are capable of functioning as generalists” (7).  Bryan seemed concerned that the rapid pace of change would cause people’s specialized skills to become rapidly antiquated, whereas broad training could be more adaptively applied.

Bryan brought this line of thought back to the SAA, suggesting that its committees needed not to be satisfied with focusing on their narrow interests and duties but instead should use those positions “to explore, to ferret out, and to pass on to the rest of us — and particularly our newer members — the information and advice they and we are seeking” (8).  She concluded by challenging state archives to develop stronger local records programs, believing that “Ours is the responsibility for seeing that the best of Americana is preserved for generations to come after us, and that the records they will need are intact” (10).

“‘Public Records’ — Who Knows What They Are?”

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This week’s topic excites me for a number of reasons:

  1. I’ve always loved etymology, so it’s fascinating to see someone distill the various meanings of the term “public records.”
  2. Just this past week, I had a conversation with a colleague about how someone assumed confidential materials by their nature cannot be public records.
  3. I’ve frequently wondered about the connections between Oliver Wendell Holmes the Supreme Court justice and Oliver W. Holmes the archivist, so now I have a good excuse to research his background.

Oliver W. Holmes was president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) from 1958-59.  He worked for many years at the National Archives, beginning when it opened in 1935 and filling numerous positions before retiring as Executive Director of the National Historical Publications Commission in 1972.  Holmes was also a founding member of SAA.  A colleague donated to the National Archives the books given to her by Holmes upon his death, and this collection is now available in the Archives Library Information Center.  An obituary was printed in American Archivist in 1982, and I was particularly struck by this line written by Walter Rundell, Jr.:

“Oliver’s career continues to challenge today’s professional archivists not to abandon the scholarly interests that originally led them to archival work” (249).

And the obituary written in the New York Times provided the answer to my underlying question — Holmes the archivist was named for Holmes the jurist but was not related to him.

Holmes delivered his presidential address at the October 1959 SAA annual meeting in Philadelphia.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1960.  In the beginning, he acknowledged that a discussion of “public records” was only relevant in English-speaking countries, with the rest of the world embracing the term “archives.”  He then laid out four reasons why it was important to define the term “public records”:

  1. Records custodians need to understand which documents are public records because these records are subject to certain requirements, such as how and when they can be destroyed.
  2. Efforts to replevin public records back into public custody are based on an understanding of the term public records.
  3. The “right to know” movement of the time was pushing for greater access to public records.
  4. Public records traditionally have special evidentiary status, so it vital to determine which can be thus certified in courts of law.

Holmes thoroughly investigated the various definitions of public records in the states, going back to the 19th century.  More than four pages later, he concluded that, despite the efforts of the SAA and Albert L. Newsome to establish uniform standards for the states, these statutory definitions bear little imprint from archivists.  He contended that while archivists felt uncomfortable with the imprecise and inconsistent definitions of public records, the legal community had long been content with the precedents found in common law.  So Holmes set about to reveal these common law definitions of public records and came up with two things that public records are not and three distinct things they are:

  1. No court decisions defined public records as those belonging to the public.
  2. Public records are those created by public officials, not those received by them from the outside.  They include papers public officers are required to keep along with “all written memorials made by a public officer within his authority where such writings constitute a convenient, appropriate, or customary method of discharging the duties of office” (13-14).
  3. Public records are those open to inspection and use by the public.
  4. Public records document completed actions, meaning “negative decisions need not be made a matter of record” (15-16).  Holmes referred to this as the “closed transaction” philosophy.
  5. Finding aids and indices are merely pointers to records and are not public records themselves.

Holmes explained that these rather narrow (and not altogether complementary) definitions growing out of common law precedents rested on much narrower meanings of the terms “records” and “public.”  First to look at “records”:

  • In 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined the verb “to record” — “to register anything so that its memory may not be lost” (17).  This definition perhaps explains the archival use of registers but also delineates that received documents are not records.
  • Based on the above definition, documents received only became records if they were written into the record — but when this became too onerous, the compromise was to notate the receipt of the document in the record rather than transcribing the entire document, thereby filing it “as of record.”
  • Documents were “the accumulating papers in an office that supplemented the records” (18).
  • Files were papers placed in order.
  • According to the above definitions, records + files = archives.

And now for “public”:

  • The oldest definition of public implied public in use, not in ownership (e.g., public meeting, public worship).
  • There is another connotation of public that does imply “being owned or supported by the people forming the body politic”  — such as public debt, public roads (20).
  • In some cases, both senses of public are implied, such as with public libraries that are both owned by and accessible to the public.
  • Holmes concluded that the growth of popular sovereignty in the new United States contributed to a new interpretation of public that underscored ownership by the people of government records.

Despite all of this thorough research, in the end Holmes did not offer a definitive definition of the term “public records.”  Instead, he laid the responsibility for parsing this definition at the feet of the records administrators and the archivists, suggesting that the definition must be based on what “public records” ought to be:

“What does the administrator need?  What must the Government as a whole have?  What does the law want?  What does the public expect its ‘public records’ to be?” (26)

Although Holmes acknowledged that the law had a right to define public records in the context of their admissibility in courts, he challenged the archivist to “mark the boundaries” of public records:

“He lives and works with the records systems of the past.  He expects to take over and administer those of the present and the future.  He is in the best position to advise the administrators, in their role as creators of the ‘public records,’ as to what they ought to be” (26).

P.S.  In North Carolina, where I live and work, there can in fact be confidential public records.  The Public Records Act first defines public records — including specifying they are the property of the people and, therefore, open to inspection — and then lists specific exemptions to this public records definition as well as identifying records that are confidential and not open to inspection.  Numerous other N.C. statutes also confer confidentiality to specific public records.

“The Pendulum Swings”

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After many years of debating the appropriate make-up of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), and a preponderance of presidents whose professional experience came in government archives, William D. Overman was SAA president from 1957-58.  Although Overman also had experience as a government archivist, having been archivist at the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, during his tenure as SAA president, he was historian and archivist for the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company.  Understandably, Overman chose to focus his presidential address on the topic of business archives; his August 1958 address that was read at the SAA annual meeting in Salt Lake City was published in the American Archivist in January 1959.

Overman dedicated a substantial portion of his address to explaining why there were so few good existing models of how to handle voluminous 20th century records.  He suggested the European experience lacked a facility for handling masses of records.  He also criticized the so-called “efficiency experts” of the early 20th century in the United States for focusing too much on how to reduce the amount of extant records without considering which records had enduring value.  Instead, these efficiency experts counseled getting rid of existing records and systems and replacing them with less complicated systems, fewer forms, and some standardization (5).

Overman cited the wisdom of the Firestone family in recognizing the value of what we now call institutional memory — “‘History often provides cheaply experience which originally cost dearly'” (5).  This concern provided the impetus in 1937 for hiring Overman and establishing an archives department at Firestone.  Overman pointed to leaders in the archives and library field, such as Oliver W. Holmes and Stanley Pargellis, who shared an understanding of the importance of business records.  Both pointed to the way in which modern wars caused business and government to become intertwined, suggesting it would be impossible to write a thorough history of the United States without access to business records.

But acknowledging the importance of preserving business records does not accomplish it in practice.  While some proposed depositing inactive business records in libraries, Overman cited research that concluded this was inefficient.  Instead, the reigning thought was that records of permanent value should be kept in company archives.  Overman suggested that the archivists in charge of these collections should:

  • have academic training in history, political science, economics, and statistics
  • know the collection, both for the purposes of ready reference and daily use
  • understand the administrative and historical values of the records in the collection
  • (with the prior three factors addressed) be able adequately to appraise records of permanent value (8)

However, Overman also acknowledged that most companies of the era were not following this path and instead were following the efficiency expert model of merely reducing the quantity of extant records.  He cited a survey conducted by his staff that found only about half of 55-60 large U.S. companies at that time had archival programs in place, and only 15% employed archivists as well as record managers (7).  Overman laid responsibility for this trend at the feet of record management specialists, who were “primarily concerned with the e of so-called useless records; that is, records that have served their usefulness in the ordinary conduct of business and have satisfied the statutes of limitations or other legal requirements” (9).

In the end, Overman clarified his imagery of the pendulum — he equated the record management specialist with the old efficiency expert, concluding that the focus of records management had swung too far in the direction of disposing of records without consideration of how to preserve records of enduring value.

If you find yourself interested in seeing how these issues regarding business records have progressed since 1958, you can check out the paper I wrote for an Archival Appraisal course.