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.