“The Archivist’s Challenge: To Lead — or Not To Lead”

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Dolores C. Renze delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Atlanta, Georgia, in October 1966.  The address was published in the American Archivist in January 1967.  Renze was State Archivist of Colorado from 1949 to 1973.  She was also SAA secretary from 1956 to 1963 as well as president 1965-1966.  Her papers are housed at the University of Denver.

Renze chose leadership as the focus of her presidential address.  She began with a horticultural analogy, arguing against the strategy of generating new short-lived goals each year and instead suggesting the wisdom of developing professional objectives and standards, like a tree “sending its roots deeper into the soil, making itself stronger for the future and making itself less vulnerable to the winds and to the ravages of passing attacks on its surfaces” (6).

Renze tacitly cited organizational theorist Ordway Tead and his 1935 book, The Art of Leadership, where he defined leadership as “‘the activity of influencing people to cooperate toward some goal which they come to find desirable'” (9).  Renze went on to elaborate on three prerequisite characteristics of leaders (9):

  1. intelligence — including creativity, resourcefulness, and good judgment
  2. “a genuine liking and concern for people”
  3. “willingness to assume responsibility and authority”

Renze listed numerous attributes that are necessary in order to evaluate whether one possesses these prerequisites:

  • insight/knowledge of self
  • a sense of humor
  • understanding — both of ourselves and others
  • flexibility
  • being a perpetual learner
  • enthusiasm
  • sense of purpose/direction
  • integrity
  • faith (i.e., demonstrating that a leader has confidence in his people)
  • technical mastery
  • being a teacher
  • “interest in, and understanding of, other people” — this Renze described as the “crux of leadership” (13)
  • creativity
  • intellectual ability
  • human relations skills
  • personal impact
  • decision-making
  • energy

Renze concluded with twelve essential points of leadership:

  1. self-objectivity
  2. flexibility
  3. dare to be different
  4. personal and professional standards
  5. learn to live with uncertainty
  6. rewards and recognition (i.e., accepting delayed, if any, gratification)
  7. learn to withstand stress
  8. performance standards
  9. be reasonably modest
  10. avoid “cronyism”
  11. responsibilities and obligations (i.e., recognize the burdens entailed by true leadership)
  12. recognition of ability and talent of members

With these attributes in place, Renze saw the future as “the span of voluntary effort where individuals strive for excellence, give of themselves above and beyond the call of duty, and, in so doing, give dignity, distinction, loyalty, and enduring significance to the profession we represent” (16).


“The Changing Role of the Archivist”


In October 1965, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held its annual meeting in New York City.  William Kaye Lamb delivered his presidential address, which was published in the American Archivist in January 1966.  Lamb was the first SAA president hailing from outside the United States; he was appointed the Dominion Archivist of Canada in 1948 and served in this position until 1969.  He was also instrumental in creating the National Library of Canada, serving as National Librarian of Canada from 1953-1967.  He helped develop the Public Archives of Canada and led the construction of a National Archives, which opened in 1967.

Lamb began his address by identifying three misconceptions or “occupational hazards” of archivists:

  1. people assume archivists “are familiar with all past events since creation, down to the last detail of local or family history” (3)
  2. people assume “archivists have no concern with the present — or at least they are not troubled with matters of any very immediate or pressing concern” (3)
  3. archivists themselves have been so engrossed in their own jobs that they haven’t taken notice of the changes to the profession over the last three decades

Lamb identified this third hazard as the most serious danger and went on to identify two major changes in recent archival practice that might have been overlooked:

  1. “the archivist has ceased to be primarily a custodian — a caretaker — and has become a gatherer of records and manuscripts” (4)
  2. The growth of modern government forced archivists to become more involved in records management to deal with two problems:
    • cutting down on unnecessary records and handling the remainder “efficiently and economically” (5)
    • making necessary decisions about records disposal

Lamb highlighted disposal as the most difficult problem in records management because  it “involves nothing less than an attempt to judge the future needs of scholars.”  He went on to pinpoint the complication of trying to retain records that may need to be consulted in future years for reasons very different than their active use, so the archivist “must have perceived their potential value and ensured their preservation far in advance” (6).

Going back to the importance of records management, Lamb listed two major ways that records managers positively influenced archives:

  1. “Adequate selection and preservation are by-products of good records management.”
  2. “records managers have been of great assistance in establishing the vital point that adequate archival and records services have practical value and can make it possible for a government to function both more efficiently and more cheaply” (8).

Considering his classic tome Modern Archives was first published in 1956, I’ve been interested to note that T.R. Schellenberg has not received much attention  from the SAA presidents, but his book The Management of Archives did receive mention by Lamb.  In his final section on the future of archives, Lamb pointed to Schellenberg’s assertion that “a profession should represent systematized and widely accepted principles and techniques in its field of activity” (8).  He suggested three developments that could help to accomplish this professionalization of archives work:

  1. manuals created by SAA and the American Association for State and Local History that would help develop standards
  2. agreeing on a standard terminology for archives work
  3. recognizing the necessity of having trained archivists to work with records and manuscripts

Just as with Everett Alldredge a year earlier, Lamb concluded with a compelling and succinct summation of the value of archives:

“We belong to a dynamic and developing profession that, amongst other things, is charged with the critical responsibility of determining, to a great extent, the documentation relating to the present and the past that will be available to scholars in the future” (10).

“Still To Be Done”

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In October 1964, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) met in Austin, Texas, and outgoing president Everett O. Alldredge delivered his address.  He self-identified as the “first president whose background has been more in records management than archival management” (13).  A 2008 letter from the National Personnel Records Center labelled Alldredge “Early NARA Luminary – Father of Records Management.”  He helped begin the first full-scale records management program for the federal government, including establishing records centers around the country.  At the time of this address, he was the Assistant Archivist for Records Management at the National Archives and Records Service.  It was published in the January 1965 issue of the American Archivist.

Alldredge’s title for his address leaves little to the imagination.  While many presidents had chosen to use their farewell address to look backward, he focused resolutely on what was yet to be accomplished.  He summed up his viewpoint: “So far events have completely controlled us.  It is time for us to try to control events” (12).  His initial recommendations for SAA included:

  • developing a more broad-based membership
  • offering 1-day symposia, especially targeted at new professionals
  • developing “a professionally significant project capable of completion in at least 2 years” for each SAA committee, such as:
    • standards for arrangement and description of private papers
    • developing common definitions for archival terms
    • standards on archival exhibits
    • list of scientific archives
    • recommendations for business archives
    • standards for church archives
    • guide for university archives
    • arranging a meeting of the International Council on Archives in the U.S.
    • fire protection standards
    • theory about appropriate usage of manpower in archives

Alldredge attributed much of the lack of “doctrine” and publications within the archival community to the status of archivists as an emerging profession.  But he challenged his listeners to embrace the four essential attributes of professional behavior, as defined by Bernard Barber:

  1. “a high degree of generalized and systematic knowledge”
  2. “primary orientation to the community interest rather than to individual self-interest”
  3. “a high degree of self-control of behavior through codes of ethics internalized in the process of work socialization and through voluntary associations organized and operated by the work specialists themselves”
  4. “a system of rewards (monetary and honorary) that is primarily a set of symbols of work achievement and thus ends in themselves, not means to some end of individual self-interest” (10)

Alldredge came back near the end of his address to identify three principal shortcomings of the archival profession (12):

  1. not enough attention to the “subprofessional”
  2. not enough professionally trained people as heads of archives
  3. not enough professionals schools for appropriate training

Regarding the contemporary debate about the meaning of life and the meaning of history, Alldredge shared this analysis about how it related to archival work:

“one’s philosophy of history determines one’s definition of history, and one’s definition of history controls what documentation one saves.  Most archivists have something to say about what shall be saved” (15).

Alldredge concluded his address with a story about touring the partly completed Georgia state archives building with Mary Givens Bryan.  In recognition of her desire to have a defense of archives carved onto its walls, he offered this poem:

What are Archives?

Quarry and brickyard and lumber pile

from which the researchers build edifices

that educate the statesman and the citizen

and illuminate the common man’s story.

The quiver in which the historian

finds those arrows of truth

that shoot down myths and maim errors.

Aladdin’s lamp that when skillfully rubbed

calls forth the genie of yesteryear —

the yesteryear that explains today

and is the prologue to tomorrow.

The enduring documentation of deeds and decisions

that provide an enduring memory

forever available, valuable, and useful” (16).

Too bad Alldredge can’t submit this to one of current SAA president Kathleen Roe’s Year of Living Dangerously for Archives challenges!

“Horizons Unlimited”

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In October 1963, Leon deValinger Jr. delivered his presidential address in Raleigh, NC, at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  deValinger was the 18th SAA president, serving from 1962-1963.  His address was published in the January 1964 issue of the American Archivist.

Leon deValinger was the State Archivist of Delaware, having begun his career with the Delaware Public Archives Commission in 1930 and serving as State Archivist from 1941-1970.  He spent the first half of his address recounting the history of the development of the state archives in Delaware.  I found it interesting to discover that when the Division of Public Records was established in 1905, they were merely tasked with classifying, cataloging, and preserving state and county public records dated prior to 1800.  Six years later, the organization was recast as the Public Archives Commission and given an increased collecting mandate to 1850.  (The date of the legislation is not cited, but they were eventually given the right to acquire inactive records, implying the date parameters were lifted.)

deValinger then spent some time considering what the future held for archives.  His analysis included the following:

  • greater accumulation of records due to a larger population along with the machine production of records
  • impetus to incorporate automation into records management: “some adoptions of assembly-line methods of processing record groups, including automated finding media and accelerated processes for cleaning, fumigating, and repairing.  There will surely be the use of closed-circuit TV for supplying reference data more quickly” (10).
  • preference for underground records centers
  • efforts to limit the creation of records
  • less expensive publication methods, including microfilm and offset printing
  • greater attendance at museums and historic sites

As for SAA itself, deValinger acknowledged the growth of the organization and the American Archivist in particular.  But he questioned whether continued growth could occur with a voluntary leadership structure.  He presented four alternatives:

  1. “obtain funds to establish a paid secretariat with an executive director and staff to perform these administrative duties for us”
  2. “contain the membership and activities to proportions that can be handled on a voluntary basis”
  3. “decentralize into regional groups of manageable size with officers functioning on a voluntary basis”
  4. “seek a subsidy for the American Archivist and to develop with a university press a publication program that could become income-producing” (12).

He also made numerous other suggestions:

  • SAA needed to establish itself as an educational, tax-exempt organization
  • one-year term limit for president should be lifted
  • SAA should provide more technical services for its membership (e.g., testing new products and equipment)
  • SAA committees should publish guides and manuals
  • SAA should develop advanced training courses for archivists/records managers

In the end, deValinger explained the “horizons unlimited” of his title as his view of “the opportunities for service and satisfying employment in our field of endeavor” (13).

To follow up on deValinger’s suggestions, here’s what actually happened.

  • The first paid executive director for SAA was Ann Morgan Campbell, who assumed the post in 1974.
  • Although the first 8 SAA presidents served terms of 2 or more years, the rest have had 1-year terms.  This is specified in section V, A, 1 of the SAA constitution.
  • The SAA adopted the Guidelines for Archival Continuing Education in 2006 and offers numerous educational programs, including the Digital Archival Specialist curriculum and certificate program.

“The Management of Archival Institutions”


In October 1962, Robert H. Bahmer, the Deputy Archivist of the United States, delivered his presidential address at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) meeting in Rochester, New York.  Bahmer had worked in the National Archives since 1936 and went on to serve as the Archivist of the United States from 1966-1968, following in the steps of Robert D.W. Connor, Solon J. Buck, and Wayne C. Grover.  Bahmer’s address was published in the American Archivist in January 1963.

While most of these presidential addresses have focused on the internal workings of archives, last year’s address by Philip Hamer and this address by Bahmer focused on the external relations of archivists.  Bahmer asserted that none of these addresses had ever looked at the archivist as a public administrator, so he took on that challenge.  He identified five basic duties of a manager:

  1. “defining the purposes and objectives of his organization”
  2. “translating these objectives into plans susceptible of practical accomplishment”
  3. “selecting competent staff members and organizing them as a work force”
  4. “checking progress toward established goals and from time to time re-evaluating both objectives and programs”
  5. “interpreting his organization to a great variety of publics” (4).

Bahmer identified this last function as the most significant for archivist-managers.  He elaborated to explain: “The manager himself must play an affirmative role in stimulating an appreciation of archives and, to use Professor Newsome’s words, in interpreting ‘archival work to the public as a necessary factor in an enlightened society'” (5).

Bahmer also considered the necessity and appropriateness of having archivists who are program specialists rise the ranks of management.  He acknowledged the possibility that specialists would be preoccupied with the quotidian challenges of the work without grasping the bigger picture of what needs to be accomplished by the organization.  But he also firmly asserted, “The manager of an archives operation must understand the substance of his program; he must have developed a philosophy about it; he must have the confidence of the professionals in his field; he must, in my opinion, be an archivist” (6).  However, Bahmer cautioned against seeing managerial rank as the sole means of professional advancement for archivists.  Given that not all those who are proficient within the technical realm of archival work are suited for management, he suggested there should be other avenues of professional advancement available to archivists, pointing to the reorganization of the National Archives that created the position of senior archival specialist.  He ultimately concluded that there is a “mutual interdependency of the professional specialist and the administrator” (10).

One point that Bahmer raised but on which he did not elaborate was that not all archival work needs the attention of a professional archivist.  He seemed to be implying that by tasking non-professional staff with some of the simpler tasks, it would be possible to engender a less pyramidal/hierarchical world for archivists.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any other article in which Bahmer more fully developed this argument.

Bahmer pointed to an interesting procedure in the National Archives wherein archivists had rotating assignments, thereby discouraging “specialization by function” (9).  I would contend this would not only keep the staff engaged and attentive but, when the time came to promote someone to a managerial position, that person would have a much better grasp of the entirety of the work in the facility.

Finally, Bahmer warned against focusing on the science of archives management to the detriment of historical scholarship.  Once again seeming to draw inspiration from one of Newsome’s presidential addresses, Bahmer concluded:

“The archivist can never cease to be a student of history — he is after all working with historical materials.  And his institution must take care not to erode and abrade his scholarly aptitudes by continued assignments that neither require nor challenge his professional skills” (10).