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).