“The Society of American Archivists at the Crossroads”

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Philip P. Mason delivered his presidential address at the 1971 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in San Francisco, California.  His address was published in the January 1972 issue of the American Archivist.  In 1960, Mason became the founding director of the Archives of Labor History at Wayne State University, which was renamed the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs in 1975.  Mason also oversaw the establishment of the University Archives in 1958 and began an archival administration degree program at Wayne State University in 1961.

Mason mentioned that he read through SAA presidential addresses of the previous 20 years in order to choose his theme, and his title leaves little room for misinterpretation.  Where prior presidents had hinted at disagreement and dissension among the ranks, he point blank acknowledged the complaints of members.  At the same time, Mason also asserted that SAA had undergone positive changes in the previous 10 years, including:

  • a doubling in membership
  • a more “responsive, efficient, and productive” committee system (6)
  • an expanded annual meeting
  • increased studies and publications
  • development of training programs

Yet Mason also recognized there were demands from the SAA membership for more improvement, such as:

  • more services
  • “new and innovative programs” (7)
  • more ways for members to get involved in SAA

He mentioned one source of his information as the SAA membership survey (a successor to the study done by Ernst Posner; this one was summarized by Frank Evans and Robert Warner in the April 1971 issue of the American Archivist).  He reported these critiques of SAA by its members:

“The common complaint was that the Society did not meet the professional needs of its members; that its programs were aimed at the larger archival institutions; that the Society’s publication program was inadequate; and that the functions of the governing body of the Society, notably the designation of awards recipients, Fellows, and many committee assignments, were controlled by a small clique of members representing only the larger archival institutions” (9).

Mason listed several tasks he believed SAA needed to accomplish:

  1. inventory archival materials in the U.S. and Canada — in order to determine gaps in these collections
  2. emphasize the preservation of “contemporary public records,” especially at the local level (8)

The contemporary movements for civil rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights undoubtedly influenced his fixation on collection policies, in an attempt to preserve records of these movements while they still survived.  As for solving the more internal problems of SAA, Mason focused on one particular suggestion that had been received by the Committee for the 1970’s — creating a full-time paid position of SAA executive director.  (Keep in mind, this suggestion had been in the mix at least since 1963, when Leon deValinger proposed it in his presidential address.)  He spent quite a bit of time explaining why volunteer work was not sufficient and why nesting the position within an archival institution was problematic.  This goal was finally accomplished in 1974.

If the turmoils and infighting of the 1960s and 1970s are getting old, come back next week for a review of the address entitled “The Joys of Being an Archivist.”

“Some Comments on the Archival Vocation”

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Herman Kahn delivered his presidential address at the 1970 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Washington, D.C.  His address was published in the January 1971 issue of the American Archivist.  Kahn began working at the National Archives in 1936, leaving in 1968 to be the assistant librarian for Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University for the last seven years of his life.  Part of his time under the umbrella of the National Archives (1948-1961) was spent as the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.  Some of his papers are held at the FDR Library, and some are held at Yale.

Kahn explained that the focus for his address came from concerns repeatedly raised by fellow archivists as he traveled during the course of his presidency:

  • What is the status of the archival profession?
  • What is the relationship of archivists to other professionals?
  • What is (or should be) the future of archival work?

To answer the question about the status of the archival profession, Kahn pointed out that “almost every archivist has a divided heart,” with many identifying themselves in part or in whole as another sort of professional, be it a historian, librarian, educator, information retrieval specialist, etc. (4).  He suggested this concern about what defines a qualified archivist largely resulted from the introduction of SAA’s Placement Newsletter, which published archival vacancies, thereby demonstrating the conundrum for institutions to determine which applicants were qualified for an open position.  To resolve some of these questions, Kahn reported that SAA was undertaking a study of archival training that would include a survey of existing formal archival training as well as preparation of formal recommendations regarding the training of professional archivists.  (A report of this survey by the SAA Education and Training Committee was published in July 1972.)

Kahn’s own experiences and training greatly influenced the text of this address, though not all of that is evident from the text itself.  An address he delivered at the 1974 SAA annual meeting provided this context, and here’s the synopsis — he considered himself part of the self-taught first generation of American archivists.  These early archivists were largely trained as historians and learned the particulars of archival work on the job, not in a classroom.  This background helps to explain the apparent disdain that Kahn evidenced for the “how-to-do-it courses” that comprised archival training in 1970 (6).  He asserted,

“it is not archival training and experience alone or even primarily that makes a professional archivist . . .  most of the truly professional training of an archivist comes before he is given any specifically archival training” (7)

Instead, an understanding of scholarship, research, sources, and records was gained during an in-depth learning of history or a related subject.  To sum it up,

cultural training + practical “craftsman’s skills” = a professional archivist.

In order to demonstrate that the practical skills alone did not make a professional, Kahn pointed to the legal profession, which had recently determined that a law degree was necessary in order to be admitted to the bar.  Kahn followed with several suggestions of how archivists could further their cause of being seen as professionals:

  1. Act like it.  Kahn provided several examples where archivists handed over authority to other professionals or were overlooked for input because they did not present themselves as valuable contributors.  He made a veiled reference to the investigation by the American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians of improper conduct by archivists — without involving archivists in this investigation.  Of course, what audience members in 1970 would have known it that this case involved the FDR Library and Kahn directly.  (You can read the summary of the joint report along with Kahn’s analysis in the July 1971 issue of the American Archivist.  The report had already been released by the time of the SAA annual meeting in Washington, D.C.)
  2. Demonstrate interest in “the larger aspects of the role that recordmaking, recordkeeping, and recordusing plays in our society” (10).  As examples of controversial occurrences about which archivists should be speaking, Kahn pointed to the IRS trying to get circulation records from public libraries.  He also noted the privacy concerns arising from the information being accumulated both by the government and private industry.  (These comments could just as easily have been written post-September 11th.  But more to the time, I find myself wanting to warn Kahn about soon-to-be-revealed issues with the Nixon administration and information control.)
  3. Speak out about public policy issues relating to records and manuscripts.
  4. Show some concern about the quality of records being captured and what that means for researchers.

Kahn concluded his address with a story of how 20 years earlier SAA had applied for membership in the American Council of Learned Societies — and been rejected as one of the “‘custodial professions'” rather than a learned profession (12).  He expressed hope that his suggestions regarding training and education would lead the profession down the right path.  Lastly, Kahn acknowledged that “great ferment, debate, and critical questioning” that had been plaguing SAA for several years (12).  After many years of conflict in the 1950s over who should be a part of SAA, now Kahn reported there was disagreement about the priorities and work of the SAA — though in his analysis these disagreements were positive signs of “a healthy, vigorous organization” (12).

As someone who trained and practiced as a historian before becoming an archivist, I can appreciate much of Kahn’s analysis about the appropriate training for archivists.  In many ways, he hearkened back to Newsome’s 1939 address.  Yet given the state of archival hiring in 2015, I doubt his speech would engender much support today.  (Look back at my “Payday” post for some information about the paucity of available archival positions, not to mention well-paying ones.)  While I agree that a strong grounding in the philosophy and history of a profession are invaluable, in the process of interviewing for positions, no one was interested in whether I could talk intelligibly about Jenkinson and Schellenberg — they just wanted to know about my experience in generating finding aids and managing records.  It’s well above my pay grade to understand whether this represents a pendulum swing in professional priorities or is merely a reflection of the glut of degreed candidates who apply for every open position, but unless archival institutions embrace the importance of these philosophical underpinnings for their employees, I predict archival education programs will become entirely focused on “craftsman’s skills.”

As for Kahn’s push for advocacy, I think the modern SAA has embraced that calling.  Whether with simple things like Archives Month that increases public exposure or lobbying for (or against) legislation, I think SAA has demonstrated a commitment to engagement in public policy.

“The Archivist and Service”

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Clifford K. Shipton delivered his presidential address at the October 1968 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Ottawa, Canada.  This was the first time the SAA annual meeting was held outside the United States.  His address was published in the January 1969 issue of the American Archivist.  Shipton was Custodian of the Harvard University Archives from 1938-1969 as well as editor of the Sibley Publications of the Massachusetts Historical Society for many decades (authoring such works as Sibley’s Harvard Graduates) and Librarian and Director of the American Antiquarian Society from 1940-1967.

Given my personal interest in delving into how access is provided to archival holdings, I was intrigued by the title of Shipton’s address.  He began with an analysis of the obligation of archivists to secure and make available records needed by historians.  He also compared the relative speed with which American archives usually provided service to researchers, as opposed to the slowness of European archives.  According to this address, providing service to archival materials in this era primarily meant producing microfilm — at a cost of $50 a reel! (an amount that would have the buying power of $346.33 in 2015, according to an inflation calculator).

Shipton went on to recount the mistakes and inefficiencies of many microfilm departments in archives, estimating that about a third of the thousands of reels of microfilm he ordered over the years had to be destroyed due to a variety of problems:

  • duplicated orders because an original order was lost, but after Shipton submitted a new order, the original order was then found and also filled
  • incorrect materials filmed because the institution substituted the closest related item for the “ghost” (i.e., item believed to be but not actually held in the collection) requested by Shipton (7)
  • carelessness by camera operators
  • filming more materials than specifically requested by Shipton

Shipton did not have much to offer in the way of solutions for these inefficiencies.  He acknowledged that it would be untenable to charge researchers more for the service, which would be necessary if quality assurance were to be carried out.  Ultimately, he suggested the camera operators needed to be more attentive to detail.  He also proposed a method of tracking orders within the archive.

 

The 1969 SAA annual meeting took place in Madison, Wisconsin, but president H.G. Jones did not deliver a standard presidential address, so next week I will review the presidential address delivered by Herman Kahn at the 1970 SAA annual meeting.  According to the summation of the 1969 meeting in the January 1970 American Archivist, Jones explained why he had no formal address and “presented remarks that he characterized as a ‘family conversation around the dinner table’ for ‘soul-searching’ purposes” (73).

“Archival Janus: The Records Center”

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Herbert E. Angel delivered his presidential address at the 1967 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His address was published in the January 1968 issue of the American Archivist.  Angel had worked in the federal government since 1932 and was at the time of this address the Assistant Archivist for Federal Records Centers for the National Archives.  He went on to be Deputy Archivist for James B. Rhoads until his retirement in 1972 (and was apparently Acting Archivist of the U.S. for some period of time, because there is a July 1969 letter he signed over that designation).

Angel began his address with a brief etymology of the term archives, pointing back to the Greek word archeion, which carried the meaning of government house, and chronicling how the term has subsequently been applied to (5):

  • “records of a governmental agency”
  • “accumulated files”
  • the institution responsible for the accumulated files
  • the structure housing the accumulated files

Angel explained that the first records center was established in 1941.  The massive amount of records generated by World War Two necessitated the creation of such an organization, and Emmett J. Leahy and Robert H. Bahmer oversaw the endeavor.  Angel said that records centers were sometimes referred to as purgatories, while the British called them “limbo”; depot was another familiar (and less theologically-weighted) term.  Angel suggested that records centers were distinct from records storage depots in that they also provided most of the services found at an archives — “accessioning, preservation, arrangement and description, reference service, and disposal” (9).  At the same time, records centers also mimic many functions of the creating offices:

  • store records
  • “act as a sure memory, furnishing quick and accurate reference service from a huge data bank” (10)

Angel also identified as positive contributions the ability of records centers to advise on recordkeeping practices and to generate cost savings.  He compared records centers to blue chip stocks, “whose solid professional assests [sic] assure a steady income of security and service and a value that increases unfailingly through the years” (11).

Of the three parts of records management — creation, maintenance, disposition — Angel posited that records centers focus on disposition first, as the foundation for making progress in the creation and maintenance of records.  He then explained that there are three steps in the cycle of developing records centers:

  1. reluctance to condone their creation
  2. acceptance of their existence and apparent good work
  3. overreliance (i.e., when “some official, convinced that the archivist is gullible, attempts to foist off on that unsuspecting individual active records that are in daily use, perhaps even the official’s central files” (11)

Angel recognized that records centers are looking both forward and backward and suggested Janus as the patron of records centers, “not because they are two faced or have two heads, but because they face in two directions: toward the offices from which the records come and toward the archives or the wastepaper dealer to which the records eventually go” (5).  He concluded by challenging the apparent death knell of records centers, correctly predicting that records centers would not be replaced by “microfilm, computer, or some other form of miniaturization” and instead would continue “providing a documentation door at which the past and the future can meet” (12).