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.

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