“One Man’s Hopes for His Society, His Profession, His Country”

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James B. Rhoads delivered his presidential address at the 1975 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Rhoads began working at the National Archives in 1952 and held several positions before being appointed in 1968 as the fifth Archivist of the United States.  During his tenure, the National Archives began the publication Prologue, developed regional archives, and witnessed an exponential growth in interest in genealogical research.  “Bert” Rhoads passed away April 7, 2015.  His address was published in the January 1976 issue of the American Archivist.

Speaking in Philadelphia less than one year before the celebration of the Bicentennial of American independence, Rhoads spoke both about how archivists could contribute to this upcoming celebration and about issues and opportunities for the next century.  He turned first to his society — the SAA — and identified this as a time of transition, hope, and opportunity for the SAA.  The primary transition resulted from the hiring of the first executive director, a long-term goal finally realized.  He pointed to major grants SAA had been awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as vital opportunities.  He also pointed to upcoming opportunities with the joint SAA/International Congress on Archives meeting to take place in Washington, D.C. in 1976 and with the planned publications program for SAA.  He reiterated concerns about the need for a professional curriculum for archivists.  Rhoads acknowledged the problem of thefts of archival materials.  And he expressed hope that SAA members would embrace broader, more inclusive membership policies.  Along similar lines, he argued for expanded roles for women and minorities in the archival profession.

As for the archival profession more broadly, Rhoads pointed to the importance of emerging regional archival organizations.  He also identified the development of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission as a major opportunity for the archival realm — “to breathe new life into state and local government archives and nongovernmental manuscript collections” (8).  Within the context of the upcoming Bicentennial celebration, Rhoads asserted that archivists should try to entice younger patrons to use and learn from primary sources.  Although recognizing untrained hands should probably not be handling original documents, he made an impassioned plea for educating children about archives:

“I think we have an obligation to make certain that the schoolchildren of this country know that such records exist, that they know that what they read in their textbooks is based on an interpretation of those records, that if they suspect that they are being hoodwinked they know there is a court of recourse—not just the library, where they will find more secondary sources and interpretations—but the archives and manuscript repositories where they can track down the original thought, the original concept, that has been modified advertently and inadvertently by historians over the years” (8).

In remembering those who sacrificed during the American Revolution, Rhoads argued that for archivists, “Our responsibilities are, or should be, to the public—of our own community, of the state, or of the nation” (9).

As for his country, Rhoads delved into three items affecting access to public records.  Curiously, despite the Watergate hearings in 1973 and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 and the subsequent passage of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservations Act to retain his papers at the National Archives, there was not any direct reference to any of these in the SAA presidential addresses of the time.  The closest Rhoads came was an oblique comment about the “political travail of the past two years [that] depended so often on good records faithfully kept” (12).  Instead, he focused on:

  1. Executive Order 11652 was signed by Nixon in 1972 and provided for the declassification of national security information.
  2. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966, and now we get some acknowledgement of it in the annals of SAA presidential addresses.  Rhoads concluded, “It is just possible that the Freedom of Information Act amendments will come to serve as important leverage in securing better records management in the agencies, as well as a catalyst which will make both archivists and records managers more aware of their interdependence” (10).  However, he also cautioned against overuse of FOIA requests, suggesting that doing so would imperil the ability of NARA to have the time and staffing to fill ordinary research requests that were not given FOIA priority.
  3. The Privacy Act of 1974 restricted the “collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.”  While acknowledging that individuals have a right to privacy, Rhoads cautioned that this legislation could go too far — “there is a very real danger that vocal segments of the public will become so obsessed with the right of personal privacy that many records of great historical value, records which should indeed be closed for long periods of time to protect the rights of living persons, will be closed forever by law” (11).  When medical records from the Civil War are still being held in archives under restriction, I would say Rhoads was correct in his analysis.

Rhoads concluded by urging archivists to work with the Public Documents Commission.  He posed 13 questions that should be considered by the Commission, with recommendations then made to Congress.  His last sentences were a challenge to archivists: “Let us cease to look only inward at matters peculiar to our own profession, our own institutions, important though they are to us. Let us look outward and move forward, confidently, to meet the challenges that surely await us” (13).

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“The Archival Edge”

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Gerald Ham delivered his presidential address at the 1974 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Toronto.  From 1964 to 1989, he served as the State Archivist and the head of the Division of Archives and Manuscripts at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.  His address was published in the January 1975 issue of the American Archivist.

Ham explained his title at the end of his address.  He quoted a character from Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, who explained why he didn’t want to visit a psychiatrist by saying,

“‘He’d pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over.  Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center . . . .  Big, undreamed-of things — the people on the edge see them first” (13).

These “big, undreamed-of things” were what Ham wanted his listeners at SAA to consider, especially in the realm of archival appraisal.  He contended that dialogue about appraisal was occurring merely in a backward-looking, reporting style rather than as a forward-looking, prescriptive method of how to address gaps in archival collections.  At the outset of his address, Ham asserted, “Our most important and intellectually demanding task as archivists is to make an informed selection of information that will provide the future with a representative record of human experience in our time” (5).  He cited the arguments of Cornell University historian and archivist Gould P. Colman that acquisition guidelines were the only sure way to avoid the politicalization of the archival profession — “in the sense of ‘skewing the study of culture by the studied preservation of unrepresentative indicators of that culture'” (6).  Basically, Ham was suggesting that the haves got represented in archives while the have-nots did not.

Ham acknowledged that for those who saw archivists merely as custodians, nothing needed to be fixed.  He contended that embracing this custodial image had caused archivists not only to neglect acquisition policies but also to focus obsessively on the “craft aspects of our work” (7).  Although he never cited them directly, I certainly infer shades of the conversations about the professionalization of archival work that have dotted these presidential address over the years (see especially Herman Kahn).

Ham cautioned against depending on researchers to define what materials should be considered archival because their work is necessarily narrow while that of the archivist should be broadly focused on “all the history that needs to be written. . . .  If we cannot transcend these obstacles, then the archivist will remain at best nothing more than a weathervane moved by the changing winds of historiography”  (8).

Ham then identified five developments that he believed were pushing archivists away from the traditional custodial role into a more active and creative one:

  1. A “structural change in society” resulted from the institutionalization of decision-making and elevated the archives of “associations, pressure groups, protest organizations, and institutions of all sorts [to a place] relatively more important than the papers of individuals and families” (8).  But collecting these papers required archivists actively to seek them out and cultivate relationships with the records creators.
  2. The bulk of records being created was forcing archivists to be more selective about what materials were acquired.
  3. Ham cited historians Arthur Schlesinger and Sam Bass Warner for identifying the problem of missing data, which was requiring archivists to figure out how to complete the historical record that wasn’t being captured by traditional means — perhaps through oral history or photography or surveys to gather social and economic data.
  4. Ham dubbed vulnerable records “‘instant archives'” — “documentation that has little chance of aging into vintage archives, that is destroyed nearly as fast as it is created, and which must be quickly gathered before it is lost or scattered” (10).  As an example, he explained that the State Historical Society of Wisconsin had proactively collected materials from 1960s protest organizations.
  5. Technology changes so quickly that archivists must collect these materials almost immediately — or else risk their disappearance.

Ham followed up this list of developments with three responses by archivists to these changing conditions:

  1. Specialized archives can collect deeply and focus their staff expertise narrowly.  However, if these archives are established in a piecemeal fashion, they merely exacerbate the problems of acquisition policies.  Ham proposed that such specialized archives develop inter-institutional linkages to foster coordination.
  2. State archival networks that create coordination rather than competition.  Ham pointed to Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin as states developing this model that provided “not only a means to document society more systematically, but also to utilize better the limited resources of participating archival units” (11).
  3. An emerging model for urban documentation — Ham pointed to the Houston Metropolitan Archives Center and its collecting of public records, manuscript records, printed and non-text material, and oral history.

To conclude, Ham suggested four additional efforts/changes necessary for the archival field:

  1. “integrated cooperative programs” rather than the “idiosyncratic proprietary view of archives” (12)
  2. develop strategies for nationwide archival acquisitions policies — including elements of documentation, studies on data selection, and sampling of records
  3. spend less money documenting the documented — Ham also lauded the National Historical Publications and Records Act as a way to share archival revenue
  4. become a Renaissance man — rather than depending on others to determine what should be documented, archivists need to assume a leadership position

“But if he is passive, uninformed, with a limited view of what constitutes the archival record, the collections that he acquires will never hold up a mirror for mankind.  And if we are not holding up that mirror, if we are not helping people understand the world they live in, and if this is not what archives is all about, then I do not know what it is we are doing that is all that important” (13).

 May we continue to seek the big, undreamed-of things.

“Broad Horizons: Opportunities for Archivists”

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Wilfred I. Smith delivered his presidential address at the 1973 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in St. Louis, Missouri.  Smith was the Dominion Archivist of Canada from 1970 to 1984.  His address was published in the January 1974 issue of the American Archivist.

As a number of his predecessors had done, Smith reviewed the American Archivist as a means of gauging the history of SAA, and he identified a number of recurring themes:

  • desire for an SAA executive director
  • push for a comprehensive publications program
  • interest in developing SAA membership
  • focus on municipal archives
  • emphasis on regional associations
  • push for more effective SAA committees

But rather than viewing this as a negative indication of a static organization, Smith chose a more optimistic interpretation:

“Ours is a noble calling — the preservation of the original records of human experience — and it requires the full extent of our individual and collective resources and efforts if we are to fulfill our important responsibilities to past, present, and future generations” (4).

Smith went on to identify six opportunities for archivists:

  1. broader membership, including international members (who in 1973 comprised almost 20% of SAA rolls)
  2. learning how to handle diverse archival media and materials, including microfilm, machine-readable records, maps, plans, architectural drawings, audiovisual records, paintings, and film
  3. “Technological change imposes several responsibilities on the archivist: to keep aware of changes which have  an archival impact, to attempt to influence development in the interest of archives, and to adapt our procedures in confident utilization of new tools and information” (8).
  4. increasing utilization of archival materials via:
    • liberalization of access, including to public records
    • extending the range of users beyond traditional historians, including various ages of students
    • diffusion (i.e., documentary publication, microfilm distribution)
    • popularization among the general public through popular publications, exhibitions, and use of archival materials in television, film, and radio
  5. settling the debate over professionalization — “We will never settle such matters by academic discussion, and in fact the matter will not be resolved until we have reached the stage where we no longer need to discuss it” (11).  Smith pointed to the development of standards and of cooperation with other professions as key to reaching this stage.
  6. improving public relations, through better salesmanship, lobbying, and service for clientele and by encouraging the general public to realize the value of archives.  He asserted, “We deal with a precious commodity — information — and we must move towards integration with the main stream of society, instead of occupying an isolated position on its periphery” (13).

In the context of discussing increased utilization of archival materials, Smith identified several problems that might occur from increased utilization:

  • inadequate staffing to cover increased utilization
  • necessity of more security/protection of archival materials
  • need for better finding aids

Smith also acknowledge that some types of archives were being neglected:

  • municipal
  • sciences
  • business
  • urban
  • labour
  • artistic and cultural
  • “‘non-elite’ archives — records of ethnic groups, of average rather than distinguished individuals and of so-called anti-establishment groups and activities” (10)

In order to address this neglect, Smith suggested a national inventory along with an “active, comprehensive, and systematic acquisition program by every archives” (10).

Smith concluded with a challenge to his listeners:

“If we are to continue to be effective in the present and future, we must be alert,
informed, and adaptable, for we can expect major and accelerating change to be a normal aspect of our professional lives.  Each of us, in the great variety of institutions which we represent, should face the future with confidence and a determination to use all available means to extend the influence, area of service, and role in society of archives, to an extent that has not even been contemplated in the past” (14).

“Persons, Places, and Papers: The Joys of Being an Archivist”

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Charles E. Lee delivered his presidential address at the 1972 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Columbus, Ohio.  His address was published in the January 1973 issue of the American Archivist.  Lee served as the director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History from 1961-1987.

The Report of the Committee for the 1970’s had been published in April 1972, and Lee acknowledged the necessity of SAA setting these struggles aside to focus on the positive aspects of archival work.  (Lee’s response to this report is on pages 218-20 of the above citation.)  As indicated by his title, he grouped his joys of being an archivist into three categories:

  • persons
    • professional colleagues — Lee gave special shout-outs to Phil Hamer, Mary Bryan, H.G. Jones, and A.K. Johnson, Jr.  He also acknowledged three Archivists of the U.S. — Wayne Grover, Bob Bahmer, and James Rhoads.  His speech continued to mimic an awards acceptance speech as he named numerous other persons who had helped him.  My favorite anecdote is the advice he attributed to Ernst Posner, who said, “‘Economy of effort is a rule which must always be remembered, Charlie; with so very much to do you cannot afford to waste energy'” (8).  Lee also pointed to international colleagues who formed valuable friendships.
    • colleagues in government (e.g., governors, state legislators, governing commissions, etc.)
    • “customers” — Lee referred to patrons of the archives as “the persons for whom we put on the whole show” (11).  He singled out government officials, scholars, and genealogists as examples of archives’ users.
    • persons in the documents — “part of our joy certainly is getting to know persons no longer living, by perusal of the documents” (11)
  • places
    • “The plats and maps of which men have recorded their discovery of the land and their uses of it are surely among the greatest joys of an archivist . . .” (12).
    • other archives — “How good it is to go to other archives, to see other people doing the things you do, to feel smug when you think you are doing things better, to resolve to do better when you think you are being surpassed” (13).
  • papers
    • Lee recounted the “calm joy” and “satisfaction which comes of bringing order out of chaos, intelligibility out of confusion” (13).

Lee drew an interesting comparison between archivists and Martha from the Gospel stories, who made a name for herself because of her focus on accomplishing tasks.  In conclusion, he explained that the tasks of the archivist “have to do with capturing the word, with making it permanent if it has been a word worth saying, of making it fit into intelligible patterns with other words, so that different men in different eras and places may speak together and live together in a meaningful manner across the barriers of time and space” (14).