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.