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).