“Academic Archives: Überlieferungsbildung”

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Maynard Brichford delivered his presidential address at the 44th annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Cincinnati, Ohio.  His address was published in the Fall 1980 issue of the American Archivist.  Brichford worked at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the Illinois State Archives, and the Wisconsin Department of Administration before becoming archivist at the University of Illinois in 1963.  He also taught at the Graduate School of Library Science at the Urbana-Champaign campus from 1967 until his retirement.  His papers are housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Brichford opened with the premise that “Archives — repositories and documents — and the archivists who are responsible for them draw their identity from the institutions they serve” (449).  Along these lines, he argued that academic archivists carry the responsibility for Überlieferungsbildung (the handing down of culture or civilization).  He spent some time chronicling the history of institutions of higher learning in both Europe and America.  He also cited a 1964 speech by Adlai Stevenson, “The Centrality of Education,” in which Stevenson tied together universities and democracy:

“‘the educational ambition which gave this democracy, from its inception, the noble vision of learning as a part of citizenship and the school as the instrument of liberty'” (453).

Brichford added his own analysis of the value of universities in general and academic archives in particular:

“It has taught us to study the past, keep a selection of the present and be concerned about the future.  In academic archives it teaches us to document innovation, dissent, and the transmission of culture” (453).

While some institutions such as Harvard established an archives before the 20th century, most universities started down the path of academic archives in the mid-2oth century.  Brichford pointed to the 1964 session of the Allerton Park Institute, which focused on university archives, as key to advancing this movement.  (The presenters included several SAA presidents — Oliver W. Holmes and Clifford K. Shipton, along with Brichford.  The proceedings are available from the Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship.)

Brichford both listed the typical contents of academic archives — “publications, official records, personal papers, and organizational records” — as well as the customary contents of these archives:

  • academic attainment
  • administrative actions and proceedings
  • course descriptions and materials
  • research under contracts and grants
  • academic events
  • social activities
  • housing
  • arts
  • athletics (455)

He specified that in an academic environment, accountability rests on having access to records that document how policies were formed and how monies were spent.  He defined the core of an academic archives as:

“trustees’ reports, audit and financial reports, catalogs, student newspapers and yearbooks, alumni directories and files, staff and student telephone directories, college and departmental annual reports and newsletters, published histories, a photograph file, and the correspondence and subject files of the chief administrative officer” (456).

Brichford acknowledged the significance of users of academic archives and suggested that in addition to housing university-generated records, universities have sought to collect “historical and literary archives and manuscripts collections” as a means of attracting researchers (455).  He also assigned archivists the task of citizenship education, instructing “students in the careful examination of documentary evidence and consideration of all viewpoints.  By the zealous preservation of the record of society’s successes and failures, the archivist permits an understanding and identification with the past, through which we come to appreciate continuity and change and can welcome the future” (458).

Brichford asserted that universities serve as “a counterpoise to the government’s tendency to monopolize documentary and financial power” (460).  In conclusion, he challenged archivists to embrace change and the future:

“As archivists, we are primarily concerned with the future.  The present is the context of our work.  Our heritage from the past is our special charge, but we should not worship it.  The successful resolution of contemporary problems requires a concept of a dynamic society.  We will all succeed to the extent that we can welcome change” (460).


P.S.  In researching Brichford’s biography, I came across an interesting 1988 article he wrote in reflection on Ernst Posner‘s 1956 SAA presidential address.


“Documentary Art and the Role of the Archivist”

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Following on the path set by his predecessor Walter Rundell, Hugh Taylor also crafted a presidential address unlike most delivered to the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  Taylor was an archivist in England from 1950-1965 and then moved to Canada, where he served as provincial archivist for three different provinces and also served as director of the Archives Branch of what is now the National Archives of Canada.  He concluded his career as a consulting archivist.  In the 2005 obituary published in Archivaria, Terry Cook provided this description of the influence of Taylor:

“While previous leaders of the Public Archives from Arthur Doughty to Kaye Lamb, as well as Hugh’s then boss, Wilfred Smith, had identified the importance of non-textual media as part of a ‘total archives’, Hugh brought to total archives at the PAC the enthusiasm of a mid-career reawakening from his discovery of [Marshall] McLuhan and his own fascination with the visuality of Canadian archival holdings” (278).

This quote provides some context for the presidential address that Taylor delivered, but Cook also created a broader window into the influence of Taylor on the archival profession, explaining that he “would ask whether archives are not as important as a collective medium of accountability, memory, and culture as they are for any message of historical content found in their holdings” (279).  With apologies for the long quotation, let me share with you a little more of this eloquent and poignant description of Taylor’s influence:

“Hugh made us move from pragmatic questions of ‘how to’ and ‘how much’ to deeper questions of ‘why’ and ‘for what purposes.’  Hugh addressed the relationship of archives to various recording media, information technologies, the history of record-keeping, post-graduate education, and the world’s broader philosophical and societal trends, all while linking the archival endeavour to the earth’s ecological systems and Aboriginal cultures, the threatening tyrannies of technology and bureaucracy alike, and, always, the quest for human spirituality.  Before Hugh, no one addressed these issues in the depth he advocated and practised; now, after Hugh, a significant and growing international discourse in archival circles does just that, reflecting sometimes explicitly and consciously in footnoted references, sometimes implicitly and by osmosis, his vast influence in imagining archives anew.

     Hugh has argued that archives, archivists, and archiving are fundamentally
important because they meet society’s abiding need for remembering and forgetting, for connection and continuity – quite aside from the value of the content found in archival records by legions of researchers.  As a profession, we
owe much to Hugh’s celebration of our humanist role as remembrancers, stretching as he fondly remarked from medieval orality to archives without walls in a networked world.  We owe much, too, that he looked well outside the insular archival cloisters, drawing inspiration for his writing from wide reading in many disciplines, and showing us – demanding of us – that archives and archivists must face outward to the worlds they serve, not inward to their professional and personal squabbles” (280-81).

With that extensive biographical and professional context in place, let me return to the 1979 presidential address that was delivered at the 43rd annual meeting of SAA in Chicago, Illinois.  Taylor established the importance of art as a form of documentation by pointing out that “the first statements to survive the sound of a voice were pictures, not words” (418).  Yet he suggested that texts and images began to be perceived differently during the Renaissance, with images no longer being regarded as documents in the same way that books and letters and diaries were regarded.

Taylor acknowledged that non-textual material does not neatly follow traditional archival principles such as series and original order.  Yet he contended that pictures still convey statements just as paragraphs do, citing the contemporary work Ways of Seeing by John Berger to underscore, “‘No other kind of relic or text from the past can offer such a direct testimony about the world which surrounded other people at other times.  In this respect, images are more precise and richer than literature'” (420).

Taylor recognized that using the term documentary art carried with it some baggage, so he attempted to define art in the archival realm, explaining that rather than works of art, he was focusing on “the product of a craftsman who has learnt the business as professional or amateur painter, much as fine writing was learnt from the writing master” (421).  He then endeavored to apply archival principles to drawings and paintings, looking at authenticity and evidential/informational value.  More pointedly, Taylor compared how art is created as opposed to prose:

“Whereas prose is created serially, artists put together their information organically as they build up their compositions.  If one substitutes for brush strokes pieces of information on paper, this is also how the documents of an organization accumulate in their groups, series, and subseries, like the secretions of an organism growing more complex and richer in information with the passage of time.  We are trained to recognize this pattern of growth, and we should perhaps look at paintings in this manner, as we identify the various elements and their interrelationships to achieve certain effects, in much the same way as our institutions are, or should be, designed to perform a function and leave their paperwork in a configuration which reflects this function” (423).

Taylor acknowledged this line of thinking put archivists in an uncomfortable position of trying to differentiate art from documentary record.  He suggested genre paintings should probably fall outside the realm of archivists, and he proposed strong relationships with art curators and historians to help educate archivists.  He also singled out commissioned war art — typically considered propaganda — to be a valuable element of the archival record.  He asserted, “We archivists should spend more time looking at pictures if we are to become what we behold and grasp the true nature of record in all its richness of form, substance, and texture” (427).

Taylor included some questions that had been previously posed to the Association of Canadian Archivists by Barrington Nevitt, a management consultant and colleague of Marshall McLuhan:

  • “Has the archivist as communicator yet learned to anticipate the effects of media on his publics?”
  • “Has the archivist as art critic yet learned to recognize the ‘text’ which evokes the context of their times—what to keep and what to destroy?” (428)

Taylor made both implicit and explicit reference to digital records, and especially in that context, these questions are just as relevant today as they were in 1979.  Taylor concluded with a compelling comparison of archivists to shamans:

“The study of documentary iconography will not only help us extend our range, it may also enable us to develop the faculty of the artist to program effects and recognize new patterns within an information environment, where process and change have eroded old rules and verities.  Only then will we assume once more the role of shaman which the ancient keepers of records knew so well.  To perceive, by projection, the future patterns of our documentary galaxy, and to act in the light of this knowledge, must be our awesome task” (428).

“Photographs as Historical Evidence: Early Texas Oil”

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At the 1978 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Nashville, Tennessee, Walter Rundell, Jr. delivered a unique presidential address.  Perhaps this came from the fact that Rundell was the only non-archivist to be elected SAA president.  His career was as a university history professor, which frequently took him to archives to conduct research.  His obituary that ran in Spring 1983 issue of the American Archivist included several telling comments to explain the logic of having a historian as president:

“In his mind, if archivists regarded themselves only as technicians and took no scholarly interest in the records they kept, the result would be bad for archives, harmful for history, and in the end, would disserve society as a whole. . . . Walter’s great contribution to the archival profession was his work to break barriers that had grown up between archivists and historians, to encourage archivists to view their profession as one of learning, as well as technique, and to foster communication through the warmth and wisdom of his personality” (244).

His presidential address was published in the October 1978 issue of the American Archivist.  It included 14 photographs, so I wonder if there were slides to accompany the delivery of his address.

Having recently published Early Texas Oil, in which he incorporated extensive photographic evidence, Rundell focused his address on the use of photographs as historical evidence.  He began by tracing the development of photographs as records, with both archivists and historians being slow to recognize them as original sources.  He offered several reasons for a changed to this attitude:

  1. the work of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and the Office of War Information during World War II, creating a pictorial record of these eras in U.S. history
  2. the establishment of the Still Pictures Branch at the National Archives
  3. the publication of You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White (1937), and Let Us Not Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941) — which “pioneered in demonstrating that photographs, combined with illuminating and supportive texts, could explain human experience in ways that words alone could not” (374)

Rundell explained some considerations in using photographs as historical evidence:

  • “Photographs must be considered an integral part of the evidence, not just illustrations” (375).
  • photographs require captions for comprehensibility
  • photographic research must precede the writing of the text because it will necessarily shape the project
  • “knowledge of the terrain is especially important in photographic research, for it provides an understanding of the authenticity of photographs, as well as the erroneous labeling frequently encountered” (377)
  • research should begin at large repositories because small collections offer too narrow a perspective

Rundell then enumerated some questions that the photographic researcher should bring to a project:

  1. How does an individual photograph relate to the broader body of work on a given topic?
  2. What is the historical value of the photograph?  Are there “optical distortions” or “artistic vision” that were imposed on the photograph by the photographer?
  3. What is the pictorial quality of the image?
  4. How can the researcher narrow down the vast array of images available?  And at the same time, where are the unexpected places to look for relevant photographs in repositories with “unsystematic collection patterns” (390)?
  5. How can the researcher keep track of which photograph has been requested from which repository (because prints are often duplicated between archives)?
  6. How can photographs be reliably identified — because a researcher should take a “skeptical attitude” toward the information recorded by the photographer or the printer?

Rundell concluded with this analysis:

“After the advent of the camera, however, everyone could have a first- rather than second-hand impression of the world about him through photographs.  Quickly photographs became a common means of conveying experience; but scholars only slowly perceived their informational importance.  Surely no longer should reservations exist about the use of photographs as historical evidence.  The challenge now is to exploit them skillfully” (398).

“The Prologue Is Past”


Robert M. Warner delivered his presidential address to the 1977 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Salt Lake City, Utah.  His address was published in the January 1978 issue of the American Archivist.  Prior to serving as SAA president, Warner was the chair of the planning committee for the Gerald R. Ford Library, which is housed on the campus of the University of Michigan.  Knowing that he soon became the sixth Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), I find it amusing that the title of his address inverted the motto that appears beneath the statue representing the future that sits in front of the National Archives with the marker “What is Past is Prologue.”  Warner served as AOTUS from 1980-1985.  It was under Warner’s leadership that the National Archives was removed from the oversight of the General Services Administration and became an independent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  After his stint with NARA, Warner returned to the University of Michigan, finishing his distinguished career as the Dean of the School of Information.

Warner explained that he had two thoughts for the topic of his presidential address: archival professionalism and presidential libraries.  He chose to use the latter as a prism for reflecting on the former.  He provided a good deal of background on how the Michigan Historical Collections at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor came to house the papers of Gerald R. Ford.  One of the most informative elements in this commentary was his explanation for the paucity of materials from Ford’s early congressional service:

“His natural and genuine modesty and his refusal to recognize his own  self-importance all are characteristics that most of us admire, but in this case they had a serious negative effect on the archival record.  Until we suggested that he save his papers, Mr. Ford and his staff had regularly and systematically thrown them out every two years to make room for new material” (6).

The Michigan Historical Collections began their efforts to convince Ford to deposit his papers at their repository in 1964, and the success of this acquisition took on new importance when Ford was nominated to be Vice President in October 1973.  Meeting with Ford a few months after this event, Warner encouraged him “to create a record that would be useful for history beyond the formal paperwork that would go through his office” (8).  Of course, Ford went on to become President after Nixon’s resignation, so after he lost his re-election bid in 1976, a decision had to be made regarding the disposition of his presidential papers.  In December 1976, he signed an agreement with NARA that Warner described as precedent-setting on several fronts:

  1. Ford deeded the papers to the United States, which had never before been done by a sitting President.  (Of course, the 1978 Presidential Records Act would soon stipulate that presidential papers are publicly owned, so from Ronald Reagan to the present, this step has not been necessary.)  It does appear that his congressional papers he had earlier deposited at the Michigan Historical Collections also became a part of the presidential library collection.
  2. While Ford’s papers were deposited and his presidential library erected in Ann Arbor, Ford’s museum was built in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Warner asserted separation of the research and museum functions of a presidential library was useful “to insure that the archival facilities are located at sites which are sympathetic, complementary, and supportive of the kind of research activity that goes on in a vigorous archives” (12).
  3. The Ford Presidential Library has a close working relationship with its host institution, the University of Michigan.
  4. Warner explained there could have been a new precedent attempted by allowing the University of Michigan to control the presidential library, but instead, the agreement placed the library under NARA’s control.
  5. The University of Michigan held an advisory role that allowed them to influence the selection of a professional archivist to direct the presidential library.  Herein lies the connection to Warner’s other potential topic of archival professionalism, for he contended that choosing a professional archivist rather than a former staff member or government bureaucrat helped to professionalize the position.
  6. Perhaps the separation of the library from the museum facilitated this decision, but the construction of the library building was strongly guided by good archival practice.  Warner suggested that having these buildings be publicly funded could eliminate the monument aspects that creep into most presidential libraries, but this has not yet occurred.  (Instead, the 1986 Presidential Libraries Act requires private endowments to offset the costs of maintaining presidential libraries.)
  7. Whereas the Final Report of the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials recommended a 15-year period before papers were open to full access, the Ford library set a limit of 13 years.

Weighing in on one of the long-time topics of debate regarding presidential libraries, Warner sided with decentralization of these collections in separate facilities, arguing that it “allows for more innovation and experimentation” (13).  (For more analysis of this debate, see the paper I wrote on accessing records in presidential libraries.)

Warner suggested three ways in which presidential libraries could broaden their archival role:

  1. “Perhaps these institutions should take over more of the functions of the regional centers and acquire some of the materials being collected there by the National Archives, so they can serve as repositories for a wide variety of federal records instead of documents relating to only one particular presidential administration” (14).
  2. establish conservation centers that would service not only their own materials but also those of the surrounding region
  3. serve as “laboratories for the training of archivists not only in the federal system but beyond” (14)

Warner concluded his address by asserting that presidential libraries “will change and they must change if they are not to become expensive fossils of limited use to the research community and to the archival profession” (15).

“A Becoming Regard to Posterity”

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Elizabeth Hamer Kegan delivered her presidential address at the 1976 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Washington, D.C.  She held positions both at the National Archives and then at the Library of Congress where she applied her abilities in editing and in organizing exhibitions.  Her talents were prominently displayed with the Library’s American Revolution Bicentennial Program.  Her presidential address was published in the January 1977 issue of the American Archivist.  She died in March 1979.

Kegan’s presidential address was shaped by her commitment to collecting and publishing archival documents — as well as by the 1976 bicentennial celebration.  She commented extensively on the anecdotes and analyses of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.  And just as her husband had in SAA presidential address, she cited the letter from Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard in which he lent his support to the publication of records from the Revolutionary era.  (Her title also comes from Hazard.)  Echoing Hamer’s speech from 15 years earlier, Kegan credited the National Historical Publications Commission with “the renaissance of documentary historical publication” in the mid-20th century (9).  She highlighted the shortcomings of microfilm as compared to documentary publications, pointing out the need for targets, descriptive notes, and indexing in order for a reel to be useful — and with this amount of effort invested, the work might as well be published in an easier-to-read format.  She contended that the value of documentary publication projects lay in their efforts to amass information from a variety of sources, thereby creating “an entirely new resource for research” (10).  She also cited a letter written by Julian P. Boyd, the editor  of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, to Paul Smith, the editor of the Letters of Delegates to Congress, in which Boyd complimented Smith for his work in clarifying the sequence of events on July 4, 1776:

“‘Your discovery is an important one and adds one more proof to the growing accumulation that documentary editing can make contributions to knowledge that cannot be made by other means.  This, of course, does not come about merely because of the assemblage of large masses of records about a man or an institution.  It results from the obligation placed upon the editor to do something that a camera or a computer cannot do: to read, to understand, to probe for
the context, and to make all the necessary correlations'” (12).

Kegan looked at documentary publications as a means of providing greater access to archival materials.  In this context, she asserted that archivists have a duty to “encourage and influence the making and the keeping of an adequate record” (12).  With this in mind, she lamented the IRS tax code that did not provide adequate tax deductions to incentivize individuals to donate personal papers to archival institutions.  This consideration of private papers led her to comment on the situation with the Nixon tapes and papers — where her predecessors had sidestepped the issue, Kegan chronicled the succession of judicial and legislative actions that brought his presidential records under the control of the National Archives.  As a part of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, signed by President Ford in 1974, the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials was created to consider “the problems relating to the preservation and status, not only of the papers of Presidents but also those of cabinet members, other high-level appointees, as well as Members of Congress, and [make] recommendations to Congress for appropriate legislation” (13).  She listed a number of questions facing this new commission regarding the papers of public officials — especially determining when the papers are evidence of public business and when they are private papers.  The questions she raised about monitoring and disposition still have relevance today, especially given recent revelations about State Department emails.  She concluded, “only out of the complete record can truth and understanding emerge” (14).