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are not as important as a collective medium of accountability, memory, and culture as they are for any message of historical content found in their holdings” (279).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).