“The Blessings of Providence on an Association of Archivists”

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A few weeks ago, I gave you a glimpse of Frank Cook and the closing remarks he made at the 1982 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  This week, I’ll review the presidential address he delivered at the 1983 meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Cook served at the archives of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, first as assistant archivist (1965-1970) and then as director (beginning in 1971).  His address was published in the Fall 1983 issue of the American Archivist.

Cook chose to focus on the history of SAA from its founding to the appointment of the first paid executive director.  Some of what he described has been incorporated into my prior posts about the presidential addresses, so I will relay here the new and different interpretations that he brought to bear.  Cook divided this time into three eras:

I. Growing Up in Depression and War, 1935-1945

Cook identified three events in the mid-1930s that contributed to the birth of the U.S. archival profession:

  1. 1934: establishment of the National Archives
  2. 1935-1937: Works Progress Administration funded surveys of federal, state, and local records
  3. 1935-1937: organization of SAA

The 1936 SAA constitution included this mission statement: “The objects of The
Society of American Archivists shall be to promote sound principles of archival economy and to facilitate cooperation among archivists and archival agencies” (376).  (Compare this to the 1993 version: “The Society of American Archivists serves the education and information needs of its members and provides leadership to help ensure the identification, preservation, and use of the nation’s historical record.”)

Cook explained that the early SAA had an identity crisis, not wanting to fall prey to the “imperialism” of librarians or historians while not having the fiscal strength to exist without their involvement.  While many at the time feared the over-influence of the National Archives, Cook argued that it played an “essential” role in the development of SAA, not a controlling one (377).  He went on to assert that SAA’s early success was dependent on the National Archives alongside state archivists.

Cook figured out that the first SAA presidential address was published in the American Historical Review.  He recounted this first address by Albert R. Newsome, who listed three objectives for the new SAA:

  1. help archivists solve complex problems and standardize archival processes and information
  2. improve relationships between archivists and agencies, learned societies, and the public
  3. develop training standards and procedures to professionalize archives work

Cook explained that the American Archivist, in its early years under the leadership of Theodore C. Pease, was structured as a scholarly journal.   Only when Margaret Cross Norton took over in 1945 did it become more of a trade publication emphasizing the practical and technical over the theoretical.

World War Two, of course, dominated everyone’s attention during most of the first decade of SAA’s existence.  Cook identified its influence on SAA through the various committees that were created, including the Committee on the Protection of Archives Against the Hazards of War and the Committee on the Emergency Transfer and Storage of Archives.  At the end of the war, the International Council on Archives was created, and SAA incorporated itself, declaring as the object of this new corporation the same mission as identified in 1936.

II. Coming of Age, 1946-1957

Cook identified a number of conflicts and tensions in this next era of SAA history:

  • state archivists vs. national archivists
  • internationalists vs. domestic-focused members
  • “pure archivists” vs. historical manuscript curators (381)
  • practical vs. theoretical

Although in the immediate aftermath of World War Two many SAA members sought to assist international archives that had been ravaged by the war, Cook contended that international concern waned in the 1950s.  Instead, the focus was on domestic affairs, with committees producing directories, bibliographies, and surveys.

The turf war with librarians reared its head again in 1956 when the National Association of State Libraries published a pamphlet asserting that “‘the preservation, administration, and servicing of the archives is a function of the State Library'” (382).  The meetings that were held in the aftermath eventually led to the creation of a joint American Library Association-SAA committee.  Relations with the American Association for State and Local History were more cordial, and a joint committee with SAA eventually recommended the creation of a union list of manuscript collections — what would become the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections.

Cook identified two significant national issues for SAA in the 1950s:

  1. independence for the National Archives
  2. expansion of the National Historical Publications Commission

As we’ve already discovered in prior weeks, the latter will happen more quickly than the former.

Cook also recounted the elections from this era.  For the first time, there were contested elections, first in 1949 and again in 1953.  He contended that the pushback arose from state archivists who wanted to maintain an influence among the mass of National Archives representatives, and he ultimately concluded that this tension was good for SAA.  He argued that “the National Archives did not abuse its position in the limelight.  Rather, it strove to serve the profession and the society by doing work that others could not do” (385).

Two additional changes occurred during this era:

  1. The Professional Standards and Training Committee recommended the creation of Fellows of the SAA, and this was accomplished by a 1957 constitutional amendment.
  2. In 1957, membership topped 1,000 for the first time — 648 individual members, 100 institutional members, and 347 subscribers.

III. The Professionalization of the Association, 1958-1974

Factions dominated concerns in the 1960s, with archivists having a hard time co-existing with:

  • records managers
  • oral historians and librarians
  • themselves — resulting in the formation of separate groups based on region and/or specialization

As in the 1950s, international archival matters garnered little attention in the 1960s and 1970s.  The same domestic concerns also carried over, with no traction on an independent National Archives but with success in 1974 with the reestablishment of the National Historical Publications Commission as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission — thus giving it “additional funding to support records preservation and description projects as well as the traditional editorial projects” (391).  Cook also identified the Loewenheim case as a concern that, while somewhat tarnishing the image of archivists, ultimately led to improved relations with historians.  (This is the episode involving a researcher at the FDR Presidential Library to which Herman Kahn made opaque reference in his 1970 presidential address.)

While the National Archives held considerable sway during the first eras, Cook asserted that state archivists were dominant in this third era, with six of the sixteen presidents from 1958-1974 coming from state archives.  Yet this influence began to dwindle in the 1970s as the membership of SAA shifted — while state archivists remained static, for obvious reasons, there was dramatic growth among other archivists:

  • colleges and universities
  • religious archives
  • business archives

Cook spent much time recounting the debates already identified in previous posts regarding professional education and derelict committees.  He argued that the influence of activism and democratization in the 1960s led to the creation of the Committee for the 1970s.  Of course, one of the crowning accomplishments of this era was the hiring in July 1974 of the first paid executive director for SAA.  In reflecting on the challenge of this era to professionalize archival work, Cook focused on the positives:

“We have met this challenge, not perfectly and in many ways not adequately; but our profession has an association in which we can take much pride, not only in its past accomplishments, but also in the sure and certain hope of future contributions” (399).


“Archives and the Challenges of Change”

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Here’s the actual presidential address from the 1982 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) that was held in Boston, Massachusetts.  Edward Weldon worked for many years for the National Archives and also served as the State Archivist of New York (1975-1980) and the Director of the Georgia Department of Archives and History (1982-2000).  His address was published in the Spring 1983 issue of the American Archivist.

Weldon acknowledged that archivists are reticent to embrace change:

“We are a conservative lot, as we should be; but in the occupational concern with gaining stability and control, we often forget that the most constant condition in our lives is change” (126).

So he focused on three changes affecting archivists:

  1. The baby boom generation was creating more records as well as more users.  The social change of this era created a glut of paperwork — especially case files that document education, military service, employment, pensions, medical care, and criminal cases.  Weldon went into great detail about the demographics of U.S. society, describing it as an “aging, increasingly female, better-educated population” (128).  He suggested these characteristics could possibly influence archives in numerous ways:
    • greater interest in continuing education would lead people to archives for primary source materials
    • higher incidence of divorce and adoption would produce more court records
    • greater mobility of the U.S. population might lead to more research into genetic/health histories
    • greater emphasis on privacy
  2. Government was changing — both in its structure and in people’s attitudes towards it.  Weldon was unequivocal in asserting that “Records, and ultimately that portion of them of lasting value, are like government: of, by, and for the people” (128).  He pointed to the creation of “new quasi-governmental,
    multi-jurisdictional arrangements designed to accommodate regional
    needs” — such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (129).  He also identified an increasing practice of municipalities to sell tax write-offs to private investors (aka “safe harbor” tax leasing schemes).  And although outsourcing wasn’t a 1980s term, Weldon acknowledged that governments were increasingly contacting with private vendors to provide public services.  He asserted that these changes in governmental structure were making it more difficult to gather and access the public record.
  3. The “electronic information revolution” was changing how information was created and shared.  Weldon advocated for early archival intervention in the record creation process and hoped dealing with this change could help bring archivists, records managers, and library and information specialists back together.

Weldon identified several primary challenges for archivists:

  1. Archivists “need to adjust our principles, practices, and language to changed circumstances, modifying old habits of mind to fit new realities” (126).
  2. With archives also embracing the outsourcing principle, Weldon suggested a growing challenge for archivists would be “the psychic one of finding job satisfaction in solving the new archival management problems rather than in dealing first-hand with researchers or historical materials” (130).
  3. The changing nature of society and work in the United States was making the job of appraisal increasingly difficult: “To select and preserve that tiny portion of the record that will accurately convey to succeeding generations this complex, pluralistic, changing world is an obligation and indeed a challenge to us” (130).
  4. The shift from an industrial to a service economy was making it at the same time more difficult and more imperative for archives to relate “in specific, measurable terms the costs and the benefits of archival decisions, activities, and services” (131).

Weldon included a synopsis of some of the relevant literature that was addressing these changes as well as identifications of some of the SAA committees and task forces alongside other groups that were trying to do their part.  He concluded with a challenge of his own:

“We archivists have to be historians in our own time. . . .  We are always reminding researchers that the past is prologue and that if they do not consult archives, their view of the past will be blurred.  It would be ironic indeed if archivists did not heed our own cliché and try to discover the larger context in which records today are being created and in which our principles and practices are shaped” (134).

“A Time to Take Stock”

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For some reason, the online portal of the American Archivist labels the closing remarks that J. Frank Cook delivered at the 1982 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) as a presidential address.  Being accustomed to finding these presidential addresses published in the subsequent fall or winter issue, I set about reading and summarizing the article by Cook in the Winter 1983 issue, assuming that Edward Weldon had not delivered the customary presidential address at the end of his 1981-1982 term in office.  Only after completing this task did I realize that in the Spring 1983 issue, Weldon’s speech is published.  So enjoy this extra post, and come back next time to hear from Weldon.

Cook served at the archives of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, first as assistant archivist (1965-1970) and then as director (beginning in 1971).  As a means of reflecting on his performance, Cook listed the six pledges he made upon his nomination as vice president of SAA and commented on his accomplishments within the preceding year:

  1. strong appointments — necessary to depend more heavily on volunteers due to budget cuts, so it was vital to select great people
  2. certification — advocated for it for archivists, for education and training programs, and for repositories, but recognized that “the trend is away from certification because of the financial burden in these hard times, opposition to additional regulations, and the possibility of professional associations being charged with restraint of trade by someone denied certification” (10).
  3. politically independent, well-funded National Archives and Records Service (NARA would become independent of the General Services Administration in 1985)
  4. electronic records — pledged to assist “efforts to collect, preserve, and access the records created by technologically innovative information systems” (10).
  5. publish proceedings of the Annual Meeting — I can’t find evidence that this ever happened
  6. hold more annual meetings on college campuses — the 1981 annual meeting had been held at Berkeley, and that was the last time a meeting was held on a college campus

The remainder of Cook’s remarks were organized around three Ps:

  • Planning
  • Professional Associations
  • Professional Affinity Groups (PAGs)

Planning: Cook appointed a Task Force on Goals and Priorities for the Archival Profession, which was given this mission statement:

“To identify, analyze, and report to the Society of American Archivists and the archival profession on major archival needs and the relationships and relative priority of these needs and to suggest how these needs might best be addressed in a coordinated fashion” (11).

He emphasized there needed to be greater cooperation among archivists as well as with clients, records creators, and “those who are inventing the innovative systems in which the records are being stored and accessed” (11).  Cook also asserted that archival theory needed to be adapted “to fit all the myriad forms in which the stuff of history is being cast and all the manifold ways our society goes about obtaining access to its history” (11).  He listed two possibilities to address concerns for the future:

  1. Committee on Education and Professional Development was investigating the development of an archival institute to handle professional training
  2. better coordinated advocacy among archival and other related professional groups

Professional Associations: Cook contended that SAA needed closer relationships with other related professional associations — such as the National Association of State Archives and Records Administrators.  The best I can tell, the first time SAA held a joint meeting with the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators and the Council of State Archivists was in 2006 (and again in 2010, 2013, and 2014).

Professional Affinity Groups: There had been discussion about disbanding PAGs in favor of committees or sections, a problem Cook summarized as follows:

“we simply have too many committees, task forces, liaison groups, and PAGs for efficient management by Council” (13).

But Cook pledged to keep working to make the PAG system effective.  He did emphasize the importance of having PAGs actually accomplish rather than merely exist, and he explained that the SAA Council would be dividing itself into three sub-committees to streamline reporting procedures:

  1. PAGs
  2. task forces
  3. standing committees and representatives

For the modern connection, you can check out the recently proposed changes to SAA affinity groups.

“Education for American Archivists: A View from the Trenches”

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Ruth W. Helmuth delivered her presidential address in September 1981 at the 45th annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held at the University of California-Berkeley.  Her address was published in the Fall 1981 issue of the American Archivist.  She founded the archives at Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and served as university archivist until her retirement in 1985.  She devoted much time to developing formal training for archivists in both degree and post-graduate instruction.

Helmuth chose to focus her presidential address on archival education, addressing the basic problem: “what is the most appropriate education now available to American archivists?” (295).  She incorporated the viewpoints of both the teaching archivist and the SAA Committee on Education and Professional Development.  She specified, “My primary interest is not in the ideal, but in the possible; my intent is not to lament our failures, but to contemplate our successes, however modest” (295).  She considered three types of professional archival training:

  1. short-term, non-credit
  2. post-appointment, in-service
  3. pre-appointment, graduate education

For her purposes, Helmuth defined an archivist/manuscript curator as:

“a responsible custodian of original source materials, whose work involves the acquisition, appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, and reference use of such materials of all kinds, and concern with the whole cycle of records creation and disposal” (295-96).

Helmuth suggested that the diversity of American archivists (i.e., working in various sorts of repositories) complicated decisions about archival education  with considerations that are not significant in Europe.  She also explained that the National Archives’ preference for post-appointment training shaped the offerings of and expectations for archival education.

Helmuth contended, “good archivists are born, not made” (298).  She went on to list the attributes she considered vital for good archivists:

  • intelligence
  • “need to bring order out of chaos”
  • “ability to scan rapidly and accurately”
  • “concern for people and ease in dealing with them”
  • “inspire trust”
  • imagination
  • creativity

Helmuth proposed that archivists need a general cultural background — mostly related to the research process and good writing skills.  She also listed specifics that need to be taught:

  • archival theory
  • conservation
  • law
  • administration
  • management
  • computers
  • information transfer
  • classification
  • indexing
  • reprography (e.g., microfilming, offset printing, etc.)

Most importantly, she asserted the necessity of a practicum to prepare new archivists.

Helmuth explained that the SAA had been interested in archival education since the report of the Committee for the 1970s, leading to the issuance of archival education guidelines in 1977.  (These original guidelines were revised in 1988 and 1994; see also the proceedings from a 1977 session on Professional Archival Training.  In 2002, the “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies” were approved and subsequently updated in 2005 and 2011.)  These guidelines focused on pre-appointment, graduate level training and included three significant elements:

  1. elements of archival theory
  2. practicum standards
  3. instructor qualifications

Regarding instructors, Helmuth contended they should be practitioners:

“In the health sciences, all of the faculty outside of the laboratory have clinical appointments.  The understanding is that their teaching is more useful and more vital because they are at the same time practitioners of their art” (301).

Although she acknowledged the value of creating tenure-track positions for archival educators, she also listed Dolores Renze at Denver, Gerry Ham at Wisconsin, and Phil Mason at Wayne State as archival instructors who could not easily be replaced by non-practitioners:

“there are some special values we will lose as we grow away from this period of the personal influence of archivists of recognized stature and competence who have  been willing to exert themselves in behalf of their students and the profession
generally” (302).

She went on to state unequivocally — and indeed to identify as her motto — “‘Archivists should teach archivists'” (302).  As further explanation, she suggested,

“The essential element of the archival art or craft is judgment; seldom is there only one obvious solution for any problem, and the skillful teacher illuminates the various possibilities and discriminates among them” (302).

She concluded, “We are a first-choice profession, and our education programs should be designed to assure that fact.  And if education is to be a successful instrument of policy for this profession, all archivists will have to be actively concerned with it” (302).