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).