“Archival Education: Two Fables”

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Still no luck in finding the presidential address from the 1986 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), so I’ll proceed to the 1987 address delivered by William L. Joyce at the annual meeting in New York.  Joyce served as Curator of Manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society, Manuscripts Librarian at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan, Assistant Director for Rare Books and Manuscripts at the New York Public Library, and associate university librarian for rare books and special collections at Princeton University.  This address was published in the Winter/Spring 1988 issue of the American Archivist.

Joyce served on numerous task forces and committees related to archival education, so he was certainly well-versed in the topic.  He identified a number of signs indicating increased interest in professional education and identity for archivists:

  • numerous relevant sessions at SAA annual meetings
  • revised “Guidelines for Graduate Archival Education Programs”
  • SAA representation on accreditation teams evaluating graduate archival education programs
  • SAA’s development of “basic archival education packages” as well as specialized courses (18)
  • SAA’s funding for an education officer
  • development of a program of certification for archivists

As indicated by his title, Joyce incorporated two fables into his address.  The story of the Man and the Satyr was used to encourage archivists to be flexible in defining their identity rather than being like the confused satyr who couldn’t comprehend how the man’s breath could at one time warm his hands and another time cool his porridge.  More specifically, he argued that archivists could carve out an autonomous professional identity while also fulfilling the dual need of serving as “specialized practitioners” in the information community (19).  And the fable of the Lioness and the Vixen illustrated the value of consensus in crafting a “community of professional authority and competence” (18).  Joyce argued that this sense of community is vital to the continuation and growth of the archival field.

Joyce suggested that, in keeping with the work of Terry Eastwood, more emphasis on archival theory should help to strengthen the profession.  He pointed proudly to the life cycle model as a “uniquely American contribution to archival theory” (20).  He suggested integrating more of the work of social scientists and sociologists into archival work as a means of promoting the understanding of institutions and their functions — which he pointed out is very much in keeping with the “provenance-based approach to organizing information” (20).  He bemoaned the lack of emphasis on methodology, paleography, and diplomatics and asserted,

“Perhaps by reemphasizing the theoretical importance of the attributes of the record in its fullest historical context, we might redirect interest toward understanding the sources themselves” (21).

Joyce referenced Andrea Hinding’s ode to paper records in her 1984 greeting at the SAA annual meeting and warned archivists against “being unduly directed by the technological imperative” (21).  He suggested educational programs need to provide adequate coverage to all three eras of historical records:

  1. hand-produced documents
  2. mechanically-produced documents
  3. electronically-produced documents

In conclusion, Joyce identified “several pragmatic limitations to the vitality of our graduate archival education programs” (21):

  • enrollments must be small, therefore, faculty positions will be limited
  • archival educators are essential to these programs, but the modest number of such positions requires other archivists to also contribute to the archival literature
  • establishing standards and enforcement mechanisms will necessarily impact some existing archivists adversely — so Joyce advised that “we need to work diligently to ensure that the creation of a community of the competent does not destroy a community of diversity and deprive us of some of the differences in interest and perspective that have brought us vitality” (22)
  • every effort needs to be made to insure the graduates of archival education programs have the skills necessary to qualify for jobs — and that such jobs are actually available

Given that Jackie Dooley chose to focus her 2013 presidential address on the state of archival education and especially on the lives of young archival professionals, it would seem that Joyce’s final piece of advice was not fully heeded.  In my humble opinion, this has resulted from ignoring his first limitation and instead filling graduate programs with as  many paying customers as possible, irrespective of the availability of well-compensated jobs for qualified graduates.

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“Of Archivists and Other Termites”

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Persistence pays off – I finally found a version of Andrea Hinding’s presidential address from the 1985 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  She shared these ideas again at the 1989 annual meeting, and this article was published in the Winter 1993 issue of the American Archivist.

Hinding focused on illuminating the value of archival work.  She cited David Gracy’s work suggesting that “‘the cause of our inability to provide adequate care’ for the nation’s records lies in substantial measure in the lack of general awareness and understanding of them” (55).  She identified two common methods used by archivists to gain support:

  1. improve repositories and holdings
  2. improve archivists through education

Hinding paraphrased Richard Berner to provide a definition of the purpose of archives: “to bring records into professional custody . . . so that they might be used” (55).  Yet she asserted there had been no consensus about the meaning and value of archives.

Returning to the work of Gracy with the SAA Task Force on Archives and Society, Hinding summarized the findings of the Levy Report.  Executives who controlled funding for archives were interviewed, and their responses indicated they had a good appreciation of the work of archives but perceived a lack of understanding on the part of the general public.  Hinding suggested one reason for the lack of understanding and support was due to the tendency of the profession to focus inward, on the records themselves.  In contrast, she challenged archivists to shift focus to the act of keeping records, or “acts of memory” (57).

To support this concept of social or collective memory, Hinding pointed to biologist Lewis Thomas, who posited that humans exhibit collective behavior, especially in the creation of language.  (Should you be interested, she also included a fascinating etymology of the f-bomb.)  Hinding asserted,

“All of our individual acts of memory, from neighborhood reminiscence to oral history, from keeping a family scrapbook to keeping archives, cumulate to a body of human memory that is both physical and nonmaterial” (59).

Hinding also looked to philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who suggested philosophy needed to add a field of inquiry into “ideals, concerns what we care about, what we do with ourselves rather than with others” (59-60).  Ultimately, he concluded that humans confer importance upon things by caring about them.  Hinding connected this to archival work, commenting,

“If acts of memory are a form of caring, and caring is central to us as human, then people who care about antiques and classic cars confer importance on them simply by caring and wanting to remember them” (60).

Hinding acknowledged that people may value artifacts not commonly the focus of archival work – she repeatedly listed cranberry glass, Model A cars, presidential birthplaces, and family scrapbooks.  Hinding suggested the role for archivists is to explain acts of memory to these audiences in such a way that they can put them in a larger context.  In challenging archivists to connect their work with collective behavior, Hinding hoped to see “acts of memory” incorporated into the language as a new term.  The good news for Hinding is that these notions about memory have captured the imagination of many archivists.  She cited several American Archivist articles in her footnotes, and you can find more references in others of my posts.  Some of the luminaries on this subject include Kenneth Foote, Rand Jimerson, Terry Cook, and Verne Harris.

Two greetings by incoming SAA presidents

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I have not been successful finding the presidential addresses of the next two presidents of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) — Andrea Hinding (1984-1985) and Shonnie Finnegan (1985-1986).  But rather than overlook them entirely, I’ll provide brief overviews of the greetings they presented at the annual meetings where they became president (the latter of which is, in fact, labeled as a presidential address in the American Archivist).

Andrea Hinding worked at the Walter Library at the University of Minnesota from 1985-2002 as the librarian for the Social Welfare History Archives and Kautz Family YMCA Archives.  Her remarks at the 1984 SAA annual meeting in Washington, D.C. were entitled “In a Slightly Different Voice, or Perspectives” and were published in the Winter 1985 issue of the American Archivist.  She identified several areas in which she believed archivists had lost perspective:

  1. Information revolution.  Hinding acknowledged the significance of the growing body of “machine-readable records,” but she asserted that even in the midst of change, there is continuity — “the record as artifact will persist, and as such it deserves some share of the Society’s attention and resources” (23).
  2. Identity.  In the ongoing discussion about who are archivists, Hinding proposed an interesting definition, suggesting people should think of archivists as “archaeologists in reverse: we bury things for other to dig up later” (23).  She went on to draw an interesting contrast between what archivists should expect from society at large and what needs to come from within.  She explained that while archivists need society at large for resources, they should look to each other for “dignity and recognition” (24).
  3. Planning.  Hinding confirmed the necessity of planning and suggested that  planning activities for SAA needed to have a palatable presentation and needed to take into consideration the variety of members.
  4. Humor.  Hinding acknowledged that some circumstances were grim for archivists but suggested these should be considered in light of the good works being accomplished.

 

Shonnie Finnegan served at the university archives at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1967-1997.  With her accession to the presidency, SAA for the first time had two women succeed each other as president.  Her greeting at the 1985 SAA annual meeting in Austin, Texas, was entitled “With Feathers” and was published in the Winter 1986 issue of the American Archivist.

Finnegan took the title of her remarks from an Emily Dickinson poem:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all . . . .” (6)

She identified two goals for her presidency:

  1. have a productive year during the transition to a new executive director
  2. help plan the 50th anniversary celebration for SAA

In considering the upcoming celebration for SAA, Finnegan looked to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Four Quartets”:

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
. . . . . . . .
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.  My words echo
Thus in your mind” (7).

Finnegan concluded by identifying two areas in need of support by SAA members:

  • Task Force on Archives and Society — which released a report in 1985 about a survey of archivists’ resource allocators that reflected on the identity of archivists and how this influenced the accumulation of necessary resources
  • Committee on Goals and Priorities (C-GAP) — because of its focus on developing a vision for the SAA and the profession, Finnegan saw it as “the thing with feathers”

“Our Future Is Now”

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David B. Gracy II delivered his presidential address at the 1984 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Washington, DC.  He worked in the Texas State Archives, the University of Texas Archives, and the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University.  He was the state archivist of Texas at the time of his SAA presidency.  His address was published in the Winter 1985 issue of the American Archivist.

Gracy set the stage for his address with a story from Texas — indeed, the 1842 Archives War of Texas — in which a woman named Angelina Eberly, who operated a boarding house, rallied the people of Austin to prevent Sam Houston’s force from removing the archives from Austin.  To explain such dedication, Gracy asserted, “Public records constituted the ultimate and most enduring symbol of public authority” (13).

Gracy undoubtedly opened with such a story of bravery and success because he believed the archival field was in need of rallying.  In fact, he identified the archival circumstances of 1984 as a nadir:

“As a profession, we are losing our ability to sustain archival endeavor in this county” (13).

He elaborated by citing the 1983 report Documenting America: Assessing the Condition of Historical Records in the States, which documented the dismal affairs of state archives.  He also identified a “sickening vortex” — meaning archives didn’t have enough money to produce and provide worthwhile programs and services, but without such outreach, they couldn’t secure adequate funding.  Gracy then listed eleven paradoxes that faced archivists:

  1. Appraisal.  While trying to preserve the permanently valuable records, it is imperative to destroy some records because not everything can be preserved indefinitely.
  2. Use. Using archival materials demonstrates their value, but this very use can also damage the materials.
  3. Clientele.  While focusing on the future use of archives, archivists must convince their contemporaries “why archival services are fundamental to social cohesion now and in the future” (14).  A good message to hear during Archives Month!
  4. Technology.  While technology can help to preserve records, it also changes so quickly that records produced in an electronic medium are increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain.  He held out hope that the “video optical disk etched by laser” (15) could provide a cost-effective and reliable means of preserving records — but time has shown that CDs and DVDs have been no panacea.
  5. History.  Gracy asserted that while archivists purport to be devoted to preserving history, we invest little time and effort in understanding our own history, especially as it relates to archives outside the United States.
  6. Education.  Although most archival positions require educational credentials, Gracy expressed astonishment that no ongoing training is required to maintain these positions.
  7. Public perceptions of archives and archivists.  Gracy identified this as the “most perplexing paradox”(15)  — that the public embraces the retention of public records but has a stereotypical, negative impression of archivists.
  8. Commitment.  “The less society around us appreciates archival endeavor, the more dedicated and intense we individual archivists become about our work” (16).
  9. Permanent value.  Archivists advance two arguments for preservation —
    • the humanist argument that people/governments/organizations must know the past in order to guide the future
    • the patriotic argument that records help us identify our common bonds

    Yet “People and society know no absolute — no permanent — value.  The interests, aspirations, foundations, and values of society are constantly shifting, constantly developing, constantly changing” (16).

  10. Role.  Gracy asserted that a disconnect between the work of archivists and the priorities of modern American society led to “the primary reason we archivists feel ourselves adrift in 1984” (16).  In a society that placed much greater value on economy and efficiency than on history, archivists found themselves highlighting their role as administrator rather than their work as historians and scholars.
  11. Archival work.  Gracy suggested the traditional archival tasks of “gathering, appraising, arranging, describing, preserving, and making available” were being supplanted by promotion and outreach — because without such marketing work, there would be no funding available for the traditional archival work.  He quoted a former state archivist who asserted that archivists were increasingly in the “information business.”  But while archivists struggled in vain to distinguish themselves from others in the information business — such as librarians, records managers, and data processors — they failed to secure adequate resources to accomplish this unique work.

Gracy made no attempt to resolve each of these paradoxes, but he did issue a call to arms:

“The time has come to meet the challenge of the paradoxes and to make our way through the several forks in the road.  The situation of the archival service to society is at its nadir.  The future predicted by the reports in Documenting America is bleak.  We can afford to vacillate no longer” (18).

He suggested acknowledging two realities could assist in meeting these challenges:

  • Diversity must overcome fragmentation.
  • “the image of the archival services to society, held in the minds of all our publics, specific and general, is our primary key to unlocking the resources we must have to provide these services” (18)

Gracy concluded that several developments could push archivists in the right direction:

  • standards of vocabulary and methodology
  • cooperation among archival repositories — for the purpose of exchanging information and broadening perspectives
  • certification/accreditation for archivists

He pointed to the work of the SAA Task Force on Goals and Priorities and the Task Force on Archives and Society.  The former produced a report entitled “Planning for the Archival Profession,” on which you can read Gerald Ham’s commentary in the same issue of the American Archivist.  The latter focused on the image of the archival profession, developing a statement of purpose and encouraging efforts to promote public awareness.  Gracy provided an interesting definition of outreach:

“making archives interesting and inviting, and showing people that the records of enduring value touch and enrich their lives in a meaningful way.  We must show every group that it has an interest, indeed a stake, in archives” (20).

This task force also proposed national projects for SAA and sought to disseminate information and ideas.  The culminating report from this task force can be found on the SAA website.

In conclusion, Gracy asserted:

“We stand at the most important fork we have yet faced in the road.  We either make history or take the very real risk of vanishing from it.  We must choose.  Our future is now” (21).