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).