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.