“Letting Sleeping Dogmas Lie”


Frank G. Burke delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in September 1992 in Montreal, Quebec.  Burke began his career working in manuscripts collections at the University of Chicago and the Library of Congress.  He worked at the National Archives from 1967-1987, including serving as executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission from 1975-1988 (except for the period from April 1985- December 1987 when he was Acting Archivist of the United States).  From 1988-1996, he was a professor of archival studies in the College of Library and Information Services at the University of Maryland.  His address was published in the Fall 1992 issue of the American Archivist.

Burke introduced his address by recounting a February 1992 message from the ARCHIVES.LISTSERV that sparked a passionate debate about the education of archivists.  He then cited the archival literature, beginning with a 1939 report from the SAA Committee on Training and continuing through the 1992 draft report on the curriculum project of the Committee on Automated Records and Techniques.  The combination lit review and online forum helped Burke identify four dogmas to which archivists subscribe (532):

  1. “Archives are unique.”
  2. Most archivists have training as historians.
  3. A few core courses and a practicum constitute sufficient archival education.
  4. “Only archivists can teach archives to future archivists.”

Burke then evaluated each of these dogmas individually.  He acknowledged archives are unique but asserted they can still share similarities and, therefore, “can be treated as classes or types of material, and that treatment can be shared with others” (532).  He posited that archivists were afflicted by “intellectual elephantiasis,” touching and describing parts of the animal while not recognizing that the entire elephant represents information — with archives, manuscripts, records management, etc. only parts of that whole.  He challenged archivists to recognize our relationships with other information professionals, much as various individuals in the medical profession may have specific specialties but still share a common field.

Burke suggested finding archivists who trained as historians would be quite likely at the National Archives or at state archives but not as much in “academic special collections, local historical societies, special libraries,” etc. (533).  He suggested the wisdom of broadening the attraction of archival work to other academic departments beyond the history department, noting that manuscript repository members outnumbered government records members at the time (and were not as likely to be trained as historians).

At the time of his SAA presidency, Burke was a professor at the University of Maryland, so it makes sense that his analysis in this address of archival education was extensive.  Of course, this was not a new topic of interest, having fairly recently been addressed by SAA presidents William Joyce and Ruth Helmuth.  Burke drew an interesting difference between the terms training and education:

“Are we training people, as we train assembly line workers to do as we say, with no deviation, or are we educating them to think, to stretch, to question, and thus to create?” (533)

He evaluated the education available in history departments and library schools and suggested the best course could be re-envisioning the core curriculum at library schools and developing four courses that would be useful to archivists as well as librarians, manuscript curators, and museum specialists (534).

  1. “the history of cultural institutions and their place in society; the development,
    communication, and uses of information in society; and the professions that have had to develop in order to deal with information creation, preservation, and dissemination”
  2. evaluating materials for collection or retention
  3. “adding value to assembled materials through their organization and description”
  4. research materials — e.g., physical characteristics, preservation

Burke pointed out the inconsistency of the argument that only archivists can teach archivists alongside the dogmatic assertion that most archivists are trained as historians.  He suggested several paths forward, including double master’s programs (i.e., a professional degree + an academic degree, such as history).  He also acknowledged the 50-year old Bemis committee proposal for Ph.D. archivists who would become administrators and educators and M.A. archivists who would become practitioners.  Lastly, he expressed hope that a Ph.D. program in archival studies would develop.  According to the SAA Directory of Archival Education, it appears the practice today is to offer Ph.D. degrees in library and/or information studies with a focus in archival studies.  (A few programs are listed with an even more generic Doctor of Philosophy without any specifics.)

Burke loosely based his title on Abraham Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress in 1862 (not his second inaugural address, as cited):

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Although archivists were not involved in a civil war in 1992, Burke did make a strong argument about how the poor state of the economy was affecting archives and especially educational institutions.  His closing challenge did have the tone of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, urging archivists to “recognize the family to which we all belong, provide service without feeling servitude, and advance the cause of knowledge and experimentation, inquiry, and doubt, without concern that the icons of the past shall fall” (536-37).


“Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic: Speculations on Change in Research Processes”

1 Comment

Trudy H. Peterson delivered her presidential address at the 1991 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She worked at the National Archives (NARA) from 1968-95 and was assistant archivist at the time of this address.  After retiring from NARA, she served as the founding Executive Director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary (1995-98) and then as director of Archives and Records Management for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1999-2002).  Since 2002, she has worked as a consulting archivist.  This address was published in the Summer 1992 issue of the American Archivist.

Peterson’s basic premise was that reading, writing, and arithmetic had changed so dramatically during the 20th century that research and reference services at archives would be bound to change in the 21st century.  She first identified the reasons why people read – most importantly for archives, people read to gain information.  She acknowledged how the technological developments of the 20th century, including telephones and television, made people more likely to gain information through oral avenues rather than written ones and cited results from SAT examinations as evidence that Americans were becoming less proficient in reading and writing.  As for the impact of this trend on archives, she suggested it would be different for archives typically with an elite clientele – such as manuscript collections, business archives, and presidential libraries.  While these users would tend to be good readers, she asserted they would also be well-versed in using computers and would demand “direct random access rather than the slow, sequential access of the typical written finding aid” (416).  As for public archives, she explained that archives are already intimidating institutions for the casual user, and if reading is the only avenue to service, this problem will increase.  Unrelated to reading ability, Peterson suggested there would be an increasing number of users seeking nontextual materials who would be frustrated by having to navigate written devices to find nontextual materials.  Finally, she recognized that an increasing percentage of the American population comes to English as a second language, which obviously makes written finding aids a cumbersome way to access archival collections.  Unfortunately, these criticisms of finding aids have not been addressed in any comprehensive way.

Peterson identified three main purposes for writing (417):

  • “to transmit information accurately over space and over time”
  • to manage “very large entities . . . organizations that are so large that a single individual cannot hold in the mind all the details required for effective administration”
  • to aid “in logical thinking . . . by fixing a random placement of thought with the possibility of retrieving and reviewing ideas forgotten or incompletely realized and subsequently ordering them into a logical pattern”

Yet she also pointed to a decline in the ability or inclination to write, suggesting this might influence archives with a preference by users to submit inquiries orally rather than in written form.  She asserted that written inquiries tend to be more precise and carefully thought out, whereas oral inquiries would likely require greater attention by archival staff to clarify the purpose of research.

Peterson cited some appalling statistics about the proficiency of Americans regarding arithmetic but suggested this deficiency should have a somewhat limited impact on archives.  Specifically, she believed archives would find their “capacities to provide manipulation and duplication services may come under pressure as more data sets find homes in the archives” (418).  With the rise of digital humanities, this prediction certainly seems to be coming true.

Peterson suggested four possible impacts on archives because of this changing user base:

  1. Archives might do nothing differently, despite people’s difficulties in accessing archival materials.  But as she eloquently pointed out, this would fly in the face of “the great democratic ideals that are the foundations of the public archival institutions” (418).
  2. The necessity of more mediation between the user and the documents would lead to more professional researchers who could travel comfortably in archival waters on behalf of others.
  3. Mediators may develop to translate archival description for the masses.  Peterson suggested this could come from commercial services or other professionals, such as librarians.
  4. Archives could become mediators themselves, either by providing “assistance in negotiating finding aids” or by providing “information from the documents – not just information about the documents” (419).

To elaborate on the last possibility, Peterson suggested that archival finding aids need to be more “user-driven” and should incorporate signs and symbols as a means of providing users with “easy, logical search paths” (419).  As for archives providing a different kind of service, she made an interesting distinction between reference service and research service.  Acknowledging that providing research services would require a greater concentration of personnel, then the question becomes when is reference service sufficient and when is research service necessary?  Peterson posed the following questions:

“What is the responsibility of the archives in a case where a person’s rights and benefits may be involved?  And if an archives will provide research service in a benefits case, will an archives also provide it in a personal-interest case?  Can we afford to provide this service?  In a political system where power comes from the people, can we afford not to?” (419)

Peterson concluded with this challenge for archivists:

“Let us remember that we hold information that our fellow citizens crave.  Let us remember that we hold it in trust.  And then let us find ways, make ways, create ways, to deliver it to the democratic whole of the men and women and children who depend upon us” (419).

“‘Dear Mary Jane’: Some Reflections on Being an Archivist”


John A. Fleckner delivered his presidential address at the 1990 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Seattle, Washington.  Fleckner began his career with the Area Research Center affiliated with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1971-1982).  He served as chief archivist at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History from 1982-2004 and created the Archives Center there.  As of the writing of this post, he still works there as a Senior Archivist.  His address was published in the Winter 1991 issue of the American Archivist.

Fleckner chose a style for his presidential address never before attempted — an epistolary address.  He penned three letters to a volunteer who worked as an intern in the Archives Center.  The questions that apparently prompted these letters were:

  • How did you become an archivist?
  • What about your job as an archivist provides you satisfaction?

Although recounting professional pathways can be interesting, in the grander scheme, such personal reminiscences can rarely guide another who may want to enter the same profession.  However, Fleckner managed to include some enlightening details about archival work.  For example, he spoke of the “handicraft” and “analytical work” that  exist side-by-side, all the while being exposed to the “‘stuff’ of history” (9).  He expressed glee at being able to shape archives for researchers through arrangement and description and recognized that he approached records as an archivist with a much wider lens than he had as a history student — “the records could speak to me in whatever voices my curious ears could hear, with whatever messages I could understand” (9).  Yet with all of this vast unknown, he also spoke of the implicit boundaries to archival work that provided him reassurance: “I had a well-defined task to accomplish, a product to produce, techniques and methods for proceeding, and standards against which my work would be judged” (10).

The other two letters both addressed the satisfactions of being an archivist.  Along with some personal history as context alongside an example of surveying some old county records in Wisconsin, Fleckner highlighted what distinguishes the abilities of good archivists:

“our ability to quickly understand and evaluate the record—especially when it is
old, large, or complex—is a unique facet of our craft.  So too is our ability to satisfy research inquiries by applying our complex understandings of how and why the historical record is created” (11).

He asserted that archivists are content that much of “exercise of archival mastery has no audience” (11).  Acknowledging that his work at the Archives Center had become more administrative than hands-on, he reflected on leadership for an archives, speaking of setting goals and standards and motivating and facilitating the work of his colleagues.

In the final letter, Fleckner took a broader look at what provided him satisfaction within the archival profession — namely, his colleagues.  He acknowledged the ever-present debate over professionalism within the archival ranks, and he listed several “manifestations” of archival work as a profession (12):

  • scholarly journal
  • annual conventions
  • professional jargon
  • “a body of common knowledge, practices, and standards”

But he took this concept one step further to consider what it is that archivists “profess.”  He proposed a simple summary: “what we archivists do is essential to the well-being of an enlightened and democratic society” (12).  He elaborated on three ways in which archives are essential:

  1. Individual rights.  “The archival record—and here I mean the total of what we look after as well as the underlying principles of records keeping—is a bastion of a just society.  In a just society, individual rights are not time-bound and past injustices are reversible” (12).
  2. Check against tyranny.  He pointed to the recent Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals as evidence of the necessity of a thorough documentary record.
  3. Integrity of our history.  “As archivists who maintain the integrity of the historical record, we guard our collective past from becoming the mere creation of ‘official’ history” (12).  While acknowledging that an Orwellian tyranny is unlikely in the United States, Fleckner pointed to minority groups who feel their history is underrepresented in the record.

Fleckner admitted, like many of his predecessors, that the American orientation is more focused on the present and the future than on the past.  But he challenged archivists to be prepared when reflection does occur:

“If we are successful as archivists, the historical record will speak for this past in a full and truthful voice.  And, as a society, we will be wiser for understanding who and where we have been” (13).

He described archival work as “the most profoundly and universally human of all undertakings: to understand and preserve the past on behalf of the future” (13).  Fleckner concluded by challenging archivists:

  • to welcome all those who work with the historical record
  • to demonstrate how preserving records is in the public interest
  • to increase public support for archives

“American Archives, 1959-89: A Personal Perspective”

Leave a comment

Frank B. Evans delivered his presidential address at the 1989 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in St. Louis, Missouri.  He had already had a very distinguished career in the archival profession by this point, having worked in the Pennsylvania State Archives (1958-1961) and served as state archivist (1961-1963) before joining the staff of the National Archives.  He took extended leave from NARA to work for UNESCO as programme specialist and senior officer responsible for the development and implementation of a worldwide program of archival development (1976-1984).  His address was published in the Winter 1990 issue of the American Archivist.

After teaching history for many years, it was only while he was working in the Pennsylvania State Archives that Evans decided to make archival work his profession, and he chose to use his presidential address as an opportunity to reflect on the state of the profession and the SAA over those 30 years.  He described the four-week Institute on the Preservation and Administration of Archives (which he first attended and then oversaw), which emphasized institutional records:

“The records of institutions, we were taught, enabled them to function despite changes in personnel; the records provided an identity, served as a collective memory, and greatly facilitated the transmission of information and knowledge and culture across space and time” (13).

Evans explained that government records, in particular, not only held “memorial, cultural, research, and reference value” but also are “essential to ensure responsive and responsible government” (14).  He asserted that this focus on institutional records filtered through all of the archival teaching at the Institute, influencing discussions on administrative histories, arrangement and description, authenticity, and provenance, for example.

Evans contended that the European concept of archives was modified by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) due to the necessity of dealing with the massive quantities of modern governmental records.  He identified the contributions of NARA as collective appraisal, quicker accessioning, and new preservation techniques — including “vacuum fumigation, deacidication, thermoplastic lamination, temperature and humidity control, acid neutral folders and containers, smoke detection devices, and sprinkler systems” (14).  NARA also developed collective arrangement and description techniques and promoted records management.

Evans believed 1959 was an era of a smaller and more coherent SAA, though he admitted our own internal documentation has not been great over the years.  He analyzed the committees of SAA to provide some understanding of the focuses and priorities of the membership over time.  By 1974 — conveniently both the halfway point in this personal perspective and the year when Evans participated in an SAA retrospective plenary session  — SAA included committees “on the archives of science, on urban archives, oral history, machine-readable records, reference and access, techniques for the control and description of archives and manuscripts, and on the status of women in the profession” (16).  For his part in this session, Evans identified a morphing of the definition of archives from the first to the second generation in the United States.  The term archives originally connoted “noncurrent institutional records of continuing value” as received by an archival agency from a parent institution (17) .  But Evans contended that archives had increasingly become collectors rather than passive receivers and had also begun promoting access and developing new services and programs.  And although he identified more training opportunities in this second generation era, Evans asserted that it was still not sufficient in quantity and was too rudimentary in nature.

Evans’ work with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) provided him with an even greater appreciation of the importance of government records.  He quoted from the International Law Commission of the General Assembly of the United Nations:

“‘Archives, jealously preserved, are the essential instrument for the administration of a community.  They both record the management of state affairs and enable them to be carried on'” (18).

Evans cited data from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission indicating the number of U.S. archives had grown over those 30 years, but SAA membership had not grown proportionately.  He contended that shifts in SAA membership occurred as records managers created their own organizations and as local/state/regional organizations became more prominent.  He pointed to numerous systematic planning efforts by SAA, including the Committee on the 1970s and the Task Force on Goals and Priorities, and identified that these efforts had placed on the agenda a certification program for archival education programs and the development of standards and guidelines for functions activities relating to archives and manuscripts.

Evans concluded his address by identifying his own concerns and suggestions for the archival profession moving forward:

  1. He warned that archives were verging into the territory of special libraries and museums.  “It seems to me that in dignifying ephemera and memorabilia as archives we trivialize a noble profession, and may risk having archives themselves eventually regarded as being ephemeral” (20).
  2. He warned against throwing out archival theories and practices merely due to age: “change does not constitute progress when it involves the rejection of theory and practice that have proved their value and that are of continuing relevance” (20).
  3. He challenged archival repositories to focus not only on user studies but also to consider the nonusers — and through research materials or methods course to try to pull more of those potential users into the archives to do research.
  4. He asserted that archival agencies should be more useful to their parent institutions — “I urge that we seek opportunities to use the institution’s own records in our custody to provide to its operating officials the background
    information and precedents they need to deal with current problems and for decision-making, to protect and promote the institution’s rights and interests, and to ensure continuity and consistency in administration and operations. . .” (20).
  5. He contended that good records management (i.e., records retention and disposition schedules) is not only vital but also qualifies as a successful documentation strategy.
  6. He warned that the focus on electronic records would likely be to the detriment of audio-visual records, which also need often costly interventions to guarantee their preservation.
  7. He asserted that the faculty of university archival programs need to be filled with the graduates of the best programs.
  8. He warned of “professional fragmentation” and urged that “as a profession we should speak with one voice if we hope to be heard and to be heeded” (21).

Despite the enumeration of these concerns, he expressed confidence in SAA moving forward and offered his analysis of why the archival profession is a noble one:

“In a sense, the keeping of archives was organized society’s first collective act of faith—faith in itself and in its future to which it bequeathed the record of its experience and the knowledge it had gained through that experience.  Through our profession we continue to renew and strengthen that act of faith, to augment and transmit mankind’s inheritance to our successors” (21).

“Searching for Common Ground”

1 Comment

Sue E. Holbert delivered her presidential address at the 1988 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Atlanta, Georgia.  She was part of the manuscripts staff at the Minnesota Historical Society (1972-1979) and state archivist of Minnesota (1979-1993).  Her address was published in the Spring 1989 issue of the American Archivist.

As evident from her title, Holbert continued the quixotic search for unity among archivists.  In her opinion, specialization was leading to fragmentation and overshadowing the shared goals and objectives of archivists.  She acknowledged she was not the first to take this journey, pointing to previous SAA presidential addresses by Morris Radoff, Wayne C. Grover, and Philip C. Brooks along with other archival literature.  Holbert provided a number of reasons why she considered it imperative to delve into this topic again:

  • There aren’t many archivists, so we need to stick together.
  • “We are marginalized in a society that most values instantaneousness and cost-effectiveness” (145).
  • Records aren’t well-respected.
  • Archivists generally don’t control their own purse strings.
  • Archivists generally don’t influence “the creation of data and potential future use” (145).

Acknowledging it provided only cold comfort, Holbert suggested that historians and humanities scholars were in much the same situation of being isolated and powerless.  In a bit of a tangent in the impact of electronic records, she incorporated an interesting quote from John Sununu, who said when he was the governor of New Hampshire:

“‘I’m not sure all the details are preserved properly with the process of dumping
from one computer to another.  A lot of historical steps are lost if you preserve the final result electronically but lose the individual steps'” (146).

Holbert pointed to the “brittle book” movement as an example of uniting various interested parties.  (Beginning in 1988, the U.S. Congress empowered the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to encourage the microfilming of millions of volumes whose long-term preservation was compromised by the use of acidic paper.)  She pointed to efforts to define a national historical records policy as a worthy goal that needed additional work, and she incorporated a vast and disparate list of organizations and people who could join with archivists in this effort (148-49):

NEH, National Endowment for the Arts, Department of Education, National Archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Council on Library Resources, Research Libraries Group, Association of Records Managers and Administrators, American Society for Information Science, American Council of Learned Societies, genealogists, conservationists, International Council of Archivists, UN Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization, Department of the Interior, National Trust for Historic Preservation, book sellers/buyers/readers, trade and manufacturers’ groups, standard-setting organizations, museums, lawyers, environmentalists, scientists, documentarians, editors, and preservationists

Holbert referenced a few other specific goals, including:

  • understanding recordkeeping in scientific endeavors
  • focusing on what needs to be documented
  • developing certification
  • working on thesauri

Ultimately, she considered the project with the greatest interest to the largest swath of people would be focusing on “the extreme ends of the records cycle” — namely, “the physical media on which information is captured” and “the public uses of historical data” (150).  She believed the “brittle books” publicity could provide impetus for the development of improved media, and she challenged repositories to collect and disseminate examples of how the public benefits from the information stored in archives.  The first part of this story has a happy ending, with Congress passing Public Law 101-423 and President George H.W. Bush signing it on October 12, 1990.  This legislation required that “Federal records, books, and publications of enduring value be produced on acid free permanent papers” and recommended that Federal agencies, publishers, and State and local governments use acid free permanent papers “in voluntary compliance with the American National Standard.”

Holbert included two specific proposals at the end of her address, suggesting that the idea for a “Cultural Heritage Bill of Rights of the American People” be brought to fruition during the document’s bicentennial celebration.  She also proposed developing some sort of records statement that could be endorsed by a broad group of stakeholders, as previously identified.  While I haven’t been able to find information about the success of either of these proposals, in my opinion, her most cogent analysis was a comment about audience: “We talk to ourselves too much” (151).  A little less internal focus and a little more interaction with external stakeholders is bound to produce good results for archivists.