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.

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