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