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).

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