“Seeing the Past as a Guidepost to Our Future”

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Brenda S. Banks delivered her presidential address at the 1996 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in San Diego, California.  Banks began working at the Georgia Department of Archives and History in 1973, serving in numerous positions including assistant director (1989-2006).  She oversaw a nationwide archives education and training program for historically black colleges and universities (1999-2005).  She founded Banks Archives Consultants in 2006.  The address was published in the Fall 1996 issue of the American Archivist.

Banks used the 60th anniversary of SAA’s founding as the theme for her address.  She pointed out that A.R. Newsome and Solon J. Buck has originally intended to create an “‘institute for the leading practitioners of archival administration'” but that this concept was broadened to one that promoted “the ideals of the archival profession” (393).  She proceeded to identify what concerns and issues persist as well as where notable changes have occurred.

First of all, let me list the areas in which Banks suggested little change had occurred — as she said, “only time passes, challenges remain constant” (399):

  • getting people to write for the American Archivist
  • the areas reviewed by the Committee for the 1970s were still relevant in 1996:
    • “organizational structure and operations;
    • relations with other groups;
    • the committee system;
    • research and publication;
    • membership relations and development;
    • education and training;
    • annual meetings, conferences, and symposia; and
    • finances” (396).

Banks also identified numerous changes within SAA over its 60 years:

  • membership became much more diverse
  • SAA emerged “as an organization with a social conscience” in the 1970s (396)
  • Basic Manuals began being published in the 1970s
  • professional affinity groups developed in the late 1970s
  • certification for archivists and guidelines for graduate education became important in the 1980s and 1990s

Finally, here are some important milestones in the history of SAA to which Banks called attention:

  • 1955: membership policy was changed so that Council no longer had to approve applications and members could join based on interest, not just vocation
  • 1973: a resolution was adopted that eliminated discrimination within SAA “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, lifestyle, or political affiliation” (397)
  • 1973: the SAA Newsletter began publication
  • 1974: the first paid SAA Executive Director was hired

I’m interested that Banks identified the “civil war” that occurred within SAA from the mid-1940s – mid-1950s between state archivists and national archivists, and she acknowledged the angst caused by the rise of regional and state organizations in the last few decades of the 20th century.  But she ignored the conflicts between archivists and records managers that resulted in many of the latter exiting SAA to join the Association of Records Managers and Administrators and/or the National Association of State Archives and Records Administrators.

One final point that piqued my curiosity — Banks explained that SAA adopted a resolution in the 1970s that annual meetings would only be held in states that had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  I wonder when this resolution was rescinded because of the 15 states that never ratified the ERA (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia), many have hosted SAA annual meetings — including Atlanta, Georgia, on tap for the 2016 meeting.  Perhaps it was considered a moot point after the Congressionally-imposed deadline in 1982 passed without ratification by ¾ths of the states, but from a technical standpoint, it seems like parliamentary procedures would dictate that the resolution be rescinded (though I can find no such evidence on the SAA website).

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“On Being an Archivist”

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Maygene Daniels delivered her presidential address at the 1995 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Washington, D.C.  She held numerous positions at the National Archives and Records Administration, was the director of the Modern Archives Institute, and was the chief of the Gallery Archives at the National Gallery of Art.  This address was published in the Winter 1996 issue of the American Archivist.

Daniels focused her address on why archivists enjoy our occupation.  She acknowledged that it’s not because of “power, wealth, or fame” (8).  And she recognized the diversity within the archival ranks.  But she offered three explanations for the dedication of archivists that she identified as “shared attitudes and beliefs” that while not unique to archivists “are found in every true archivist” (9):

  1. “honest and selfless commitment to a larger good” (9)
    • For the appraisal archivist, Daniels suggested this attitude hinged on evaluating records by simply asking, “‘What information or evidence is in these records?’” (9)  The focus is on the larger good rather than any gain that might come to one individually or to one’s institution.
    • In the realm of arrangement and description, this attitude encourages arrangement that is equally suitable for various researchers.
    • Daniels asserted that archivists are also prone to “dedicated and generous service” (10).
  2. intellectual approach
    Daniels explained that archivists “ask questions about evidence, proof, context” and possess an “ability to reason backwards” (10).  By this she meant that archivists can look at documents and work to determine their meaning.
  3. “celebration of the human spirit” (11)
    “Archivists work with the legacy of human activity.  And archivists, to their core, appreciate the varied, erratic, irrational complexity of human life and its changes over time” (10).

Daniels considered the impact of electronic records on archivists and concluded that electronic records will still need context that archivists can provide and will only mushroom in quantity compared to their paper counterparts.  She concluded, “the basic human compulsion to recognize the value of the passing human scene will remain as long as mankind exists” (11).

“Expanding the Foundation”

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Edie Hedlin delivered her presidential address at the 1994 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, held in Indianapolis.  Hedlin worked at the National Archives and Records Administration, as a corporate archivist for Wells Fargo Bank, and on the staff of the Ohio Historical Society.  She served as director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives from 1994-2005.  Her address was published in the Winter 1995 issue of the American Archivist.

Hedlin focused her address on the need in the archival world for friends and staying power.  By friends, she meant allied organizations who provide unwavering support to the archival community, and by staying power, she meant “the resources over time to analyze, resolve, and ultimately articulate to the larger society the answers to our most vexing problems” (11).  Of course, the source of said problems in 1994 was largely the explosion of electronic records, and while some were suggesting this shift should re-focus the priorities of archivists, Hedlin contended that archivists must continue our traditional activities, such as appraisal, arrangement and description, and reference service — while adding the new role “of comprehending and conquering the electronic record” (11).  She enumerated the questions raised regarding the handling of electronic records (11):

  • How do we define the term records in relation to electronic technologies?
  • How do we manage complex compound documents as a logical entity?
  • How do we incorporate archival concerns into the process for setting technical
    standards?
  • How do we influence systems design to assure the integrity of records over time and across technologies?
  • How do we make our voices heard on privacy, copyright, and freedom of information?
  • How do we bring archival issues into the debate on government information
    policy?
  • How do we implement the virtual archives?

Ultimately, Hedlin explained archives’ lack of staying power as one of lacking infrastructure, which she defined as “funding sources, institutional bases, research teams, and public interest groups” (12).  She acknowledged the vital roles filled by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Bentley Library Fellows Program, and Archives and Museums Informatics.  But she asserted complex problems such as handling electronic records could best be solved through competition:

“Numerous groups undertaking analysis of a common problem, each from their own perspective, will be more likely to consider the range of associated issues, identify a variety of approaches, produce a more rapid resolution, and have a stronger societal impact than will any single organization taking a single approach” (12).

Along similar lines, Hedlin explained that while SAA has an important role to play, specialized groups carry greater weight.  She listed numerous suggestions for such organizations, including a National Conference for the Corporate Record, a Documentary Heritage Foundation, a Center for the Records of Belief, and a National Council on Archival Resources.  Hedlin believed such allied organizations could provide staying power by offering “advocacy, analysis, visibility, and resources” (14-15).

“Shaping the Future: SAA Leadership in a Changing World”

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Anne R. Kenney delivered her presidential address at the 1993 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in New Orleans.  Kenney was associate director for the Joint Collection‐Western Historical Manuscripts and University Archives at the University of Missouri‐St. Louis (1982-86).  She has been at Cornell University Library since 1987, working as associate director for the Department of Preservation and Conservation (1987-2001), as associate university librarian for instruction, research and information services (2002-6), and as university librarian (2007-present).  This address was published in the Fall 1993 issue of the American Archivist.

Kenney  used current events to inspire her address, pointing out ways in which archival documents had been in the news and challenging archivists to “begin to change public perception about our proper place and the value of records” (577).  She elaborated on several of these events:

  • The controversy surrounding the decision by the Library of Congress to open the papers of Thurgood Marshall shortly after his death in January 1993.  SAA’s Council agreed with the decision to keep access open and “called for the Library of Congress to embrace a policy of equality of access to collections, to adopt clear and unambiguous language for future agreements with donors, and to limit the archivist’s discretion regarding access and use to concerns associated with the physical protection and security of the materials” (578).
  • The creation of a review board to determine the declassification and public access of records related to Kennedy’s assassination.  SAA along with the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Bar Association made recommendations to President Clinton about the make-up of this board, which ultimately included past SAA president William L. Joyce.

The other primary foundation for Kenney’s address was SAA’s new strategic plan, “Leadership and Service in the 1990s.”  The key goals were (577):

  1. “to exert leadership on significant archival issues”
  2. “to improve educational opportunities”
  3. “to lead the archival profession in advancing electronic records issues”
  4. “to increase overall organizational effectiveness”

Kenney focused much of her attention on this first goal, which had three objectives: “‘exert active leadership on significant archival issues by shaping policies and standards, building effective coalitions, and improving public awareness of the value of archives'” (578).  She used the controversy over the Marshall papers as a way to emphasize the necessity of strong policy statements.  She explained that the strategic plan called for SAA to develop policy statements in three areas: “electronic records, declassification, and requirements for maintaining archival materials” (579).  She suggested all traditional alliances with SAA should be reexamined, favoring “strategic — not static — alliances . . . that are based on programmatic direction rather than tradition and that support SAA’s constant mission in a changing world: the identification, preservation, and use of the nation’s historical record” (580).  The strategic plan listed the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and the American Library Association as “allied organizations.”

She cautioned that attention should be paid to long-term plans more so than to immediate actions.  In speaking of public awareness, Kenney provided an interesting summation of the beliefs of archivists:

“that archives are fundamental to a democratic society, that access to archival sources are a public good and right, and that archival materials support sound and efficient management” (582)

Regarding the goal of advancing electronic records issues, she recounted three pieces of legislation submitted to support the Clinton-Gore administration’s initiatives to make electronic information more accessible and pointed to SAA’s establishment of a Congressional Liaison Working Group as a means to provide a greater voice.  Finally, presumably as a means of improving organizational effectiveness, Kenney emphasized the importance of identifying future leaders for SAA through student chapters, mentoring, and internships on committees, task forces, and boards.