“Reimagining Archives: Two Tales for the Information Age”

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Leon J. Stout delivered his presidential address at the 2001 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Washington, D.C.  He was the university archivist at Penn State from 1974-2001 and retired from the institution in 2007 as the Head of Public Services and Outreach for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library.  As they did for William Maher a few years prior, the American Archivist published Stout’s incoming address alongside his presidential address, so I also include both here.  They were published in the Spring/Summer 2002 issue.

Stout’s incoming presidential address questioned whether archives would make the effort to reimagine themselves in the same way as museums had done around the turn of the century.  He focused on three areas of controversy:

  1. Function.  Stout pointed to the 1997 statement on “Archival Roles for the New Millennium” as evidence that the basic mission of archives was unchanging.  He suggested that archives “provide the raw materials for people to construct their own stories” and “facilitate the work of research” (12).  When archives engage in outreach, he contended it is purely for the purpose of attracting users to do their own research, not with the intent of crafting our own stories from the records.  He catalogued several techniques being used by archives to generate interest from new users but stated unequivocally “we’ll never be a tourist attraction as long as we hold to our core mission.  There’s no question we have ‘neat stuff’ that people like to see, but the more we emphasize its display and attractiveness to visitors, the less right we have to put the word ‘archives’ on the door” (13).
  2. Providing service to remote users.  Stout was somewhat critical of early forays by archives onto the Internet that primarily consisted of “on-line brochures, photo exhibits and historical information, the beginning of access to collections through on-line finding aids, and the beginnings of collections of actual scanned images of archival records” (14).  He recognized the problems that would be presented by digital preservation and by the need for more advanced finding aids to provide adequate access to digital objects.  He also pointed out that remote usage of archives stands to sacrifice the possibility of “serendipitous discovery” as well as the benefit of the “‘expert system'” otherwise known as the archivist (15).  Yet he concluded that the Internet would in fact broaden the function of archives and certainly the mechanisms by which archives deliver their services, for “while the need for archives to guarantee our rights and hold our government accountable to its citizenry doesn’t diminish, the cultural uses of archives will continually increase—and it’s via the Web that people will seek that information” (15).
  3. Interacting with documented communities.  Stout contended that archives are much better at looking to advisory groups of users than at considering the viewpoints of records creators.

Stout’s outgoing presidential address based its title on John Fleckner’s 1990 presidential address.  While his address the previous year had certainly incorporated the impact of electronic records on archives, he focused much more intently in this address, coining the term “cyberarchivist” and suggesting that he’d been “a missionary for computer use and addressing the challenge of electronic records” (18).  He contended that while the core functions of archives would not change, the sources of future records would most likely be technological ones.  And due to the mutability of electronic records, he explained that “if the archivist and the archival process are not part of the normal operating procedures for electronic records in the institution, there will be severe difficulties in preserving an archival record” (20).

He recognized that collaboration with IT professionals will be significant in preserving electronic records, but he also challenged archivists to stretch our own learning and become cyberarchivists who not only are comfortable operating archives in a computer world but can manipulate software and hardware ourselves and can understand how technology impacts people’s creation of records as well as their use of archives.  In conclusion, he expanded on Fleckner’s definition of the enduring values of the archival profession to include service, emphasizing that archivists need to “demonstrate to funders and users alike our competency and usefulness” (23).


“Ten Challenges for the Archival Profession”

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H. Thomas Hickerson delivered his presidential address at the 2000 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Denver, Colorado.  Hickerson spent many years at Cornell University, serving in the Department of Manuscript and University Archives as Supervisor of Technical Operations (1974-1979) and as Department Chair (1979-1991).  He oversaw the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (1992-1998) and was the founding director of the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections.  He finished his time at Cornell as the Associate University Librarian for Information Technologies and Special Collections in the Cornell University Library.  Hickerson is currently the Vice-Provost (Libraries and Cultural Resources) and University Librarian at the University of Calgary.  His address was published in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue of the American Archivist.

Hickerson recognized the challenges facing the archival profession in the 21st century and used his presidential address to list those he considered to be the most daunting.  He dedicated his address to Shonnie Finnegan in appreciation of her professional support over the years.

  1. Managing the Identification, Appraisal, Retention, Preservation, and Provision of Support for the Use of Documents Generated in Electronic Form
    • Hickerson certainly made a name for himself in electronic records management, and he emphasized this challenge for two reasons — as a “professional mandate” but also to demonstrate leadership that would enable archivists to continue collecting and preserving “the records of today and tomorrow” (7).
    • In order to demonstrate this relevance, he suggested archivists should collaborate with other information management professionals, even if it meant adjusting some archival practices such as the process of appraisal.
  2. Devoting Greater Resources to Non-textual Holdings
    • Hickerson acknowledged that archivists had been aware of their text-centric approach to collecting for decades but argued that little had been done to address the problem.  He asserted that archivists had been “largely ignoring the long oral tradition in all societies, and the importance of art, architecture, music, ritual, dance, theater, and other non-textual and non-linear means of expression and recording” (8).
    • He went so far as to suggest half of repository resources should be devoted to non-textual materials.
  3. Recognizing that Records are Global
    • Hickerson challenged archivists to avoid “cultural and nationalistic bias” (9).
    • He pointed to the national standards being developed in information management and suggested SAA should band with the International Council on Archives to create a multinational digital archives.
  4. Devising New Methods for Describing and Providing User Access to the Ever-expanding Volume of Contemporary Records in All Formats
    • Hickerson contended that traditional description methods — even including EAD and federated searches of finding aids — were inadequate “to provide comprehensive intellectual control of and access to their existing holdings” (9).
    • For electronic records, he pointed to the almost 20-year-old suggestion of Margaret Hedstrom and David Bearman that metadata ingested with the records could also serve to describe the records without archivist intervention.
    • He hoped that the approaches to describing electronic records could also be adapted for paper holdings to help address the backlog.
  5. Making Our Holdings More Accessible to and Usable by Our Core Constituencies and Broadening Use by Expanded Audiences
    • Hickerson challenged archives to improve service to “core constituencies” while also developing “secondary audiences” (11).
    • He commented that user studies demonstrate provenance-based organization of archival collections of images leads to searches that fail to recall sufficient relevant images for the users.
    • He suggested networked reference service, online advertisements, multi-institutional portals, and more conversions to digital format — even if it required partnering with for-profit entities.
  6. Expanding the Scope of Our Collection Development Priorities
    • Hickerson chronicled the changing focuses of collection development, including women, minorities, and other social and organizational records vital for the study of social history, along with records documenting sexuality and sexual politics.
    • He suggested population and environmental studies will necessitate different types of records, such as GIS data.
  7. Generating More Basic and Applied Research on Archival Aspects of Information Management
    • Hickerson cited Edie Hedlin’s presidential address due to her call for resources to support research and suggested some progress had been made in the intervening years.
    • He posited that working “to better associate archival priorities with national issues presently drawing significant attention” — such as security, privacy, authenticity, etc. — should make them more understandable and supportable (13).  He did recognize that this approach would likely result in more of this research being conducted outside of the archival realm.
  8. Strengthening Our National Archival Organization
    • Hickerson pointed to Nicholas Burckel’s presidential address for evidence of changes to SAA over the years.  He contended that SAA needs to be a dynamic organization so there can be new ideas and perspectives.
    • He suggested the importance of recruiting young archivists alongside retaining senior archivists who can “offer leadership, professional
      accomplishment, dedication, and understanding” (15).
  9. Augmenting the Range of Skills, Knowledge, and Resources Engaged in the Archival Enterprise
    • Once again, Hickerson suggested looking outside the archival world for solutions.  He asserted non-archivists such as technologists, Web designers, fundraisers, records managers, etc., all have important contributions to make to the archival endeavor.
    • He emphasized the importance of broad public support (including “laws that facilitate the fulfillment of archival responsibilities”), alliances with other like-minded organizations, technological infrastructure, and career-long learning, especially in the realm of IT (15).
  10. Maintaining the Credibility of Our Role as Respected Evidentiary Authorities and as Trusted Guarantors of Society’s Interests, Today and in the Future
    • Hickerson concluded, “We need to take the necessary steps to sustain our credibility by maintaining a high level of professionalism, by fulfilling our commitments, and by honoring our profession” (16).

“Meeting the Challenge of Contemporary Records: Does It Require a Role Change for the Archivist?”

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Luciana Duranti presented her presidential address at the 1999 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Until 1987, Luciana Duranti worked as a researcher in the professorial ranks of the Special School for Archivists and Librarians at the University of Rome, served as State Archivist in the State Archives of Rome, and was archivist for the National Research Council.  She moved to Canada in 1987 and has worked at the University of British Columbia, currently serving as Chair of the Master of Archival Studies at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies.  She has also served as director of InterPARES since 1998 — a multi-national and multi-disciplinary research project studying the long-term preservation of authentic electronic records.  A revised version of her speech was published in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue of the American Archivist.

Like many of her predecessors, Duranti considered the archival literature in choosing  a topic for her presidential address.  She began her research with the premise that the archival mission was agreed upon and only the methods for accomplishing this mission caused friction and divide.  But the frequency with which she found the archival mission as a topic in the printed literature forced her to recognize the debate persisted.  In Duranti’s opinion, the role of archivists hasn’t changed since the French Revolution.  That conflict created an understanding that

“the preservation of archives derived from a duty of the state towards its citizens, and this new figure of the citoyen determined the rise of new responsibilities for the archivist, who became also a guardian of the rights of the people as evidenced by the records” (10).

Rather than focusing exclusively on the needs of the creator or on the needs of the researchers, Duranti asserted that “the unique role of the archivist is the preservation of the authentic recorded memory of society because of its destination to permanent public use” (11).  She listed three distinctions necessary to balance the needs of the creators and the researchers:

  1. The distinction between the archivist’s methods and the archival mission.  Duranti steadfastly argued that the archival mission is unchanging.  While methods may need to be changed to deal with contemporary records, “the archivist must still be all to all archives” (11).  She further elaborated that the archivist must embrace objectivity and ultimately serve the records.  She referenced Barbara Craig to underscore her point that “if we did not primarily serve the records, no other user could be served but the present and immediate one, and no program could be maintained other than a very short-term one” (12).
  2. The distinction between the archivist’s work and archival functions.  Duranti asserted that archival functions are such no matter whether they are being carried out by archivists or by allied professionals.  She acknowledged that some of the work of archivists is not archival in nature (e.g., managers, statisticians, conservators, database designers).  She also rejected the notion that records managers and archivists share no commonalities, suggesting that “records managers and archivists need the same body of knowledge to carry out all functions affecting the records, that is, all archival functions” (13).
  3. The distinction between professional issues and archival science issues.  Duranti contended that professional organizations such as SAA should focus on broad issues like “education, ethics, advocacy, recruitment to the field, or compensation” (13).  She identified as archival science issues “scientific concerns such as the concept of record, appraisal methods, or technical standards” (13).

Duranti concluded that embracing these three distinctions could serve to “avoid the many ambiguities and dichotomies that have hurt the Society in the past” and in so doing reduce the division and balkanizations that plagued SAA for decades (e.g., “manuscript curators versus government archivists”) (14).


“Archives, Archivists, and Society”

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William J. Maher delivered his presidential address at the 1998 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Orlando, Florida.  Maher began as an archives assistant at Washington University (1976-77) and has spent most of his career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as Assistant University Archivist (1977-95) and currently as University Archivist.  He also served a stint as a program officer at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (1985-86).  In yet another twist in their publication of presidential addresses, in the Fall 1998 issue of the American Archivist, they published Maher’s 1997 incoming address alongside his 1998 presidential address, so I will summarize both.

In his incoming address, Maher looked to the SAA presidency of David Gracy as a model of success.  Yet he acknowledged that since that 1983-84 term, electronic records became an increasing complication for archivists, concluding with a quite bleak assessment,

“If we are unable to establish control of electronic records, we will no longer even hold the historical and cultural capital to claim a distinctive and important role in society” (253).

Maher also identified the problems emanating from the misappropriation of the term “archives.”  Perhaps because he assumed he was speaking to an informed audience, he provided no accurate definition of archives, but he did point to the offending parties — “computer specialists, librarians, advertising copywriters, academic faculty, newspapers, and electronic media” (253).  He also criticized the tendency to “verbify” this noun — I, too, find this an annoying trend.  On the one hand you can consider any attention good attention, and Maher did acknowledge that people’s misuse of the term archives did at least seem to come from an attempt “to lend panache or cachet and an air of respectability to what otherwise might be little more than a personal hobby or collecting fetish” (254).  But he went on to conclude that

“I always have the sense that when we see ‘archive’ used as a verb, or the word ‘archives’ used in a bastardized way to describe what is clearly a singular, idiosyncratic, and synthetic gathering of documents, we are being confronted with a challenge to our position as professional archivists” (254).

Maher challenged archivists to seize the opportunity presented by the proliferation of the term archive(s) to educate the public on the responsibilities of archivists (255):

  1. “securing clear authority for the program and collection”
  2. “authenticating the validity of the evidence held”
  3. appraising
  4. arranging
  5. describing
  6. preserving
  7. promoting use

He also identified advocacy as a vital responsibility of archivists and chronicled SAA’s involvement in six high-profile issues.

Maher used SAA’s 1998 meeting location in Orlando as a platform to criticize the commercialization of history by the entertainment industry — what he termed “the seven-headed beast of Disney, Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, MGM Studios, Oliver Stone, Ken Burns, and Norman Rockwell” (260).  He contrasted their escapist depictions of the past with the more complicated views of archivists:

“Archivists understand the past as complex, multi-faceted, and fractal.  They know it conflicts with the present and offers both intellectually and spiritually enriching perspectives on life” (259).

Maher presumed the entertainment industry more likely has the goal of quieting dissent while archivists are comfortable prompting the question of “why.”  Yet he recognized that archivists are not always in a position to challenge Disneyfied versions of history because “we are not in a position to raise questions that cause discomfort to these resource allocators” (i.e., public funders and private philanthropists) (261).  He also acknowledged that institutional archivists may be hard pressed to assert institutional accountability when nostalgia is preferred by those holding the purse strings.

Maher reiterated his listing of the seven responsibilities of archivists and underscored the point that “we must stand fast and hold true to our role as custodians and guardians of the authentic record of the past” (261).  In this role, he emphasized that archivists are to manage records, not to take on their interpretation.  He asserted that public historians and museums are the ones who should more appropriately interpret the past.  While in principle I understand his point about letting the users interpret the records, I’m not sure I see how archivists can prompt questions and guarantee accountability without positing some interpretations.  Ultimately, Maher emphasized the distinctive authenticity of the records for which archivists care outweighs the accolades we receive:

“The nobility of our calling as guardians of historical truth and authenticity is demonstrated by our commitment to selecting and keeping a reliable record, not by the number of curtain calls we receive” (263).

To Maher, carving out this responsibility also meant shifting focus from archival technique and process to this more substantive role: “to provide an authentic, comprehensive record that ensures accountability for our institutions and preservation of cultural heritage for our publics” (263).  He contended that focus by archivists on specific concerns such as electronic records, MARC tags, EAD rules, appraisals, etc. only fragmented the archival profession when the need was for unity around a common role.  He concluded, “In the new millennium, we need to define ourselves not as process and technique or as a control, but as products and values” (264).  As examples of these products, he listed (264-65):

  • “preservation of heritage”
  • “assurance of accountability of institutions and government”
  • “effective access to corporate historical assets”
  • “assurance of availability of records that protect individual rights”

Despite criticizing the commercialization inherent in the work of the “seven-headed beast,” Maher concluded with a rather economic appraisal of the value of archives:

“we are the keepers of that extremely rare and valuable commodity, the authentic documentary heritage in all its multidimensional richness, the ‘real thing’ to which the future will need to return again and again.  We should never underestimate its value” (265).

“The Society: From Birth to Maturity”

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Nicholas C. Burckel delivered his presidential address at the 1997 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Chicago, Illinois.  An expanded version of the address was published in the Spring 1998 issue of the American Archivist.  (For some reason, the model of printing the presidential address in the next issue was not followed, and instead, his address was published in the January 1997 issue of Archival Outlook — though this footnote citation doesn’t make sense considering the 1997 annual meeting didn’t occur until August.  But I could not find this issue anyway, so I’m summarizing the expanded version.)

Burckel used snapshots from 1940, 1965, and 1990 to evaluate the development of SAA.  (He recommended Frank Cook’s presidential address for a more thorough analysis of SAA’s development.)  He identified 1940 as SAA’s childhood, 1965 as its youth, and 1990 as an age of maturity.  He examined five factors in these three eras:

  1. Membership.  Predictably, the membership of SAA increased from 1940 to 1990, growing at a similar rate in the first 25 years and the second 25 years of this time.  The membership also became more diverse according to gender and shifted geographically from a preponderance of members from DC in 1940 to representation from all states, Canada, and Europe by 1990.  Most early SAA members were affiliated with the National Archives, but by 1990, colleges and universities provided the largest group of SAA members, followed by manuscript repositories and then government.
  2. Leadership.  Reflecting the changes in membership, SAA leadership also became more diverse (i.e., including women and minorities).  The education of SAA leaders changed in that fewer had Ph.Ds but more held Masters degrees.  The average age of those in leadership positions dropped.  Also in keeping with the broader changes in membership, while SAA leaders predominated from the National Archives and state historical societies in the early years, colleges and universities surpassed them by 1990 as the employing institutions with the greatest number of SAA leaders.  Burckel concluded this section with a question:
    • “The challenge for us as a maturing organization is how to retain the zest that brought us into the profession as we face a period of little or no membership growth and increasing job pressure driven by ever growing user expectations.  How do we continue to serve without becoming servants?” (21-22)
  3. Research and publication.  Similarly, the board of the American Archivist expanded, became more diverse, and represented more kinds of institutions.  The publication itself became more robust and included more writing by women.  Perhaps the greatest changes came in content, which included extensive bibliographies in the early years but incorporated more case studies and international research by 1990.  Preservation along with arrangement and description saw the greatest increase throughout in articles.
  4. Annual meetings.  More of the same here — but with lots of illustrative graphs about registrants, sessions participants, and attendees by institution for each of the target years.  The most interesting changes came in the formats of presentations, which by 1990 included work-in-progress presentations, limited-enrollment sessions, special focus sessions, and pre-conference workshops.  The 1940 meeting focused on Southern themes, but the 1990 sessions showed concern with preservation, electronic records, and documentation.
  5. Financial profile.  SAA dues, fees for the annual meeting, and the annual budget increased from 1940 to 1990, though Burckel pointed out that with consideration for inflation, dues actually went down from 1940 to 1965, and costs to attend the annual meeting decreased from 1965 to 1990.  However, the budget grew throughout due to additional members.
  6. Presidential perspectives.  Burckel looked to Waldo Gifford Leland in 1940, W. Kaye Lamb in 1965, and John Fleckner in 1990.  He also sent a questionnaire to former presidents and incorporated their feedback.  Some of the common replies included:
    • the difficulty of accomplishing an agenda with only one year in office
    • the increasing importance of electronic records
    • the growth of professionalism

Burckel concluded this article by comparing SAA to national historical and library associations — the American Library Association (ALA), the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians.  Of course, none of the other three organizations can hold a candle to the size of ALA, but SAA’s rate of growth did surpass all of the others.  He also acknowledged that SAA, compared to ALA, has a much smaller budget, endowment, and staff but still produced a scholarly publication and has a much higher proportion of members who attend annual meetings.  He used this evidence to underscore the importance of creating alliances with like-minded organizations.