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).