“Embracing the Power of Archives”


Randall C. Jimerson delivered his presidential address at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in New Orleans.  Jimerson began his archival career at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan (1976-1977) and then spent two years as archivist at Yale University (1977-1979).  He was university archivist and director of the Historical Manuscripts and Archives Department of the University of Connecticut Libraries (1979-1994), where he also taught and led the graduate program in History and Archival Management.  Since 1994, Jimerson has been director of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, also serving as professor of History since 2002.  An expanded version of the address he delivered was published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of the American Archivist.

Jimerson’s address was a portent of the arguments he developed more fully in his 2009 volume Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He borrowed the metaphors of Eric Ketelaar and analyzed archives as temples, prisons, and restaurants.  Jimerson suggested these representations illustrate the “trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access” (20).

  • In the archival temple, records achieve authority, immortality, and validity.  He cited numerous archival thinkers regarding the active role that appraisal requires.  He acknowledged that appraisal shapes “society’s collective understanding of its past, including what will be forgotten” (25).  Jimerson cautioned against conflating archives with memory but suggested “records of the past provide a corrective for human memory, a surrogate that remains unchanged while memory constantly shifts and refocuses its vision of the past” (26).
  • Control is the foundation of the archival prison.  From the physical control imposed by lockers, closed stacks, and surveillance cameras to the intellectual control created by the arrangement and description of records, archivists regulate access.
  • The archival restaurant is the locus of interpretation and mediation.  Jimerson contended that archivists cannot be fully objective regarding archives — “as archivists we cannot avoid casting our own imprint on these powerful sources of knowledge” (21).

He concluded the arc of these metaphors by saying,

“May our archival temples truly reflect values worthy of veneration and remembrance.  May our archival prisons minimize locks and security and emphasize accountability, preservation, and access.  May our menus be clear and understandable, and our table service efficient, thorough, and helpful” (32).

Jimerson’s challenge to archivists was to “embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of humankind” (24).  He clarified this notion as making “society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just” (28).  In order to accomplish this goal, he asserted that archivists must abandon “our pretense of neutrality” because only through recognizing our impartiality can we “avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally” (28).  He also echoed Ketelaar’s advocacy for transparency in archival selection and access decisions.  Jimerson cautioned against sidestepping the social and cultural responsibilities of archivists while instead focusing myopically on technical issues.

Jimerson asserted that archives carry out a function of social responsibility by documenting and protecting the rights of citizens.  He pointed to the works collected by Richard Cox and David Wallace in Archives and the Public Good for evidence of archival records being used as agents of accountability.  He also echoed the words of Howard Zinn in challenging archivists to “commit themselves to ensuring that our records document the lives and experiences of all groups in society, not just the political, economic, social, and intellectual elite” (30).  Herein lies the power.


“Building Our Own ‘Iron Curtain’: The Emergence of Secrecy in American Government”

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Timothy L. Ericson presented his presidential address at the 2004 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Boston, Massachusetts.  Ericson was university archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1989-2005), Georgia Archives Institute instructor (2005-2011), interim university archivist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (2009-2010), commissioner for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (2009-2013), and senior lecturer emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies (2005-present).  His personal papers are housed at the University of Wisconsin.  The full version of this article was published in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of the American Archivist.  (An abbreviated “reading version” of the address is also available on the SAA website.)

Ericson began with a clear argument: “today the tilt toward secrecy permeates our entire system of government from the White House to the local school board” (18).  He provided numerous relatively contemporary examples of government secrecy and then launched into a very thorough analysis of “the history of our secrecy apparatus,” which he divided into three eras and asserted is primarily a long history of lurching from one crisis to another, responding in a panicked fashion (22).


Secrecy began with the First Continental Congress as an effort to portray unity (and perhaps limit the charges of treason if things didn’t turn out well!).  Then in 1784 Congress “ruled that all diplomatic correspondence was automatically considered secret” (25).  A Frenchman who visited the United States during the 1830s surmised that Americans had very little interest in public documents — Alexis de Tocqueville was actually frequently given original documents to answer his questions.  He described American society as one living “from hand to mouth, like an army in the field” (28).


The British introduced a formal classification system during the Crimean War, and the United States adopted our first one during World War One, outlining “in considerable detail the levels of secrecy, marking classified documents, storage of such documents, and who would have access to classified material” (33).  In between World War One and World War Two, the U.S. covered nondefense information under the classifications, introduced the terms “national security” and “reclassification” (i.e., “the process of lowering the classification of a document and prohibited revealing information ‘about the contents of classified documents . . . in any other document unless that document was marked with the same or higher classification'” [35-36]), and allowed for information to be classified if it might be harmful to the “‘prestige of the Nation'” (36).


This final era was punctuated by executive orders that provided additional parameters to national security interests and governmental transparency exceptions.  Under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the three levels of classification were established — secret, confidential, and restricted.  The 1946 Atomic Energy Act introduced the term “born classified.”  Truman added the level “Top Secret” in 1950.  The number of federal employees who exercised the authority to classify information ranged from 3,000 – 60,000 during this era.  Under Jimmy Carter a “balancing test” was introduced that “weighed the public’s right to know against the government’s need to protect national security” — but this was rescinded under Reagan (41).  This same executive order also established the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives.

This era was not devoid of progress regarding access to public records.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966 and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.  Ericson uncovered a gem from the congressional debate on this bill, quoting a young congressman from Illinois who said, “‘public records, which are evidence of official government action, are public property, and there . . . should be a positive obligation to disclose this information upon request'” (43).  This congressman was Donald Rumsfeld.

I’ve provided a very truncated summary of the history of these eras, so I encourage you to read Ericson’s work in toto.  But two key things stand out to me about these eras:

  1. The preponderance of limitations on government accountability occurred during times of war (so long as you consider the Cold War as a very long era of wartime attitude — and since Ericson uses a Cold War metaphor in his title, I think it’s an appropriate conclusion).  Supreme Court Justice William Brennan recognized “’the unfortunate American tendency to panic in the face of national crisis and to countenance infringements of civil liberties that would appear intolerable during times of repose’” (26).
  2. We haven’t gotten much better about planning ahead than we were in the 1830s when de Tocqueville visited.  At least we do now have a National Archives, but it took us almost 150 years longer than it took the French!  And we didn’t even develop a system for numbering executive orders until the early 20th century.

Ericson summarized that this “secrecy apparatus” has stoked rivalries between government agencies that use secrets as “currency,” ultimately leading to “ill-informed decisions” (44).  (As an historical note: The 9/11 Commission Report, which documented such situations, was published on July 22, 2004, two weeks before Ericson’s address was delivered at the SAA meeting.)  He also asserted the unnecessarily “bloated” system racks up huge costs (45).  He concluded that secrecy in government “serves the interests of politics, malfeasance, misdeeds, and potential embarrassment more than our national security” (50).  He contended that this situation has occurred “because of the casual attitude Americans have taken with regard to the growing trend toward secrecy—but also because of the lackadaisical attitude that the archival profession has taken” (51).

Ericson questioned the appropriate response of archivists to such efforts at secrecy, challenging, “Why have we not been more zealous in embracing our ethical responsibility to ‘discourage unreasonable restrictions on access’ with respect to government records that are being unreasonably restricted by the millions?” (21).  He cited SAA’s 1986 Task Force on Goals and Priorities along with the work of fellow archivists Mary Jo Pugh, F. Gerald Ham, and James O’Toole for evidence that archivists should advocate for fewer restrictions.

Ericson concluded there are four steps archivists should take:

  1. Educate ourselves.  At professional meetings, in newsletters and journals, and in archival courses, we need to talk about government secrecy and accountability.
  2. Create formal working relationships with other organizations who have a vested interest in government accountability.  Ericson pointed to the American Civil Liberties Union, ISOO, the National Security Archive, OMB Watch, Public Citizen, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Federation of American Scientists.
  3. Take action as individual archivists.  Ericson acknowledged that archivists frequently make decisions about providing or denying access to records, so we need to use our experience and “become advocates for open records and speak out against abuses” (52).
  4. Position ourselves as outspoken activists.  Ericson suggested we should “make activism a priority and position ourselves as a profession that really is interested in and knowledgeable about issues such as access to government records and their value to maintaining our civil liberties” (52).

In its 1988 resolution that served as an official apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, Congress concluded that Executive Order 9066 “‘was motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership'” (39).  May the archival community take up Ericson’s challenge and act in ways that our leadership cannot be so questioned.

“Archives or Assets?”

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Peter B. Hirtle delivered his presidential address at the 2003 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Los Angeles, California.  Hirtle worked at the National Archives and Records Administration, first for the Technology Research Staff and then as coordinator of electronic public access for the agency.   He has also served as curator of modern manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine.  He then worked at Cornell University, as Director of the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections and as Intellectual Property Officer.   He has especially made a name for himself as an authority on copyright.  An expanded version of his address was published in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of the American Archivist.

Hirtle’s address considered the question of whether the holdings of an archives are an asset that can be leveraged for financial gain.  He pointed to the model of museums that sell reproductions and license materials.  In inventorying the assets of archives, Hirtle pointed to the digital assets that are the fruits of digitization projects.  He cited Lesley Ellen Harris for her notion that digital property is “‘the currency of the 21st century’” (236).  But the primary question is whether archives can benefit from the assets in their holdings without compromising their core values and mission.

Hirtle identified four ownership scenarios at archival repositories:

  1. no ownership (i.e., materials are on deposit)
  2. ownership + intellectual property rights
  3. ownership with intellectual property owned by a third party
  4. ownership of materials in the public domain

Obviously, the second of these scenarios affords archives the most options for generating revenue from their collections:

“Among the rights given to the copyright owner are the exclusive right to reproduce a work; to distribute copies of that work to others, either by sale or by lending; to prepare derivative works based on the original copyrighted works; and, in more limited cases, the right to display or perform a work” (238).

But many items in archival collections fall into the fourth category, which also has interesting ramifications for archives.  Hirtle pointed to an article by Kathleen Butler that asserted the owners of objects in the public domain still have “quasi-copyright control” by being able to determine how these objects are accessed, reproduced, and licensed (240).  But Hirtle questioned the propriety of this notion and provided four reasons why attempts to control access to public domain materials are doomed to failure:

  1. Legal Arguments
    • They are part of our “common cultural heritage, and as such cannot belong to any individual or organization” (242).
    • The argument can be made that the copyright of public domain works resides with the public, therefore, the public should be given access and be able to make reproductions of all such works.
    • The efforts by repositories to “use contract law to re-establish the exclusive rights of the copyright owner via state contract law once federal copyright protection has expired” is untested in the courts (242-43).
    • Photographic reproductions do not “warrant copyright protection” (243).
  2. Archival Principles.  Once again, there’s a nod to John Fleckner’s presidential address in discussing archival principles.  Hirtle contended that repositories cannot very well argue that their stewardship of objects deserves a longer monopoly over control than does the act of creation.
  3. Ethical Issues.  Hirtle asserted that archives are on questionable ethical ground in trying to monetize materials that have been donated to a repository.
  4. Practical Issues.  Hirtle suggested that is practically impossible to enforce any sort of monopoly on reproductions of objects in the public domain.

Hirtle offered two suggestions for how archives can derive economic benefit from their holdings:

  1. Charge liberally for copies of public domain material — as much as the market will bear while staying within the bounds of institutional missions and donor agreements.
  2. “Offer information and services that the user cannot find anywhere else” (246).  To support this argument, Hirtle invoked everything from Enron to porn websites to the New York Times Web portal.  While they seem like an odd conglomeration, Hirtle pointed to a business model study that determined in order for cultural heritage institutions to be successful delivering on-line digital content, they will need to think commercially and focus on user needs, which each of these examples has done.  In doing so, archives can develop their real assets — “not the holdings, but the skills, talents, knowledge, and abilities of its trained archival staff.  It is these archival assets that archival repositories must promote” (247).

“Revisiting Mary Jane, or, Dear Cat: Being Archival in the 21st Century”

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Steven L. Hensen delivered his presidential address at the 2002 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Birmingham, Alabama.  Hensen worked at Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department and at the Library of Congress Manuscript Department, where he contributed to the revision of the MARC cataloging formats and the creation of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, second edition (AACR2).  From 1986 until his retirement in 2010, Hensen worked at Duke University in both the Archives and the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library in various capacities.  His address was published in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of the American Archivist.

Given that modern American society seems to have lost its dedication to letter writing — just witness the struggles of Hallmark and the U.S. Postal Service — I’m intrigued by the fascination that John Fleckner‘s 1990 epistolary address continues to stir in the minds of archivists.  After acknowledging the challenges faced during his tenure as SAA president, including responding to the trauma of the September 11th attacks, Hensen paid homage to Fleckner’s address and then launched into his own version, addressed to a graduate intern who’d worked with him at Duke University.*

In his first missive, Hensen acknowledged that in his generation, many archivists started out on other paths before becoming archivists.  He reveled in the fact that graduate programs were providing more educational opportunities to aspiring archivists, both through schools of library/information science and through history programs.  Coupled with the more direct routes for training, Hensen suggested more young people would likely be joining the archival ranks because archival work was becoming more respected and deemed more vital.  He asserted that the explosion of information “has raised the consciousness of the country with regards to the larger questions of access, preservation, and authenticity” (171).  He did recognize that some of the ubiquity of all things archives actually reflected a misunderstanding of the traditional usage of archival terms, but he clung to the notion that archives are fundamental to the accumulation of information.

In his second letter, Hensen contended that at this time, being archival = being digital.  He went on to define “being archival” as

“taking a methodical and conscientious approach to the stewardship of the information; it means maintaining its context and authenticity; it means using international standards for encoding and metadata creation; and it means (or should mean) providing open and democratic access to that information” (172).

Hensen suggested that the archival embrace of being digital allowed repositories to recognize their interconnectedness.

Finally, Hensen reflected on his tenure in SAA and the enduring friendships that developed from this organization.  While some of his predecessors had bemoaned the relative smallness of SAA compared to other professional organizations, he suggested this size lends itself to closer bonds.  He pointed to archival theory and especially descriptive standards as the key to allowing archivists to work smarter and make materials more easily accessible.  (Remember: Hensen wrote Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts, created Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), and helped develop Encoded Archival Desription (EAD).  His papers are housed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.)  He argued that with the archival grounding in authenticity, access, and preservation, archivists had become role models for the information community.  This new status also allowed SAA to become more assertive with advocacy and action, taking official positions regarding copyright, federal standards for records storage, public records, information policy, and presidential records.


* The “Cat” to whom Hensen wrote is now Cat Saleeby McDowell, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working both on the Publications Committee of the Society of North Carolina Archivists and in the Traveling Archivist Program at the State Archives of North Carolina.