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.