Frank Boles delivered his presidential address at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Austin, Texas.  He worked for the Chicago Historical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He then worked at the University of Michigan as an archivist at the Bentley Historical Library and as an instructor in archival administration within UM’s School of Information.  Since 1991, Boles has served as director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.  His address was published in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the American Archivist.

Although this was not the speech Boles first intended to deliver, this relatively short alternate certainly ranks high on the list of inspiring thoughts about archival work.  His basic premise was that archivists make a profound difference in the world.  He acknowledged there are elements to archival work that don’t revolve around history, specifically (20):

  • documenting transactions
  • preserving “records needed for administrative purposes”
  • preserving “material for reasons of legal and fiscal accountability”

While he recognized the importance of this work, he also contended that it is short-lived, while the past is the enduring purpose for archives because:

“It explains why we are.  It opens a window to our individual and collective souls. Archives are, and will remain, that place where, above everything else, the souls of a person and of a community are both preserved and laid bare.  Insofar as any human can find truth, truth is in our holdings. Insofar as any human can find immortality, immortality is in our stacks” (20-21).

Given his professional expertise in the field of appraisal, it makes sense that Boles identified it as the crucial “professional tool that defines remembrance and forgetfulness” (21).  He criticized archivists who refuse to bear the burden of selection because of fear of mistakes.  He also acknowledged the importance of arrangement and description, comparing archivists to foresters who must care for the “vast stands of intellectual timber.”  But he warned against focusing too much on the nitty-gritty work of description (e.g., coding, controlled vocabularies) rather than viewing it as “a bridge always helping the users move from what they know to what they wish to learn” (22).

Boles recognized the difficulties of handling electronic records and challenged archivists to prepare ourselves for this work rather than hoping someone else will provide some panacea.  As for preservation, he pointed out the necessity of re-appraisal rather than buying time for all records indiscriminately by carrying out costly conservation or digitization efforts.  Boles also included advocacy as a crucial responsibility for archivists.  He suggested archivists should advocate not for self-serving motives but “to ensure we can carry forward our collective missions with sufficient resources and working within a positive and helpful legal framework” (24).

In his conclusion, Boles returned to the importance of memory and the role of archivists in preserving it:

“We cause to be remembered triumph and tragedy.  We give voice to those who can no longer speak.  We preserve memories for those who can no longer remember.  Archivists weave a veil of paper, through which, however dimly, the present can see the past and the living can hear the dead.  We archivists are the stewards of humanity’s legacy” (25).

In identifying the care of archives as a form of stewardship, he asserted it requires both “deep learning and supple adjustment” (25).  Acknowledging this can be a difficult balance to strike, Boles urged archivists to see the profession as a calling rather than merely a job:

“Hear the archival calling.  Hear it both in your head and in your heart, and choose to live it.  Doing so gives archivists the vision and the power to link present to past, and living to dead.  Doing so is the highest goal to which we aspire.  Doing so is truly within your grasp if you choose to reach out” (25).

The next time you find yourself questioning the importance of your work, I suggest taking a few minutes to read this address.  I guarantee you’ll be able to resume your work with much greater vigor, determination, and sense of purpose.