Archives and History: Francis X. Blouin Jr.

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In 2011, the Society of American Archivists published a book in honor of Helen Samuels entitled Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions.  Fran Blouin’s essay for this volume, “The Evolution of Archival Practice and the History-Archival Divide” provides a cogent, succinct explanation of the shifting priorities of archivists and historians in the late 20th century.  Blouin worked as a research assistant at the Social Welfare History Archives Center at the University of Minnesota.  He then moved to the University of Michigan, serving as assistant director of the library (1974-75) and associate archivist (1975-81).  Blouin is a professor in the School of Information and a professor in the Department of History, and since 1981 has served as the director of the Bentley Historical Library.

Beginning with the opening of the Vatican Archives in 1883, Blouin provided an overview of the shared views of archivists and historians, suggesting that historians perceived archives as the “ultimate arbiter or tribunal of historical truth” and that positivism served as the glue that cemented this partnership (317).  He contended that this partnership splintered in the late 20th century:

“History was moving toward new conceptual frameworks that diminished the privileged position of the archives, and so too were archives moving toward new frameworks that would marginalize the authority of academic history in ascribing importance and meaning to archival collections” (317-18).

Blouin elaborated to explain that the emerging archival “authorities, standards, methodologies, and contextualities” developed distinct from historical methodology (318).  He suggested that the postcustodialism that took hold in the archives realm in the 1970s plus the “technical and conceptual turns of the late 1980s” contributed to the rift between archives and historians, and he spent the rest of his essay explaining this first development (318).

Blouin asserted that factors in the 1970s challenged the prior cooperation between history and the archive (318):

  1. “the sheer volume of document production”
  2. “the expanding intellectual reach of historical interests”

While historians were reevaluating documents and finding sources in heretofore unexpected places, archives were coping with increasingly crowded spaces.  Add to this the growth of state-based public archives along with the codification of public records and freedom of information rights and privacy concerns, and the role of archives shifted to that of “publicly accountable administrative entities serving a broad clientele well beyond academic historians” (319).  Blouin pointed to Gerald Ham as a voice calling for reasoned appraisal in a postcustodial sense while Frank Burke attempted to establish documentation within the framework of historical research.  Ham and Burke faced resistance from those such as Lester Cappon who clung to

“the Jenkinsonian concept of the archivist as the passive custodian caring for documents that could claim authority from the very process of their generation and subsequent curatorship, that is to say from some clear authority derived from a consensual understanding of the past that privileged certain institutions by the very nature of their existence and by their perceived dominance in the formation of societal and political norms” (321).

The concomitant growth of the American Records Management Association (ARMA) and the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA) contributed to a focus on legal and administrative values of records rather than their potential use for historical research.  Yet archivists continued their studied consideration of the relationship of archives to historians, producing voluminous literature that Blouin asserted was rarely “in any way confirmed, validated, or even engaged by those practising historical scholarship in the related fields” (322).

Historians of the 1970s also began looking at the stories of history from the bottom up rather than from the exclusive perspective of the privileged and powerful.  Blouin referenced the analysis of Howard Zinn and provided a summation of the new focus of history:

“History was broadening its concerns, archivists would argue, beyond the practical capacities of the archival infrastructure.  Everything simply could not be saved.  However, in an intellectual climate where every aspect of life, every story, every life, was worthy of serious academic attention, then every document had potential research value . . .  [meaning] no historian dared to take on the responsibility for recommending the destruction of vast masses of documentation that modern appraisal required” (323).

Blouin pointed to the 1985 article of Frank Boles and Julia Young as one of the first to approach appraisal exclusively from an archival perspective, absenting historiography in favor of “a more practical interventionist turn in the evaluation of archival materials.”  No longer could archives “embrace the idea of providing all documents for answering all questions,” and at the same time academic historians no longer informed and guided appraisal decisions (324).  The determination of value “had to be removed from any exclusive reliance derived from academic discourse in history” (325).

As Ham concluded in his 1974 presidential address, the postcustodial archival approach meant “looking at the record and especially the records-creating processes and contexts, and forming appraisal strategies around them” rather than considering the records as a “potential source base of scientific history” (325).  This shift brought American archival practice closer to that of Europe and Canada with a focus on record values independent of historiographical trends:

“History and the historical were subordinated to the essence of the record itself and its functional context of creation and contemporary use” (325).

With the focus of this book being the influence of Helen Samuels, Blouin also reflected on her analysis of university functions in Varsity Letters.  She recognized the impossibility of predicting future research and instead urged attention to adequate documentation.  Blouin asserted this sort of functional analysis was both “ahistorical” and “interventionist” (327).  He concluded with a prescription for improving the relationship of historians and archivists:

“Improving this relationship will require a new partnership on the part of academic history to comprehend the intellectual constructs that form the foundation of modern archival administration — and on the part of archivists better efforts to understand the breadth of conceptual frameworks that now constitute contemporary approaches to the study of history, including potentially the history of those functional contexts that underpin the new appraisal theories and strategies” (327).

Archives and History: Daniel J. Cohen

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For as long as I can, I intend to alternate between the voices of archivists and historians, so this week I turn to historian Daniel J. Cohen.  He taught for a few years at Yale University, having also earned his Ph.D. there in 1999.  From 2001-13 he taught at George Mason University, with appointments both in the Department of History and Art History and at the Center for History and New Media.  In 2013, Cohen became the founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, and since 2015, he has also been a professor of history at Northeastern University.

Cohen wrote “The Future of Preserving the Past” in the Summer 2005 issue of the CRM Journal.  He began by comparing the efforts to preserve the events of December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

December 7, 1941

  • National Archives: military photographs, communications, damage assessments, reactions of government officials through public announcements and private correspondence
  • Office of Naval Records and Library: names of those killed or wounded
  • Library of Congress: acquired typescripts of NBC’s breaking news account
  • National Park Service: USS Arizona Memorial preserves underwater remains of the ship
  • Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song: folklorist Alan Lomax entreated colleagues to record interviews with the American people

September 11, 2001

  • Columbia University Oral History Research Office and the Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy: September 11, 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project conducted 300+ interviews
  • Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center: asked folklorists to record thoughts of average Americans
  • Library of Congress’ September 11, 2001 Documentary Project: video interviews, written narratives, drawings, photographs
  • Library of Congress + Internet Archive + + Pew Internet and American Life Project: archived 30,000 websites from September 11 – December 1, 2001
  • Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: September 11 Digital Archive captured personal stories, emails, photographs and works of art, instant messages, pager communications, etc. — accessioned by the Library of Congress fall 2003

Cohen acknowledged that digital sources are crucial to providing an adequate documentary history of the present but also outlined a number of concerns about digital collections, which he described as a “mutating record” (9):

  • involve complicated hardware and software
  • may not adequately represent the voices of the older, less educated, or economically disadvantaged
  • have an unclear preservation path (as compared to the well-established preservation for stable formats such as paper)
  • present questions regarding provenance and selection criteria
  • may create an “inverse relationship between the quantity of digital artifacts gathered and the general quality of those artifacts” (10)
  • tend to be “less organized and more capricious in what they cover” (10)

Despite these reservations, Cohen also expounded on the positive benefits of digital collections vs. traditional archives, suggesting they are not only larger and more diverse but also incorporate more perspectives and “marginalized constituencies” (10).  With their larger quantity of data, digital collections can be more easily mined for patterns.  And their digital nature allows for easy searching.

Cohen advocated for the active online solicitation of digital materials, pointing out that these interactions are both economical and, unlike oral histories, result in accessions that are easily searched.  But he also acknowledged the enduring value of oral histories and suggested Internet sources can best complement other methods of acquiring sources.  He included a quotation from oral historian Linda Shopes that highlights the irreplaceable qualities of a good interviewer:

“‘“the cultivation of rapport and … lengthy, in-depth narratives through intense
face-to-face contact; the use of subtle paralinguistic cues as an aid to moving
the conversation along; the talent of responding to a particular comment, in
the moment, with the breakthrough question, the probe that gets underneath a
narrator’s words'” (11).

Cohen identified a number of online technologies that can be used to capture the historical record:

  • Atomic Veterans History Project collected emails from veterans who participated in nuclear testing during the Cold War
  • blogs, which can allow multiple contributors and can include images and multimedia as well as text
  • instant messaging software

Yet he also pinpointed what makes so many archivists and historians wary of digital collections:

“What will remain in the foreground are the qualitative concerns, especially the
question of provenance raised by the solicitation of historical materials from
unseen contributors. Given the slippery character of digital materials, how can
we ensure that what we receive over the Internet is authentic, or that historical
narratives we receive really are from the people they say they are?” (12)

He then attempted to rebut these concerns:

  • He termed the falsification of digital historical documents a “phantom problem” (13) because most people enter valid information on websites.  (I confess, I find myself wondering if this is still the case a decade hence.)
  • Those submitting to online historical archives will most likely “share a cultural institution’s or dedicated researcher’s goals and interest in creating an accurate historical record” (13).
  • Following up on submissions, either through tracking IP addresses or through email or phone conversations, can validate submissions.
  • “Historians will have to continue to look for evidence of internal consistency and weigh them against other sources.  In any media, new or old, solid research is the basis of sound scholarship” (13).

Cohen provided a number of examples of existing digital collections (none of which, 11 years later, is still accessible at the URL noted in Cohen’s article!):

  • Moving Here: immigration to the UK (archived October 2013)
  • WW2 People’s War: Britain’s WWII vets and survivors of the London Blitz (collected by the BBC June 2003 – January 2006)
  • Rosie the Riveter/Word War II Home Front — though they are still collecting stories, I can’t find that they are made available online
  • Remembering Pearl Harbor: National Geographic Society, so it has a cool interactive map
  • Voices of Civil Rights: Library of Congress + AARP + Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Cohen ended on a more technical note, focusing on the difficulties of preserving digital sources:

  • digital media are “profoundly unstable” (14)
  • digital objects can be rendered entirely unusable with any sort of corruption (whereas paper documents and photographs can still reveal some insights even if they have been damaged)
  • hardware, operating system, and software are required to read digital data

He pointed out that many digital sources are ephemeral, so rather than focusing on how to preserve digital materials permanently, Cohen challenged readers first to acquire the artifacts and then to figure out how to preserve them adequately.  He concluded, “ways will need to be found to capture digital documents, messages, images, audio, and video before they are altered or erased if our descendants are to understand how we lived” (16).

Archives and History: Patrick M. Quinn

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In 1977, Patrick M. Quinn’s article for The Midwestern Archivist introduced the piece by Howard Zinn that I reviewed last week.  Quinn worked at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1966-71) and was Assistant University Archivist at the University of Wisconsin (1972-74).  He then became University Archivist at Northwestern, remaining there until 2008 and still having an emeritus position today.

 “Archivists and Historians: The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a revised version of a paper that Quinn presented at the 1973 meeting of the Midwest Archives Conference.  He defined the job of archivists: “to interpret, understand and anticipate those [social] forces so that we might have some control over them, both as human beings and as archivists” (5).  He pointed to the New Deal era as the time that produced “a generation of historians-turned-archivists” (6).  After World War II, economic growth coupled with an “educational explosion” produced new jobs for historians, greater interest in historical research, and, therefore, the need for more and better archives (7).  Quinn saw the 1960s as a period of transition for archivists and especially for the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  He identified a younger generation of archivists who had different priorities than the founding members of SAA.  He listed their conclusions about SAA (8):
  • stagnant activities, outlook, and membership
  • leadership too traditional and narrowly controlled by top-level administrators, National Archives personnel, and Southern state archivists
  • mostly white, with unequal treatment of women
  • perpetuated “an elitist approach to writing history” by determining what materials should be collected and from whom

Quinn identified a number of responses from SAA to these internal pressures:

  • Committee on the 1970s
  • Committee on the Status of Women
  • anti-discrimination policy
  • development of new action groups and newsletters
  • movement to recruit new members and hire an executive secretary
  • creation of regional archival organizations

Of course, the economic crises of the 1970s hurt archivists, leading to a tight job market — both due to cutbacks and increased competition with history PhDs who couldn’t find other employment — and stagnant salaries.  Quinn concluded,

“The related phenomena of individuals becoming archivists by default, and the archival profession comprised in the main of history prelim flunkouts and librarians assigned to archival work against their wishes, are over.  The new archivist will be a person who consciously and deliberately chooses to enter the profession.  Criteria for prospective archivists will be determined more and more by exigencies of the economy combined with apprenticeship performance rather than being based upon artificially imposed educational standards” (10).

He suggested the relationship between historians and archivists had been strained, likely because “historians tended to view archivists in the same manner as they did filling station attendants, while archivists, especially those with history backgrounds who entered the archival craft by circumstance or default, looked upon most ‘real’
historians with resentment and jealousy” (11).  He also pointed to the Lowenheim affair as a specific cause of dispute.

Of course, the division of SAA in 1974 with the creation of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators also both reflected and amplified changes in SAA as well as the relationship of archivists and historians.  But it does seem that Quinn’s prediction about the intentionality of people entering the archival profession has been fairly accurate.

Archives and History: Howard Zinn

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In January 2015, I began a weekly journey through the annual meeting addresses of the presidents of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  Because the 2015 speech of Kathleen Roe has not yet been published, I have to take a hiatus from these reviews.  But I have enjoyed the discipline of reading some archival literature on a weekly basis, so my next assignment will be to pick a topic and do a deep dive to determine what thought leaders have written.

With my training as a historian, I determined the first topic should be archives and history.  In a nutshell, what’s up for debate is whether historical research should influence the holdings and priorities of archives and whether training in the historical method is necessary in order to be a good archivist.  With the genesis of SAA coming out of the American Historical Association, there was a good bit of historical influence in the early years of the organization, but it has waned over the years.  Some SAA presidents addressed this topic:

For this week, I’ve chosen to begin with Howard Zinn.  Zinn was an historian and social activist, teaching at Spelman College (1956-63) and Boston University (1963-1988).  Where most of the literature seems to come from the archival perspective analyzing our relationships to historians, Zinn was an historian unafraid of calling archivists to task for what he deemed sins of omission or commission.  In the early 1970s, Zinn was a voice challenging archivists to develop more inclusive collections and to become better advocates.  In 1970, Zinn wrote “The Archivist and Radical Reform,” and in September of the same year, he read a paper at the SAA annual meeting entitled “The Activist Archivist” — but I have not been able to find those sources, so instead, I’ll review his 1977 article from The Midwestern Archivist entitled “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.”

Zinn focused on three topics in this article, the last of which is most relevant for my purposes here (14):

  • “the social role of the professional in modern times”
  • “the scholar in the United States today”
  • “the archivist here and now”

Zinn considered the archival profession an “inevitably political craft” (20) and listed seven analyses of archives:

  1. Wealth and power determine what is preserved in archives — which means the records of government, business, and the military predominate (20).
  2. The government censors or withholds altogether much information.
  3. Archival collections tend to come from rich, successful, old, politically active, white men.
  4. Written archives are more dominant than oral histories, which preferences literate segments of the population.
  5. “The emphasis in the collection of records is towards individuals rather than movements, towards static interviews, rather than the dynamics of social interaction in demonstrations” (21).
  6. Collections emphasize the past and the non-controversial.
  7. “Far more resources are devoted to the collection and preservation of what already exists as records, than to recording fresh data” (22).

All of this added up to what Zinn considered archival bias, which he asserted resulted in protection of “governmental authorities from close scrutiny” and the glorification of “important people, powerful people, military, political, and business leaders, [keeping] obscure the lives of ordinary people in the society” (24-25).  However, he stopped short of accusing archivists of intentional wrongdoing — terming it “passivity” rather than “malfeasance” (25).

Zinn concluded with two proposals for archivists (25):

  • campaign to get all government documents open to the public
  • “compile a whole new world of documentary material about the lives, desires, needs, of ordinary people”


“An Archival Roadmap”

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Danna C. Bell delivered her presidential address at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Washington, D.C.  She worked as a reference librarian and coordinator of bibliographic instruction at Marymount University (1990-1993).  She worked as an archivist within the Washingtoniana Division of the District of Columbia Public Library (1993-1997) and the Henry Lee Moon Library at the NAACP.  She was the Curator of the National Equal Justice Library (1997-1998).  She joined the Library of Congress staff in 1998, first as a Learning Center Specialist, then as a member of the Digital Reference Team, and currently as an Educational Outreach Specialist.  Her address was published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of the American Archivist.

Bell began her speech with an ode to the power of the primary sources that call archives home.  She recalled seeing letters — written by Gene Roddenberry to Carl Sagan and by Martin Luther King to A. Philip Randolph — that made her “squeal with delight.”

“To me, these two letters were reminders that behind the signatures were real people; that they sent letters to colleagues; and there was more to them than their accomplishments.  These letters engaged me, excited me, and made me want to learn more” (10).

After describing a middle school class that learned about a map from the Battle of Princeton, Bell challenged archivists to “always remember that we are more than just preservers of information.  We are guardians of knowledge, of inspiration, and of our connections to one another.  We need to remind ourselves of the power we hold and the responsibility we accepted when we decided to become archivists” (10).

Bell described four touchstones on her archival roadmap:

  1. Context matters because it can help people establish connections.
  2. Effective communication is key — archivists should strive to be good storytellers.
  3. Archivists must collaborate with our champions and listen to our supporters.
  4. Bell identified those who have been models for her life — her mother, Maya Angelou, Leanita McClain, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Drawing on the powerful example of Bethune’s last will and testament, Bell shared her wishes for SAA:

  • Archivists need to focus on the basic fundamentals of “appraisal, arrangement, description, and reference” (14).
  • SAA needs “to balance the needs of students and new professionals with the needs of those who are further along in our careers” (14).
  • SAA should review archival education programs.
  • SAA should develop a document to explain “the work and worth of archivists” (15).
  • Archivists should value working with the K-12 community.
  • SAA members should recognize “membership in a professional association with professional staff has substantial costs” (15).
  • SAA members should support each other rather than attacking each other, should embrace the possibility of change, and should listen to each other.
  • After thanking SAA staff, volunteers, and Council, Bell ended with a thought-provoking quote from Verne Harris:

“‘Archives are not the quiet retreat for professionals and scholars and craftspersons.  They are a crucible of human experience; a battleground for meaning and significance.  A Babel of stories.  A place and a space of complex and ever shifting power plays'” (16).