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).