In July 1992, a group of archivists and historians met at the Bentley Historical Library to evaluate how to respond to “a period of profound stress and change” for the history and archival professions (749).  The group consisted of:

  • Page Putnam Miller, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland and has been director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History since 1980
  • Gerhard Weinberg, who earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and has been professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1974
  • David Thelen, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, became professor of history at Indiana University in 1985, and was editor of the Journal of American History from 1985-1999
  • Gregory Hunter, who earned a Ph.D. from New York University and has been a professor at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University since 1990
  • Edwin Bridges, who earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and served as director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History from 1982-2012

Their report was published in the Fall 1993 issue of the American Archivist.  They asserted the simple premise, “There is a natural partnership between those who decide what evidence will be available and those who decide how to interpret it” (731).  Although the historical and archival professions had been approaching challenges in isolation, this Bentley group contended they shared common concerns (731):

  • the inclusion of “new voices and new activities”
  • “Social, political, and intellectual movements of the past generation have insisted that historians’ and archivists’ presentations of the past should include peoples from all backgrounds, the way they lived and worked and played, and what they did and said in their most intimate moments.”

They identified several changes affecting the work of archivists and historians:

  • “Archival sources have widened beyond written records to include such items as photographs, oral histories, videotapes, computerized statistical files, laboratory data, wiretap transcriptions, architectural drawings, and electronic records” (732).
  • Historians began embracing the methodologies of other disciplines, thereby encouraging the use of new sources.
  • A mass of records and scholarly works threatened to inundate researchers.
  • “The custodians of modern records are likely to have less time, and often less subject expertise, to assist researchers than did their predecessors, whom an earlier generation of scholars gratefully acknowledged in the prefaces to their books” (733).  The group did not elaborate on this evaluation, but personally, I find this conclusion troubling in what it indicates about the perceived value of archivists.
  • Historians sought less to communicate objective truths and more to emphasize interpretation and perspective, thereby underscoring the need for inclusivity.
  • Fiscal constraints along with “the advent of computers,” leading to concerns about preserving electronic records, precipitated introspection by archivists (739).

The Bentley group concluded that historians and archivists had “turned to specialization of content, perspective, and function,” leading to “greater fragmentation within fields, greater uncertainty about how to define relationships with people outside their professions, and an erosion of confidence in a common core that defines the practice of history and archives” (733).  In an attempt to begin the conversation of how to restore this relationship, they evaluated the current state of teaching research skills to graduate history students.  One survey response about the teaching of research methodology that I found especially concerning was its “relative inattention to the complexities of how records are created and organized and the nuances of archival finding aids” (734).  The Bentley group suggested four competencies that should be mastered by graduate history students (736):

  1. “developing a research strategy”
  2. “an overview of archival principles and practices”
  3. “understanding archival principles and practices as a means of locating evidence”
  4. “understanding the nature and use of archival evidence”

Given the bulk characteristic of many modern archival collections, they went on to emphasize the importance of a research strategy more refined than “wandering” through all the materials.  Although I fear this is a dying art form, they identified the value of a reference interview with an archivist:

“These archivists have the ability to perceive researchers’ needs, to steer them to appropriate research paths, and to prod them to ask and explore new research questions and possibilities” (737).

They acknowledged historians do not need the same level of proficiency as archivists but, as a baseline, need to “have a basic understanding of the record systems of the people who created the records, of the principles archivists use in managing archival collections, and of the range of specific tools archivists use for describing their holdings” (743).  Returning to the point about objectivity and interpretation, they suggested graduate history students need to learn “that documentary evidence may have been written to achieve — or conceal — a certain purpose” (743).

The group concluded with a challenge to develop both formal and informal opportunities for cooperation between archivists and historians, including (746):

  • conferences and studies
  • “exploring how and why certain groups kept particular records, and why some records and perspectives are more worthy of preservation than others”
  • “theoretical work on the relationship of surviving documentation to the past and to our contemporary understanding of the past”
  • continued opportunities for archivists to serve as adjunct faculty members in history departments
  • fellowship opportunities — with archivists spending a semester conducting research as full members of the history faculty and history faculty members working in archives, “perhaps providing historical input into archival appraisal decisions”

Although this report is more than two decades old, I think many of its analyses and suggestions still bear relevance today.  And if any of these fellowship opportunities exist, sign me up!

 

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