In researching the bios for last week’s post, I found there was an additional report that came out of the Research Fellowship Program for Study of Modern Archives at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.  Four archivists with historical training were joined by two historians and “charged with assessing whether or not historical content and skills still had a central role to play in the education of archivists” (719).  This report, entitled “Is the Past Still Prologue?: History and Archival Education,” was written by F. Gerald Ham, Frank Boles, Gregory S. Hunter, and James M. O’Toole and was published in the Fall 1993 issue of the American ArchivistF. Gerald Ham was the long-time state archivist in Wisconsin.  Frank Boles is director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.  Gregory Hunter is a professor at the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University.  James O’Toole directed the M.A. program in history and archival methods at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (1986-98), and since 1998 he has been a history professor at Boston College.

Although this report takes me on a tangent from the topic on which I’ve been focusing, I think it’s worth the time to evaluate these recommendations about the role of history in archival education.  They looked back to the 1938 Bemis Report out of the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on the Training of Archivists, which concluded:

“‘It is the historical scholar who dominates the staffs of the best European archives.  We think it should be so here, with the emphasis on American history and political science’” (718).

Yet by 1991 when this group convened at the Bentley Library, there had been a marked shift away from history in the archival field.  They attributed this change to four factors:

  1. Structural changes in archival training.  Graduate archival education programs developed in the 1960s and rapidly shifted the education attained by archivists away from history departments.
  2. Technological changes that impacted the work required of archivists.  Automation and standardized formats led archivists to feel more in common with the information management field than with the history profession.
  3. Changing requirements for archival jobs.  More archivists began reporting to library administrators, so an M.L.S. degree became more likely to enable career advancement than a history degree.
  4. Increasing efforts by the archival profession to distinguish itself from either history or library science.  They pointed to the increasing number of full-time archival instructors, the growth of membership of the Academy of Certified Archivists, the development of a Master of Archival Studies, and “a growing recognition of the need for research independent of other disciplines on issues of professional concern” (720).

This group concluded that “the study of history does matter and has an important place in preparing archivists for their distinctive professional role” (720).  They highlighted three ways in which history contributes to archives:

(1) The Archivist’s Perspective – they contended that archivists possess a unique perspective based on four main categories of knowledge:

• “Knowledge of the organizations, institutions, and individuals that produce records” (721)
• Knowledge of the records themselves – “what records are made of, how that has changed over time, and how the media available to create records affect the kinds of records that may be made” (722).
• Knowledge of how records may be used, in both primary and secondary uses.  They asserted archivists are “committed to managing the record in such a way that those immediate uses, and an almost infinite number of other uses besides, will be possible” (722).
• Knowledge of archival principles and techniques – which is applied after records come to an archival repository.  This is the only category of knowledge that does not have a clear historical dimension.

(2) Archives and Historical Method – they listed four skills necessary for archivists that derive from historical method (723-24):

• framing historical questions
• identifying sources
• evaluating and verifying records
• historiographical context – with this, they acknowledged that archivists may need to update some of their work (particularly description) in order to address changing historical interests

(3) Historical Content – the Bentley group identified two types of historical knowledge necessary for archivists:

• Core historical knowledge.  Archivists not only need to learn on the job the history of the particular “organization, institution, political jurisdiction, or subject matter to which their collections relate” (726).  In order effectively to carry out the archival functions of appraisal, description, and reference and access, archivists also need to “understand the broad contours of the history of the nation in which they are working” (726).
• Particular historical content.  Archivists need a more interdisciplinary knowledge of “the development of societies, cultures, institutions, and technologies” (726).  Specifically, “the history of organizational structure and development, and the history of technology and recordkeeping” are especially useful to archivists (727).

The report concluded:

“Today, archives is no longer a historical subdiscipline; rather it is an independent profession based on a distinct professional perspective.  Archivists’ independent judgment should not, however, obscure recognition of the continuing interdependence between the archival enterprise and a number of related disciplines, including history.  Aspects of the historian’s craft continue to make a vital contribution in the education of archivists” (729).

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