Archives and History: The Two Sides of the Desk

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I could probably continue writing about the intersection of archives and history for years to come, but there are other interesting topics that also need to be investigated, so I’m going to try to wrap up this endeavor in the next month.  To begin this culminating period, I’ve read an article by William F. Birdsall about the relationship of archivists and historians in between the time of the creation of the Conference of Archivists in 1909 under the American Historical Association (AHA) and the 1935 decision to create the Society of American Archivists.  Birdsall based this article on the first two chapters of his Ph.D. dissertation submitted in 1973 to the University of Wisconsin.  This article was published in the April 1975 issue of the American Archivist, at which time he was the assistant director for public services in the University of Manitoba Libraries in Winnipeg.

Three factors prompted Waldo G. Leland to organize a Conference of Archivists (161):

  1. the growing number of state archival agencies
  2. the model of the European archival tradition
  3. J. Franklin Jameson’s efforts to establish a national archives

But these early conferences were attended more by historians than by archivists, which was reflected in the programs that emphasized preservation more than the technical issues of how to describe and classify archival materials.  Where historians prioritized inventories of state archives, Leland’s preference was to develop an American manual of archives to rival that produced earlier by the Dutch.

World War One interrupted the efforts to organize Conferences for Archivists:

  • income from membership fees to the AHA declined
  • AHA suspended the work of the Public Archives Commission that had been organizing the Conferences of Archivists

The work of American historians also shifted after World War One:

  • more focus on non-American history
  • less of a scientific approach to history as had been common around the turn of the century and more of social science approach that incorporated intellectual, economic, and social concerns developed from “material falling more in the category of historical manuscripts than public archives” (165)
  • the American historical profession showed no growth in the interwar period

Birdsall concluded,

“There was a feeling among historians that the Public Archives Commission had fulfilled its original function—the survey of state archives.  The historian’s primary interest was in the preservation of archival materials; and when there were no longer funds or individuals willing to carry on the surveys, historians abdicated their responsibility for the Public Archives Commission” (165).

At the 1929 Conference of Archivists, Margaret Cross Norton delivered a paper in which she asserted “‘the greatest handicap . . . to getting adequate support for archives work is the belief that archives work is just another function of the state historical society'” (166-67).  While her distinction between the priorities of historians and those of archivists was not universally well-received at the time, Birdsall credited her with being “a perceptive witness to the differentiation developing between historians and archivists” (167).

The establishment of the National Archives in 1934 prompted some soul-searching about the place of archivists under the umbrella of the AHA, and Albert R. Newsome took the lead posing this query.  While Norton and others recognized the divergent needs of archivists and historians — with archivists needing professional literature that focused on issues of little concern to historians (e.g., “cataloging, preserving, indexing, and inventorying of archives” [169]) — they also worried that archivists alone might not be able to keep a separate organization financially solvent.  Newsome wrote the 1935 report of the special committee to the executive council of the AHA, a document Birdsall identified as “the archivists’ declaration of independence” (170).  At the 1935 AHA annual meeting, Theodore C. Blegen presented his address on “Problems of American Archivists” during the luncheon Conference of Archivists.  He pointed out the challenges of having no American manual of archives, no established technical standards, and inadequate archival legislation.  Somehow questions about the financial feasibility of independence were outweighed by separate professional interests, and before the annual meeting adjourned, a special committee was established to plan a meeting for the proposed separate archival organization.  Nevertheless, this move did not signify a fissure between archivists and historians:

“The historical training of most archivists, the intimate relationship of the two fields, and the recognition that historians were still an important body of clients, made a complete break unlikely” (172).

Yet the support of the AHA for archival work steadily dwindled:

  • the Public Archives Commission and the Historical Manuscripts Commission were discontinued
  • in 1947 the AHA Subcommittee on Public Archives was abolished
  • all AHA subcommittees dealing with archival material were discontinued by 1950

Birdsall concluded with this summation of why it took archivists so long to break away from their home under an historical organization:

“Their commitment to historical scholarship, instilled by their own interests, their training, the prevailing concept of archives as historical evidence, and their lack of numbers, made the formal break with the historians a slow and painful process.  That break was encouraged by the opening of the National Archives and by archivists’ growing awareness that their dependence on the historical profession could no longer prove beneficial to their professional development” (173).

It occurs to me in reading back through this history that part of the problem between archivists and historians was one of semantics.  The National Archives website points out that “the Public Archives Commission was established in 1899 as a result of the Historical Manuscripts Commission’s emphasis on the difference between private papers and public archives.”*  Now I’m the first to admit that words do matter, and I frequently rail about the modern misappropriations of the term archive.  But perhaps drawing this fine distinction between the collected papers of private individuals and the collected records of public entities in the end did no favors to either archivists or historians.



The Evolution of SAA Presidential Addresses

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As long as I’ve paused my series on archives and history to look at Archives*Records 2016, I want to reflect on the evolution of presidential addresses for the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  Having read the speeches from Albert. R. Newsome through Kathleen Roe (and heard Dennis Meissner’s recent speech in Atlanta), I’ve noticed a number of changes that have occurred over the years.

  1. The tenure of the president was originally longer.  Newsome served for three years, and the 2nd-8th presidents all served for two years.  Needless to say, these presidents had more opportunities to address their peers at annual meetings.
  2. For many years, the presidential address was a studied research article — or at least that’s what was published in the American Archivist.  In most cases, only the journal version of the address is accessible to me, so I cannot differentiate specifically between what was presented and what was published, but a common footnote mentions something along the lines of the published article being an expanded version of the presented address.

    Here are the current definitions provided in the editorial policy for the American Archivist:

    • Research Articles are analytical and critical expositions based on original investigation or on systematic review of literature.  A wide variety of subjects are encouraged.
    • Perspectives are commentaries, reflective or opinion pieces, addressing issues or practices that concern archivists and their constituents.
  3. Over the last few decades, perspectives have dominated the SAA presidential addresses (and this format peppered the series in previous years as well).  I would further divide perspectives (with examples of each):
    • Reflections on the state of the profession.  These speeches usually identify problems currently plaguing the archival profession.
    • Aspirational pieces on what archivists should do.  These speeches challenge archivists to do our work in better ways.
    • Inspirational pieces on what archivists should be.  These speeches challenge archivists to look beyond quotidian concerns and consider the bigger picture of the importance of archival work.
      • Mark Greene laid out his core archival values
      • Frank Boles made his argument for the profound value of archival work

Both personally and professionally, I find the research articles and the aspirational/inspirational pieces most useful to me.  I’ll admit that the process by which someone is nominated to become SAA president is somewhat of a mystery to me, but I trust these individuals have distinguished themselves professionally in a manner befitting of their nomination.  I also realize that the “sage-on-a-stage” model has its critics among conference participants, but personally, I recognize the limitations of my own knowledge and experience, so I still relish the opportunity to learn at the feet of someone with greater knowledge and experience.

I’m not sure what it says about the profession when those with the most experience are no longer the primary ones producing research articles.  On the one hand, I suppose it’s good the American Archivist provides younger, non-tenured professionals with an opportunity to publish.  But I hope the sages of the profession don’t forget the responsibility to share their wisdom with those of us who are still eager to learn.

“Why Archives?”


Having taken a week to reflect on SAA 2016, this week I want to review the newly published presidential address by Kathleen D. Roe.  Roe recently retired from her position as the Director of Archives and Records Management Operations at the New York State Archives.  She delivered her presidential address at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Cleveland, Ohio, and it was published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of the American Archivist.

Roe asserted that while a focus on best practices is important, this alone cannot advance the profession.  She posed a number of important questions (7):

  • “Why do we keep what we keep?
  • “Why should people care?
  • “Why do archives matter?”

Roe argued, “Archives are, in fact and in reality, the essential evidence of our society.  It is absolutely critical that an even and representative archival record first survives and then is made available to any and all possible users” (7).  But rather than approaching people with rational reasons regarding the importance of archives, she contended that the better tactic is to address first the emotional weight of archives, focusing on the limbic brain.  One of Roe’s initiatives during her year as SAA president was the “Year of Living Dangerously,” which challenged archivists to talk about why archives matter.  Roe listed four examples, including specific, heart-touching stories for each.

  1. Archives Provide Essential Evidence.  An NPR research librarian found records at the National Archives that helped identify African American, Japanese American, and Puerto Rican troops that were exposed to chemical weapons testing during World War II, thereby underscoring the principle of government accountability.
  2. Archives Support the Creation of New Knowledge.  A research geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey used images and data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Barry Archives to document visually the effects of climate change on glaciers.
  3. Archives Provide a Laboratory for Students to Understand the Human Experience.  A struggling high school student became engaged in school while researching Ted Bundy for a History Day project and went on not only to graduate from high school but to graduate from college and law school.
  4. Importance to Cultural Heritage for Communities.  A Korean businessman challenged his archivist son to employ archives to tell their story.

Roe challenged her listeners, “We need to talk about the outcomes and values, the impact of archives” (11) — predicting that without such focus, archives could easily die (and be subsumed by other fields).

I wholeheartedly agree with Roe.  While archivists certainly need to iron out the details of how we do our work, I feel like we spend so much time focusing on these practices that we neglect our purpose — which ultimately has to be use of the archives.  Developing the best procedures in the world  is a meaningless task unless these procedures facilitate someone’s use of the archives.


Archives*Records 2016

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The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists concluded yesterday in Atlanta, Georgia.  This year’s meeting was a joint meeting with the Council of State Archivists.

David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, spoke during the opening plenary session and as usual provided some interesting food for thought.  In assessing the impact of presidential directives and executive orders on the work of NARA, he suggested that rather than being burdensome, these requirements are “insinuation opportunities” that open the door for NARA to begin conversations regarding records management.  What a beautiful way of looking at the glass as half full!  (See his blog for a full version of his comments.)

Chris Taylor, Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society, delivered the keynote address.  He suggested that instead of talking about best practices, we need to start embracing the idea of next practices.  I like this idea of constantly evaluating and iterating professional practices.

The business meeting of the Government Records Section included a panel discussion led by David Brown, archivist of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Geof Huth, Chief Records Officer of the New York State Unified Court System.  They encouraged archivists to examine our orthodoxies and become disruptors.  I was especially interested in two comments made by Booth:

  • Archivists have better things to worry about than some post-apocalyptic need to access records, so analog copies of digital records are unnecessary.
  • Old paper documents can have both artistic and artifactual values.  He dubbed the digitization of paper records as an “electrified” system.

Brown also contributed some nuggets of wisdom:

  • Competence comes from giving people answers, not options.
  • If the wall shakes when you’re beating your head against it, you’re accomplishing something.

The advice I most want to implement came from Kathleen Roe, former president of the SAA and retired state archivist for New York.  She asserted, “Archivists need to be proactive, not reactive.”  In my opinion, this mindset has the greatest possibility of changing the archival profession.

For information about other sessions specifically related to records management topics, check out The Schedule, the blog for SAA’s Records Management Roundtable.