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.

*http://www.archives.gov/about/history/milestones.html

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