“A Reply to Leonard Rapport”

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Karen Benedict provided a response to Rapport’s seminal work on deaccessioning in the Winter 1984 issue of the American Archivist — entitled “Invitation to a Bonfire: Reappraisal and Deaccessioning of Records as Collection Management Tools in an Archives.”  Benedict began working as an archivist for the Nationwide Insurance Companies in 1975 and later worked as an archival consultant for the Winthrop Group.

Benedict did acknowledge that every repository has records that should never have been accessioned and that sometimes records are accepted in hopes of getting better ones later.  Yet she argued that “broad-scale reappraisal and deaccessioning of records should be viewed as crisis management techniques that may seriously undermine an archival program if they are applied” (44).  She suggested two reasons to avoid deaccessioning archival records:

  1. The “dismantling of archival holdings” (45) might suggest to the non-archivists who control institutions that they can jettison holdings any time they need to save money.
  2. Evaluating archival value is always a judgment call, so there’s an element of hubris in thinking one’s new evaluation is more valid than that of the earlier appraiser.

Benedict charged that reappraisal applies transitory criteria to evaluate the enduring value of records.  To counter Rapport’s argument that the research use of records should factor into their remaining in the collection, she asserted, “It is a-historical and anti-intellectual to determine that, because a group of records has not been used within a limited period of time, those records are valueless and should be disposed of by the institution holding them” (47-48).  Instead, she said that appraisal should occur before accessioning — at that point alone the research value and connections to existing collections should be evaluated.  She concluded,

“Our society does place a value upon the maintenance of the records of its institutions, and that is what makes the archivist’s job significant.  Society feels that it is not the amount of research conducted in archival records that determines their value but rather the contribution to human knowledge and to the public good that result.  We need to keep this uppermost in our minds.  We
have a responsibility to identify and to preserve the records that will afford researchers, not only in our lifetimes but in the future, the widest opportunity to conduct the studies that will enrich and benefit society” (49).

I do agree with Benedict’s point that archival decision-making should remain in the hands of archivists and should not primarily be based on financial concerns.  And in a perfect world, records would be properly appraised before they are accessioned, and those without enduring value would never cross the threshold.  But in reality, many institutions are being hamstrung by the sins of the fathers and are bearing not only financial but also personnel and space costs; these repositories should not be required to retain materials that are not truly archival in nature just because a predecessor did not carry out due diligence.  To her point about the danger of shifting appraisal standards, I would counter that lack of use is a perfectly good reason to deaccession materials.  We are long past the stage of being the keepers of all materials records creators deign to deposit at an archive, and I believe the primary purpose of preserving archival materials is to allow for their access.  Presuming the repository has made adequate effort to make the materials discoverable to researchers, if they have not been used, this should raise questions about their long-term value.  Gerald Ham, most notably, cautioned archivists against deferring to the priorities of researchers; otherwise, we might become nothing more than “a weathervane moved by the changing winds of historiography.”  But at the same time, repositories do need to reserve the right to respond with agility to changing circumstances; consider what collections would not have been preserved if archivists had not embraced electronic records as a medium.  And unlike Benedict, I do not assume deaccessioning indicates shifting appraisal standards; instead, I recognize it may at times be necessary to rectify a prior total lack of standards.


“No Grandfather Clause: Reappraising Accessioned Records”

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To close out this year, I want to reflect on some notable pieces of archival literature.  I’ll begin with Leonard Rapport’s piece, which he first presented at the 1980 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and then published in the Spring 1981 issue of the American Archivist.  Rapport was born in Durham, N.C., and studied at the University of North Carolina with R.D.W. Connor.  He worked at UNC Press and with the Southern Writers’ Project before serving with the Army from 1941-48.  From 1949-84, he worked at the National Archives and on various National Historical Publications Commission projects, including the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Rapport began this piece with a simple premise: “Every repository of public records has on its shelves records which, if offered today, we would not accept.  If we wouldn’t accept them today, why should we permit these records to occupy shelf space?  For such records there should be no grandfather clause” (143).

He offered several reasons why repositories have records that aren’t worth keeping:

  • faulty original appraisal
  • appraisal standards have changed
  • accessioning may have occurred without appraisal
  • records creators may use influence to get materials accepted
  • repository may accept some papers in hopes of getting other, more significant ones

This then begs the question why we keep records that aren’t worth keeping:

  • custodians may feel possessive toward collections they accessioned
  • empty shelves may cause a loss of support and/or space
  • mystique associated with certain accessions

Rapport concluded with three questions we should ask when reconsidering accessioned records (149):

  1. “First, let us ask ourselves the questions already mentioned: would we accession these records if they were offered today?  If we wouldn’t, why should we continue to keep them?”
  2. “Second, is there a reasonable expectation that anybody, with a serious purpose, will ever ask for these records?”
  3. “Third, what if, following this reasoning, we throw away records and the conceivable indeed occurs and we or our successors have a request for them from a serious researcher?  To anticipate and to allow for this, the best we can do, once we decide there is no reasonable expectation of use, is to ask ourselves: if we are wrong and someday somebody does come along who wants these records, will the requester or will scholarship in general be badly hurt because these particular records no longer exist?”

Archivists of the United States

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As this election cycle winds down, I got interested in how politics might have affected leadership of the National Archives.  Turns out the number of Presidents is greater than the number of Archivists of the United States (AOTUS).  The AOTUS is appointed by the President, but the National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984, as signed by Ronald Reagan, clearly states that, “The Archivist shall be appointed without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of the professional qualifications required to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office of Archivist.”  There have been ten AOTUSes since the creation of the National Archives in 1934, listed here with the President who appointed them and their years of service:

  1. Robert D. W. Connor (Franklin D. Roosevelt): 10 October 1934 – 15 September 1941
  2. Solon J. Buck (Franklin D. Roosevelt): 18 September 1941 – 31 May 1948
  3. Wayne C. Grover (Harry S Truman): 2 June 1948 – 6 November 1965
  4. Robert H. Bahmer (Lyndon B. Johnson): 7 November 1965* – 9 March 1968
  5. James B. Rhoads (Lyndon B. Johnson): 10 March 1968** – 31 August 1979
  6. Robert M. Warner (Jimmy Carter): 24 July 1980 – 15 April 1985
  7. Don W. Wilson (Ronald Reagan): 4 December 1987 – 24 March 1993
  8. John W. Carlin (Bill Clinton): 30 May 1995 – 15 February 2005
  9. Allen Weinstein (George W. Bush): 16 February 2005 – 19 December 2008
  10. David S. Ferriero (Barack Obama): 6 November 2009 – present

* Bahmer served first as Acting AOTUS and was officially appointed 16 January 1966

** Rhoads served first as Acting AOTUS and was officially appointed 2 May 1968

There have also been four Acting AOTUSes who were never appointed to serve in the position:

  • James O’Neill (1 September 1979 – 23 July 1980)
  • Frank Burke (16 April 1985 – 4 December 1987)
  • Trudy Huskamp Peterson (25 March 1993 – 29 May 1995)
  • Adrienne Thomas (20 December 2008 – 5 November 2009)

Each of the first six AOTUSes also served as president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA):

  • before being AOTUS: Bahmer, Warner
  • while serving as AOTUS: Buck, Grover, Rhoads
  • after being AOTUS: Connor

In addition, Frank Burke was SAA president after serving as Acting U.S. Archivist, and Trudy Huskamp Peterson was Acting U.S. Archivist after having been SAA president.  Arguably the most infamous involvement of SAA with the appointment of an AOTUS came in 2004 when the organization opposed the appointment of Allen Weinstein.


Ode to Bob Dylan

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Although the Nobel Prize ceremonies are still a month off, I want to go ahead and acknowledge the pending award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.  In my mind, his interest in preserving the traditions of folk music together with the external focus of his lyrics make him worthy of a little attention by archivists.

If you need to brush up on your Dylan biography, a 2010 article in The Atlantic summarized Sean Wilentz’ book Bob Dylan in America.  In 2015, an article for Music.mic identified five Dylan songs that changed the course of history:

  1. “Blowin’ in the Wind”
  2. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
  3. “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
  4. “Like a Rolling Stone”
  5. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

And here’s a list of his top 10 protest songs:

  1. “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
  2. “Maggie’s Farm”
  3. “Chimes of Freedom”
  4. “Hurricane”
  5. “With God on Our Side”
  6. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
  7. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
  8. “Oxford Town”
  9. “Masters of War”
  10. “Blowin’ in the Wind”

Here’s one other, less well-known song — “Gotta Serve Somebody” that’s worth a listen:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music

The lyrics to all of the above songs can be found on the official Bob Dylan website.