Around the time of this year’s inauguration, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) website published a collection of previous presidential addresses.  On that page, I found one of the addresses I couldn’t find during my original review of these addresses.  This particular address also answers another question I had — he explained that President Connor decided to deliver only one address during his two-year term, a practice which was continued by his successors, with William D. McCain being the last of the two-year presidents.  McCain delivered his address at the 1952 SAA annual meeting held in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was published in the January 1953 issue of the American Archivist.

McCain had a varied professional path, working as a college lecturer in Mississippi before serving as a genealogist and archivist at the Morristown National Historic Park in New Jersey.  He worked briefly as Assistant Archivist at the U.S. National Archives and then directed the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History from 1938 until World War II.  He served in the war first with an Army antiaircraft artillery unit and then was assigned as a military historian recording the progression of U.S. Fifth Army through North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy.  In 1944, McCain joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (aka “Monuments Men”) as Regional Archivist for the Lombardia region of Italy.  From December 1945 until May 1955, he resumed his work as director of the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History.  He also served in the military during the Korean War and commented in this address that he wrote it “in the rear and forward command posts of a combat unit deployed in the defense of a vital area of the United States” (4).  He then became President of Mississippi Southern College (today, The University of Southern Mississippi), where he served until retirement.

McCain reflected briefly upon the addresses of his predecessors, acknowledging their contributions to the knowledge and morale of the SAA.  He also read all issues of the American Archivist before writing his address — all 5,161 pages! — for inspiration.  In keeping with the post-war concerns of his era, he almost titled his address “Shall Our Records Engulf Us?”  Although he shifted his title, he did spend time explaining the problems caused by keeping too many records — both for repositories and especially for researchers.  On the former issue, he cited a contemporary article from Reader’s Digest that said:

“‘And you and I are not sure why we keep half the stuff we do . . . most of the filing that we human beings do is a manifestation of some of our worst traits — our miserliness or stinginess, our fear of the future, our dependence on material props, our weakness for hugging old experiences to our hearts instead of moving bravely on to new ones'” (5).

He suggested having too many records is overwhelming to researchers and quoted another article in the American Archivist that concluded “‘the impetus to scholarship seems to decrease in inverse ratio to the amount of source material available in these days of mass record-making and reproduction'” (6).

In order to address this problem, McCain encouraged archivists to focus on the value and utility of records.  He posed several questions to consider (6):

  • “Did you ever stop and wonder what useful purpose you were serving in accumulating and preserving records?”
  • “Do you consider that you are making any contribution toward the welfare of mankind with your work?”
  • “Since you believe that records are valuable, do you think that all people have some idea of their importance?”

McCain looked to a comment in the U.S. Senate to define historical value: “‘Public records make up the backbone of history.  All men with a deep sense of the historical know this to be so'” (7).  Yet he acknowledged that not all Americans shared this deep sense of the importance of history and challenged his audience to make history more interesting for all.  In the midst of the Cold War, McCain asserted a major problem of Communism was that it “adopted a philosophy in which untruthfulness has been elevated to the status of a science and has become a prescribed rule of conduct in private and public affairs.  The great power of tradition and precedent is one of the chief stabilizing forces that protect us from these people who would lead us backward into a dark age of indecency and immorality in all planes of our existence” (7-8).  In an analysis that has considerable relevance to archival work even today, McCain concluded:

“If there were no authentic records of our past, the fantastic lying of the Communists would have a far greater effect in their efforts to destroy us” (8).

McCain explained that records have significant business and fiscal value.  To address the value of government records, he quoted from an address of a former president of Panama:

“‘A government without archives would be something like a warrior without weapons, a physician without medicines, a farmer without seed, an artisan without tools.  Public records are the solid ground on which the statesman can tread with security in the incessant toil of conducting the affairs of a nation.  They are the silent, impartial, reliable and eternal witness that bears testimony to the toils, the misfortunes, the growth and the glories of peoples'” (8).

McCain used his military experience to explain that records can be used to develop morale, pride, and honor.  He also suggested local records can build up local pride and acknowledged the obvious value of records to genealogists.  He then turned to Venetian bishop Baldassare Bonifacio to summarize the utility of archives:

“‘If we had been completely deprived of these precious crumbs, we should all be compelled to grope in the dark, to feel our way with our hands not only in history but also in the other disciplines'” (11).

McCain acknowledged records can provide knowledge where human memory fails.  In the end, he asserted archivists must do a better job of explaining the value of records in order to garner more respect for the profession:

“When there is a general appreciation of the usefulness of records and of the work of those who preserve them and make them available for research, then the professional archivist will be raised to the level of respect accorded such professional men as doctors, dentists, bankers, lawyers, educators, and engineers” (11).