Amelia Earhart

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“Courage is the price which life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things;

Knows not the livid loneliness of fear
Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy you can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate,
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare

The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice we pay
With courage to behold resistless day
And count it fair.”

Amelia Earhart wrote this poem after her engagement to Sam Chapman ended.  She had recently gained acclaim as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when she accompanied pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis “Slim” Gordon on their 1928 transatlantic flight.  In May 1932, she flew solo across the Atlantic — the first woman and only the second person to do so.  In July 1937, while attempting to complete an around-the-world flight, Earhart lost radio contact with the U.S. Coast Guard due to radio and weather difficulties.

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were never located, and theories about them abound.  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a collection of materials related to the months-long search for her plane.  Earlier this year, NARA found a photograph in its collection that possibly shows Earhart and Noonan in the Marshall Islands after the disappearance of their plane.

In February 1931, Earhart married publisher George Palmer Putnam.  He donated her papers to the Archives and Special Collections Research Center at the Purdue University Libraries.

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“The Messy Business of Remembering: History, Memory, and Archives”

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Mark Greene made a relatively early attempt to relate postmodernism to archival work.  In a 2003-2004 issue of Archival Issues, Greene wrote about “The Messy Business of Remembering; History, Memory, and Archives.”  He explained archivists were somewhat late to the game to begin discussing postmodernism because of the trend away from allying with historians (who’d been considering postmodernism for some time) and more towards information science.

Although this may in fact defeat the purpose of discussing postmodernism, for reference, here’s a definition from PBS:

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.  In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality.  For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person.”

Greene contended that postmodernism is relevant to archivists in everything from acquisition choices to the legitimacy of uses of archives.  He used as a springboard for his analysis a 2002 article by an Amherst historian that presented a positivist view of historical research.  Where positivism asserts that “‘history is what trained historians do'” (96), Greene countered:

“Neither truth nor history nor even memory should be the secret of the few.  If we do it right–and as archivists we have something to say about that because it depends in some part on how we solicit, welcome, and assist both historians and genealogists in our reading rooms–everyone can play a part” (97).

So where some contend that historical uses of archival records are more important than those relating to social memory, Greene painted a more inclusive picture of archival use.  He incorporated the analysis of management and business design expert Chauncey Bell about what the job of  an archivist should be:

“‘your job is not about storing and sorting information.  It is about appraising and keeping records of history-making events and the acts spoken by history makers, and doing that in a way that allows you to be effective partners for those history makers in their re-membering of the past'” (99-100).

Greene also looked to the words of psychiatrist W. Walter Menninger for an explanation of history:

“‘history is a record of present beliefs and wishes, not a replica of the past.  Remembering . . . is a reconstruction using bits of past experience to describe a present state'” (100).

Rejecting the notion of archivists merely as gatekeepers, Greene asserted that archivists cannot claim the neutrality of archival records because “Both the creation and the selection of archival material are tainted, if you will, by the values, missions, and even resources of the creators and the archivists” (101).  Not only do individuals and societies create and shape history and memory, but so do archivists.  He also pointed out that the ownership of history, memory, and the records that shape them — both literal and figurative ownership — is a challenge archivists have yet to resolve.  He concluded that dealing with these complications can be solved only with humility and courage.

“Appraising Public Records in an Ahistorical Culture”

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Although in a records management sense this article is dated, I can’t pass up the opportunity to review something entitled “Plowing the Sea: Appraising Public Records in an Ahistorical Culture.”  Roy Turnbaugh, who at the time this article was published in 1990 was the state archivist of Oregon, had some bold opinions about public records and archival work.

He began with a simple premise:

“Public records archivists work in a culture without a sense if history.  Government cares little about yesterday.  It functions in a kind of existential present” (563).

Based on a study he conducted in the mid-1980s, he concluded there was little that could be considered standard practice in the appraisal of state government records.  Some of his respondents prioritized informational value while others appraised based on evidential value; some sought to protect the rights of the state and its citizens while others focused on possible historical research.

Turnbaugh clearly disdained the use of any appraisal criteria that considered potential users.  He referred to the scholarly research community as “at best a marginal constituency” for state archives (564).  His simple answer to the problem of appraisal was that state archives “exist to make sure that the records of the significant actions of government are preserved” (565).

As someone who spent his career in state archives in Illinois and Oregon, Turnbaugh expressed a marked cynicism about government.  I find myself wondering if his analysis of public records wasn’t influenced by this mistrust of government in general.  I’ve documented in many SAA presidential addresses the schism between archivists and records managers (see Radoff, Grover), but I believe there’s a lot we can learn from each other.

To me, the bigger difference for government archivists and manuscript archivists is in the records creators.  Many donors to manuscript collections have developed a sense of self-importance that likely shapes many of their documents.  On the other hand, many government employees have a very siloed approach to their work that prevents them from seeing the big picture of how their records contribute to the overall functions of their agency.  Without this, these employees are unlikely to recognize the potential value of their records.

Here are the intersections between archival and records management work that I think are especially important for government records (or really any sort of institutional records):

  • Essential records.  The Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines essential records as “emergency-operating records immediately necessary to begin recovery of operations after a disaster, and rights-and-interests records necessary to protect the assets, obligations, and resources of the organization, as well as its employees and customers or citizens.”  Although not all essential records (e.g., payroll records) would be considered archival, from the standpoint of identifying and protecting vital records, this is still an important conversation for government archivists to have with records creators.
  • Institutional memory.  Any institution that is subject to employee turnover should care about institutional memory so that each successive generation of employees doesn’t wind up reinventing the wheel.  Good records management can help accomplish this — and in the long run, these records could likely provide the long-term context necessary for archival researchers investigating an institution.
  • Business planning.  As Lord Byron said, “The best of prophets of the future is the past.”  So for any institution that is in a planning stage, seeking out the records of the past can aid in figuring out what has worked well and what has failed dramatically.  And these documentations of successes and failures could be useful archival collections.

“I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell About It”

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Last year, I looked at the 1980s writing by Leonard Rapport and Karen Benedict on archival deaccessioning.  Now I’ll turn to Mark Greene’s 2006 piece in Archival Issues — subtitled “Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser.”

The title pretty much sums up his attitude — reappraisal and deaccessioning are a necessary yet shunned part of the archival profession.  Rejecting the notion that deaccessioning can weaken archivists’ relationships with donors, Greene provides evidence from several repositories where he worked that markedly improved their relationships with donors through a reasoned and transparent reappraisal process.  Ultimately, he gave his donors more credit for seeing the bigger picture and found they had no qualms with his deaccessions of their donated materials.

Greene looked back to Gerald Ham’s analysis that reappraisal “‘allows archivists to replace records of lesser value with collections of more significance, and it prevents the imposition of imperfect and incomplete decisions of the past on the future'” (9).  Greene acknowledged that appraisal is subjective and based on “the institution’s goals, clientele, and resources at a given moment in time, and the individual personalities and proclivities of any given set of staff” (9).  Because all of these factors are subject to change, an appraisal decision today may not necessarily reinforce an appraisal decision from decades earlier — which, as Ham pointed out, may have been based on imperfect or incomplete information.  Yet there is a theoretical challenge to deaccessioning that is based on the notion that archives are bound to preserve materials permanently — which Greene dismissed with the explanation that archivists of the 21st century have embraced the terminology of “enduring preservation” rather than permanent preservation, acknowledging our inability to overcome all obstacles, both man-made and naturally occurring, that may prevent a literal preservation of materials for all time.

Greene explained that appraisal (and reappraisal) decisions can include factors such as potential use of the collection as well as allocations of staff, space, and other resources.  He concluded, “The archival profession is difficult (and necessary) not because we are good at saving things, but because we are able and willing to decide what does not get saved” (11).  Echoing the ideas of David Gracy that I reviewed last week, Greene suggested archivists have a responsibility to transform this perception of our profession and can do so by explaining our decisions with clarity and taking responsibility for the consequences of these decisions.

Greene identified several elements that are necessary for reappraisal and deaccessioning to occur:

  • formal policies and procedures
  • institutional mission statement
  • collecting policy
  • appraisal standards — “one cannot make intelligent decisions about what to deaccession if one is unclear about what to be accessioning in the first place” (12)

He cautioned against reappraising without an overall scheme in mind because “piecemeal deaccession greatly increases the risk that dramatically different decisions will be made from one collection or series to another” (13).  He included in the appendix part of the Collection Management Policy of the American Heritage Center (AHC), which lays out the conditions under which materials may be deaccessioned (17):

  1. “it is no longer relevant and useful to the mission of the AHC”
  2. “it cannot be properly stored, preserved, or used”
  3. “it no longer retains its physical integrity, identity, or authenticity”
  4. “it is unnecessarily duplicated in the collections”
  5. “it is part of a larger collection other portions of which are owned by another repository that makes its holdings accessible to the public”

While I applaud the notion of laying out the criteria for deaccessioning, I wonder if these conditions adequately address the sins of the fathers to which he alluded earlier in the article.  Perhaps the first criterion can be interpreted to handle materials that were accessioned without regard to their enduring value — yet it does imply the institutional mission has changed, which in my experience is not likely to happen in noticeable ways with any great regularity.  Greene acknowledged that many repositories operate without the guidance of a collecting policy, yet I wonder if collections that have been accessioned in a haphazard manner in the absence of any overarching collections plan fall into one of these five categories.  I’m afraid the next reappraisal challenge will be to develop a professional mechanism to acknowledge and undo the appraisal mistakes of the past — those incomplete and imperfect decisions of which Ham spoke.