“Selective Preservation of General Correspondence”


Email seems to be the elephant in every archival room.  Figuring out what to keep and how to keep it consumes much time for practitioners and professors alike.  Knowing that email is a relatively new format yet correspondence isn’t a new issue for archives, I looked for wisdom in the literature — but it turns out few people are willing to tackle the correspondence dilemma.  I did find an article by Harold T. Pinkett in the January 1967 issue of the American Archivist.  Pinkett was a senior records appraisal specialist at the National Archives.

As early as the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, there was a recognition of the need to manage the amassing of records.  TR recommended restraint when it came to correspondence, suggesting in the name of efficiency “Government officials create and keep only enough correspondence and other papers required ‘to make a record of what is done'” (33).  With the huge expansion of the federal government during the New Deal and World War II, the big push for records management came in the post-war era.  The Hoover Commission Task Force on Paperwork Management of the 1950s analyzed the correspondence of government agencies and found it mostly fell into two categories:

  • general correspondence, including “letters, memoranda, messages, cards, and possibly reports and other records” related to the general functions of the organization
  • correspondence related to “specific transactions or projects” and accumulated in case files (34)

Pinkett found value in general correspondence, suggesting it “provides administrators with invaluable information for their review of the background, development, and effectiveness of policies, procedures, and programs of their agencies” (35).  He also asserted it is valuable to researchers (35):

  • “supplies answers to the whys and wherefores of crucial Government actions”
  • “gives insight on public reaction to Government operations”
  • “provides intimate and unique data concerning the life, interests, habits, and environment of the Nation’s citizens”

Yet even with these potentially valuable reasons to collect general correspondence, Pinkett also acknowledged general correspondence files “tend to bulge with ephemera” (36).  He looked to state archivists from Illinois and North Carolina for estimates of 80-90 percent of routine correspondence that has little research value.

Obviously the question is how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Pinkett recognized that scholars would not be able to sift through the mountains of correspondence and would be dependent on archivists to weed out the less valuable material.  He suggested several criteria to use in determining whether correspondence merits permanent preservation:

  • consider the administrative hierarchy of the organization and whether the files “contain documentation of basic policy and procedural decisions and major public reaction to such decisions and their implementation” (38)
  • recognize that middle management offices are usually involved in “detailed and recurrent activities,” with correspondence that is best preserved selectively rather than in toto because it tends to be summarized in reports received at a higher administrative level
  • prioritize correspondence from offices involved in “substantive activities” that carry out the functions of the organization and focus less on facilitative work “such as internal management and housekeeping” (39)

Long before Greene and Meissner introduced the idea of More Product Less Process (MPLP), Pinkett acknowledged it’s not feasible to review correspondence on an item-by-item basis to separate records with only temporary value from those deserving archival care.  He suggested at the higher administrative levels it might be more quickly assessed by considering the classification/organization of the correspondence files, so that “nonsubstantive material” concerning facilitative activities can be easily identified (40).  For the offices more involved with repetitive transactions, Pinkett asserted the value of sampling to retain representative samples of operating procedures.  He provided several methods of sampling:

  • pick a letter, any letter (e.g., keep all the correspondence from entities beginning with the letter C)
  • look at the frequency of contacts and services in order to determine representative correspondents

Finally, Pinkett suggested several ways to reduce the bulk of correspondence files:

  • eliminate any correspondence regarding non-major activities of the agency
  • de-duplicate records by identifying the “action offices” and consider their correspondence the official/complete record (43)

Tune in next week to see how these ideas might be applied to the modern world of email archiving.


Teddy Roosevelt

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“As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation.  It is a base untruth to say that happy is the nation that has no history. Thrice happy is the nation that has a glorious history.  Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt delivered this speech in Chicago on April 10, 1899, entitled “The Strenuous Life.”  He made reference to the Spanish-American War of the previous year — though not about his involvement with the Rough Riders — and suggested it is the timid who avoid the strenuous life.

Roosevelt had been elected Governor of New York in 1898; in 1900, he was chosen as the vice presidential candidate by the Republican party.  After President McKinley was assassinated on September 14, 1901, TR became U.S. President.

Roosevelt concluded this 1899 speech:

“I preach to you, then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor.  The twentieth century looms before us big with the fate of many nations.  If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world.  Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods.  Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University is working to provide digital access to papers related to TR from the Library of Congress, Harvard College Library, six National Park Service sites, and numerous smaller collections.

“Using College and University Archives as Instructional Materials”

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Following up on last week’s post, I’m focusing again on the use of university archives.  Mark Greene presented these ideas as a paper at the Fall 1988 Midwest Archives Conference meeting and then published it in a 1989 issue of the Midwestern Archivist.

Greene asserted more of the focus on using primary sources as instructional materials came from manuscript repositories rather than college and university archives because the latter are assumed to hold primarily institutional history and to be run by archivists who, on most campuses, don’t have academic standing.

Greene was archivist at Carleton College at the time he wrote this paper, and he was clear about the importance of promoting the use of archival records by undergraduates:

“Advancing the use of archival records in the curriculum should be considered an important part of, rather than an alternative  to, the ‘administrative’ duties of the archivist” (32).

He recounted several ways he went about sparking interest in archival resources:

  • participating in orientation sessions for new faculty, in order to explain connections between the archives and various curricula
  • sending letters to professors about possible collaborations
  • designing outreach (e.g., brochures, exhibits, publications) that illustrated research possibilities

Greene also explained several roles he filled while working with campus courses:

  • reference interviews with students to assist them in refining their topics
  • explanations of how to handle fragile materials
  • lectures on the history of the institution and other topics from archival sources
  • bibliographic instruction talks

Based on his experiences, Greene shared several words of wisdom:

  • Indirect outreach through exhibits and newspaper articles proved more effective than direct letters to professors.
  • Don’t make assumptions about which disciplines are more likely to be able to find relevant archival materials — while history and political science produced no partnerships, biology, religion, American studies, and social sciences classes became archival users at Carleton.
  • Accept nontraditional uses of archival materials as legitimate uses (i.e., not everything needs to culminate in a term paper).
  • Archivists can go into the classroom just as easily as students can come into the archives.

“University Archives: A Reason for Existence”

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Continuing my look at university archives that I began last week, this week I turn to a 1975 article by Edith James Blendon published in the American Archivist.  I was taken by its clear and concise explanation of the purpose of university archives.  Blendon was acting university archivist at Princeton from 1972-74 and was assistant editor of the Papers of Woodrow Wilson at the time of this publication.

Blendon began with a simple premise:

“serious scholarly use of university archives does not appear to be commensurate with the potential opportunities for significant research” (175).

She offered three explanations for this situation:

  • Surveys indicated archival work was too often an ancillary job for the person in charge of the university archives, therefore, too little time was spent on care of the records.
  • She found university archives were too often relegated to inferior space.
  • Scholars perceive university archives as bastions of memorabilia and sentimentality rather than studied historical endeavors.

Blendon provided three suggestions of how university archives could improve their situation:

  • In providing reference service, take advantage of opportunities to point researchers to related relevant collections.
  • “[P]ublicize the archives’ holdings by arranging documentary exhibitions, by publishing notices of recent acquisitions in scholarly journals, and by writing brief articles based on the records” (176)
  • Get involved with the educational function of the university by advising thesis/dissertation writers or teaching historical methodology courses.

Blendon identified five areas in which university archival resources prove most valuable (and provided contemporary examples of each):

  • institutional history
  • intellectual history
  • social history
  • political history
  • documentary editing

The example she provided for documentary editing was the book Michael Kammen compiled from letters of Carl L. Becker.  She included one excerpt from a 1922 letter that’s worth consideration:

“‘The chief value of history is that it is an extension of the personal memory, and an extension which masses of people can share, so that it becomes, or would ideally become, the memory of a nation, or of humanity'” (180).

“Managing the Records of Higher Education: The State of Records Management in American Colleges and Universities”

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The various scandals that have roiled university campuses in recent times justify an investigation into records management in the realm of higher education.  I’ll begin with this 1990 article written by Don C. Skemer and Geoffrey P. Williams.  Skemer was the head of Special Collections and Archives at the University at Albany, State University of New York; Williams was university archivist and campus records officer at the University of Albany.

The first university archives was not founded until 1938 (at Harvard).  The growth of education after World War II encouraged an explosion of college and university archives programs, growing five-fold from 1950 to 1990.  Skemer and Williams conducted a national survey to evaluate records management in colleges and universities.  They received 449 responses and were trying to answer several questions:

  • “Why have some institutions developed [records management] programs while others have not?
  • “Why do some succeed and others have not?
  • “Are there any valid operational models?
  • “What is the proper relationship between the archival and records management functions in academic institutions?” (533)

Skemer and Williams laid out a definition of records management in higher education:

“records management programs are considered to be organized efforts to provide centralized services for the management of all records in all formats generated by academic institutions in their day-to-day operations; the programs have been officially designated and legally authorized at the campus or system level to implement retention and disposition guidelines and provide other centralized services to an entire university or college, or at least in two or more of the following areas: administrative and departmental records; student records; business and financial records; and official publications” (537).

One-third of the survey respondents had records management programs, with three-fourths of these programs occurring at public colleges and universities.  Skemer and Williams asserted these results were so skewed because of “public expectation and requirements of legal and fiscal accountability” (537).  In a little more than half of these records management programs, archivist and records manager were shared duties.

Most of these campuses used office-specific retention and disposition schedules, usually developed from records surveys.  Compliance with these schedules was facilitated on about half the campuses through operation of a records storage center that could house obsolete and inactive records.  The survey noted little in the way of electronic records management.

The survey documented a number of benefits from records management programs (541):

  • better archival documentation
  • improved access to information
  • vital records protection
  • space and equipment savings

Yet problems still persisted, including (541-42):

  • inadequate staff and space
  • huge volume of records generated
  • inadequate support
  • low prioritization of records management
  • weak policies and outdated schedules
  • lack of compliance
  • inability to handle electronic records

The survey found that some individual offices — notably registrars — organized records management programs in the absence of campus-wide solutions.  This decentralized approach to records management was much more prevalent at private institutions.

Skemer and Williams contended that “legal requirements accompanying public finance and the success of records management in the public sector over the past half century are important reasons for the creation of campus records programs” (544).  They also acknowledged the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) necessitated policies, at least regarding student records.  They concluded:

“a change in archival thinking about records management might be beneficial.  The management of current and recent academic information for administrative purposes has to be considered as important to resource allocators and archivists as the preservation of historical information for cultural purposes is to archivists.  Unless archivists have a broader interest in the management of all administrative information, either directly or by coordination of decentralized efforts, most of them will continue to have weak records management programs or none at all” (547).