“‘. . . authentic Documents tending to elucidate our History'”


For his presidential address at the October 1961 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Kansas City, Philip Hamer took his title from a statement written by Ebenezer Hazard in 1791 that proposed the publication of a collection of historical documents entitled “American State Papers.”  Hamer began working at the National Archives in 1935, and he became the Executive Director of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) in 1951 — a position that he retained until his retirement in 1961.  His papers are housed at the South Carolina Historical Society.  His address was published in the American Archivist in January 1962.

Rather than focusing on the work of archivists and records managers themselves, as had most of his SAA predecessors, Hamer called attention to the importance of having access to the materials in archives.  He quoted from a letter that Hazard wrote to a friend in 1774, in which he stated,

“The time will doubtless come when early periods of American history will be eagerly inquired into, and it is the duty of every generation to hand to its successor the necessary means of acquiring such knowledge, in order to prevent their groping in the dark, and perplexing themselves in the labrinths of error” (3-4).

Hamer also cited a 1791 letter written by Thomas Jefferson to Hazard.  One particular gem from this letter became the cornerstone of Hazard’s fundraising efforts to support his work publishing historical documents:

“Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices: . . . the lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks, which fence them from the public eye . . . but by such a multiplication of Copies as shall place them beyond the reach of accident” (5).

(Who knew that Jefferson was an early proponent of the principle that Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe!)  This idea for publication was certainly popular around the time of the birth of the United States as well as in the years following, when state historical societies, such as those in Massachusetts and New York, spearheaded efforts to publish collections of documents from their holdings.  When the National Archives was chartered, the National Historical Publications Commission was also created to pursue this work at the national level and to continue encouraging it at the state level.  Hamer challenged the archives and historical societies of the states to

“recognize in the future, even more effectively than they have in the past, the importance of documentary publication as a function for which they have a major responsibility — a responsibility comparable to that which they have also for their accessioning, preservation, and reference service functions, with which publication is so closely and importantly associated” (6).

Hamer acknowledged that the use of microfilm could address the concern about having multiple copies of prize documents, but he contended that it paled in comparison to “well-edited and beautifully printed volumes of historical documents” (11).  With this focus on the added value of editing, Hamer honed in on the “scholar-editor,” whose role was “to advance the understanding of a man and his times and by this interpretation of the man in his setting to throw light on the world we have inherited from him” (12).

A search in WorldCat produces 510 printed books authored by the National Historical Publications Commission — though this number includes reports as well as volumes printed with the financial support of the NHPC.  (One such report from 1981 is entitled Documentary Editing in Crisis.)  Since the National Historical Publications Commission began providing grants in 1964, it has funded 296 publications projects that produced almost 900 volumes and over 9,000 reels of microfilm.  (See the NHPRC website for more information.)  The NHPRC also supports an online portal to the papers of the founding fathers: Founders Online.


“Tardy Scholars Among the Archivists”

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Lester J. Cappon delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Columbus, Ohio, in October 1957.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1958.  Cappon served as the 12th SAA president from 1956-1957.  He was also the director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture and served as an archival consultant to Colonial Williamsburg, Inc.  In his introduction to a collection of Cappon’s essays, Richard J. Cox referred to him as the “quintessential proponent of archival knowledge based on historical scholarship.”

So it’s easy to understand that Cappon focused his presidential address on the archivist as scholar.  Cappon certainly tried to lead by example, for his presidential address is by far the most thoroughly footnoted of any to this point.  Returning to the often debated relationship between archivists and historians, Cappon argued,

“both in historical origin and in the function he performs the archivist is not a mere caretaker of the paper residue of the past but a person with scholarly proclivities and, at best, a scholar himself.  And his field of scholarship, however narrowly or broadly defined, is history” (3).

Hearkening back to Wayne Grover’s 1954 address, Cappon traced the birth of SAA by the American Historical Association.  He went on to suggest that “the archivist is a scholar not only by virtue of his historical origins in the United States but also because of the function he performs and the process he supervises” (5).  He acknowledged that archivists provide service to researchers on-site by organizing records and creating reference tools, but he also challenged archivists to look beyond their institutions to publicize their holdings more broadly.

Cappon then summarized publications by archivists, first during the period 1899-1936 between the founding of the Public Archives Commission and the creation of the SAA.  Here are some of the types of materials that were published in this era:

  • surveys of state records
  • documentary texts, such as those compiling records from the Revolutionary War
  • papers of American statesmen, such as Alexander Hamilton’s Works

The period after the creation of SAA in 1936 had not been as productive in terms of publications.  Although the National Historical Publications Commission was created in 1934, Cappon explained that it didn’t have much of an impact until the 1950s.  Cappon pointed to the proliferation of records,  beginning with World War One, as an example of the other responsibilities that prevented archivists from continuing their earlier publishing ways.  But Cappon also suggested this deluge was affecting archivists’ ability to process records adequately, citing former SAA president Morris Radoff’s conclusion that “American historians themselves are abandoning their use of original records” because of this lack of service (10).  Cappon went on to assert that “If there was a closer kinship between historians and archivists [20 years ago] than there is now, our growing mass of records may explain at least part of the alienation that has occurred” (11).  Undoubtedly he meant the declining intellectual control over records by archivists, thereby making repositories less conducive to research.

Cappon saw the role of archivists expanding along the records continuum — both working with records managers to limit the overabundance of records and attempting to identify and publicize to researchers records of enduring value.  He concluded his address with several suggestions of how archivists could improve their service to historians:

  • publish guides to records groups in each state
  • embrace calendaring as a method to facilitate the use of archival materials
  • resume the publication of texts of official state records
  • establish a national control file — he pointed to the forthcoming union catalog of manuscript collections being developed by the Library of Congress as a possible solution

Finally, Cappon pointed out that one of the challenges issued by his predecessor had been answered, with the SAA appointing Ernst Posner to the newly established position of SAA historian.

“Archivists and Their Colleagues: Common Denominators”


No sign of a 1949 presidential address, so I move on to the 1950 address delivered by Philip C. Brooks at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, in October 1950.  Brooks served as the first secretary of the SAA (1936-42) and as its seventh president (1949-51).  His early work with the National Archives helped to shape the records management policies and procedures of that organization.  Brooks also served as the first director of the Harry S Truman Library (1957-71), and his papers are housed at that presidential library.  His presidential address was published in American Archivist in January 1951.

Brooks began by reflecting on what sort of address he should give.  He referenced the “crisis call” addresses delivered by Waldo Leland in 1940 and 1941 but ultimately likened his address to a “cadenza in which the speaker is bound by no rules of composition, can be highly personal, and can be entirely irresponsible to any party line in expressing his own views” (34).  Using a musical term that has the connotation of improvisation perhaps helps to explain the free-flowing style Brooks employed in this address.  He spoke briefly of the qualifications for membership in SAA and then segued into a discussion of terms that are problematic in their definitions.  Specifically, he cited “archives” as a term “used loosely and with confusing variation” (35).  (I shudder to think what Brooks would think of the multitudinous and disparate uses of the term archives today.)  He also took issue with the term historical being too loosely applied to archives, instead pointing out the other types of research that take place in archives, including “uses for administrative precedent, government research, economics, sociology, scientific development, and other lines of investigation so numerous as to evade logical classification” (35).

Brooks briefly analyzed “the relationship of archivists to the organizations from which their accessions will be derived,” suggesting the two most prominent phases are guidance and selection.  By guidance he meant suggestions regarding the creation of records as well as the handling of current records.  Selection obviously means choosing which records should be preserved (37-38).  He went on to explain why archivists were increasingly involved in records management:

“We must remember that archivists have entered the records administration field because economical administration of records at all stages is closely akin to the specialized activities of archivists, and because the results of good or bad records administration affect the kind of job that archivists can later do with the records” (39).

Brooks briefly reflected on the training required for archivists, though he mainly deferred to the work already completed on this subject by Ernst Posner.  In discussing whether the discipline of history is important to the training of archivists, he concluded, “Archives at once are derived from history and serve the study of history” (43).  Perhaps the most interesting commentary by Brooks was about what was not being emphasized in archival training — specifically, analysis and description.  He suggested that seemingly making these the afterthoughts of the profession severely compromised the ability of archives to publicize their holdings and appropriately serve researchers.

In reference to his title, Brooks made several comments about common denominators.  He first mentioned what unites archivists, mainly “a concern for the preservation and effective use of valuable evidence of human activity in the form of records” (36).  Another common denominator identified was “the common interest of many related groups in the selection of what is to form the enduring core of valuable records” (38).  Perhaps picking up on the term “documentalists” that Solon Buck employed in his 1946 presidential address, Brooks suggested that archivists, librarians, and other allied disciplines are a part of the field of documentation, concerned with “the control of information” (41).  He concluded:

 “I believe that the study and teaching of history, interpreting history broadly as the knowledge of all phases of human experience, is among the highest realms of cultural activity; and that it cannot proceed without evidence.  I believe that in preserving the evidence and promoting its effective use archivists and their colleagues have a role to play of which we can be justly proud” (45).

“Some Legal Aspects of Archives”

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Having found no evidence of a presidential address delivered by Robert D.W. Connor at the November 1943 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), this week I bring you Margaret Cross Norton’s address from the November 1944 SAA meeting at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  This address was published in the American Archivist in January 1945.

By this point, Norton was more than 20 years into her 35-year tenure as the first superintendent of the Illinois State Archives.  Throughout her career, she emphasized the importance of the legal and administrative values of government records.  Norton was recognized as a leader; she was the first female president of SAA, and there wouldn’t be another woman as president until 1959.  Her work in Illinois became a model — even to the extent that in World War Two, if the nation’s capital ever had to be evacuated, the plan was to send the treasures of the National Archives to the Illinois State Archives Building that had been built to Norton’s specifications.

Norton’s introductory remarks provided some history of the archival field along with some admonitions for archivists.  She contended that because most archivists had come to the field through the training as historians, they were much more interested in the research value of records rather than their legal value.  While making some vague references to the problems of the Historical Records Survey program of the Works Progress Administration, Norton highlighted the contributions that came from this work, including improved archival technique, the first comprehensive survey of archival resources, and garnering public appreciation for the care of government records.  She also pointed out that government officials were increasingly looking to archivists for advice on both the “scientific creation” of and the appropriate destruction of government records (2).  She concluded her introductory remarks with three pieces of advice:

  1. state archivists should not be content to wait for guidance from the National Archives — and in actuality may have greater exposure to and knowledge about business archives and local government records
  2. when it comes to publishing in the American Archivist, archivists should focus less on seeming erudite and more on sharing their knowledge of work in the trenches
  3. committees should be productive and should frequently report their work publicly

The meat of her address was based on the premise that “the archivist is limited in his procedures for the care of records entrusted to his custody by a paramount duty to preserve the integrity of their use as acceptable legal evidence” (5).  Norton argued that the American philosophy of records is shaped by our democratic system of government.  For instance,

  • because public records are the property of the people, they tend to be held locally (e.g., title records, marriage registers, etc. reside in counties)
  • the democratic system also requires authorization for the destruction of government records
  • there should be open access to government records, “except where the law specifically exempts certain records from public inspection as being of a confidential nature” (7) — Norton also pointed out that allowing such access requires attention to undue wear on the documents and to their possible theft, so much so that creating access copies is probably worthwhile.
  • the power of replevin should be used as necessary to seize public records in private hands
  • governments should have plans in place to reconstruct public records that might be destroyed through some sort of catastrophe — no doubt after the 1871 Chicago fire, the people of Illinois were especially primed to focus on this issue.  One solution she highlighted that could address this need is microfilming, though she did argue that there needed to be more attention given to the certification of microfilm as acceptable copies.
  • government records can be used as court evidence

Norton elaborated on the issue of the destruction of government records, making two interesting points.  First, she acknowledged that records are often destroyed without authorization, arguing that “the law is impracticable because it fails to give an adequate definition for the term ‘records'” (6).  She established an outline for a functional approach to determining the retention of government records.  Secondly, Norton pointed out that records are often not turned over from one government official to the next, so she suggested there be a process by which an inventory would be compiled and a receipt provided among the predecessor and successor to a government post.

Norton concluded her address with several topics that she believed warranted further study:

  • laws regarding papers, ink, vaults, and safes (an issue also raised earlier by Albert Newsome)
  • archivist direction regarding record making and preservation

“The Archivist in American Scholarship”


At the meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) on October 13, 1939, in Annapolis, Maryland, Albert R. Newsome read his presidential address entitled “The Archivist in American Scholarship.”  It was printed in the American Archivist in October 1939.  Throughout his term as SAA president, Newsome was also the head of the history department at the University of North Carolina.  His papers from his 1934-1950 tenure as department head are available at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

In this 1939 address, Newsome echoed some of the comments he made in the previous year, emphasizing that archival interests had been “nationalized and professionalized” (217).  He also renewed the quest for public records laws that could educate and supervise the custodians of government records.  Newsome felt there was a need to examine the professional role of archivists.  He began by describing the “restrictionist” definition of an archivist, with the archivist as servant of the archives and focused primarily on preservation (and help to researchers only a distant second in importance).  In this scheme, the jobs of making the archives, destroying documents, and determining the time to transfer records to an archivist were all accorded to the administrators of the records; politicians and users would be the ones to determine which elements of the archives were published and made available to the public and what sorts of funding was available.

Newsome was not content with this compartmentalized view of archivists’ responsibilities.  He focused on public archives to make his case (meaning records created by government entities).  Where restrictionists gave to the administrator of the records the right to determine their value, Newsome contended that “as they decline in value and approach or attain uselessness as business records, they increase in value and approach or attain exclusive importance as historical records” (218-19).  Speaking in 1939 — during the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and about six weeks after the start of World War Two — Newsome made in interesting prediction about the future of archives:

The archives of the future will possess even greater historical value because they will record an ever expanding segment of human achievement as public activities expand in response to the democratic concept of government as the common agent for solving the ever growing number of common problems which emerge from an ever increasingly complex social organism (219).

Where most administrators of public records are political officials, mostly untrained in scholarship, and often having a brief tenure in office, Newsome argued that archivists were much better suited to determine which records should be destroyed and which should be preserved for research.  In order for archivists to be qualified for this work of appraisal, Newsome suggested that training for archivists should consist of a college degree with specialization in the social sciences (including history, government, and foreign languages) along with a Ph.D. in American history.  To answer those who charged that historians make bad archivists because they will be predisposed to favor the records crucial to their own research, Newsome explained, “There is no real antagonism between sound historical scholarship and archival competency” (220).

Once again demonstrating his willingness to contradict Hilary Jenkinson, Newsome did not stop at the suggestion that archivists appraise records for destruction and accession, adding that the archivist “become an aggressive collector rather than a passive receiver of archives” (221).  In another forward-looking evaluation, he contended that the long-term value of archival records is dependent on their use, thereby necessitating publication of records as well as the provision of reference and informational services for researchers.

Newsome concluded,

“The American archivist is a scholar, an expert technician skilled in the arts of his profession, and a public administrator. . . .  He will discover that archival production, collection, preservation, and use are interrelated parts of an integral process which can not and should not be too rigidly compartmentalized. . . .  He will also learn that he is better qualified than anyone else to concern himself with the entire range of archival interests and must do so in order to save archives from impairment by administrators, politicians, and researchers and to make his own work most effective and fruitful” (223-24).

Newsome’s emphasis on historical training for archivists is no longer de rigueur, but knowing that World War Two spawned a mushrooming of records that sparked some changes within the archival profession, I find Newsome’s analysis and suggestions still have bearing.  His expansion of the appropriate role of the archivist to encompass the creation stage of records presages the continuum model of recordkeeping that emerged in Australia in the late 20th century.

Next week, I’ll look at “The Archivist in Times of Emergency.”

Personal information management

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Another year is coming to a close, so I find myself turning to the idea of personal information management (PIM) — trying to figure out what I do well and what I could do better in managing the information that flows through my fingers, literally or digitally.  The term itself is somewhat debated, with some emphasizing the personal rather than business, others emphasizing the information management, and others suggesting end user information management is a better term for the stuff that must be managed by people.  There are certain principles that define PIM:

  • search
  • find
  • encounter
  • interpret
  • decide to keep or not
  • file and organize for re-use
  • re-access
  • use

Personally, I find the decide to keep or not keep step to be the most daunting.  And being able to re-access information in a prompt manner is most important to me.

A blogger for Scientific American specified four principles that guide PIM for her:

  1. Identify the types of things you are trying to organize
  2. Keep things simple
  3. Set up automatic tools
  4. Consistency

The Signal blog of the Library of Congress recently highlighted a curriculum for a personal digital archiving workshop that was developed in Georgia.  Such efforts point out not only that PIM is a growing field but that archivists recognize the necessity of providing leadership in the field of PIM.  As long as the archival world is embracing the concept of a continuum model of records, and many records are now being created in born-digital formats, we also must embrace the role of archivists in shepherding people to be good digital stewards who create and maintain items that can be appropriately accessioned into archival collections.

If you need more information on PIM, here are some suggestions:

  • Jan Zastrow provides a simple definition of PIM and includes a great list of other references
  • Purdue University has a good LibGuide (though it’s slanted towards citation management)
  • William Jones wrote an article entitled “Finders, Keepers?” that focuses on the questions of whether and how to keep information
  • for a much more academic approach, the Haystack project out of MIT researches information access, analysis, management, and distribution
  • if you need a term for the stuff you collect that eludes your management systems, try “information scraps” on for size
  • if in the end you decide you prefer your current state of disorganization, take heart in David Weinberger’s Google TechTalk, “Everything is Miscellaneous

Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014

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In January, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) proposed a bill (H.R. 1233) that was recently signed by President Obama (on November 26th).  One significant change has to do with the definition of public records, a power that is now vested in the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS):

“The Archivist’s determination whether recorded information . . . is a record . . . shall be binding on all Federal agencies.”

This is a significant change from allowing Federal agencies to determine for themselves whether materials are appropriate to be preserved.  In writing about this bill, Douglas Cox, an attorney and Associate Law Library Professor at the City University of New York School of Law offered this analysis:

“To be clear, the Archivist neither has the funding, nor the personnel, nor the appetite to look over the shoulder of every federal employee to micromanage whether each email is, or is not, a record, but this bill, once signed by the President, will give the Archivist an important power that should not be left to rot on the vine.”

In the press release from the National Archives and Records Administration, there is no emphasis given to this new power granted to the Archivist of the United States, so it will be interesting to follow the progress of how AOTUS exercises this new authority.

This new law will also change the process of releasing the papers of former presidents, providing 60 days for review and allowing only one extension of 30 days.  This provision should dramatically alter the landscape of presidential documents that become public twelve years after the conclusion of an administration.

One other interesting provision mandates that emails that government employees send regarding government business must be preserved by official records systems, even if the emails originate in private accounts.  Of course, the mechanics for accomplishing this directive are not clear.  Another point to watch in the future.



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