Words from an archival change agent

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Thanks to Kathy Marquis for pointing me to this chapter written by Mark Greene, which was published posthumously in 2018.  Elizabeth Wood, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones brought together the essays in Active Collections as a commentary on the stewardship of museum collections.  Mark Greene contributed “Four Forceful Phrases: An Archival Change Agent Muses on Museology.”

The book grew out of a November 2015 roundtable discussion about the future of museum collections and makes frequent reference to the Manifesto for Active History Museum Collections that was subsequently drafted.  One of the core principles from this manifesto that Greene embraced was this:

“We believe we need to change the conversation from caring for artifacts to caring about people.”

Greene used Maynard Brichford’s 1979 incoming SAA presidential address as the model for his essay and offered Four Forceful Phrases to explain important changes that have come to the archival world and could be replicated in museums.

“One: There Has Been a Longstanding Failure among Archives and Museums to Embrace Formal Collection Development Strategies”

The common theme here is that in both the archival and museum realms, stuff has been equated with success.  Where the Active Collections Manifesto emphasizes the importance of gauging the impact of collections, archives and museums have usually emphasized to their donors and boards the size of their collections as a measuring rod of success, which has negated the development and implementation of good collection policies.  Yet Greene succinctly explained their vital importance:

“Acquisition policies are necessary to ensure that collection development is planned, rational, tied to institutional needs and priorities, and realistic compared to repository resources rather than haphazard, knee-jerk, based on the interest or whims of individuals, and largely impractical” (72).

Ultimately, Greene asserted that a good collecting policy demonstrates professionalism, makes it clear to all parties what the purpose and motives of the repository are, and keeps the focus appropriately on end users.

“Two: Once a Repository Has Defined What It’s Collecting and Why It’s Collecting It, Such an Institution Should Be Willing to Jettison Everything That Does Not Fit the Collecting Policy”

Greene laid out four simple steps to facilitate reappraisal and deaccessioning:

  1. a written, approved deaccessioning policy
  2. a routine rather than emergency use of reappraisal and deaccessioning
  3. a formal collecting policy
  4. transparency

Greene explained the utility of this process when he was at the American Heritage Center — a process based on work of the American Association of Museum in the 1990s and codified in the archival profession in 2012 (revised in 2017).

“Three: Refusal to Accept the Problem of or Devise Solutions for Enormous Cataloging Backlogs, a Problem for All Three Cultural Heritage Professions”

Greene revealed his commendable mantra: “‘Let’s try to give our users what they want'” (76).  He shared this in the context of explaining numerous euphemisms for the backlogs of collections that repositories have not processed sufficiently to enable providing access to them — including “hidden collections” and “processing reserve.”  He explained that they tackled a huge backlog at the American Heritage Center by doing two things:

  1. creating collection-level machine readable catalog (MARC) records, which were published in their online public access catalog as well as on WorldCat
  2. converting these catalog records into encoded archival description (EAD) format so they be discovered through ordinary web searches

“Four: The Compulsion to Obsess about Means Rather Than Ends, Process Rather Than Mission, and Collection Material Rather Than Use or Users”

Relating back to the theme of his first point, Greene asserted that the focus of too many professionals in cultural heritage institutions has been on collections as ends unto themselves rather than seeking to collect objects that will be used.  With a nod to his work on MPLP (more product, less process), he explained that basic MARC records and box-level descriptions became part of the accessioning workflow at the American Heritage Center so that the backlog culture wasn’t perpetuated.  Greene’s vision was simply, “We provide a professional assessment of what should be preserved, and why” (80).  This vision rather succinctly sums up key points of this chapter, incorporating collecting policies, end users, and transparency.


Greene ended his thoughts with another look at Brichford’s address, where he surmised, “‘We are keepers for a purpose and that purpose is not “keeping,” but using'” (81).  Greene explained that focusing on use requires three key things:

  1. “a collection development policy that best reflects the repository’s mission and resources, and the needs of its clientele” (80)
  2. an inventory of existing holdings and a commitment to fill in any gaps in the collecting policy not addressed by current holdings
  3. reappraisal and deaccessioning projects that will ultimately increase the usage of collections by focusing one’s own repository’s resources on its most relevant collections and placing collections that are outside the scope of the collecting policy in other institutions where they can receive the attention and publicity they deserve

In his own words, Greene concluded, “Use should be the end of all our efforts; if not, just what are we collecting all this stuff for?” (80).


Origin Stories of SAA Presidents

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The recent resignation of Michelle Light from her post as SAA Vice President/President-Elect got me wondering about the jobs held by former SAA presidents.  Using the information provided on the SAA website, I generated this chart as a more easily digested summation of the information:

chart of SAA presidents

SAA presidents by category

The first 8 presidents served 2-year terms, which accounts for the lack of 10 presidents in the early decades of the SAA.  Two of the 1970s presidents were from Canada, but even so, every decade other than the first decade of the 21st century has seen at least two presidents who were also serving posts in the national government, including:

  • Library of Congress
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Smithsonian Institution

Obviously, Light’s soon-to-be job at the Library of Congress is not without precedent among the list of jobs held by SAA presidents.  But in her blog post explaining her resignation, Light cited potential conflicts of interest between her paid position and her SAA position.  The status of the Library of Congress as a legislative agency has not changed, but Light evidenced concern there could be confusion about her possibly using her position within SAA to advocate specifically for her agency.  In recent years, SAA has expanded its advocacy efforts with the Committee on Public Policy and the Intellectual Property Working Group.  Rather than frequently needing to recuse herself from SAA activities, Light decided the organization would be better served by her resignation.

In addition to answering my question about Light’s predecessors, this little research project has also demonstrated the growing prominence of academics within the leadership of SAA along with negligible representation of business archivists.  I wonder if the explanation for this discrepancy is no more complicated than the fact that those working at academic institutions are more likely have institutional support for professional engagement.  (The list on the SAA website does not distinguish between archivists practicing at academic institutions versus professors teaching at these institutions, but in looking at the list, I recognize both groups are definitely represented.)  On the other hand, it seems that archival work is often a difficult sell in the business community, so it may be harder for these archivists to justify devoting time to participation in an outside organization.

Archivists and Records Managers

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In this time of year between Archives Month (October) and Records and Information Management Month (April), it seems appropriate to take another look at the intersections between the two fields.  Several SAA presidents spoke about this topic — see especially the speeches from Grover and Radoff.  But I also came across an American Archivist article that Frank Evans wrote in 1967 that speaks to this topic.

Evans provided a timeline of how the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and the National Archives (NARA) embraced records management.

  • 1940: SAA proposed a Uniform State Records Act
  • 1941: NARA created a records administration program
  • 1941: SAA’s Committee on Reduction of Archival Material became the Committee on Record Administration
  • 1949: SAA’s Committee on Record Administration produced a pamphlet for state and local governments
  • 1955: Association of Records Executives and Administrators was founded
  • 1955: American Records Management Association was organized

Evans also incorporated relevant articles previously published in the American Archivist.  In 1943, Philip Brooks had glowing remarks about the importance of records management:

“‘Authorities on the qualifications of archivists say that archivists, in order to apply the principle of provenance, should know the methods by which records in their custody are produced. . . .  It is inevitable that the iniquity of omitting care for records as they accumulate shall be visited upon the third and fourth generations of later administrators, archivists, research students, and society as a whole'” (47).

A 1948 article for Irving Shiller gave a less gratifying analysis of the impact of records administrators:

“‘Among American archivists the cost has been the abandonment of the tradition of scholarship and research, desertion of historiography, and renunciation of a broad intellectual comprehension of the records, particularly an understanding of how they relate to the world of reality beyond the walls of the repository.  The professional archivist is atrophying'” (49).

At the 1950 SAA annual meeting, Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover provided an interesting analysis of the training needed by archivists and records managers:

“‘. . . academic qualifications in history and the social sciences are essential for an archivist, if he is to develop subject-matter competence in the areas of documentation for which he is responsible.  I believe he must develop such competence if he is to perform his professional chores intelligently.  On the other hand, management outlook and experience are essential to the records management specialist, if he is to develop as a member of the management team—and it is only as a member of that team that he can ever hope to be effective in the long run'” (51).

In his 1954 SAA presidential address, Grover spoke unequivocally about the necessity of partnership between archivists and records managers:

“‘It is folly for archivists even to think of parting company, literally or psychologically, from the newly developed specialists in records management; and no less folly on the records management side than on the archival side.  Our numbers are too few; our common interests too important'” (54).

In his 1955 SAA presidential address, Morris Radoff suggested both archivists and records managers needed to be trained as “‘masters of the whole records field'” (54).  At the same meeting, the president of the National Records Management Council, Robert Shiff, asserted archivists and records managers are interchangeable, so long as they hone their abilities to serve the needs of both scholars and administrators.  Evans also uncovered evidence from the 1958 SAA annual meeting of a panel session that emphasized the necessity of cooperation and communication between archivists and records managers:

“‘Take away one—records management—from its relationship to the other—archives administration—and you remove a vital link.  Combine the two branches and you present a united front whose total impact toward professional betterment is many times greater than the sum of efforts separately pursued'” (56).

Evans capped off this literature survey with a call for more thorough research on the topic that extends beyond the pages of the American Archivist and includes personal records and oral histories.  He contended that while the “archivist-records manager can and does exist,” “mutual misunderstandings” make it more difficult for the professions to realize their common goals than to emphasize their differences (57).  He concluded that the efforts of the records manager facilitate the work of the archivist and that the records manager also needs to embrace a sense of responsibility “to society at large and thus to posterity” (58).

Obviously, the archival and records management fields have further codified their differences since this article was published in 1967, but I, for one, embrace the notion that the professions have common denominators.  Maybe it’s time for someone to answer Evans’ call and do the research necessary to underscore this conclusion.


The sound of archives

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I have come to realize that music and memory are intertwined in my brain.  Sometimes a song evokes a particular memory, and other times words that are set to music are easier for me to remember.

With this inclination, I’ve been ruminating on the question, what song could represent archives?  As I was developing my Zotero bibliography of the American Archivist, I came across “Archivist’s Hymn” published in the April 1968 issue.  It was written in Spanish by Rafael Angel Barroeta and first presented at the Primer Congreso Bolivariano de Archiveros in Caracas, Venezuela in December 1967.  It was translated into English and published in the American Archivist.  Here are some of the key descriptors this song uses about archivists:

  • sentinels
  • guarding
  • watchful
  • precious things
  • lasting
  • history’s might
  • treasure of ages
  • wisdom
  • renown
  • passage of eras

In the December 7, 2016, issue of the Society of American Archivists’ In the Loop weekly newsletter, they reprinted “All Archivists Stick Together,” a song written by Garrison Keillor in 1983 and originally published in the November 1983 SAA Newsletter.  His depiction of archival work is a little less glowing, comparing archivists to miners:

  • dark and dusty
  • “tons of documents and papers, unprocessed, stretch on for miles”
  • “microfilm those dusty piles”
  • “let us make a better system | information to retrieve”
  • integrated reference structures

These songs got me thinking about what other songs could be appropriated to represent the work of archivists.  I’ve come up with two possibilities:

  • Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 song “Don’t Stop.”  It came to have a second life as the theme song of Bill Clinton, used in his 1992 presidential campaign and ever after.  Christine McVie wrote about her separation from her husband (and the band’s bass guitarist, John McVie) and touches on some of the Janus-like nature of archival work.  In the chorus, archivists would do better to embrace her focus on the future without conceding that the past is gone:

    “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
    Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
    It’ll be better than before
    Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”
  • Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” in the 1960s, and numerous artists recorded it.  It’s also a song about a breakup, and the third verse mirrors the role archives can play in helping to trigger memory (both individual and communal):

    “If you should find you miss the sweet and tender love we used to share
    Just go back to the places where we used to go and I’ll be there
    Oh, how can I forget you, girl, when there is
    Always something there to remind me
    Always something there to remind me”

If you have other suggestions of what songs represent the work of archivists, I’d love to hear them!

Secondary values and unused records

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The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster seems to me a perfect example of secondary value.  The Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines it as “the usefulness or significance of records based on purposes other than that for which they were originally created.”  The poster was part of a set of three created by the British government during World War Two to boost morale, but only the first two were ever published.  The third was intended to be released in case of a German invasion of Britain — the fact that I found these images of these posters on a website selling various items with this slogan tells you the real value of this poster has been to shopkeepers and Internet retailers!

Thoughts of government records that were created and never used for their intended purpose led me to find a list compiled by Mental Floss of speeches that were written but never delivered:

  1. the 1969 speech written by William Safire and sent to Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t return from their landing on the moon
  2. the 1944 speech written by Dwight D. Eisenhower in case the D-Day invasion failed
  3. the 1970 speech written by Wamsutta James for Plymouth’s 350th anniversary celebration of the arrival of the Pilgrims (a speech that was rejected by the event organizers for its unvarnished explanations of the difficult relationship of Native Americans with the Pilgrims)
  4. the 1974 speech written by Raymond Price to enable Nixon to go on TV and announce that he was going to fight to keep his job
  5. the November 1963 speech that JFK was intended to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas (but never delivered because he was assassinated)
  6. the 2000 address Anna Quindlen wrote for Villanova’s commencement (but never delivered due to controversy over her views on abortion)
  7. the September 11, 2001, speech National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice intended to deliver at Johns Hopkins University (but the attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania occurred)
  8. the 1983 speech written by Aquino for his return to the Philippines from exile in the U.S. (but never delivered because he was assassinated upon his return)
  9. the October 1962 speech written for JFK that suggested the U.S. would use nuclear weapons if necessary to eradicate the Soviet missile installations in Cuba (an alternative JFK didn’t exercise)
  10. the September 2012 speech written for Romney to undo the damage from his comment that 47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes
  11. the 2008 victory and concession speeches of Sarah Palin
  12. the April 1945 speech by FDR that was intended for a Jefferson Day celebration (but he died the day before its intended broadcast)


Archival Principles: Authenticity

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block AI conclude my series on archival principles today with a look at authenticity.  The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines authenticity as:

the quality of being genuine, not a counterfeit, and free from tampering, and is typically inferred from internal and external evidence, including its physical characteristics, structure, content, and context.

Often times, the evaluation of authenticity focuses on the creation of the record and the path taken by this record before it comes to rest in an archival repository.  This is summed up by the term provenance, or “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”  I think archivists have embraced the principle of authenticity because of the desire to demonstrate the uniqueness of archival records.

Authenticity used to be demonstrated by signatures or wax seals, and these could be validated by testing inks and papers.  But with the emergence of born-digital records, there are no tactile measurements of authenticity.  Instead, many archivists have adapted the tools of digital forensics in order to be able to demonstrate that no changes have occurred to the files since they were deposited at the archival repository.

While for some authenticity may also bring the connotation of reliability, that gets complicated in the archival realm, so that will be the topic for musings on another day.

Archival Principles: Access

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block AThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines access as:

1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools.

2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance.

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, but I generally argue that if materials warrant archival preservation, they need to be made accessible.  The arrangement process I described last week helps facilitate access to archival records by identifying their content and other elements and concisely recording this information in a finding aid or other research aid.  Unfortunately, thoughts about access don’t always seem to bear on decisions about accessioning or preserving materials.  In researching my master’s paper, I found particularly with born-digital materials a lack of planning about how electronic materials will be made accessible to researchers.

Traditionally, access to archival records has been provided to researchers who come to the reading rooms of archival repositories.  Occasionally, remote researchers would request materials be microfilmed for their review off-site.  Increasingly, the researcher’s impulse to “let me Google that” is leading repositories to consider digitizing materials to make them available for online access.

There are certainly advantages to providing remote access to digital copies of archival materials.  For one, doing so removes some of the stumbling blocks that researchers unfamiliar with archival practices and protocols face when visiting a reading room for the first time.  It can also broaden the reach of your repository to those who may never be able to darken the door.

But there are also accompanying disadvantages.  Items that are put online can often be discovered by search engine rather than by navigating through a finding aid on the archives website.  Archives are increasingly thinking about the metadata they associate with files to enhance this discoverability, but making it easier for people to Google materials means they may miss out on the context of the rest of the collection in which the particular document or picture is located.  Without any personal interactions with an archivist, the researcher may also miss out on advice about other related materials.

The other issue repositories must address if they want to provide online access — and which can become a disadvantage if it’s ignored — is what’s the plan for accomplishing this?

  • What should be digitized — individual items that are requested? entire collections that are heavily researched? everything?
  • Can the scanning be handled in-house or will it need to be outsourced?
  • Does the repository have a collection management system that can provide the technological infrastructure necessary to upload digital assets to the World Wide Web?

Much more could be written about this, but for now I’ll conclude by saying that scanning materials in a haphazard will only create headaches both in the short-term and definitely in the long-term.

One final issue that has become more contentious in the era of online access is the appropriate role/responsibility of the archival repository in protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the donors and the subjects of the archival materials.  When these materials were only available under restricted conditions within archival reading rooms, many donors didn’t think too carefully about the ramifications of the materials being publicly accessible.  But now even with yearbooks and college newspapers and other materials that were clearly public at the time of their publication are appearing with increasing regularity among digital collections, more and more people are embracing the idea long common in Europe of the right to be forgotten — and archival repositories are left to figure out how to handle take-down requests.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the realm of archival access.

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