Ruth W. Helmuth delivered her presidential address in September 1981 at the 45th annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held at the University of California-Berkeley.  Her address was published in the Fall 1981 issue of the American Archivist.  She founded the archives at Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and served as university archivist until her retirement in 1985.  She devoted much time to developing formal training for archivists in both degree and post-graduate instruction.

Helmuth chose to focus her presidential address on archival education, addressing the basic problem: “what is the most appropriate education now available to American archivists?” (295).  She incorporated the viewpoints of both the teaching archivist and the SAA Committee on Education and Professional Development.  She specified, “My primary interest is not in the ideal, but in the possible; my intent is not to lament our failures, but to contemplate our successes, however modest” (295).  She considered three types of professional archival training:

  1. short-term, non-credit
  2. post-appointment, in-service
  3. pre-appointment, graduate education

For her purposes, Helmuth defined an archivist/manuscript curator as:

“a responsible custodian of original source materials, whose work involves the acquisition, appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, and reference use of such materials of all kinds, and concern with the whole cycle of records creation and disposal” (295-96).

Helmuth suggested that the diversity of American archivists (i.e., working in various sorts of repositories) complicated decisions about archival education  with considerations that are not significant in Europe.  She also explained that the National Archives’ preference for post-appointment training shaped the offerings of and expectations for archival education.

Helmuth contended, “good archivists are born, not made” (298).  She went on to list the attributes she considered vital for good archivists:

  • intelligence
  • “need to bring order out of chaos”
  • “ability to scan rapidly and accurately”
  • “concern for people and ease in dealing with them”
  • “inspire trust”
  • imagination
  • creativity

Helmuth proposed that archivists need a general cultural background — mostly related to the research process and good writing skills.  She also listed specifics that need to be taught:

  • archival theory
  • conservation
  • law
  • administration
  • management
  • computers
  • information transfer
  • classification
  • indexing
  • reprography (e.g., microfilming, offset printing, etc.)

Most importantly, she asserted the necessity of a practicum to prepare new archivists.

Helmuth explained that the SAA had been interested in archival education since the report of the Committee for the 1970s, leading to the issuance of archival education guidelines in 1977.  (These original guidelines were revised in 1988 and 1994; see also the proceedings from a 1977 session on Professional Archival Training.  In 2002, the “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies” were approved and subsequently updated in 2005 and 2011.)  These guidelines focused on pre-appointment, graduate level training and included three significant elements:

  1. elements of archival theory
  2. practicum standards
  3. instructor qualifications

Regarding instructors, Helmuth contended they should be practitioners:

“In the health sciences, all of the faculty outside of the laboratory have clinical appointments.  The understanding is that their teaching is more useful and more vital because they are at the same time practitioners of their art” (301).

Although she acknowledged the value of creating tenure-track positions for archival educators, she also listed Dolores Renze at Denver, Gerry Ham at Wisconsin, and Phil Mason at Wayne State as archival instructors who could not easily be replaced by non-practitioners:

“there are some special values we will lose as we grow away from this period of the personal influence of archivists of recognized stature and competence who have  been willing to exert themselves in behalf of their students and the profession
generally” (302).

She went on to state unequivocally — and indeed to identify as her motto — “‘Archivists should teach archivists'” (302).  As further explanation, she suggested,

“The essential element of the archival art or craft is judgment; seldom is there only one obvious solution for any problem, and the skillful teacher illuminates the various possibilities and discriminates among them” (302).

She concluded, “We are a first-choice profession, and our education programs should be designed to assure that fact.  And if education is to be a successful instrument of policy for this profession, all archivists will have to be actively concerned with it” (302).