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Chapter 2 January 20, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 2.
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I really enjoyed this chapter and I suspect many of you did too. Much of the discussion of the history of the development of archives and the archival profession in the United States was new to me (or perhaps I had just forgotten what I learned back at Michigan all those years ago). I think we will find much to discuss—everyone can find something here that will spark ideas. The analysis of why archives were slow to develop in the U.S. should spur debate, I think, and the bifurcation of the AHA’s involvement into the drive to publish materials and the drive to preserve them is interesting as well.

Perhaps because of what I do elsewhere, the section that most caught my attention was the discussion of the work of the Society of American Archivists in the 1960s, 70s and 80s (pp. 108-118). Interesting how many of the problems and themes we are talking about today—creating an “archival identity,” promoting our profession with stakeholders, the concerns of “activist archivists”—are the same issues that our colleagues were grappling with decades ago. I’d like to get my hands on some of those reports produced by SAA—I wonder how much has changed over the years?

I wasn’t surprised that we didn’t have much discussion about Chapter One, but I will be if I don’t hear more thoughts about this chapter.

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Comments»

1. Elena Danielson - January 20, 2010

The story of the first state archives, in Alabama in 1901, was new for me. (p. 94) But the fact that it was a partisan and political initiative is not much of a surprise. – Elena

2. Alison - January 20, 2010

This indeed was a chapter that particularly sparked my interest on many levels, as Kate says…

What particularly resonated for me was the discussion of “documania” and its role in preserving and distributing documents to the public, and just how this, in part, helped to keep leaders accountable for their action. I was also interested in this phenomenon’s role in the creation/ bolstering of national identity and even patriotism…

I was also taken with the discussion on the creation of professional identity for archivists… In particular, Margaret Norton’s assertion that archives serve administrative and legal functions in assuring citizens’ rights first and foremost over their historical purpose… Hand-in-hand with this was that this was fundamentally different than historians’ use of archival records, which was primarily for historical research.

3. Kirsten Wright - January 20, 2010

I also enjoyed this chapter. As I didn’t know much about the establishment of the Society of American Archivists or the development of archives in the US, I found it useful. As someone working in a University, I was interested to note that by the 1970s, 1/3 of SAA members worked for colleges and universities, while only 13% worked for state archives (p111). This is contrasted with the situation here in Australia, where, I suspect, the Australian Society of Archivists has most been supported by archivists working in state and national archives.

Like Kate, I was struck with the description of the discussion around the professional identity of archivists, promoting the profession, and so on. These are certainly issues still being discussed today through the ASA email list and other forums.

The only part of the chapter that I wasn’t sure about was the last part on the discussion of ‘the challenges of the digital age’. I think this is an absolutely necessary discussion to have – I’m just not sure if it belongs in a chapter about the history of archives in the US and the SAA. The issues Jimerson discusses in this section are broader than just the US – both Europe and Australia have done relevant work in this area, for example – and I could almost see this being a chapter in its own right (I haven’t read much ahead so if the issues are discussed later, I apologise!)

Rand - January 21, 2010

Kirsten, Thanks for your observations. I agree that the discussion of the digital age needs to be framed in an international context. I didn’t want to add a third “historical” chapter in order to shift back from the US perspective, so I kept this together chronologically at the expense of doing so. I tried in the later chapters to indicate the international dimensions of these issues. But then as an American archvist, my perspective (and what little exprtise I can claim) arises largely from the US context. In later chapters I do have some evidence and examples from several dozen countries, but the balance is (almost of neccessity for me) with North America. What I would love to see is historical and contemporary cultural perspectives from archives in other continents and countries to fill in details that I could only hint at.

4. Joshua Zimmerman - January 22, 2010

I also liked the archival identity portion of the chapter. I especially enjoyed Rand’s discussion of the changes happening in the profession during the 1960s and 1970s. The debate over the proper role and realm of archivists is one that always provokes lively discussion on listservs and at professional meetings in the US. I think this discussion is a sign of a maturing profession and one that we will be having for a long time.

I also liked his discussion of the publishing method of preservation vs. archival repository method of preservation. It’s interesting that these historian/editors could get support for producing publications full of letters and documents of the heroes of the Revolutionary period, but not for repositories. It might be about fortune and fame, as in the case of Sparks (87). Establishing archival and manuscript collections didn’t seem to bring the type of recognition (and money) that publishing would.

Very little is heard about historical editing in the archival profession today, perhaps because I’m not listening close enough. It’s hard to imagine a profession that is less visibile than archivists.

5. Susan - January 25, 2010

Yes, documania was interesting. The “historical manuscripts tradition” seemed to have at its root a very admirable aim- making these documents more accessible through publication. Even if the documents were used to help oppress certain populations, publishing and disseminating them could have helped spark a debate about our governments.

I often wish more people would come to use (or heck, even become aware of) the collections I worked with daily. Many institutions have all kinds of hidden gems. I view the historical manuscripts faction as taking history to people while the other faction took on the role of preserving the documents but not making them all that accessible. Especially in a time before long distance travel was feasible (and way before the Internet), I’m sure these publications were welcomed by at least by those who could 1. afford to buy them and 2. read.

It made me wonder what we could do today to not only preserve the records (whether they serve administrative and/or historical purposes but get the information they contain to wider audiences, including the average, non-scholar who may have no interest in visiting a repository.

6. LaurenG. - January 28, 2010

Susan: digitization for access! Though, I know this is not practical, it still seems like a way to get archival documents into circulation.

I wanted to comment on something that I hope will come up more later in the book. In his discussion of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Jimerson states that though Owen began hiswork in an effort to “defend and justify Alabama’s historical legacy,” he (Owen) later included state and local records in the responsibility of a state archival agency. Jimerson ends with “Archives could serve both a historical role and a public administration function.”
At least in this case, these 2 functions don’t seem to be at odds at all. I’m interested in thinking more about how administrative documents in archives that were set up to serve a particular historical narrative can be used to usurp that historical narrative. An example that comes to mind is a historian in NYC, I think, who used police records on people arrested on public indecency or similar charges to write the history of the GLBT community.


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