Society and Archives
WILLIAM J. MAHER, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
53rd president of the Society of American Archivists
following incoming presidential address was delivered on August 30, 1997, during
SAA's 61st annual meeting in Chicago, IL, Fairmont Hotel.
the closing luncheon of the 1983 SAA meeting in Minneapolis, David B. Gracy
launched one of the most focused presidencies and SAA programs in the modern
era. Under the banner of "Archives and Society," he called for a concerted campaign
to increase the resources provided to archives by directing attention to archivists'
need for greater recognition from society for the value of what they do. Gracy's
presidency is often pointed to as a model of success. Several public programs
were launched in support of "archives and society," but if the initiative succeeded,
it did so because it pushed archivists to reassess themselves and their work
in terms of public relations and to appreciate the enormous importance of good
public relations to the betterment of archival programs.
an organization, SAA has played a significant role in fulfilling the mandate
laid down by Gracy. At the same time, the task of securing more resources and
a better public image of archives is really never complete, and we all must
admit that there are some archives which are no better off today than they were
before David delivered his vision to SAA. Collectively, we are still very much
subject to the cycle of poverty that he identified as inhibiting the best intentions
and efforts of archivists. What's worse is that with the advent of electronic
records systems, there is a new challenge capable of putting us even further
behind than we were before with the significant danger that without control
of electronic records, we will no longer even hold the historical and cultural
capital to claim a distinctive and important role in society.
the increasingly complex and competitive information environment within which
archives exist, we are in fact in the rather strange position of being at risk
of losing the archivist in archives. In the years since Gracy spoke, we have
witnessed society as a whole become increasingly focused on information, and
increasingly interested in using information in non-conventional forms. In such
an information age, one would think that archives should prosper, but most programs
are still grossly under-supported, often under-used, and archivists remain under-compensated
and still marginalized on key issues of information policy.
tenuous position can be illustrated, at least partially, by the increasing
public use, or should I say misuse, of the very word "archives." Perhaps through no
fault of our own, we have lost control of the word "archives." It has been seized
and used by computer specialists, librarians, advertising copywriters, academic
faculty, newspapers, and electronic media to cover all manner of information
gatherings that really are quite clearly not archives. On a personal level,
I find that I have to spell and explain the pronunciation of "archives" far
less than I did a decade and a half ago. In academic circles, I find I do not
have to answer questions about whether archives are old artifacts and museum
objects because there is a ready understanding that "archives" are information.
In fact, according to my analysis of citations in the Newspaper Abstracts database
there is a threefold increase of the use of the word archives in the news media
from 1985 to 1996. In our current multimedia age, there is also the appreciation
that "archives" comprise not just manuscripts but documents in all forms and
the increased popular use of the word "archives," there is clear evidence that
the misuse of the term is not decreasing. My review of Newspaper Abstracts for
1985 and 1996 shows that the percentage of inappropriate or clearly incorrect
uses of "archives" has remained relatively constant. One of my personal favorites
was in an article by Chicago Tribune sportswriter Mike Kiley who, in
writing about the Chicago Bears' poor track record in their second-round NFL
draft picks, must have been looking for some way to elevate his diatribe above
opinion when he wrote that the Bear's "second-round archives" were littered
with lackluster talent and broken hearts. We also note the use of the word "archives"
in the popular culture media, such as the cable TV oldies service titled "VH1
Archives." A quick Alta-Vista or Yahoo search of the Internet for the word "archives"
will show over 2 million "hits," many of which are references to professionally
operated archives and manuscript repositories, but many more that are little
more than some Internet junkie's personal backfiles of top forty tunes, Baywatch
stars' vital statistics, or logs of government conspiracies.
we have some of the same institutional problems as when David Gracy spoke, one
can see the evolution of the language as a positive sign for archivists. Instead
of archives not being understood and valued, we have rather the opposite problem
archives are seen as something so desirable that many people believe they understand
them quite readily.
university faculty I encounter, in fact, have a strong interest in developing
their own so-called "archive" of personal documents and/or research material.
Almost invariably their project consists of scanning documents and images collected
through their research and, increasingly drawn on a highly selective basis from
the processed holdings of an established archival repository. These academics
seek their place in the scholarly firmament as they compile a product such as
the definitive "Virtual Archive of Central Illinois Alpine Skiing." As suggested
by this example, there are collateral tendencies to use the word "archives"
minus its North American requisite terminal "s" and to "verbify" the noun.
many cases, the non-professional appropriation of the term "archives" appears
to be part of an attempt by the scholar or database builder to lend panache
or cachet and an air of respectability to what otherwise might be little more
than a personal hobby or collecting fetish. As archivists, should we simply
welcome this popularization of the term "archives" or should we be bothered
by the prevalence of its frequent misuse? Perhaps we should look only on the
positive side and see that the growing amateur usage of "archives" reflects
the sort of public recognition of the value and importance of documentation
that Gracy sought. On the other hand, there is in the popularized use of "archives"
a rather significant threat to the basic goals of the archival profession. Call
it paranoia, but I always have the sense that when we see "archive" used as
a verb, or the word "archives" used in a bastardized way to describe what is
clearly a singular, idiosyncratic, and synthetic gathering of documents, we
are being confronted with a challenge to our position as professional archivists.
Is this just a guild-like reaction as we see others stake a claim to what has
been our sacred territory? Or is it a defensiveness borne of concern that society's
precious few resources will be drawn off by these rogue efforts while "real" archival
work goes on in a cycle of poverty?
your president for the next year, it would be remiss for me to dismiss criticisms
of the bastardization of the term "archives" as petty and irrelevant. After
all, our professional societies are indeed the latter-day equivalent of guilds,
and if we as professional archivists are not prepared to vigorously defend
stake in the information landscape, we have little justification for our continued
existence as a society. There are, however, more important reasons for being
diligent and active in defense of the very terminology of our profession.
is, in fact, so troubling about the many pseudo archives now being established
is that they frequently lack several of the very core archival functions. In
some cases, it is that they constitute private and idiosyncratic collections
developed ex post facto, and thus are far from the contextually based organic
bodies of evidence that comprise most of the archives and manuscript collections
among members of SAA. In other cases, they are little more than undifferentiated
masses of electronically stored information, often compiled by accident of system
design, for backups, and frequently occupying large quantities of computer space
with a low value to volume ratio. However, what is most troubling in these pseudo
archives is their lack of the professional and theory-based application of the
seven major archival responsibilities. That is, what defines the professional
core of archival work is the systematic and theoretically-based execution of
seven highly interrelated responsibilities securing clear authority for the
program and collection, authenticating the validity of the evidence held, appraising,
arranging, describing, preserving, and promoting use. To help the non-archival
world understand the value of what professionalism brings to archives and information,
we must continue to emphasize how our expertise in each of these seven domains
is necessary to ensure that a concise and authentic record of the past is preserved
and made accessible as evidence to the future.
we stop the misappropriation of our nomenclature? Is this an important threat
to us as professionals? What role can and should SAA play in this admittedly
dicey area when we often become side-tracked into lengthy internal disputes
over the meaning of such basic terms as "archives," "provenance," or "evidential
value?" Rather than suggest that SAA or each of us become some sort of language
police censuring each prominent misuse of archival terminology, we have a more
positive and proactive role to play in the rapidly changing information environment.
In brief, rather than trying to fight a rear-guard action, against public misuse
of "archives," we should accept the positive benefits of greater societal recognition
of archives but also use each such occasion to assert the professional dimension
of society's use of "archives." For example, with the rapid growth in information
technology and the growing bandwidth for information formats, we must be particularly
watchful of public policy developments that will impact and impede our fundamental
archival goals and responsibilities. In 1996-97, SAA Council has examined or
has been presented with issues such as copyright limits on fair use, electronic
records, and preservation for digitized documents. We need to play a primary
role in stating the archival policy on issues involved in our fundamental archival
responsibilities to provide for an accountable record of our institutions and
secure a historical heritage for society.
recent involvement in several policy issues fits the model of the role I see
us as needing to fulfill to provide critical advocacy at the dawn of a new
These include: taking an unambiguous stance in opposition to proposed CONFU
(Conference on Fair Use) guidelines on the "fair use" of digital images;
signing on as amicus curia in two archival-related lawsuits; adopting a policy
on archival preservation issues involved in the digital preservation of conventional
documentary materials; developing a clear public statement on behalf of the
November 1996 NHPRC strategic plan priorities; providing specific recommendations
to the Moynihan Committee to expedite the declassification of federal documents;
and speaking out vigorously against the potential politicization of the position
of chief of the California State Archives.
this audience, I am sure there are some who may disagree with some of the stances
SAA has taken. However, what I hope everyone will appreciate is how each of
these positions was developed to assert a professional response on a public
matter involving a fundamental archival principle. In the case of the IRS suit,
it was for compliance with the Federal Records Act and thus for accountability
of public agencies. In the suit of Bruce Craig versus the United States, it
was for reasonable scholarly access to historical grand jury records. In regard
to declassification, it was to advocate for a more effective governmental policy
and a more realistic way to administer the declassification of old national
security documents. In the case of NHPRC's priorities, it was for the need to
fund archival projects, especially those dealing with electronic records. In
the case of the position of director of the California state archives, it was
for professional preconditions of employment. In the case of the CONFU guidelines,
it was for copyright policies that would not inhibit archival and research work
to disseminate historical information using the latest information technology.
In the preservation guidelines, it was the need to recognize the distinctiveness
of archival from library or technical issues when employing digital technologies
Such activities are merely illustrative of what we hope will
be a more active SAA in advocacy. Rather, to paraphrase the epithet of University
founding regent John Milton Gregory, borrowed from Christopher Wren--"if you
seek the monument, just look around"--"If you seek the definition of SAA, you
only need review these advocacy examples." They define us as a profession and
as a society that sees its mission as service to society at large.
An equally critical defining characteristic of these efforts has been that in
many respects, these advocacy positions have been responsive rather than proactive
initiatives. In most cases, we were asked for a reaction or opinion on a policy
question that others were considering. Some years ago, the emphasis on being
proactive might have censured these efforts as being reactive and thus retrograde
at best. In many cases, it is better to be proactive, but in the current information
policy environment, we simply cannot review every possible information policy
matter to identify concerns of interest to SAA. Instead, we have been blessed
by an active membership and set of coalition partners who are aware of our interests
and who value our support on key issues. Even in a matter so basic and traditional
as the advocacy on behalf of professional employment credentials, we are dependent
on, and we succeed because of the initiative and preparedness of individual
members who alert us to the issues and actively help articulate the position
or policy statement that SAA ultimately issues.
all cases, significant progress on public issues requires diligence and considerable
effort by Council members who may spend hours reading background documents,
preparing discussion documents or seminar sessions, and drafting the ultimate
policy statement. This work has been most effective and encouraging, but at
the same time, Council realizes that it must do more even if only to signal
the kinds of policy problems it wishes to consider for formal positions. Consequently,
we have recently considered a policy statement on our vision
for archival advocacy which outlines the key principles and general policy
areas we wish to emphasize and advance.
This statement appears on SAA's website and in Archival Outlook, but
as a preview, I note the following. SAA is particularly concerned that the archival
dimensions of the following issues related to technology, commercial developments,
and governmental policy be addressed:
• mechanisms for the creation of reliable,
authentic, identifiable, accessible, and manageable records of government,
institutions, and society in general;
• the sustainability and viability of electronic documentary formats and
• intellectual property regulations that promote the use of new technologies
to expand access to records and other documentary materials;
• development and adoption of standards and protocols that facilitate identification,
description, communication, longevity, and access for both traditional and electronic
forms of documentation;
• provision of adequate financial and policy support to fulfill legal,
institutional, and societal mandates;
• mechanisms and policies that ensure the prompt declassification of federal
records whose secrecy requirements have passed;
• assurance that the management of individual archival programs follows
the norms of the profession so that the archivist's distinct role and responsibilities
are not compromised by political, institutional, or other considerations; and
• accessibility of public records and documentary cultural property, regardless
of format, to the public at a reasonable cost.
Developing a more active and focused position for SAA to
advocate on behalf of archival issues will require more than just Council
action, and more than
just additional funding for SAA's support of advocacy groups and lobbying agencies.
What is most critical is the involvement of individual members in a two-part
process. On the one hand, members need to alert Council and the executive
to issues on which a clear archival policy statement is needed. This can be
done both individually as well as through SAA constituent groups such as
sections, roundtables, and representatives. On the other hand, once SAA has
adopted a statement, it behooves each of us as professional archivists to
the item within our own repository guidelines and policies. At the least, each
of us bears a special responsibility to disseminate archival policy positions
at our home institutions. If we wish to ensure that archivists remain in
view of archives, it is archivists who must place themselves at the center
of society's perception of archives. Through such efforts, we will define
and in the spirit of Christopher Wren and John Milton Gregory, create the "archives" that
society will seek.
I would like to close with a final favorite example of the
public misuse of the word "archives," which aptly illustrates the mixed feelings we all must
have as we see "archives" embraced by society and commerce.
Sometime ago, I returned a mail-in rebate coupon from the
distillers of Glenlivit, my regular brand of single-malt scotch. I have subsequently
been on the mailing
list of the Glenlivit Society and receive periodic promotions from its "concierge."
A recent mailing encouraged me to visit the distillery in Banffshire, Scotland
and included a special invitation entitling me and my guests to several privileges--free
admission, inscription in the V.I.P. guestbook, and a V.I.P. private tasting
of "the Glenlivit Archive" a special bottling not available to the public. So
rather than curse the corruption of the language, I propose that we engage in
the "archives" of society and impose on it our archival principles, spirit,