Part 1 of History’s Babel, 1880-1910

Hopefully some of you will have read the first three chapters of the book which cover the period from 1880-1910. Otherwise it will just be me and Eira talking for a while!

While I may have been exposed to some of  this historical information about the profession in the past, I found Townsend’s presentation of it within the context of the early days of the AHA to be very useful. And of course we see struggles and tensions in this time period that continue to echo in our own. The roots of the archival profession in the discipline of history have led and continue to lead, I think, to an expectation that there is or should be some kind of special relationship between archivists and historians. That is, that historians should have more influence on acquisition and processing of collections than other kinds of users, as described for example in Blouin and Rosenberg’s Processing the Past. This expectation is perhaps natural given the reliance historians have traditionally had on archival materials for their research, but it’s one that I think it is reasonable to question as many archives strive to meet the needs of a wide variety of users. I will be interested in see how the relationship between what become two separate professions evolves in the following parts of the book.

It’s also interesting to consider the past importance placed as publishing archival materials, as described by Townsend in Part 1, and how this echoes the current importance placed on digitizing materials.  However much has changed, the comparative difficulty and expense of traveling to an archives to do research has apparently not. Townsend’s brief references to historians as collectors of original materials and copies is also reminiscent of the historian as “archivist” we see today, preserving copies of born-digital materials or assembling collections of digital copies. And there are hints of the same kind of disdain for genealogists and amateur historians here in the past as we sometimes see today.

One particular section of Chapter 2 certainly raised my interest and made me want to review some of the references cited. That is the discussion about the unfortunate results that were attributed to the creation of two separate commissions for archives and manuscripts. Townsend writes on pp 44-45:

Although the distinction between manuscripts and archives seems somewhat anachronistic now, historically the division followed the sequence in which the two commissions were established and the different interests they represented. Manuscripts were designated as private documents (such as personal papers), while archives were collections of materials produced by government officials and entities. The territories marked out by the two commissions provided conceptual distinctions that endured for generations (to the subsequent chagrin of some in the library and archival communities). [32] In addition to fostering divisions among those assigned to care for the source materials, this separation also neglected important classes of materials that are of considerable interest to historians today, particularly the records of nongovernmental entities such as businesses, labor unions, and churches. [33]

Does the distinction between manuscripts and archives seem somewhat anachronistic now? Certainly in everyday usage, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the word “archives” is used to describe any body of old material, but I think (or hope) within the archival profession the distinction is well understood. It is probably less well understood by historians, and perhaps from their point of view the distinction is meaningless. And of course the records of organizations other than government entities are understood to be “archives” as well, despite being left out of the purview of the commission on public archives.

Did any of these issues strike you as well, or did other aspects of this part catch your attention? Was this material new to you, and if so, does it help you understand the profession better?



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15 thoughts on “Part 1 of History’s Babel, 1880-1910

  1. I am so embarrassed to say I’d completely forgotten about this :(. April has been a very trying month professionally & personally and things are just starting to get back on an even keel. If we’re going chapter by chapter, I should be able to catch up over the week and join in later chapters. Hope all else is well!

    • At least you have good intentions–wait, maybe that’s not the right way to put it. ;)

      Sure, catch up when you can. I hope we have others in the same boat as you are. I found the book a pretty fast read, and if you’re rushed, you can skip Chapter 3. It really focuses pretty tightly on teaching, so it’s less interesting for our discussion. Chapter 1 is necessary for context and Chapter 2 is the one that really talks about archives.

      Happy reading!

  2. I’m curious, was the archival profession established outside the historical profession in Europe and other places, and if so, has that been of benefit to the profession outside the U.S.?

    • I believe the short answer to that is, yes, and I don’t know. I’m going to try to find someone more knowledgeable to tackle it. Let’s see if I can rouse one of our more learned colleagues to chime in.

      • If you want to follow up on this, you might want to take a look at Chapter One of Randall Jimerson’s book “Archives Power,” which describes the history or archives in Europe, which as you would expect is quite different from their development in the U.S. It does not get to the question of whether or not that different evolution has been beneficial to the profession, though.

  3. Regarding the separate streams of archives and manuscripts, this is something we learned a bit about in my graduate program at the University of British Columbia. Canada seemed to favor more of a “total archives” approach in which archivists felt that both private and public records should be collected by the public institutions in order to provide a more holistic cultural context. So it was interesting to read about how public (read: political and economic history) archives evolved separately from historical societies in the United States. While I realize Townsend’s focus is on the professional associations, I sort of wish he would have expanded more on who was helping to propel these institutions, not just the professional associations.

    One sort of glaring aspect of this that I couldn’t help but notice was that Lucy Salmon seems to be the only woman we meet in the narrative. It seems like family and community history fall more within the manuscripts tradition. I wonder how gender plays into how the historical society was perceived in relation to government archives? I realize Townsend has a specific scope in the book, but I wonder what we’d learn from a study that looks at the American History profession during this period through a gender lens.

    • I noticed the lack of women’s names too, although in next section at least we get Margaret Cross Norton. I remember reading quite a bit in graduate school about the role of women as “keepers of memory” in the U.S. tradition at least. As you can see this in the roles they played in preserving many historic sites, such as Mount Vernon and also I believe in the emergence of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). So if what you are suggesting is that organizations in which women played important roles were somewhat marginalized or not respected by the emerging professional historians, that would not surprise me.

  4. I think anachronistic puts it mildly. The distinctions are much less than the similarities. We’ve mostly solved the problem by turning our terminology inside out, largely abandoning the word manuscripts, excepting in a tightly defined way, and using terms such as personal archives or literary archives, rather than “papers,” which to our dear old historians would see as certainly odd, or simply wrong.
    Oh yes, there are some neo-Jenkinsonians, RM-meisters, and record-office hawks bringing out this saw to pepper historian-archivists, curators, and their ilk about evidence-as-primary-value and the true nature of real archives as organizational records. But in practice we mostly treat paper records the same with the main differences being in collection size, institutional type and mission, funding, and other more practical considerations. In theory, well, yes they are different. But as Townsend shows us, there is much less theory in the theory part of the division between the two. The traditions developed their own economies (I love that he resurrects “archival economy”) largely because public archives and historical societies were represented by two separate committees that put out separate reports on how such things would be addressed – in practice. I will posit and accept that much archival theory developed after the separation, not before it.
    The dominance of academic archives within libraries in the US, particularly in driving theory publication, as they often contain both manuscripts and archives in one repository, has served to make this distinction and resulting “subsequent chagrin” either much more mute or covered over in shared terminology, particularly within the context of the modern SAA. The distinction did cause fractures in the archival profession but these have largely ossified within communities of practice centralized around institutional types.

    • Michael – To pick up on what I think is one thread in your thoughtful comment, I was just reading Richard Berner’s Archival Theory and Practice in the United States, which appears to be one of the only histories of the profession. In it Berner observes that although the manuscript and public archives fields did start out separated, as Townsend observes, that later later in the 20th century the manuscript collections largely adopted the descriptive practices and philosophies developed by public archives. So, as you point out, in practice we use the same words for both manuscript and archival collections, and in practice both (usually) follow the practices developed for archives. So while the separate roots of the two areas may have caused difficulties earlier in the last century, I think from where we stand now the two have more similarities than differences. Is that what you were saying too?

      • Yes, I think that the differences are supposed to be about creators but they are really more about custodians now. At the point of origin some of the hand wringing about various values is appropriate, but ultimately at the management end more is the same, except the parent repository has a very different mandate, quite often. I also think that the appraisal revolution of the 70′s & 80′s – finding ways to sample and further cull government and institutional record groups at the same time actively seeking, promoting, and sometimes creating records from under-documented groups – has contributed greatly to the hybridized “archives and manuscripts” landscape of today.

  5. Hats off to Kate for leading us to this book, which I doubt I ever would have picked up otherwise. So far, I like the structure of the book. Townsend’s look at the sections of the “historical enterprise” that broke off from the AHA as it became increasingly identified with academic historians/scholars is an interesting premise. Given how many “SAA names” popped up in the first 3 chapters, I look forward to the future chapters where the archival profession became more distinct.

    That said, I’m still not convinced (at least from the first three chapters, I fully expect this may change) Townsend recognizes the current status of the archival profession as anything but an outgrowth of the historical enterprise. Things like positioning archives as “the tools and materials of historical research” might be accurate from the AHA-perspective and those who were working with archival materials at the turn of the century, but the contemporary usage of this phrasing is personally alienating to me as an archivist who strives to meet the needs of all users.

    Three anecdotes in the first few chapters really stood out to me as examples of a lens so focused on history being the midwife to archives that important points get lost:
    1. Townsend positions the formation of the Historical Manuscripts Committee and the Public Archives Commission as “anachronistic” by today’s standards. While I think he’s getting at the now outdated professional tensions between the public archives and historical manuscripts traditions, I’m not so sure it’s as anachronistic as he thinks – look at how the archival enterprise fractured into various component groups, particularly those covering records management and government records.
    2. Townsend mentions that some of the first state archives to be established were in the South – but does not critically examine (at least not that I’ve encountered yet) the highly politicized reasons for this: the Lost Cause memory campaigns, typically promoted by Confederate veterans and Confederate heritage groups.
    3. I’m not sure Townsend’s big tent approach is truly inclusive unless he considers the body of literature that underpins some of the parts of the “enterprise” that formed distinct identities from the AHA. For example, Townsend notes that Waldo Leland is not “widely recognized in histories of the discipline” – maybe not in a very narrowly-focused review of the field of academic history, but Leland is widely recognized in the archival profession.

    Despite my criticisms, I’m enjoying this book so far, and look forward to future discussions about it!

  6. Eira–thanks for your thoughtful comments, but I think you may disagree on some of your interpretations. Everything I’ve read suggests to me that Townsend is correct that the archival profession in the US has substantial roots in the historical enterprise. So for the story Townsend is telling, which ends in 1940, I think it’s accurate to identify archives as the “tools and materials” of history. I don’t think that by doing this he intends to suggest that the current archival profession is no more than a “handmaiden to history.” In fact the story he is telling is about how our profession grew away from the historians and developed its own identity.

    As discussed above, I also think (and maybe I’m being influenced by reading the Berger book) that it’s correct that the originally separate (in the US) manuscript and “archives” traditions have largely merged. There are differences, of course, but from what I’ve seen I think Berger is correct that most modern manuscript collections have more or less adopted the practices developed by archives. I think Michael would agree, as he notes above, that for the most part the two traditions have merged. (Again, note ” for the most part,” because of course there are differences.) I would have to go back and do more research to see just how accurate it is to say that the separate AHA committees were responsible for this. Townsend cites this article as a source: William F. Birdsall, “Archivists, Librarians, and Issues during the Pioneering Era of the American Archival Movement,” Journal of Library History, 14, no. 4 (Fall 1979): 461-62.

    I think your second and third points are just a result of limited space and Townsend’s need to focus his narrative on the topic he’s defined for himself. Of course Waldo Leland is well recognized within the discipline of archives in the United States, but certainly not within the historical discipline as it is currently defined, which as Townsend is demonstrating in the book, does not include the development of archival thought.

    I may very well be biased because of my past professional contact with Townsend, but I didn’t come away from the book with a sense that he doesn’t understand or respect the development of the independent archival profession in the U.S. This book does make me want to learn more about the developments in archives that Townsend mentions–now I’m all fired up to write my own book about the history of archives in the U.S.!

    But again, I freely admit I may be biased–did others have similar impressions as Eira did?

    • Eira makes excellent points. I agree that Townsend does not “recognize(s) the current status of the archival profession as anything but an outgrowth of the historical enterprise.” I don’t see this as a deficiency of his argument – its just the argument, based largely upon his use of the AHA as the centralizing feature of the enterprise. If he had cast a wider net during the timeframe of the study he could have shown that what are now considered the allied professions of archives would have been void of discussion of them. Post-WWII development of the National Archives and academic libraries shift in the treatment of manuscript collections are huge developments that fall outside of his temporal scope.
      In my history degree program, despite classes in historiography and methods, I never encountered Leland or Norton or any other of the “tools and methods” folks. It was studying for the ACA exam when if first read them and of them. So what she says about the archival literature is true, but since his narrative ends in 1940, there was nothing but 3 years of the American Archivist from the SAA, and the reports and manuals on archival economy put out by the committees. Leland and the other prominent archival writers are really out of the historian fold by the time the literature is in any way established.
      The figure that crosses over the most for me is Jameson, who I mostly knew on the archival side from his National Archives advocacy context. He is almost a father figure in the narrative, working to nurture the pieces of the enterprise as children in unity; but they ultimately grow up and drift apart.

  7. Thanks for the links above, Kate! And of course, after harvesting Townsend’s footnotes in the article, I remembered Joan Scott.

    I’m continuing to just really enjoy the book, and I like to think Townsend seems to be using this early period as a jumping off point…maybe he’ll do some additional work specific to offshoots of historical enterprise like archives or [*jargon alert] digital humanities (with his extensive Center for History and New Media background). It seems that because he has chosen to approach his work (as most historians do) within a specific date range, there will necessarily be some silences – no doubt historic preservationists, genealogists, writers of interpretive texts, etc. are saying, “Hey! Where are we? We’re misunderstood here!” So in part, Townsend’s work is chronicling the early inception of historical enterprise, and leaves us off right when that specialization begins…including the professionalization of archives. Coming full circle today, are we now becoming more critical of that specialization, leaning more toward working together through our collaborative, interdisciplinary projects?

    Regarding the merging of archives and manuscripts, I would agree…with a caveat. I think it speaks to the fact that, while we have developed into our own field, we’re still very splintered. Perhaps this is strictly anecdotal, but I work in a shop comprised of a whole mess of folks. We have mostly historians here, but also records managers, librarians, and me…the only one trained explicitly in archival studies. It’s so interesting to note the different interpretations of records life cycles, appraisal, permanent historical significance, etc. It’s interesting how we’ve all formed our alliances with professional organizations – I lean more toward SAA, but we have folks that align with professional organizations including oral history, public history, libraries, IT, map libraries, etc. I like to think this speaks to archivists’ ability to play well with lots of groups!

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