Proposal for the next three readings: Short & serious, long & fluffy, then long & serious.

In light of the coming of summer, I’d like to suggest a slight change to the format of our readings.

I’d like to discuss a document commissioned by SAA in the early 1980’s, The Image of Archivists: Resource Allocaters’ Perceptions, commonly referred to as “The Levy Report.” It’s about 60 pages long and is available as a PDF on the SAA website: I’ll shoot for starting that discussion in two weeks, on June 21.

After that, how about some light summer reading? What about one of those Brad Meltzer thrillers that involve archives? I’ve heard they’re not too bad.  That could take us through most of the summer.

Then we’ll pick up toward the end of August or early September with Blouin and Rosenberg’s Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives, which was the clear choice for the next book in the poll. This will give you a chance to start reading it over the summer if you like. I have read it, and if I am correct it was somewhat slower going than the books we’ve read so far.

Unless I hear a groundswell of support for diving into B&R right away, this is the schedule we’ll go with. When I figure out what “fluffy” book we’ll be taking to the beach with us, I’ll announce it. Recommendations welcome! And I haven’t read the Levy Report yet, but I expect there may be some interesting fodder for us there.

Part III and Conclusion of History’s Babel: 1926-1940, and beyond

Ah, “the research men”! From what I hear, being a “professional historian” is still largely equated with this model of activity rather than teaching or carrying out the activities of what has come to known as a “public historian.”

I found my personal biases coming through in reading these final chapters, so this post will not be a calm assessment of the final section. I was cheering for the archivists and historical societies to just get their acts together and leave the AHA, which Townsend clearly describes, was not making much of an effort to keep them. This break was necessary at the time and, as demonstrated by the burst of productivity in the early days of the Society of American Archivists, allowed the profession to make important progress on establishing the standards and practices that it so badly needed. Moreover, as Margaret Cross Norton noted, to function as a professional manager of archives, one must “forget more or less temporarily his personal enthusiasm for history.” [p.159]

There has been some discussion back on the ArchivesNext blog and elsewhere about what some see as an unfortunate rift or gap between the archival and historical professions. Even though many archivists have trained as historians (most short of a PhD), and most historians (one hopes) have training and experience using archives, it is thought that the two fields do not understand each other as well as they might. What are your thoughts on this? Should the archival profession be more connected to “professional” historians than it is? More so than to public historians, librarians, or any other affiliated group? Or to genealogists, or any of segment of the user community? How do you feel about the rupture of the “historical enterprise” after 1940?

What is your overall assessment of the book? I found it extremely interesting and readable. I would recommend it for use in graduate programs in archival education as well as to any archivist who wants a quick overview of the early relationship between archivists and historians in the U.S. It also reveals, as noted here and on Twitter, how little has changed. So many of the issues being debated or raised in the past are being echoed today. I’m glad I read it, and I’m glad that starting this book group forced to me do it sooner rather than later. Issues of professionalization are an interest of mine, so I’m curious to hear what you think about how archivists and historians should relate to each other now and what you thought of Townsend’s study of their early relationship.


Part II Addendum: Technology as an impetus for collaboration. Sound familiar?

Sorry for dropping the ball on this discussion. Things got a little hectic for a few weeks. But I’m going to try to wrap this book up and move on to some exciting and surprising announcements for future readings!

But first, a clever person pointed out to me that I hadn’t noted–and apparently no one else did either–one interesting aspect of the discussion about the work of archivists in Part II: the way that Photostat machines affected the way archives viewed themselves and worked with each other. As with other parts of the book, I think we can see similarities here between the past and recent history. In this case how technology–in our case digitization–has affected archives. Here’s the relevant section of the text:

In addition to wrestling with archival policies, the historical societies also had to adjust to significant technological changes. Shortly after 1910, the larger historical societies began to purchase Photostat machines to preserve some materials and to allow for exchanges of materials with other institutions. Not to be confused with the photocopiers of today, the original Photostat machines filled a small room, required specially trained operators, and used relatively expensive supplies. But the machines could take documents of almost any size and make a picture (in a rather cumbersome two-stage process) that could be distributed to scholars and other institutions.  . . .

The introduction of the the Photostat machine marked a significant change for the societies and archival organizations, transforming them from relatively isolated warehouses of materials into organizations that had a kind of historical currency that could be exchanged with other archives or converted into a source of revenue from history researchers. Many of the societies had already developed the necessary institutional apparatus to share books and printed materials in their collections, but this significantly expanded the range of material relationships. The “New and Notes” section of the American Historical Review charted the acquisition of these machines at historical organizations over the next two decades with some enthusiasm, starting with a report from the Library of Congress in 1912 reporting that it could “supply photographic copies of manuscripts, maps, rare printed pieces, etc., at a very cheap rate.” By 1918, such reports became increasingly common in the Review.

A group of societies and archives in the West quickly took advantage of this new tool to start purchasing copies of materials from the federal government that were true representations of original documents about their states. In 1915, a group of societies in five states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois) commissioned a historian in Washington, DC, to identify and then arrange copies of documents related to their states. And societies began to develop networks to exchange and purchase Photostat copies of documents and newspapers that existed at one of their peers. Quaife noted a fundamental change in behavior among the societies, which had previously been crushed by “the absence of a sufficiently strong get-together spirit” and “the lack on the part of any public institution of the necessary photostatic equipment .” In its place, he detected a new spirit of collaboration emerging among the historical organizations. [104-5]

Do you think digitization had a similar effect on the way archives viewed themselves and their relationship with researchers? Did early digitization efforts–and current ones too–increase collaboration between repositories?