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.


2 thoughts on “Part III and Conclusion of History’s Babel: 1926-1940, and beyond

  1. Re: “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?”

    If you look at the large numbers of historian plenary speakers for many archivists’ conferences, it’s hard to argue there’s a major rift between archivists and historians in that arena of communication, at least on an extremely superficial level. But I’m struggling to think of the last time I attended a conference and an engineer or geographer (or someone who’s not usually thought of as a natural constituency or part of an affiliated group) spoke about the relationship between archives and their field. I think our lack of imagination in expanding the boundaries of affiliated groups is just as problematic as a potential rift between archivists and historians.

  2. There’s a discussion from the AHA meeting earlier this year in the C-Span archives that touches on some of the themes in this book. “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age.” Claire Bond Potter brings up the fact that the founders of the AHA had a much broader understanding of ‘doing history’ than subsequent generations of historians, and one that may be coming around again, with the digital world breaking down barriers and changing the way people experience history. She has a refreshing perspective. In one post in her blog posts, she talks about teaching an entry-level history class by taking students to an archives and helping them pursue a project of their choice, rather than the traditional survey course.

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