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?


Plus ça change? Part II of History’s Babel, 1911-1925

Sorry for the long gap. The funny part is I did actually finish reading Part II some time ago, I just hadn’t gotten around to writing about it. And in looking over my notes on these chapters, I will repeat something I said earlier on Twitter: it’s interesting to see how many of the issues at stake in this period are still being discussed today. Here are just a few examples from my notes:

Regarding the “New History,” as articulated at a 1910 AHA meeting: ““The earlier generation’s focus on political issues simplified the relationship between archivists and researchers, for instance, by limiting their work primarily to documents and correspondence by politicians and government officials. By introducing methods developed in disciplines that had broken away from history (including economics, political science, and sociology), as well as other disciplines (such as geography and psychology), historians gathered under the New History banner challenged this relationship by encouraging historians to start using other historical materials to get at their ‘social facts.’ This placed new pressure on archivists and documentary editors to gather a wider range of materials, and led to often heated discussions about allocating resources to gathering and disseminating source materials about ‘everyday life’ alongside traditional political and military subjects.” [p.80]

  • What I find interesting in this is that I’ve seen instances in which historians still think archivists need to be told this, as if most archives are still only documenting the lives of “great white men” and their institutions. I didn’t realize that this focus on social history started as early as 1910. Somehow I had the impression that this movement was a product of the ’60’s, but perhaps that’s just another wave of New History.

Speaking of the developing leadership of the archival profession:  “At the same time, … the leaders of the effort made it clear that their responsibilities encompassed a wider array of constituencies—requiring value judgments about what to keep and what to share that would not always be driven by the interests of historians.”  [p. 103]

  • Again, I theme I’ve seen repeated recently regarding appraisal.

We also see some discussion about the field of local history being left to “writers with more of an antiquarian or genealogical interest.” [p. 90], and much interesting –although tantalizingly, not enough for an archivist–information about the early development of archival practices and standards: “Waldo Leland’s survey of ‘fundamental principles in relation to archives’ and Victor Paltsits’s outline of a ‘Manual of Archival Economy’ for the use of American archivists,’  both published in the AHA’s report for 1912, provided a nascent sense of identify and professional coherence.” (p. 103) Another interest of mine in reading the book is to trace the development and identification of the historical profession as such. In Townsend’d discussion of these issues I see similarities with the current struggle to define (or not to define) the archival profession. For example: “As a check against the disruptions in the unity of what it meant to be a historian and conduct historical work, members of the discipline struggled to define specific characteristics and skills that could clearly mark someone as a historian.” [p. 88]

So for me it was interesting to see, in some ways, how little has changed. But what were your reactions to the developments of Part II?

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?



The right book at the right time: my thoughts about the Introduction to “History’s Babel”

I love this book already. I may fall out of love with it as I read more, but right now it seems to be the perfect book for me to be reading. Let me explain, and then I hope to hear some of your reactions to Townsend’s observations and the task he set for himself.

I’ve been doing some thinking (and will have to do a great deal more very soon) about the relationship of the archival profession to related professions, including historians, as well as the evolution and professionalization of the field of archives in the United States, and so Townsend’s  topic is ideal for me. I also very much appreciate his scoping of his field of interest as “the historical enterprise,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of players and activities. This seems a useful construct for archivists to consider as we also try to define our relationships with the many different kinds of people related to our own work. Do you think it’s accurate to equate “the historical enterprise” with “the archival enterprise” or do you see distinctions? Or would the archival enterprise be, as Townsend seems to be suggesting, a subset of the historical enterprise, similar to those who engage in research, teaching, and working with museum collections? Do you find value in  this “big tent” approach?

I like the approach because it moves away from privileging or elevating the academic historian above the other players in the historical enterprise. As archivists, I think we are accustomed to seeing a broad range of people who have an investment in the study and promotion of “history,” including genealogists and family historians, amateurs and enthusiasts of all kinds. (As well as academics from departments other than History, educators of all kinds, and our museum colleagues.) (And ourselves, of course.) Although I don’t anticipate that this book will cast its net quite that wide, I look forward to seeing how the discussion of professionalization describes the marginalization of what was once the norm, “the gentleman historian.”

Please share your thoughts about the Introduction here, and next week we’ll begin discussion of the first three chapters (Part 1). Given how Townsend has organized his information, we will probably be spending most of our time talking about the second chapter (the “tools and materials” one) in each of the three parts, but I expect we will draw on the other two chapters in our discussions as well.

I hope you’re as excited as I am (well, maybe not quite that excited) about working our way through this book. I’m glad we choose it and I think it’s going to be very informative and relevant. What do you think so far?

Reminder: Starting “History’s Babel” on April 15–unless you need more time?

Just a reminder that the plan is to start up again with discussion of Robert Townsend’s, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 – 1940,  beginning on Monday April 15. That date seemed a long way away when I first posted it, but now it’s quite close. I hope everyone has had time to get the book and start reading it. Unless I hear a groundswell of comments asking for more time, I’ll plan to begin on the 15th.

Happy reading!