Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Marking a Milestone (and Why Reading About Archives Has Changed)

Today marks my 35th anniversary as an archivist, the past 20 years functioning as an educator of archivists. Today in 1972 I started work at the Maryland Historical Society, with little training as an archivist. Fortunately, starting my career (although I really didn’t really know I was commencing a career) in one of the venerable historical societies provided me with an extensive archival literature (or, at least, as extensive as this literature could be then), and I systematically read through the American Archivist, explored the National Archives bulletins, read the Jenkinson and Schellenberg manuals, paged through the old American Historical Association reports, and consulted various manuals and technical reports published by the American Association of State and Local History. It was mostly a practice-based literature, with an occasional historical study. The literature was useful, but it hardly constituted a strong literature for a profession. Along the way I discovered remarkably useful and more thoughtful essays by archival scholars like Lester Cappon and H.G. Jones, individuals who influenced my early career.

Today, the literature about archives is deep and broad and richer than any of us could imagine three or four decades. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, literary scholars, political scientists, and others are examining archives and archivists. We now know more about the nature of the record, recordkeeping, and the archival impulse than we ever did. There is even a slowly growing scholarly strain within the archival community itself. Of course, students in my classes complain about too much reading assigned to them, a much better problem than not having enough scholarly and professional literature to read. And, there is not great evidence that working archivists are taking advantage of this richer literature to understand archives, the archival mission, and the societal need for preserving its documentary heritage. The point in all this is that the kind of reading reflected on this blog is much different from what I could do in the early 1970s. With all the new challenges posed by information technologies and political realities, the literature reflects a deeper well of understanding than we have ever had about archives and archivists.