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.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Academic Archives

When I entered the archival profession in the early 1970s, we were right at the point where academic archives and archivists were emerging as professional leaders. By the mid-1980s, I was hearing some individuals speculate that the academic institution was perhaps the most documented, even over-documented, institution in society. In the next decade, college and university archivists seemed to be in the forefront of wrestling with new approaches to basic archival functions, such as appraisal and description. And today, these programs continue to be the main employer of most entry-level archivists.

In the midst of all this, the Society of American Archivists published, in 1979, a reader about college and university archives, an acknowledgment of the important role these programs were playing in the American archival community. Just recently, SAA has published a new reader, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Ellen D. Swain, College and University Archives: Readings in Theory and Practice (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008). It is volume all academic archivists should acquire, and it provides an interesting window into the state of the modern American archival community.

The thirteen essays included in this volume, most of them freshly written for the publication, are grouped in three sections – defining the purpose of the academic archives, the documenting of colleges and universities, and administering these kinds of programs. The editors indicate there are also three themes threading through the essays, namely, the challenges of new information technologies, the need for academic archives to be more cooperative and collaborative, and the continuing need for academic archives to be proactive in promoting their archival agenda. We read about information technology, oral history, documenting diversity, faculty papers, outreach, processing of archival records, records management and archival administration, privacy and confidentiality issues, intellectual property, and servicing researchers. In other words, all the bases are adequately covered.

One might feel that the themes represented in the volume are nearly identical to those from its thirty-year old predecessor, and, in fact, a number of the contributors, including the editors, affirm that this is the case. Some areas emerge as more prominent, however, and, not surprisingly, information technology as both tool for and challenge of academic archivists is right at the head of the list. Just reflect on all the new technological issues academic archivists face today that were not present (at least in any profound sense) in 1979: the World Wide Web, blogs, email, Websites, listservs, digitization, personal computing, digital photography, electronic desktop publishing, electronic theses and dissertations, and so forth (indeed, it would be relatively easy to add to such a list).

When archivists consider such challenges, they tend to get both fatalistic and immensely self-reflective (I know, because I have littered the archival literature with such musings). The editors of this volume, summarizing the essays and painting in broader strokes the common themes, do this at the end of their discussion about technology: “If we are not careful, many of us may find ourselves to be the marginalized keepers of idle curiosities. Worse, we may find ourselves to have been complicit in a failure to adequately preserve institutional memory and a complete record that will allow for future research and historical understanding” (p. vi). In a recent essay -- “The Academic Archives of the Future,” EDUCAUSE Review 43 (March/April 2008): 10-11 – I stated pretty much the same sentiment. However, the SAA has instituted a new service for sharing new work on digital case studies in the academic realm that promises to transform any pessimistic assessment of the future of academic archives, described as follows: “College and university archivists working on solutions for born-digital records can post their reports under ‘Campus Case Studies’ on the website of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). This portal allows quick and broad dissemination of completed projects, or a work-in-progress. Elements for the case study include institutional context and background; nature of the records; key challenges anticipated; appraisal, processing, and preservation accomplished prior to the case study; resources; analysis; and future plans” (you can find the eight case studies now available at These supplement the published reader in this area, and they suggest that more dire predictions about the future of academic archives might be somewhat exaggerated.

However, before we become too optimistic, we need to realize that over thirty years most of the challenges facing academic archives and their professional staffs persist. Nevertheless, there are a few more topics that could have been explored by the authors in this volume and that seem notable in their underdevelopment. First, there could have been more attention to international developments in academic archives; while there are citations to and descriptions of work in other nations, there is little of a substantial comparative analysis. One major change over the thirty years since the publication of its predecessor volume is the globalization of archives. Second, while changes in graduate archival education are acknowledged, there is only modest discussion about the roles, real and potential, the graduate programs could play in assisting academic archives. Given the long-standing relationship between the education programs and university archives, this seems like an omission. Third, and last, I think there could have been more speculation about the changing role, actual and imagined, of academic archives in the context of the changing nature of higher education. Again, over the past three decades, we have witnessed the emergence of the corporate university, with all of its interesting debates about the mission of higher education and an array of ethical and other issues producing a rich and varied scholarship, and there is little reference to such matters. This volume could have been the right time to tackle such a matter.

Having stated a few reservations, I am happy to have this volume as a useful benchmark documenting the development of American academic archives. Everyone interested in this aspect of archival work should acquire the volume.