Notes from the 20th Anniversary of the National Archives and Records Administration Panel Discussion
Comments by Randall Jimerson, President, The Society of American Archivists
Friday, May 20, 2005
NARA and the Archival Profession Panel Discussion on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Independence of the National Archives and Records Administration
On behalf of the Society of American Archivists, I want to thank Professor Allen Weinstein and the NARA staff for inviting me to join this festive celebration. It is an honor to be included on such a distinguished panel.
As President of the Society of American Archivists, I want to address the role of NARA within the archival profession and the importance of re-establishing a strong working partnership between the nation's preeminent archival institution and our oldest and largest professional association of archivists.
Although this panel focuses on the future of NARA, I would like to suggest that NARA and SAA should remember our common past. Let us re-forge the bonds of shared professional concerns that can strengthen both organizations to meet the challenges that lie before us.
NARA and SAA have a common heritage. Both emerged in the 1930s out of the historical profession. When the National Archives was founded in 1934 there was no archival profession in the United States. The Archives relied on historians and a small cadre of archivists trained in the small number of state archives that had been founded since the first state archives, in Alabama, in 1901. Within two years, led in large part by National Archives staff, the Society of American Archivists was founded in 1936. The growing number of archivists in the US needed a common forum to develop both theory and practice for this new line of work.
For several decades the leadership of SAA came in large part from the National Archives. Academic and business archivists often complained about the dominance of SAA by National Archives staff. Despite these concerns, there was a close and productive relationship between the Archives and SAA for many years. With the growth of college and university archives in the 1960s and 1970s, some of this balance of power began to shift within SAA. By the time that the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators was founded, many NARA staff members (and many state archivists as well) decided that their common interests more closely aligned with this smaller, more narrowly focused organization. The same thing had happened in the 1950s when records managers separated themselves and formed ARMA.
This move towards specialization provides important benefits. Within the broad archival profession, groups of people who focus on business, government, audio-visual materials, reference and access, electronic records, or numerous other specific concerns need to confer with each other and dig deeply into the complexities of their specific interests. On the other hand, this specialization can fragment a profession and lead us to talk only with those who already share our very focused interests. We can lose perspective on what unites us as a profession.
I certainly don't want to argue against the need for specialization. Federal archivists face certain challenges that others do not. Yet they also share important concerns and perspectives with all other archivists. SAA continues to include government archivists (at all levels) in its programming, leadership, and representation. But the strong connection between public archives and the broader profession would be much richer with a fuller participation by NARA archivists in SAA. NARA staff could also benefit from greater participation in the wider sphere of the archival profession represented by the diverse membership of SAA.
Some of the challenges faced by NARA and its staff parallel those encountered by business, academic, and collecting repositories. These include the myriad issues relating to electronic records and automation; the difficult balancing act between privacy and open access to information; the education and training needs of both new professionals and those well along in their careers; and the daunting task of securing adequate funding for our essential programs in a society that often thinks of archives (if they do so at all) as dusty relics of a quaint but largely irrelevant past.
How would SAA gain from a stronger partnership with NARA?
- SAA would gain a broader perspective from federal archivists, further deepening the input we receive from NARA staff and other federal archivists who are active members of SAA.
- Greater participation by NARA staff in SAA would strengthen our voice in advocacy on behalf of archival concerns, including those directly affecting NARA - such as federal budget hearings, development of national standards, and other issues. Although federal employees are constrained from certain aspects of advocacy, they can provide valuable information to the SAA leadership and offer behind the scenes support.
- With fuller NARA participation SAA could strengthen its ability to represent all facets of the archival profession, and could thereby more fully meet the needs of federal, state, local, private, academic, business, and religious archivists.
Many NARA staff members have long held leadership positions in SAA, including Fynnette Eaton, our current Treasurer. What would NARA staff gain, both individually and collectively, from participation in SAA?
- NARA staff could gain from an added venue to discuss issues and learn from other archivists engaged in government, as well as in private archives, academic, business, and religious settings in which archival practices and ideas are being developed.
- SAA offers a wide array of educational opportunities and networking possibilities - including workshops, seminars, annual meetings, committee activities, and other programs - available to members at a discount.
- SAA is the oldest and largest professional association of archivists in the United States, and provides its members with opportunities to collaborate with allied professionals including librarians, museum curators, records managers, historians, IT experts, and many others.
- SAA has established close ties with archivists around the world, including the International Congress of Archives, and provides a forum for all US archivists to learn about new ideas, theories, methods, and standards being developed internationally.
- SAA's publications (Did I mention the members' discount?) are among the most valuable of any archival association in the world, with titles that address all aspects of archival endeavor, including topics of direct importance and benefit to NARA staff. SAA's distinguished authors include Michael Kurtz, Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Diane Vogt-O'Connor and other NARA staff.
- In recent years SAA has taken an increasingly active approach to public advocacy on behalf of archives. This has tangible and direct benefits for NARA, such as the current effort to ensure the survival of NHPRC. By joining SAA archivists can lend their support to our growing membership base, enabling SAA to have a greater impact in its advocacy.
- The benefits of a diverse membership enable SAA members to learn from colleagues in all segments of the profession, and to broaden our perspectives. We can see the important principles that unite us as archivists, at the same time that we celebrate the distinctive voices that we have as members of specific interest groups within the profession.
I want to conclude by stating my hopes for the future of NARA. I recently heard some archivists ask why they should be concerned about issues affecting NARA, the Archivist of the US, or the Nixon Library, for example, when they faced overwhelming challenges in their daily work and responsibilities. My response was that all members of the archival profession should care deeply about such matters. As the Watergate scandal revealed many years ago, public records are of vital concern to all citizens.
Efforts to limit access to public records, particularly presidential records, significantly affect our ability to hold government leaders accountable and to know the truth about public events. The Archivist of the United States, and the NARA staff, bear responsibility for upholding the law, for ensuring public access to government records, and for preserving an essential part of our nation's heritage.
Furthermore, these issues are important within the entire archival profession, as we seek to define more clearly our proper role in relation to public affairs, government secrecy, access to public records, and the role of archival records in ensuring a robust and healthy democracy.
NARA has in the past played a significant leadership role in the archival profession. My personal hope is that it will do so again in the future. But we must remain vigilant to ensure that NARA remains committed to the public interest, not the interests of government agencies or political administrations. NARA must remain independent and non-partisan so that it can continue to serve this vital public trust.
Professional archivists throughout the country remain committed to assisting NARA in whatever ways we can. Together we can meet the challenges of electronic records, automation, secrecy, and public indifference and ignorance. SAA and NARA should renew our vows of cooperation, professional collaboration, and public advocacy on behalf of the American people. I hope you will join me in this noble undertaking.