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Archivists

records archival archives national

Archivists, people who look after the records of businesses, organizations, or governments, probably have been around since the fourth millennium B.C.E. At that time, cuneiform clay tablets and hieroglyphics on papyrus came into use in the Middle East and Egypt, and with the creation of such records came the need for people to look after them. As civilization developed and advanced in Greece, Rome, and China, more records were produced in a variety of formats and these records required care.

This early recordkeeping continued and accelerated during the rise of nation-states, which in turn brought their recordkeeping practices to their colonies. As early as 1626, the English colony of Jamestown in North America had systematic land records. And records were so important to the rebellious colonists during the American Revolution that they were mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

But in the new United States of America, archives and the archival profession did not grow rapidly. To be sure, recordkeeping developed apace with the new federal government, but the care of these governmental records was largely unsystematic and lacking any real archival identity. Fortunately, by the eighteenth century, records of special historical value began to be systematically preserved by privately supported state and local historical societies—an archival movement that eventually took many forms and steadily expanded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The establishment in 1934 of the National Archives of the United States gave great impetus to archival growth and defined more clearly the archival profession. This was a major step, albeit a rather tardy one if compared to similar development in other countries. Nonetheless, this new governmental institution quickly proved to be a major force in promoting archives and what was to become the archival profession.

Initially, the National Archives drew heavily from the history profession. Most early National Archives staff members had master’s degrees or doctorates in history. Gradually, the archivist developed a separate professional identity that led to the establishment of the first professional organization of archivists. Founded in 1936, the Society of American Archivists continues to this day and is supplemented by many regional, state, and local archival organizations.

The years of the New Deal and World War II (approximately 1932 to 1945) sparked a vast expansion of records in both the public and private sectors, leading to the creation of a new discipline known as records management. Records managers did not come from either the historical or the archival profession; they were in essence people who were more interested in the efficient and economical arrangement of documents than in their historical value. These new records managers inherited an ancient tradition of efficient custodial care of records. Reflecting this new discipline closely allied with that of archivist, the National Archives became the National Archives and Records Service.

In the postwar years, the archival movement accelerated, and in the late 1950s, a national study showed that there were about 1,300 archives and archival-related agencies in the United States. In 1988, a successor survey reported the existence of 4,200 such agencies. As the agencies grew, so did the number of people staffing them. The Society of American Archivists has grown from its original membership of 125 in 1936 to a membership of 3,600 in 1999. This figure still falls far short of the actual number of people who are employed in archives or archival-related agencies.

Archivists perform a wide variety of professional assignments in a broad range of settings. They seek out and acquire historical and/or current records, including electronic records. They devise systems to bring records into the archives, a process known as “accessioning.” They must then decide what records to save and how to fit them into the overall plan, a process known as “appraisal.” They then must preserve the original arrangement of the records or organize them systematically, a process known as “arranging the records.” After the newly acquired records are accessioned, appraised, and arranged, they must then be described through the creation of catalogs, finding aids, or computer-based access systems. And finally, the acquired, accessioned, appraised, arranged, and described records must be preserved by a variety of methods that range from simple repairs to complex laboratory preservation procedures. It should be kept in mind that paper records, traditionally the major concern of archivists, have become but one part of modern archives, which commonly include photographs, motion pictures, microfilms, videotapes, sound recordings, and other electronic media products. All of these records, in no matter what form, must be acquired, accessioned, appraised, arranged, described, and preserved.

Archivists perform their activities in widely varied institutional settings, ranging in size from a one-person single operation to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) with its two major buildings in Washington, D.C., its ten presidential libraries, its twelve regional archives branches scattered across the country (usually located in NARA records centers), and its additional centers that are used for records-management functions. Archivists may find themselves working in federal, state, or local governmental units or in archives that are connected with colleges or universities, public or private libraries, churches and religious organizations, corporations, or other business enterprises. A single archivist in a small unit may be responsible for all of “archiving” functions in addition to administrative duties, which might include developing budgets, overseeing expenditures, perhaps even fund raising, as well as hiring and overseeing staff. People working in larger units will see a division of labor among all of the functions traditionally ascribed to archivists. As a result, the larger the archival staff, the higher the degree of specialization (and usually the higher the salaries).

How do people become archivists? In the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, archivists in the United States came primarily from a history background, a not-surprising development considering that historians were the primary users of archives and historical manuscript collections. It was historians who took the lead in establishing many state archival agencies, and it was historians who provided the leadership in the movement to create the National Archives. It was historically oriented personnel at the National Archives who pioneered the earliest formal training of archivists in their own archival institutes and in conjunction with American University. In time, a scattering of universities throughout the United States offered formal courses in archival management, often as components of a master’s degree program in history or in library science. These courses were usually introduced and taught by archivists who saw the need for more formal training for those entering the profession. These meager attempts at formal archival education lagged far behind the archival training programs in a number of European nations.

In the 1990s, a few archival educational ventures evolved into multicourse archival programs generally culminating in a master’s degree. Some of these programs are still a part of history departments, although as a result of the new technology they are more commonly associated with schools of library and information studies. Schools of librarianship changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. Archivists and librarians were brought closer together by new technology. Two professions that were quite different were brought into closer alignment. Two professions that formerly differed in their practices and procedures began to share common preservation problems and the new world of information technology. Archival programs that lead to a master’s degree are in operation at the University of Michigan, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Maryland, the University of Texas, Wayne State University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and New York University. The Society of American Archivists, which has its headquarters in Chicago and itself conducts many short-term seminars and workshops that focus on continuing education for archivists, provides information about the programs offered by these universities, as well as other education programs in the field.

Clearly archivists, along with librarians and records managers, play an important role in the fast-changing, interrelated information world. Archivists are handling an increasing volume of computer-generated record material. Paper records will continue to occupy their attention, but the profession must now use the new information technology to control and make accessible the archival holdings. This new dimension of archival practice is requiring revised theories, practices, and education to ensure the survival of the records of modern civilization and those of future societies. Archivists hold the records of the past and the future in their hands.

Arden, Elizabeth - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Elizabeth Arden [next] [back] Archives, Public Records, and Records Management - Importance of Archival Materials and Archival Institutions, Archival Management, Appraisal, Accessioning, Arrangement and Description, Preservation, Access

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