Publication Date

October 1, 1990

Perspectives Section




Editor’s Note: With this essay on archival education by Frank Boles, we inaugurate a new Perspectives column on Archives and Research. Future columns will contain articles on nontraditional and scholarly uses and users of archives, on access to historical materials, on preservation and the new technology available in archival respositories, as well as a series on how to do research in foreign libraries and archives. The editor welcomes your comments, suggestions, and articles. Please address correspondence to Jacqueline Goggin, Department of History, Clark University, Worcester, MA 01610.

The training or education of archivists has long been the subject of lively debate. The debaters, however, often have discussed archival education through the distinctive approaches of historians or librarians, and thus the debate has been cast in terms of whether archival education is better suited to be taught within the context of history or library science. A different way to frame the question is to abandon the traditional approach and instead take as a starting point archives itself, asking how history and library science relate to the core knowledge required of archivists.

Adopting this different perspective implies that the debaters accept the premise that neither history nor librarianship alone provides the professional education required by an archivist. Over time, the strengths and shortcomings of historical and library education for archivists have been clearly articulated. History offers prospective archivists a context to understand primary materials. This context is important to archivists in making daily decisions regarding what records will become permanent and which will be destroyed. In addition, an understanding of how research is undertaken and a knowledge of the historian’s tools for evaluating evidence are valuable for an archivist. But as a discipline devoted to the evaluation and summarization of evidence, history offers its students no advice on how to make primary material available for use. How to arrange and describe historical materials so that others may use them, as well as the ability to accomplish these tasks in a cost-effective manner, are not skills taught to historians. Without these skills, individuals undertaking archival work will fail. They will be unable to accomplish one core archival mission: making primary material easily and readily available to researchers.

Librarianship, with its emphasis on making material accessible to a wide variety of users, and training in management techniques, presents an obvious antidote for archivists to the shortcomings of a historical education. Yet, professional library education also has important shortcomings that reflect the strengths of historical training. Librarians do not train individuals to understand the research strategies of scholars, to evaluate the value of primary material, or to appreciate the context where a particular set of records falls. If historical education fails to train an archivist to describe and arrange material so that it can be found and used by researchers, library training fails to teach an archivist to select the materials that will be described and arranged.

A traditional resolution of this dilemma is for archivists to be trained in the skills of both a historian and a librarian. Rather than recognize that archives is a unique discipline, this approach defines the archival profession as a hybrid resting uncomfortably between history and librarianship. Although a few archivists have availed themselves of this type of two-fold education, the dual-degree solution has been unsuccessful. Pragmatically, students complain about the costs involved. Intellectually, the dual-degree solution is unsatisfying. It suggests that the archival profession is like a recipe on the back of a soup can: Combine equal parts prepared historiographical knowledge, research methodology, and cataloging skills, stir well, and upon adding practical experience to taste, a trained archivist will emerge.

Historians, librarians, archivists, and others must move beyond shop worn positions and consider not what historians or librarians can teach archivists, but what archivists need to know. Adopting this approach is not to argue that archival programs should be taught in isolation from related disciplines. Isolating archival programs from related fields such as history or library science would be as large a mistake as forcing archival education to fit into some other discipline. Archival education should take place in a broad intellectual context that includes room for contributions from a variety of areas, history and library science among them. But a core archival curriculum needs to emerge from, and transcend, these various related fields so that archivists can be trained to carry out their distinctive responsibilities.

An independent archival curriculum might be understood as a series of concentric circles. At the center would be the basic theory a novice archivist must master in order to perform day-to-day assignments successfully, as well as the techniques that grow from the theory. Core theory and technique both must be mastered by a journeyman archivist. In the second circle would be additional ideas and skills that a novice archivist should know, but would learn later. Finally, there would be a tertiary ring of skills. This ring would represent a body of knowledge that might help an archivist but would not be used in the day-to-day tasks typically assigned to a beginning professional.

Although the intellectual underpinnings of the entire educational curriculum could be articulated, to illustrate the diversity of archival education it is sufficient to define the elements within the first circle and, in turn, describe the disciplines from which archival educators would draw ideas for curricular development. Within the first circle are four areas of knowledge: (1) a basic understanding of information and information management, (2) information and media appraisal, (3) records arrangement, and (4) information and records description.

A novice archivist’s understanding of information in the records should, in part, derive from historical studies. Works such as Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), or Gary John Previts and Barbara Merino, A History of Accounting in America: A Historical Interpretation of the Cultural Significance of Accounting (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979) give valuable insights into the kinds of information recorded in documents, the motives of those who compiled or ordered the compilation of information, and reasons why the information was ordered in certain ways. Sociologists, computer and information scientists, and economists also are interested in information as a topic rather than a commodity. A sound archival education should include all of these views, as well as an understanding of past archival practices regarding information management.

The breadth of vision required by an archivist to understand information as a topic is equally important in understanding the second core task of appraisal. Although historians frequently think of this appraisal as preserving records for subsequent historical study, archival appraisal models preserve information of “long-term value” on various media for a variety of reasons, disciplines, and users.

Archives are established for varied purposes. Some archives, particularly those founded within colleges and universities, exist primarily to facilitate scholarly research, often defined pragmatically as the research of historians. Government archives, however, often exist not simply or even primarily for the good of history, but rather to document the rights of individual citizens, as well as the good stewardship of the state’s officers. Much of the information found in religious archives is retained for reasons unrelated to the interests of conventional scholarship. The importance of sacramental registers is primarily to establish church membership both in this life and, perhaps even more importantly, in the life that religious belief says is to come. Corporations keep archives because of a belief that records may help sustain the firm’s legal position or prove useful as a marketing tool, thus giving the company an advantage over competitors. Because archival information is perceived as a corporate tool to be used in the marketplace, many corporations do not allow outsiders access to that information.

The disciplines and users for whom archivists preserve information are varied. Historians’ long tradition of consulting archival resources make them an important audience for archivists. Historians, however, are not the exclusive or even the primary audience that archivists serve. Other academics, such as sociologists or economists seeking retrospective data, use archives. Architects charged with the restoration of buildings, or lawyers seeking to establish a client’s claim, frequently consult archival sources. Average citizens interested in documentation about themselves or their families, either out of a curiosity about the past or to establish a claim to a government benefit, also use archives.

The education archivists receive regarding appraisal must reflect this variety of users and uses. The archival appraisal model draws upon a number of sources, integrating them through a distinct professional sensibility into an overview that guides the work of archivists. The goal of this education is as much to give the student an understanding of the wide-ranging character of archives as it is to school the student in the particular needs of a distinct discipline or type of archival patron.

Indeed, if the choice must be made between instilling an archival perspective regarding appraisal in a student and teaching the student about the needs of a specific discipline, the perspective is more important than the discipline-based knowledge. An archivist with the proper archival perspective on appraisal will understand the necessity of being sensitive to the needs of specific users and consulting with them to render basic appraisal judgements. An archivist narrowly schooled in a specific discipline or in a small number of related disciplines may never realize the importance of diversity in archival appraisal.

The third element of an archivist’s core curriculum is that of records arrangement. Records arrive at the archives in all manner of array and disarray. A professional vision must be instilled in each archivist that tells the practitioner when to leave well enough alone, when intervention is necessary, and, when action is called for, what to do. Neither history nor librarianship addresses this need.

Records management comes closest to offering some assistance in articulating the archivist’s tasks. Records managers, however, design information retrieval systems with a specific client in mind, whereas archival retrieval systems ideally consider the needs of a wide variety of users. Records managers often base decisions on considerations such as cost or employee productivity, which are not necessarily relevant in the archival arena. Finally, records managers have no professional interest in the preservation of past information retrieval systems as the artifacts of that past, while archivists are trained to recognize that the ease or difficulty of retrieval can be as important in understanding past decisions as the actual information itself.

The basic education archivists receive in arrangement consists primarily of elements articulated by archivists themselves. Core concepts such as provenance and original order come immediately to mind. These concepts have no direct parallel in another discipline and represent distinct archival contributions to the care of information imbued with lasting importance.

Fourth, arranged material must be described. In part, the descriptive paradigms employed by librarians can be applied to this work. The terminological and procedural rigor found in library cataloging concepts are of great value to archivists. The intellectual discipline found in library catalogs makes it possible for patrons to locate information that may be dispersed in many locations. That same intellectual discipline can serve archival patrons to unite disparate primary sources that might otherwise be overlooked.

The descriptive paradigm of library science, however, cannot be used uncritically in archival description. Library description is devoted to discussing individual items, usually a book, placed in a standardized retrieval system, such as that of the Library of Congress or the Dewey Decimal system. In contrast, archival description is usually devoted to the description of large groups of related documents, such as the papers of the leader of a social movement or the records of a governmental agency, as well as the often unique record filing system that was developed by the documents’ creator, and must be understood to locate discrete items of information. The tools and ideas underlying individual item description do not automatically apply to group description of related records. Because of this, substantial elements of the archival descriptive model are unique to archives. Archival education must share with students useful elements of library description, but also carefully denote aspects of librarianship that do not serve archivists’ needs and the archival alternatives that deal with those needs.

Clearly the discipline of archives does not draw exclusively or even primarily upon any one field. Rather, archivists’ intellectual world is a complex mosaic which is, in part, borrowed from others, but often reflects archivists’ unique contributions to the care and use of records containing permanently valuable information. Archives and archival education have come of age. No longer are archives stepchildren of the fields of history and library science.

Frank Boles is University Archivist at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.