Publication Date

February 1, 1991

Perspectives Section




In May 1890, the Press Exploring Expedition, the first party to complete a north-south transverse across the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, was nearing the end of its hazardous six-month journey. Having crossed the wilderness of the Olympic Mountains, the group hoped to speed its return to civilization by constructing a raft to carry it down the Quinault River. No sooner had they launched the craft, however, than the swift current rammed it against a pile of drift timber, causing it to founder; men, dogs, and baggage were all in imminent danger of being lost. As luck had it, the five men and their dogs were saved, but all of the baggage save one item was lost. That item was the pack containing the records—journals, photographs, maps—of the expedition. As expedition chronicler Robert L. Woods notes in Across the Olympic Mountains: The Press Expedition 1889–90, (1989), “[Charles Adams] Barnes seemed to have clung unconsciously to the pack whose loss they would have felt most severely—the one containing the records.”

Fortunately, archivists are not usually compelled to take such extreme measures to save historical records. The preservation challenges archivists face, however, are still acute. In March 1989, nearly 100 years after the Press Expedition, archivists, librarians, and historical agency administrators from each state, several territories, and the District of Columbia gathered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., for the National Conference on the Development of Statewide Preservation Programs. Intended to foster statewide preservation programs at the state level, the conference was the first time that these distinct groups of professionals had come together to make common cause on behalf of the archival and library materials in their custody. Yet for all its significance, this gathering is but one small example of the determined action that is now taking place to preserve and provide access to the documentary heritage of the United States.

Historians doing research in archives often do not realize the significant work that archivists have undertaken in order to make their institutions’ holdings available for use. Indeed, like the members of the Press Expedition, archivists sometimes are called upon literally to save records from imminent destruction, occasionally by the forces of nature, but more often by the carelessness and neglect of the human beings that have created them or in whose custody they reside. Rather than being passive receivers of materials deposited because of the historical consciousness of their donors, archivists must instead be aggressive agents who seek out valuable records, negotiate for their placement in archival repositories, and then deal with the myriad challenges associated with providing for their physical preservation and access by researchers.

Unlike the information in highly acidic (and crumbling) books and periodicals, which can often be preserved through microfilming, archival materials, because of their diversity, frequently present a more complex preservation challenge. Although a majority of documents can be adequately preserved through appropriate archival arrangement and housing in proper environmental storage conditions (with some supplemental preservation microfilming), other special materials, such as photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, and electronic data files, can require extensive copying from unstable, deteriorating media onto media that are more suitable for long-term preservation. The well-publicized deterioration (and sometimes explosion) of nitrate film is but one example of the need for action to preserve archival holdings. Moreover, even after transfer to a more stable medium has occurred, the copied materials must be housed in a secure, controlled environment.

Physical preservation is only part of the picture, for no archival materials are worth preserving if they are not also made available for research use. The advent of widespread computerization has resulted in an equivalent revolution in archival description. Historians formerly had to be content with a few general directories, such as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States, printed volumes of the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), the occasional institutional guide, or registers and inventories for individual collections available on-site at repositories.

Now, with the advent of national online interactive databases containing descriptions of archival collections, as well as in-house automation systems capable of sophisticated search and retrieval strategies, and other tools, historical researchers are in a more advantageous position than ever before in terms of being able to identify a wide range of documentary sources in locations throughout the nation. The Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), one of the key national on-line systems, currently includes descriptions of over 250,000 archives and manuscript collections in the United States. Indeed, NUCMC is now available on RLIN. Other on-line systems with significant numbers of descriptions of archival holdings include the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and the Western Library Network (WLN). Chadwyck-Healey’s National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United States provides users with microform copies of published and unpublished finding aids.

Many of the advances in archival preservation and access currently being made are due to the adoption of improved procedures and standard practices by the archival profession in recent years. In turn, the application of these procedures and standards has been fostered by the growth of national and regional professional associations, the development of graduate and continuing education programs in archival administration, active publications programs, and the increasing willingness of archivists to work with and learn from allied professions, such as library and information science. In addition, federal and private funding sources, such as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to name a few, have been instrumental in providing the resources needed to undertake many of the special projects that have resulted in significant contributions to archival preservation and access.

Two grants made through the NHPRC’s Records Program, for example, have enabled the Research Libraries Group (RLG) to work with government archives throughout the nation to add descriptions of their records to RLIN. Government Records in the RLIN Database: An Introduction and Guide, was issued in June 1990, and provides researchers with a brief introduction to the RLIN system and its potential to assist users in identifying not only archival collections, but various other forms of material—books, periodicals, maps, etc.—that are also cataloged in RLIN.

Since the approval of the first grant awarded under its then-new Records Program in 1975, the NHPRC has provided assistance to approximately 600 public and private institutions in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa to preserve endangered historical records, develop sound management programs for archival records, and advance archival education and research. In addition to the RLIN effort, representative projects currently underway include a study of the issues surrounding information technology and public records in Florida, a project in Nevada to develop archival programs for local government records, a statewide archival preservation needs assessment and planning project in Virginia, and development of archival programs at such diverse institutions as the Juilliard School, the University of Tennessee, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. All of these projects are aimed at either preserving and providing access to significant bodies of historical records or at providing archivists with the information and tools that they need to deal with those records and with contemporary records issues and problems. In addition, the Commission’s Publications Program has been instrumental in supporting documentary editions of historical documents, spanning subjects from Benjamin Franklin to Emma Goldman.

The long-term effects of insects, rodents, and the heat and humidity of the Louisiana climate nearly led to the complete deterioration of the papers of Robert Foligny Broussard and Edwin S. Broussard before an NHPRC grant to the University of Southwestern Louisiana provided funds for the preservation microfilming of this important collection documenting the legal and political careers of these two brothers at the state and national levels in the early twentieth century. The papers are especially valuable for the information that they provide about the Progressive Movement in Louisiana, an aspect of the state’s political history that has not been well researched.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has also provided important support for archival preservation and access. Among other projects, the Reference Materials Program in the Division of Research Programs has funded the arrangement and description of the archives of the American Ballet Theater at the New York Public Library, the processing of court records covering the years 1676–1900 at the Delaware State Archives, and the cataloguing and preservation of the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library’s architectural drawings collection at Columbia University. The NEH’s Office of Preservation is specifically charged with providing assistance to institutions whose holdings are threatened by factors inherent in their physical structure. Typical projects supported by the Office of Preservation include the transfer of 14,000 cellulose nitrate negatives to interpositive film at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, preservation by the University of North Carolina of manuscripts contained in the Southern Historical Collection Projects, and research at the Image Permanence Institute of the Rochester Institute of Technology to determine the most effective means of preventing air pollutant damage to preservation microforms.

In addition to the project support provided by public and private grant funding sources, federal, state, and local governments and organizations have also been instrumental in furnishing increased support for archival programs. During the past decade, the construction of new state archives buildings in Massachusetts, Maryland, Iowa, California, and Oregon, to name a few, is clear evidence of the importance with which historical records programs are seen in many of the states. Archives II, the National Archives and Records Administration facility currently under construction in College Park, Maryland, will be the largest archives building in the world. States as diverse as Idaho and New York have made significant financial and political commitments to increasing support for their archival programs.

Given the awareness of the importance of archival holdings that appears to exist, the significant progress being made in archival preservation and access might be read by some as an indication that all of the problems confronting archives and archivists have been addressed. A more realistic assessment, however, is that while tremendous progress has been and continues to be made, much more remains to be done.

Despite the growing number of archival repositories (the 1978 NHPRC Directory, for example, listed 3,250 repositories; the 1988 edition included 4,560), and the steady increase of archival holdings, the resources allocated for archival programs still lag behind what is needed in many areas. Far more documents are created than can ever be accessioned into the nation’s archives. As a result, archivists are developing more rigorous criteria for the selection of those materials that will be retained. Documentation strategies that incorporate a comprehensive view of the information needed to document ongoing activities are one of the innovative approaches that archivists are undertaking to deal with contemporary records. Cooperative procedures for archival appraisal and selection are being explored. The bottom line is that if we can’t keep it all, we must make wise decisions about what we do keep.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that increased responsibility for ensuring the long-term stability and endurance of our nation’s archival and library holdings must be taken by the organizations and institutions that create them. Standards for the materials on which documents, books, electronic files, sound recordings, and myriad other resources are created must be developed and used by manufacturers, publishers, government officials, and ordinary citizens if we are to ensure the survival of today’s information for the future. Legislation to require the use of alkaline paper for certain types of government documents and publications has been adopted in several of the states, while national organizations are working to establish standards for a variety of electronic media. Yet even in the face of this progress, the time and resource needs occasioned by the burgeoning of electronic records systems and other new media are increasing faster than can be accommodated by current archival resource levels.

Coping with these challenges will require a new sort of preservation heroics—not the physical heroics of Charles A. Barnes of the Press Expedition, but the intellectual and political heroics that are more characteristic of our “information age.” Archivists and the users of archival materials must embrace new cooperative and mutually supportive priorities, strategies, and ways of doing business, for preservation involves more than simply saving records. It means planning, communication, education, and, finally, action, all within the context of standards and established institutional frameworks. It can be done. And it must be, if we are to ensure the preservation of our documentary heritage for the twenty-first century.

For more information, contact the Research Libraries Group, Inc., Attn. Distribution Services Coordinator, 1200 Villa Street, Mountain View, CA, 94041-1100.

Nancy Sahli is director of the Records Program at the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Archives and Records Administration or the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.