Archives and Research

Durable Goods: Public Archives and the Recession

Albert H. Whitaker Jr., May 1992

Downsizing, budget reductions, layoffs, furloughs, fee increases, and privatization—these are words and practices that have become increasingly familiar features of the public administrative landscape since the recession began to manifest itself.

While it is difficult to generalize about the impact of the recession on public archives, it is clear that most state and local government archives have sustained important resource losses during the past two or three years that in turn are having adverse effects on operations. Some of these effects are discrete and present immediate consequences; others are more subtle and promise negative outcomes in the more distant future.

Archival resources consist of staff, appropriations, holdings, and patrons. Of these, archives have sustained significant losses in the first two categories, while experiencing growth in the latter two, particularly in the number of patrons. Since 1989, there has been a persistent trend in the direction of staff and budgetary reductions in public archives, reducing their ability to add new materials to holdings. In even more basic terms, the ability of archives to process, preserve, and present for research use their existing holdings has been injured. At precisely the time when the "information revolution" is expanding the universe of information from which archival operations must make judicious selections and increasing the number of people seeking access to these materials, public archives are losing the resources needed to manage this change. Students of history should be alarmed!

Appropriations and staffing are among the most reliable barometers by which the vitality of archival operations can be measured. In 1992, most public archives are encountering level-funding and hiring freezes at best, and significant reductions in both categories at worst. Indeed, even level-funding, accepted gratefully by some program managers in place of cuts, needs to be understood as a net reduction at a time of increasing holdings and growing patronage.

Typical of those operations posting budget and/or staff reduction are the state archives of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. The condition cuts across all regions. The archives/library program in Virginia may face as many as nine lost positions in FY'93, and a corresponding loss in FY'94. The state archives program in Nevada is confronting a budget reduction of 28 percent, a phenomenal loss. In Rhode Island, the State Records Center has been privatized. Even where level-funding is characteristic this year, as in Alabama and Massachusetts, the effect has been to materially slow the development of programs that were in a growth mode.

Local government archives are also affected. The Departments of Archives and Records of both New York City and Salt Lake County (Utah) report, respectively, loss and level-funding. The New York City Archives, operating a program larger than some state archives, is adjusting to a 25 percent budget reduction that has led to the loss of ten positions.

The experience of the Massachusetts Archives is typical. In FY'89, three years after occupying a new facility, the operating budget of the Massachusetts Archives was $554,000. By FY'92, that figure had shrunk to $440,000. Confronted with the necessity of eliminating several staff positions in the middle of FY'89, a decision was made to end the operations of the conservation laboratory. So unlikely is it that public funds will be available in the foreseeable future for the operation of the laboratory that efforts are underway to explore its operation on a collaborative public/private basis.

While operating with fewer resources, the Massachusetts Archives had continued to receive an abundance of researchers. Serving 12,000 researchers in FY'91, the Massachusetts Archives had increased its patronage by over 100 percent since the occupation of the new facility in 1985.

If these discrete and measurable conditions define the features of the recession in Massachusetts and elsewhere, there are other more subtle and equally damaging factors. Archivists share with other professions the need for professional development. One of the first casualties in the budgets of public archives, however, is expenditures for travel. Consequently, few archivists are able to avail themselves of the opportunities to fulfill their obligation to continue their training. At a time of tremendous change in the context and dynamics of information systems and exchange, the limitations on professional development in this field promise a debilitating result.

Sometimes what fails to be done is more catastrophic than what is done. An example involves electronic records. Increasingly, electronic records are becoming fundamental parts of the universe of documentation. Applications now are employed in which information of potential historical value occurs only in an electronic format. This fragile medium simply is not suited for the permanent preservation of information. Few public archival programs have yet developed means and practices by which such information can be reviewed, appraised, and preserved for future use. Failure to do so is not a function of inattention or ineptitude; archivists simply do not have the resources to keep pace with the wizardry of the R&D departments of the leaders of technology. As often is the case with subtle loss, its insidious consequences will be borne by those future historians and social analysts who are unable to access the information that has not been captured and, in the meantime, has dematerialized.

To attribute all of these ills to the recession would be to exaggerate the matter. The recession and its attendant effects have worsened—not created—the depressed condition of public archives. Impoverishment has been the norm for most state programs since well before the end of the 1980s. One only needs to scan Ernst Posner's landmark work, American State Archives, published in 1964, to realize that the long-term condition of public archives has been one of limited resources.

The contrast between "then and now" comes in recognizing that for a brief few years in the 1980s conditions began to take a turn for the better. Several state programs, including Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Massachusetts, Michigan, and California, obtained new facilities, along with the attendant program changes common to a new building program. Several important local government archival programs either grew to maturity or were created during this period. By the end of the decade, however, much of the impetus created by the gains of the 1980s came to an end.

Recovery from these losses will depend on several factors. Most certainly, general economic recovery, with the concomitant restoration of government services, will be a key ingredient in the restoration of public archives. Those responsible for the operation and development of public archives also will be major agents in sustaining beneficent change. In particular, archivists must more adequately represent them-selves, their services, and their holdings to their constituent publics to assure that budget analysts have a concurrent sense of their worth.

Even though archivists have the principal responsibility of establishing their raison d'être, from the point of view of public policy and public finance, well-managed assistance from allied professionals is urgently needed in order to assure the maintenance of public archival programs and the growth and preservation of their holdings. As significant consumers of archival information and services, historians are in a particularly good position to provide such a boost. Among the areas in which students of history can help public archives and archivists meet the challenges of the twenty-first century are the following:


Lobby for support of public archives with the appropriate authorizing jurisdiction. Archives are mandated to retain and preserve for use materials characterized as "permanent," and said to have "enduring value." If these words and phrases mean something, they suggest that the holdings of archives are of great importance. Historians should join archivists in clarifying that importance to the gatekeepers of funding.


Archives and their holdings are retained and preserved for use. Use them! Become acquainted with public archives and archivists in your area. Get to know your state archivist; see what areas of parallel interest may be shared between you. For those responsible for students, graduate and/or undergraduate, take them, or at least direct them, to archives for research work.

Retention/Disposition Practice

Become conversant with and contribute to the disposal/retention behavior of public archives. All documents cannot (and need not) be retained; in identifying materials to be preserved, archivists and records managers will benefit in their appraisal decisions from the perspective provided by historians.

Documentation Strategies

By focusing on sets of information and the relationship among sets of data, rather than just on individual documents or series, documentation strategies offer investigative and analytical insights that cut across the holdings of archives. Those skilled in historical methodology and perspective can have a major impact on the evolution of documentation strategies.

Descriptive Standards

In recent years, as archivists began to borrow more heavily from the descriptive traditions of librarianship, improved standards of archival description have emerged. While some variation continues to characterize archival institutions, in this respect there is a clear move in the direction of more definitive and standardized practice. A generally accepted trend to implement the machine-readable cataloguing format for archives and manuscript control developed by the Library of Congress (USMARC AMC format) is enhancing access to archival holdings. A number of public archives are automating information about their holdings through one of several bibliographic software programs. Several have contributed data on their holdings to on-line national bibliographic networks such as the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), operated under the auspices of the Research Libraries Group. Professional historians could benefit by inquiring into the descriptive services available from archives that hold records of interest, and by challenging archives that do not have such services to adopt them.

In sum, more interaction among historians and archivists is urged. For example, the annual meeting of the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA) this coming July 15–18 is devoted to the theme, "Expanding Horizons: Partnerships with Allied Professions." This meeting, to take place in Washington, DC, presents a forum in which historians and allied professionals can improve their understanding of one another.

At a time when the historical consciousness of the American public is being profoundly influenced by docudramas, such as the recent movies Glory and JFK, it is critical that we reflect on the role to be filled by the professional activities attendant upon the collection of documents and the telling of history. While the popularization of history is an important and necessary cultural behavior, it must always be balanced by the ready availability of recorded information and the recounting of events "as they actually happened," if the practice of history is to continue to maintain its distance from mythology. Particularly in times of program diminution and limited resources, it is of critical importance that historians and archivists join forces in striving to accomplish that goal.

—Albert H. Whitaker Jr. is a lecturer at Northeastern University.