American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice
Edited by Randall C. Jimerson. Chicago: The Society of American
Archivists, 2000. vii, 657 pp. Index. Available from the Society of American
Archivists, $34.95 members, $44.95 nonmembers. ISBN 0-931828-41-4.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 65,
No.1, Spring/Summer 2002)
Compiling a useful volume of previously published articles is never an easy
task. Should the works be a representative sample of writings or should they
simply be the best? In American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and
Practice, Randall C. Jimerson, associate professor of history and director
of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington
University, took the middle ground, making quite personal choices of articles
representing some of the best writing by U.S. archivists, but aiming for comprehensive
coverage. There has been no such compilation of articles directed at archivists
in this country since the publication in 1984 of A Modern Archives Reader,
edited by Maygene F. Daniels and Timothy Walch. The 1992 publication Canadian
Archival Studies and the Rediscovery of Provenance, edited by Tom Nesmith,
is a presentation of some of the best articles written by Canadian archivists
and served as a model for Jimerson.
The author has selected significant recent articles written only by archivists
from the United States and arranged them into nine parts. Twenty of the twenty-eight
articles were first published in the American Archivist. Seven of the
parts are meant to supplement basic archival texts, particularly the Society
of American Archivists' Archival Fundamentals Series ("Understanding Archives
and Archivists," "Selection and Documentation," "Appraisal," "Arrangement and
Description," "Reference and Use of Archives," "Preservation," and "Management.")
Two other parts, "Electronic Records" and "Archival History," concern subjects
not yet specifically addressed in the Archival Fundamentals Series.
About the topic of archival history, Jimerson (an historian and archival educator)
notes that archivists need "from time to time to step back and examine the
theory behind professional methodology and the historical development of archival
principles" (p. 99). These writings, drawn together in a handy text, will likely
be read by students in archival education programs. Budding archivists entering
the profession at the end of two decades of great change and upheaval may quickly
gain a sense of some important issues in the field and perhaps be inspired
to conduct further research on various aspects of archival history. It is worth
noting that two of the three articles selected by Jimerson for this part were
written by students.
One could quibble with some of Jimerson's selections and omissions. However,
in each of the introductory statements preceding the nine parts, Jimerson describes
the difficult choices he had to make as well as his interpretation of the issues
that led to his choices in each subject area. The introductory notes provide
important analyses, and readers should not pass over Jimerson's critical and
judicious summaries of major trends in the profession over the past two decades.
For example, in part 3, "Selection and Documentation," Jimerson puts into context
as diplomatically as one could the oft-contentious struggle of the late 1980s
over concepts such as "documentation strategy." In part 4, "Appraisal," Jimerson
explains his choices noting that appraisal "generated a great deal of thought
and analysis" that "has not always been translated into specific appraisal
methodology." In part 8, "Electronic Records," he provides much needed context
for the passionate debate on theoretical and methodological approaches to managing
electronic records, as argued by David Bearman and Margaret Hedstrom in "Reinventing
Archives for Electronic Records: Alternative Service Delivery Options" and
Linda Henry's "Schellenberg in Cyberspace." Jimerson's explanation of why Bearman's
and Richard H. Lytle's "The Power of the Principles of Provenance" was published
in the Canadian journal Archivaria will be useful to those rereading
this work fifteen years later or for the first time.
With only one real exception, each of the nine parts is a blend of "best" and "supplemental" writing
on a subject. The one exception is part nine, "Management," which contains
only two articles and does not do justice to a topic of such importance. This,
however, is not the fault of the editor; as Jimerson observes, this is an area
vastly underrepresented in the archival literature.
In addition to these nine parts, there is an introduction and a list on contributors.
The list of contributors is quite useful, including a bit more background on
each author than one usually finds in most compilations of essays. This information
provides important context for the readings.
What deserves a very careful reading, however, is Jimerson's seventeen-page
introduction. It is brilliant and worth the price of the entire volume. In
it, Jimerson lays the groundwork for a commanding understanding of the thought
and development of the profession in the two decades of the 1980s and 1990s.
While some may consider the most striking features of the profession in recent
years to be the quest for solutions to documentation issues, the debates of
theory versus practice, or the yearning for an understanding of electronic
records issues, the author views events differently. Jimerson puts forth the
notion that most of the important developments in the field since the early
1980s derive from the quest for professional identity and recognition and the
search for public acceptance of archival work as a socially significant profession.
By examining three broad manifestationsthe development of internal standards
for professional recognition, enhancing the public image of archives and archivists,
and strengthening the research and theoretical foundations of the professionJimerson
shows how intimately linked have been the challenges of the past two decades
to the goals of creating professionalism and gaining public recognition. Jimerson
draws his conclusions from new readings on SAA initiatives (e.g. the Task Force
on Goals and Priorities), ongoing professional debates (e.g. articles by Frank
Burke and Lester J. Cappon that appeared in the American Archivist in
1981 and 1982), and an "American" interpretation of Canadian and European thinking
on the state of the archival profession in the United States. The author opens
the door to let in some fresh air after two decades of sometimes contentious
growth and change. Although he may stretch a bit too far at this early stage
in drawing conclusions about the lowering of archival boundaries in an age
of increased globalization, he has set the stage for a deeper understanding
of what it means to be an archivist who works within the cultural bounds of
the United States.
A careful reading of the general introduction and the introductions to each
of the nine parts in American Archival Studies will assist the reader
in understanding the hard but personal choices made in compiling this work.
Implicit in the introduction is a research agenda that calls for a deeper understanding
not only of the profession's growth in the past two decades but also of the
broader history of the archival profession in the United States. Let's hope
that he or others follow up sometime soon.
Institute Archives and Special Collections
Massachusetts Institute of Technology