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 manifestations—the development of internal standards for professional recognition, enhancing the public image of archives and archivists, and strengthening the research and theoretical foundations of the profession—Jimerson 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.


Megan Sniffin-Marinoff
Institute Archives and Special Collections
Massachusetts Institute of Technology