Leadership and Administration of Successful Archival Programs

Edited by Bruce W. Dearstyne. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. vii, 150 pp. Index. $59.95. ISBN: 0-313-31575-2.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 66, No.1, Spring/Summer 2003)


In our work with the long-term records of organizations, archivists continually see how strong leaders can shape institutional growth. We also know from our general awareness of archival institutions in the United States that successful growth is usually attributable to the work of an individual or a small handful of dedicated leaders. It seems ironic then that we have done so little to apply this knowledge to the improvement our own institutions and our profession. Leadership and Administration of Successful Archival Programs is a new resource on this subject and a welcome addition to our professional literature. Its contention is that the archival profession has not paid sufficient attention to the importance of leadership, and its purpose is “to provide guidance on exemplary practices and programs.”(p. vii)

Bruce Dearstyne is the editor and the author of two of the nine essays. Dearstyne has reflected on the importance of leadership through a productive career at the New York State Archives and Records Administration, as a teacher at the University of Maryland, and as a leader of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators. The other seven contributors are archivists who have also proven themselves successful administrators in a variety of settings. Their essays describe practices, techniques, and strategies from their experiences that are likely to be useful to the rest of us.

Many of the basic tools and practices of leadership are common to any organization. All leaders, for instance, have to find ways of succeeding within the unique environments of their larger institutions. The authors of these essays have achieved success themselves by finding creative ways for their archives to support the mission their parent institutions. Phil Mooney’s assessment of corporate archives (Coca Cola) and Lauren Brown’s review of archives in academic settings (the University of Maryland Libraries) are especially valuable in speaking to this point.

Frank Burke, in addition to being a former Acting Archivist of the United States and Executive Director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, was a manuscripts archivist at the University of Chicago and the Library of Congress and a teacher at the University of Maryland. His essay describes different types of archives and the techniques that may work in each. Burke reminds us as well that many of the basic tools for success in archives grow out of those human qualities that make for success elsewhere.

Lisa Fagerlund, the most widely traveled of the authors, offers a personal case study. She has worked in archives of the City of Portland (OR), the State of Utah, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations. In each new setting, Fagerlund faced the challenge of learning how to function effectively and of building a program to meet the needs of the larger organization. She reflects frankly on efforts she felt were successful and others that fell short.

Richard Cox worked at the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore Municipal Archives, and state archives in Alabama and New York before becoming a professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. In his essay on the relationship between archival education and leadership, Cox recognizes the importance of leadership and even emphasizes his view that leadership can be learned, but discourages efforts to add a component on leadership to graduate programs in archival administration because of his concern that the curriculum for these programs is already full. He does suggest ways archival educators can themselves show leadership and also how they can help nurture and provide support for prospective leaders.

Michael Kurtz offers a case study, an especially interesting and conspicuously visible one, on leadership initiatives at his institution, the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration. Kurtz tracks strategic planning efforts within the Archives over the course of a decade. While noting that a complete assessment of the process’s effectiveness can only be made later, he does emphasize both the value of strategic planning as an instrument of leadership and the importance of leadership involvement for successful planning.

Larry Hackman has also worked in a variety of institutions--from the Kennedy Presidential Library, to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, to the New York State Archives and Records Administration, to the Truman Presidential Library. Hackman’s essay is an effort to distill his considerable experience into two broad sets of ideas. His “ways of thinking” are assumptions that have informed his efforts, such as: “An agenda with sound strategies is better than a detailed plan.” His second set of ideas, eight “suggestions for acting,” is as close to a recipe for leadership success as we are likely to find anywhere.

In the two concluding essays, Dearstyne first describes characteristics that tend to mark “well-led programs” and elements of leadership that help build those programs. The other essay is a compilation of statements regarding different aspects of archival leadership taken from reports or position papers by a variety of archival organizations over the last five years.

As with most collections of essays, Leadership and Administration of Successful Archival Programs lacks the unity of a single, coherent voice, and at times the lists threaten to overwhelm the reader. On the other hand, one of the book’s strengths is the range and variety of useful ideas and practices it presents. Perhaps even more important is the sense that emerges from all these essays of the authors’ passion for and dedication to their work. A commitment to the institution’s mission appears to be the wellspring of their leadership, and those who shoulder leadership responsibilities can learn from the authors’ attitudes as well as from their practices. As a compilation of valuable ideas and a commentary on the importance of leadership, this work will be useful for the instruction of new archivists. It is also a work for emerging leaders and seasoned veterans alike to read and ponder, and perhaps later to read again.


Alabama Department of Archives and History