J. Cappon and the Relationship of History, Archives, and Scholarship
in the Golden Age of Archival Theory.
Edited by Richard J. Cox. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2004.
vii, 234 pp. Illustrations. Index. Available
from the Society of American Archivists, $35.00 members, $45.00 nonmembers. ISBN 1-931666-07-5.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol.
68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005)
When Herman Melville died in 1891, Moby Dick—along with
Melville’s other works—was largely forgotten. Many nineteenth-century
critics had found Moby Dick disappointing and its sales were
far from robust. The centennial of Melville’s birth in 1919 initiated
a Moby Dick revival as critics such as Carl van Doren and Raymond
Weaver articulated the novel’s significance in American literature.
Just as Van Doren and Weaver reintroduced Melville to the public, Richard
J. Cox attempts to reintroduce Lester J. Cappon to archivists in Lester
J. Cappon and the Relationship of History, Archives, and Scholarship
in the Golden Age of Archival Theory. Cox, professor of archival
studies at the University of Pittsburgh, presents the archivist and historian
to us through an introductory essay, along with twelve essays that Cappon
wrote from 1952 through 1982. Cox organizes the essays in sections on
archival theory, archival collecting, archivists and historians, and
archivists and documentary editors.
Although Lester Cappon played a critical and active role in the evolution
of the archival profession in the United States during the mid-twentieth
century, he has largely been forgotten by archivists since his death
in 1981. Melville was forgotten because his writings were ahead of their
times. Moby Dick, for example, anticipated many elements of
modernism, and the novel needed to wait for its development in the twentieth
century—along with the horrors of the First World War—before
it could be fully appreciated. Cappon, on the other hand, has been largely
forgotten because he and his writings were very much of their time. During
his career, most archivists were trained as historians and often considered
themselves historians as much as archivists. Cappon was clearly an archivist
of this tradition. During his career he worked as a historian, a historical
editor, and an archivist. Cappon was an archivist and a professor of
history at the University of Virginia. He moved on to Colonial Williamsburg
serving as its publications editor, director of its archives, and eventually
director of the entire institution. He spent the last twelve years of
his life as a research fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He
also served as president of the Southern Historical Association, the
Society of American Archivists, and the Association of Documentary Editors.
Throughout his career, Cappon consistently argued that archival theory
had a firm grounding in history and that an education in history was
the foundation of a good archival education. He did not see this as a
one-way relationship but also urged historians “to be more archival-minded.” (130)
Over the past thirty years the archival profession has distanced itself
from the historical profession. This is most noticeable in archival education,
which has largely shifted from components in history departments to programs
in schools of library and information science. But this trend should
not allow us to fossilize Cappon as an example of a mid-century historian-archivist.
Cappon’s essays in this book can still actively engage us on a
number of current issues, particularly the nature of the archives profession.
The shift from history to library and information science leaves many
questions about the nature of the archival profession. Are we a subfield
of librarianship? Are we information professionals? Many archivists still
get graduate degrees in history, so are we still historians’ kindred
spirits? Does the recent emergence of PhD programs in our field signify
that archives has truly become an independent profession? Cappon dealt
with issues of professional identity throughout his career. He was an
archivist during the early years of the profession in the United States,
witnessing the establishment of the National Archives and the Society
of American Archivists, and he thought critically about the development
of the profession and the close relationship between archival work and
historical scholarship. In his 1958 essay, “Tardy Scholars Among
the Archivists,” Cappon argues that archivists are at heart scholars
and that their scholarship is in the field of history. Although the last
point may no longer be necessarily true, “Tardy Scholars” helps
us understand the role that new doctoral-level archives research and
new scholarship on the nature of records, records creation, and archives
history may play in the profession.
Cappon’s essays should appeal to those interested in the development
of the National Archives, archival appraisal and collecting, and the
history and nature of documentary editing. His 1969 paper “The
National Archives and the Historical Profession” offers a good
review of the development and early work of the National Archives and
laments its underutilization by historians. Although Cappon’s 1978
essay “Why Presidential Libraries?” has been partially superseded
by more recent scholarship and political developments, it still provides
relevant insights into the problems with presidential libraries. “Walter
R. Benjamin and the Autograph Trade at the Turn of the Century” (1966)
and “The Archivist as Collector” (1976) provide a history
of the noted American autograph dealer and arguments about the nature
of archival appraisal respectively. The four essays in the “Archivists
and Documentary Editors” section delve into the history of documentary
editing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, the state of documentary
editing in the U.S. during the mid-twentieth century, and the education
and training needed for documentary editing.
However, this book should be the most engaging for those interested
in understanding the nature of our profession and its evolution in the
United States during the twentieth century. These issues permeate all
of the essays in this book, although they are most prevalent in the three
essays in the “Archival Theory” section, in “The Archivist
as Collector” (1976), and in “The Archival Profession and
the Society of American Archivists” (1952).
Cox states in the introduction that researching Cappon and creating
this book has been like having an ongoing conversation with him. Cappon’s “The
Archivist as Collector” (1976) and “What, Then, Is There
to Theorize About?” (1982) are rebuttals to two articles written
by members of the following generation of archivists, F. Gerald Ham’s “The
Archival Edge” and Frank Burke’s “The Future Course
of Archival Theory in the United States.” Together these essays
represent a passing of the archives profession from one generation to
the next. But they also represent a conversation between professional
generations. Include Cox’s introductory essay, and we can see a
conversation and engagement that spans three generations of archivists.
The Society of American Archivists has published this book of collected
Cappon essays as part of their Archival Classics series. In the past
few years SAA has republished the works of Ernst Posner, Margaret Cross
Norton, Sir Hilary Jenkinson, T. R. Schellenberg, and Muller, Feith,
and Fruin. This publishing effort endeavors to reinvigorate the debate
and conversations between generations of archivists. Ironically, for
a profession that is focused on facilitating conversations between generations
by preserving the words and actions of past individuals and institutions,
we have not been very good at keeping up our own conversation with past
archivists. Solidifying a base of classic professional literature will
help rectify that.
The question still remains: Do the writings of Lester Cappon belong in
that body of classic archival literature? Cox clearly feels that they do—that
they move beyond merely being interesting historical examples of past archival
scholarship. But the opinion of one archival scholar does not make a classic.
Being a member of a canon takes the consensus of a community. In his introduction,
Cox points out the extent to which the archival community has forgotten
Cappon. If Cappon’s writings on archives are to become true classics,
then the archival community must engage with them in current debate. Will
the publication of this book transform Cappon’s works into archival
classics in the same way that the 1975 publication of collected essays
by Margaret Cross Norton solidified their “classic” status?
That question will take several years to answer. But remember, these kinds
of questions take time—it took Moby Dick over seventy years
to become a member of the canon.