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Lester 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.


Tufts University

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