Monday, March 19, 2007

Losing American History at the Archives

The sorry state of the U.S. National Archives is the subject of an op-ed in today's New York Times by The Codebreakers author David Kahn. He writes,

EVERYBODY knows how to use a library. You look up the card catalogue in the computer, type in the subject, find the Dewey Decimal System number, walk to the
shelf and get the book.

It’s different with an archive, where unpublished memorandums, reports, notes and letters are organized not by topic but by the agency that created them. You have to know which agency did the work you are interested in, and whether more than one was involved. The complexity of government means first-time archive users need help.

Alone among the world’s great archives, the National Archives of the United States has offered such assistance to visitors....Only at the big modern Archives II building in College Park, Md., will an archivist sit down and guide a user through the maze.

I disagree with Kahn about American exceptionalism in research support. While he may have been left on his own in Britain's massive Public Records Office, I began my research trip with a meeting with a wonderfully helpful archivist, who directed me to collections beyond those I had identified in on-line finding aids. The absence of a uniquely American tradition in archival assistance actually strengthens the point Kahn wishes to make. He continues: "But that precious advantage is being lost — and it’s all started to change in the last few months."

The reason is the impact of budget problems which undermine access to the basic sources of the nation's history. The staff faces a backlog of records to process, as well as the needs of researchers. More archivists have been moved to records processing, and the hours the archives are open to researchers have been cut back.

A development of long-term significance: senior archivists who have benefited researchers with their wealth of hands-on experience have taken early retirement. This leaves less experienced archivists on-hand to try their best to aid researchers. Kahn continues:

As a result, the archives have hired less-experienced personnel to organize the records, often resulting in people having to hunt longer for what they need. And although 50 professionals have recently been moved to processing, that has left only 22 archivists to deal with the public — and with records they do not know well.

The impact of these changes was apparent on my last trip to the archives in January. Well-meaning archivists inexperienced with diplomatic records were unable to answer simple questions about the way the finding aids were organized. This was unpleasant for everyone involved. Staff who simply don't know the records were good at giving directions about how to fill out forms, but could provide little assistance beyond that. This means that researchers are on their own.

For new researchers -- this means that it is essential to get thorough advice and direction from someone in your field who has regularly used the archives before you go. Plan to be self-sufficient.

But this is inadequate. Those magic finds in an archive that can lead to new turns in historical scholarship result not just from the dedicated slogging through the records that characterizes serious historical research. It results from the relationship between the historian and the archivist. I have often found valuable material by looking in files suggested by an archivist who knows the records.

Undermining the role of the archivist in the production of American history writing will undermine the way the story of American history itself is told.

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