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«O NE of the inscriptions at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of the National Archives Building quotes the line from Shakespeare: What is Past is ...»

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The Future of the Archival



National Archives

O NE of the inscriptions at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance

of the National Archives Building quotes the line from

Shakespeare: "What is Past is Prologue." This inscription

has been used as the text of many public speeches in Washington.

Its meaning for us is obvious. It implies that the past provides the

knowledge we must have to understand the future. And it applies

to the future of our archival profession, about which I am to speak to you today.

Although some archival work was done quite early in this country, the archival profession, as such, did not develop until rather late in our national history. In colonial times archival work was a matter of individual enterprise, a few persons going about to accumulate documentary materials for historical projects in which they were interested. The first organized efforts to preserve and make available the documentary resources of the Nation were made by three types of institutions: historical societies, libraries, and archives.

The historical society was the first type of institution to enter the field of collecting and preserving documentary materials, and the first historical society to be established in this country was that of Massachusetts in 1791. It was followed a few years later by the American Antiquarian Society, and a few years after that the New York Historical Society was formed. During the decade of the 1820's many State and local historical societies were established.

By the outbreak of the Civil War 65 such societies had been founded in the settled parts of the country.

In the period after the Civil War libraries came to the fore as the custodians of manuscript materials. The library profession, as such, in the United States was developed largely in consequence of the stimulus given it by Justin Winsor, who was chiefly instrumental in forming the American Library Association, and by Melvil Dr. Schellenberg is Assistant Archivist of the United States for the National Archives. His paper contains the substance of a talk at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in Salt Lake City, Utah, August i8, 1958.


Dewey, who developed the basic techniques of classification and established the Library Bureau, which concerned itself with improving methods and installing various new library systems. In the last two decades of the century library work was established firmly as a separate profession. Large manuscript collections were accumulated in various libraries of the country. Those of Harvard University, the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University, and the Lenox Library in New York City grew out of the activities of bibliophiles and collectors. The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, which took over the manuscript collections acquired by the Federal Government and maintained by the Bureau of Rolls and Library of the Department of State, was a governmental enterprise. On the West Coast somewhat later counterparts of the great eastern repositories were established in the Bancroft Library, the Huntington Library, and the Hoover Library.

Late in the last century a third type of repository appeared on the scene. This was the archival institution. In 1889, shortly after its establishment, the American Historical Association formed a Public Archives Commission, which for many years sponsored inventories of State archives and meetings of archivists throughout the country. As a result of its stimulus a number of State archival institutions, many of which grew out of historical societies, were established in various parts of the country; and finally in 1934, almost 150 years after the establishment of the Federal Government, the National Archives was established to preserve and maintain the valuable public records of the Federal Government.

At the present time there are over 500 sizable repositories in this country that are accumulating and preserving the documentary resources of the Nation. These repositories contain undreamed-of quantities of source material. The methods that have been applied to their management are a compound of those of the historian, the librarian, and the archivist. These methods are still evolving and have not yet been refined into a distinct discipline.

The developments within our profession can be elucidated further by examining the principles and techniques evolved in a particular repository. The first of these, as I mentioned before, was the Massachusetts Historical Society. On January 24, 1791, eight persons met at the home of William Tudor in Boston to form a society for "the purpose of collecting, preserving, and communicating the antiquities of America." Each of the members of the newly formed society contributed whatever manuscript resources he had.

And from these small beginnings developed one of the most imTHE FUTURE OF THE ARCHIVAL PROFESSION 51 portant manuscript repositories in the United States. Among the very early accessions of the society were the papers of two colonial governors, one from Massachusetts and the other from Connecticut;

and the history of their papers illustrates, in part, how records were handled by the society.

The Thomas Hutchinson papers were derived from a number of sources. Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts between 1771 and 1774, was very much interested in the history of Massachusetts and collected both private and public documents for a history that he was writing in his home. In 1765 his house was pillaged by a mob; and the manuscripts that he had accumulated were thrown into the street, some of them trampled in the mud, and others destroyed altogether. His neighbor, the Reverend Andrew Eliot, gathered up as many of them as he could and took them into his home. Eliot's son gave the papers rescued by his father to the society, of which he was a founder. Other trunks of manuscripts of Governor Hutchinson, seized by the State in 1774 when the Governor fled to England, became part of the State archives. In 1821 these were reviewed by Alden Bradford, secretary of state, who removed certain private papers and deposited them with the Massachusetts Historical Society, of which he was a member.

The Hutchinson papers, from whatever source they were acquired, were arranged chronologically, bound in three volumes, and indexed. This was the standard way of keeping private papers.

Later the Hutchinson papers became a source of dispute between the society and the State of Massachusetts. Repeated requests were made to the society to return the papers, all of which were denied.

Eventually, in 1873, the papers were returned to the State after the decision of an umpire, who was appointed jointly by the State and the society to determine which of them were of a private nature and which were deposited by Alden Bradford in 18 21. Since the private and public papers had been bound together into volumes without regard to their source, the umpire decided that all of them should go to the State.

The other governor's collection, the fate of which I wish to review briefly, were the papers of Jonathan Trumbull, colonial Governor of Connecticut between 1769 and 1783. These papers were given to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1795 by David Trumbull, the son of the Governor, in a fit of ill temper because the corporation of Yale College was lukewarm about receiving them. The papers were bound in 23 volumes and indexed.

The State of Connecticut repeatedly urged the society to give them


up to it, claiming that they had more interest for the State of Connecticut than they did for the State of Massachusetts, but these requests were repeatedly denied.

Through the years the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society became much larger. By the outbreak of the Civil W a r it had over 500 manuscript volumes in its custody, and by the end of the century this number had doubled. The collections spanned five centuries and included such important items as Winthrop's journal, the correspondence of Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather, and a number of very important collections of manuscripts such as those of Prince, Belknap, Pickering, and Winsor. These materials represent one of the prime sources of historical information in the Nation. They were used by the most eminent of the American historians — by Jared Sparks, George Bancroft, George Ticknor, William H. Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, Francis Parkman, Justin Winsor, and others. The council of the society stated that the society was in a sense "trustees for the scholars of the country."

As the collections of the society increased in volume — and particularly as its pamphlet collection, which became very voluminous, increased in size — repeated attention was given to the growing need for space. As early as 1855 a standing committee of the society reported that it should "disburthen itself of much...

of this mass of cumbrous matter not immediately akin to our pursuits." Just before the Civil W a r it was noted that the "shelf room was crowded to overflowing." In 1866 it was reported that the manuscripts already in the possession of the society "afford very little accommodation for the future additions." In 1889 the council of the society again reported the need of weeding and stated that "it is not the space, but the system, which is at fault"; it expressed the opinion that even if more space were available the society "should obtain no permanent relief with the present methods of accumulation."

Gradually the society accepted the enlightened principle, which is characteristic of any mature manuscript repository, that research resources should be held where they are most likely to be used. This principle was most succinctly stated by R. C. Winthrop, Jr., in 1890.

H e said:

I am aware that an idea prevails, in many quarters, that when a Society or an individual has come into possession of a mass of miscellaneous original material for history, it should be kept intact at all hazards; but, to my mind, a much broader view to take is to consider how far it may be appropriate, in the interest of historical research, to transfer portions of such material to


institutions immediately connected with the subjects to which they relate. In other words, the duty of providing the various classes of historical manuscripts with the fittest, the safest, and the most convenient homes ought, in my judgment, to be paramount to any selfish consideration.

In line with this enlightened view the society returned the Trumbull papers to the State of Connecticut, and John Hancock's letter books (which were really the first five letter books of the President of the Continental Congress and the Journal of the Congress of

1774) to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

At the turn of the century, in 1899, the president of the society, Charles Francis Adams, lifted the veil on the next century and made his predictions as to what would happen in regard to documentary

materials. He said:

The accumulation of historical matter, it is to be remembered, progresses with ever-increasing rapidity. The word is a strong one, but to me the future is in this respect appalling to contemplate. We are to be bankrupted by our possessions... The progression has been, and is, geometric. At the same rate the accumulation of the twentieth century defies computation in advance, — it will altogether defy any nice classification or exhaustive cataloguing. The problem of the future, therefore, is not accumulation; that is provided for.

It will go on surely, and only too fast. The question of the future, so far as the material of history is concerned, relates to getting at what has been accumulated — the ready extraction of the marrow. In other words, it is a problem of differentiation, selection, arrangement, indexing and cataloguing.

The future work of the archivist is determined by the character of the materials with which he will have to deal. These materials have certain characteristics that I wish to underscore: their volume, their organic character, and the diversity of physical class and type.

When Adams made his predictions about the future of the archival profession, the holdings of the Massachusetts Historical Society consisted of about 100,000 pamphlets and 1,000 manuscript volumes. These holdings are but a drop in the bucket when compared with those of present-day repositories. I estimate that the manuscript volumes contained about a half million single record items and comprised about 250 linear feet of records if kept under modern conditions of storage. Though I am not prone to measure the value of record materials in terms of volume, I should like to emphasize that the total volume of materials that had been accumulated by all repositories in the Nation at the turn of the century was quite negligible. The problem of mass with which the presentday archivist must deal is one of the main determinants of the methods and policies he must apply.


The second characteristic of recent documentation to which I wish to draw attention is its organic character. Instead of accumulating mainly the papers of eminent Americans, such as colonial governors, revolutionary patriots, the founding fathers, the Presidents of the United States, we are now accumulating the papers of organic bodies. The archival institutions established in the last half century, in fact, are concerned principally with records of organic bodies — governmental agencies, businesses, churches, learned institutions, and the like.

The third characteristic of recent documentation is its diversity of physical class and type. Instead of accumulating only textual and cartographic records we are now concerned as well with audiovisual records — still pictures, motion picture films, and sound recordings. Instead of accumulating mainly letters, we are now accumulating all physical types of records — account books, letterpress books, ledgers, questionnaires, and forms of all kinds.

These changes in the quantity and the types of materials with which we are dealing determine the methods and principles we shall have to apply in the future.

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