CAwannabe CA Exam Study Wiki/ American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice

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Jimerson, Randal C. “American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice”

  • In his introduction Jimerson speaks about the American archival profession seeking “identity and public acceptance as a socially significant profession.” The goal of professionalization is being sought in three ways—developing internal standards for professional recognition; enhancing the public image of archives and archivists; and strengthening the research and theoretical foundations of the profession. Jimerson goes on to track the recent history of archivists and archivist organizations to bring some order and recognition to this little understood field. Standards have been set to judge archivists and their institutions, for education in the field of archives and archives management, and certification. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for advancement and funding is the unflattering image of the archivist as “quiet, benign and powerless.” Outreach to the public is needed to overcome this negative stereotype. New research is needed in defining archives and how they can best serve their constituency. American archivists have been denegraded for not following the lead of their European and Canadian colleagues. In fact, they seem determined to break out on their own, establishing new models for operation. Both the Society of American Archivists and the Bentley Historical Library have been very supportive of American archivists who wish to engage in advanced research in archival administration. Jimerson says that instead of bemoaning the lack of American literature on archives “we should celebrate a national inclination towards meeting daily problems directly with a good dose of common sense.” Archival theory should be based on practice—the two cannot be separated. This in Jimerson’s view is what defines the American archivist.

The compilation, American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice, follows the same breakdown in subjects as the SAA’s fundamental series in archival theory. Each topic has a minimum of three essays which delve into the topic at hand.

  • Part One: Understanding Archives and Archivists brings together a number of authors who explore what it means to be an archivist and what an archive is and can provide to the public. The last essay brings notice of more recent media and how they expand a researchers ability to understand history.
    • John A. Fleckner in his “Dear Mary Jane”: Some reflections on being an Archivist brings some very personal insight into how he became an archivist, what are the satisfactions he finds in being an archivist. He speaks about how, if not for some quirk of fate he would not have chosen the field, about how after embarking upon his first job he was supported and trained by colleagues in the field and how that comradeship maintains him to this day.
An excellent insight into about how many archivists fall into their jobs, and later become greats in their field.
    • In To remember and Forget: Archives, Memory and Culture, Kenneth E. Foote speaks of the archive’s importance as preservers of cultures memory. Long after the event has happened and often, long time after the historic location is defaced or destroyed, the records in the archives documents their locations and former existence. In this world of radioactivity, the archives records become more than just important—it becomes a lifesaver. The documentation of locations of depleted radioactive material will be important in the future and including this information in archives is one way of providing a lasting record for future generations.
    • In “Mind and Sit”: Visual Literacy and the Archivist Elisabeth Kaplan and Jeffrey Mifflin discuss the movement toward documentation of culture through visual and audiovisual means and the importance of visual literacy for the archivist. The term visual literacy was first used by John L. Debes, coordinator of education projects at Eastman Kodak Company. He defined the term at the First Annual National Conference on Visual Literacy in Rochester New York on March 23, 1969, seeing it as “a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. . . When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, and symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. . .”
For the archivist, visual literacy aids to describe the contents of the collections by means of the written word. There are three levels of this physical literacy: 1.) Superficial: what the image is of; 2.) What the image is about; 3.) abstract elements: symbolism, organization, historical context, ambiguity, space, sequence, rhythm, point of view, moment.
For the researcher, visual literacy gives an new entrée to understanding history—they are original sources that have great potential. A recent study of photographs documenting British Columbia before it became part of the Canadian Federation gave insight into use of photography to promote settlement and for the new settlers a feeling of re-establishing their home.
The new generation of audio and visual materials requires new emphasis on descriptive access to materials for preservation and ease of reference. Using terminology of the field will help researcher find and understand images. Digitization projects have spurred improvements in providing descriptive access by utilization of standardized vocabulary, consensus on kinds of data to be included in descriptions and methods of sharing data between organizations.
    • Kaplin and Mifflin stress it is up to archivists to aid in the use of visual materials by making the materials and resources for interpreting them more accessible. This includes keeping related materials together—so that the context can be better understood. Asking more questions of the donors, gathering more supporting documentation from donors that describes the materials, outtakes and most especially the negatives which are the record that most accurately represents what the lens saw and can rarely be altered without detection. Preservation of the information in the image is dependent on an archivist who knows and understands the importance of visual literacy.
  • Part Two covers Archival History, starting off with two student papers and rounded out with a history of the Society of American Archivists by J. Frank Cook.
  • Part Three: Selection and Documentation brings some new attitudes to the area. Ericson asks archivists to look closely at how they choose records, while Samuels stresses the need to document aspects of society beyond the normal range, while Cox writes a retrospective of Documentation and how it has Archival Appraisal today.
  • Part Four Appraisal covers the hardest part of an archivist job—should the record be acquired and maintained in the collection? O’Toole looks at the importance of uniqueness of a record has significance in an archive. Boles and Marks Young look at the effort to apply social science methodology to making appraisals while Greene takes a look at the American approach that combines a “contextual emphasis on evidential value with concern for informational content and the usefulness of records in making appraisal decisions.”
  • Part Five: Arrangement and Description covers the methods that allow access to collections. Bearman and Lytle tackle the principle that provenance should be the central method of organizing collections. New technologies are making it easier to catalog collections, but as Michelson shows there needs to be more consistency in the headings and authority records. Hedstrom looks beyond the old standards to inclusion of the new standard of metadata in describing electronic records. Finally, Pitti tackles the use of the web for archival finding aides using SGML and EAD.
  • Part Six: Reference and Use of Archives covers the attempt to fill researcher’s needs. Finch urges archivists to look through their user’s eyes when working to determine how to provide access to resources. Conway developed a research model with which archives can plan their approaches. Yakel and Hensey shed like on unlikely but prominent users of archives such as genealogists, local historians, land surveyors, legal researchers, and administrators.
  • Part Seven: Preservation
O’Toole speaks of the challenge of preserving records permanently even though the media on which they are stored is impermanent. Conway presents the finding of archival practices in the United States and his recommendations. Paton covers another medium, sound and the efforts and methods of preserving it.
  • Part Eight: Electronic Records
The final section addresses a new challenge for archivists—Electronic Records. As with any new media, methods for addressing the problems are still being grappled with, with no particular path clear yet. It is not know whether archival theory will have to be re-thought and re-shaped to preserve these new records. Bearman and Hedstrom propose a new approach—maintain these records, but do not hold them physically. Henry reacts and defends the standards that have been established and used by archivists as being applicable to the new electronic records. The final article in this section speaks of cooperation with other professions in preserving and providing access to electronic records while at the same time following the standards established in the archives field.

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