Peter Wosh’s thoughts on the “archival divide”: remarks delivered at AHA

To complete my series of posts related to the session “Archivists, Historians, and the Future of Authority in the Archives” held at the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, below are the remarks made by my follow panelist, Peter Wosh. Peter should need no introduction to most readers of this blog, I’m sure. He directs the graduate program in Archives and Public History at New York University, where he has taught since 1994. He is also the chair of SAA’s Publications Board, and the author of the recent book Waldo Gifford Leland and the Origins of the American Archival Profession. As a reminder, each member of the panel for this session was asked to share his or her views on Francis X. Blouin Jr., and William G. Rosenberg’s book Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives.

First, I think that the historical and archival professions owe a deep debt of gratitude to the authors.  As someone who directs a graduate archives/public history program based in a history department, I think that this book – more than any other product on the market that I am aware of – explains the conceptual, theoretical, and intellectual issues that currently divide archivists and historians.  Even better, it carefully places them in a historical context and traces the changing relationship of these professions over time.  It is an invaluable treatment, a must read, and should be required reading for anyone currently enrolled in a graduate archival education program.  That having been said, I do have a few comments intended to suggest ways in which I think historians and archivists should build on this very good work to refine the arguments and advance the discourse.  Specifically, I wanted to focus on four particular issues that might be interrogated and expanded.

My first comment has to do with people.  Processing the Past begins with a very compelling and well-drawn image that immediately engaged me.  It chronicles a tumultuous argument within the history department of a newly independent Russian university composed of both traditional Soviet-era historians and a complement of younger scholars influenced heavily by postmodernism and the linguistic turn in historical scholarship.  The departmental debate centered ironically on the Soviet era historians’ vigorous defense of the notion of archivally based research against the onslaught of the poststructuralists.   What I found really striking and helpful about this incident was the way in which it reflected the complex issues that drove ideological change.  Career patterns, academic training, generational shifts, strategic alliances, political commitments, and social networks all fueled this debate in complex ways.  The authors draw a compelling portrait of the ways in which these issues affected post-Soviet academic discourse, and how seemingly arcane academic issues influenced historians’ interaction with archivists and archival sources.

I wish that this thread – this rich depiction of the ways in which the personal and the political intersected – had been followed through more thoroughly in the rest of the book, and that the intellectual divide that had been placed more thoroughly within its social context.  While Blouin and Rosenberg accurately distill debates and arguments between historians and archivists, it becomes difficult at times to discern what makes these people tick or to place them within the context of their peers.  There are some notable exceptions (such as, for example, the discussion of Marc Bloch), but I think too often individuals are identified or labeled only by such terms as “thoughtful archivists,” which for me had the effect of divorcing their intellectual life from social reality.  I thought back to the way in which I learned archival theory, and for that matter historiography, in the 1970s.  Theoretical arguments too often appeared in a disembodied vacuum, with little sense of context or cohort.  The Dutch archivists, Jenkinson, Schellenberg, and similar theorists appeared as distant and unapproachable figures, driven by theory and participating in intellectual debate, but peculiarly lifeless and characterized by murky motivations at best.  I think a deeper focus throughout the book on individuals, career patterns, generational change, and the relationships among these individuals would considerably complicate the pattern drawn by Blouin and Rosenberg.

Just to give a small example from my own work.  I recently have been poking around a lot in the life and times of Waldo Gifford Leland (1879-1966).  Leland had been the Secretary of the AHA from 1908-1919, a driving force behind the creation of the first Conference of Archivists in the United States in 1909, and a principal lobbyist behind the establishment of the U.S. National Archives in 1934.  When I began my research into Leland, I found that that is was quite easy to caricature him as a profoundly positivist member of the first generation of “scientific historians” who populated academic halls in the early twentieth century.  He was committed to the careful exploitation of archival sources as the building blocks of history, embraced professionalization in all of its contents and discontents, and seemed to fetishize archives in the manner chronicled by Bonnie Smith and many others.  But, after spending a fair amount of time examining his substantial collection of personal papers at the Library of Congress – as well as his sparer but revealing published writings – a very different portrait emerged of what really drove him.

One key component of his life and work, an element often missing from some characterizations of early historian/archivists in the United States, was his notion of public responsibility – albeit a notion deeply embedded in a Progressive Protestant framework.  In an obscure 1917 article on “Catholic Historical Societies” (a topic that in itself reflects the Baptist-bred Leland’s broad-based historical , interests), Leland made the following striking statement:  “It has been customary in some circles to regard the historical profession as devoted to a harmless though amiable pursuit, but one of little if any ‘practical’ use, and to look upon the student of history as a person who, having too few red corpuscles in his blood, is content to bury his head in the dust of the past, oblivious to the interests and the exigencies of the present …. It has been a weakness of the historical profession that, often engrossed in matters of method and of minute detail, it has too little recognized its obligations to the world in which it lives.”  In many ways, that statement made me think about the essential characteristics of the “divide” that remains a central analytical concept in the Blouin and Rosenberg book.  Perhaps the “divide” itself is not so much a division between the categories of historians and archivists, but rather between factions within these professions.  One might distinguish between public historians and socially committed archivists on the one hand who see a broad public purpose and cultural context underlying their work, and purely academic historians and the “archives as evidence of transactions” school on the other side who have too often retreated into their own disciplinary and professional subcultures.  By essentializing the categories of “archivists” and “historians,” and not digging deeper into the core values, personalities, and relationships that drive both professions, Processing the Past may have obscured other internal issues and perspectives that complicate the notion of a divide.

My second point has to do with education and training.  Blouin and Rosenberg largely – and intentionally if I read their argument correctly – decided not to focus on the changing nature of archival education over the course of the late twentieth century.  As someone who was trained primarily as an historian, and who entered the world of archives in the 1970s (or perhaps more accurately, based on the Blouin and Rosenberg chronology, in the long 1960s), and who now directs one of the surviving archives programs in a history department, I find the evolution of education and training deserving of greater discussion.  Graduate archival education largely did not exist until the late 1970s and, interestingly enough, history departments largely took the lead in establishing educational offerings during this period.  In fact, when LIS schools began getting more involved in archival education, they often hired history-trained faculty to lead their programs.  Some of the largest and most established LIS programs in existence today (Maryland, Simmons, Wayne State, and the Palmer School are good examples) owed their genesis and early direction to professional historians.  That early historical involvement in archival training largely dissipated and collapsed during the 1980s and 1990s for a variety of reasons, and I especially want to highlight two factors here.

First, I think that many history departments did not have a deep intellectual commitment to the archives field itself, but rather viewed this intervention into archival education as an opportunity to resolve a vocational crisis within the guild itself – very much presenting it as a form of “alternative employment” for those who lost out in the highly competitive academic job market.  Archival programs within history departments too often remained undertheorized and almost exclusively dependent on internships and adjunct faculty for staffing.  Second, the historical profession itself often turned a blind eye to technology.  During the 1980s, as historians took the “linguistic turn” well chronicled by Blouin and Rosenberg, they also moved decisively away from their brief flirtation with cliometrics, quantitative analysis, and social science scholarship, which peaked in the late 1970s.  It is striking at this AHA conference to see the number of sessions devoted to digital humanities, text mining, and teaching and learning in an electronic environment.  Such sessions, I think it is fair to say, would have been almost inconceivable in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the “divide” that Blouin and Rosenberg posited reached maturation.  By failing to develop stable programs, not advancing or contributing to theoretical discussions within the archival field, and marginalizing technological engagement, historians retreated from educational engagement at the very moment when graduate training became a standard credential for entry into the field.

And this leads me to my third point:  Money.  I would like to see someone build on the arguments of Blouin and Rosenberg in order to explore the role of funding agencies, foundations, and academic institutions in fostering and reinforcing the trends that they elucidate.  Just as the Carnegie Institution of Washington provide to be a major player in the creation and establishment of the historical profession in the early twentieth century, I  think that projects and initiatives devised by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library at the federal level – as well as such influential private foundations as Mellon – have had an extraordinary impact on shaping, defining, and reconfiguring the relationships between historians and archivists.  To take just one example, IMLS funding in recent years has been front and center in supporting and buttressing archival education at LIS schools,  even fostering a new corps of doctoral candidates in archives through the annual Archival Education Research Institute programs.  Similarly, project-based funding by these foundations and grant agencies has both helped to define new archival career patterns and promote descriptive and digital standards within the field.  And, moving beyond the funding sector, a realistic description of developments in archival and history-based education needs to explore the economics of large research universities that have transformed many M.A. programs into massive revenue-generating operations regardless of job market needs.  All of these monetary factors deserve a place somewhere in this analysis, again moving the notion of the “archival divide” outside of the realms of pure intellectual debate.

Finally, I would like to inject a word about technology and the depth of the divide.  Blouin and Rosenberg end their book on a peculiarly techno-utopian note, suggesting that archivists and historians may yet bridge their digital divide, download “Kumbaya” onto their MP3 players, and live happily and virtually ever after.  On the one hand, I share other panelists’ suspicions about the willingness and incentives for historians to contribute intellectual content and commentary to archival finding aids.  I am equally agnostic about archivists’ real interest in embracing academic historians’ concerns, especially as the last vestiges of Ph.D.-trained baby boomer archivists retire from the field and as newer generations with very different cultural, academic, and avocational backgrounds assume leadership in the archives profession.  On the other hand, I think there are some important countervailing trends that deserve greater exploration.  Though it remains a controversial concept, I do believe that technology has in some ways fueled a convergence of the historical, archival, museum, and library fields into something fundamentally new and different.  Historians increasingly are acting as archivists.  See, for example, the September 11th Digital Archive, the Hurricane Katrina Project, and the numerous other initiatives pioneered by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason.  Historians are collecting, acquiring, appraising, and building their own collections – and in the process developing such products as Omeka and Zotero that have exerted considerable influence within the archives, museum, and library worlds.  Similarly, archivists often are acting very much as historical editors and educators.  They increasingly are making primary sources available on line, embedding historical documents in a broader scholarly apparatus to make them more intelligible for users, and working with educators to craft document-based learning experiences and lesson plans for students from primary school through college.  Such projects, as well as the reconfiguration of roles and responsibilities, can serve as effective bridges for cooperative endeavor and embed each discipline within the concerns the other.

So, to sum up: I think that the Blouin and Rosenberg book is a remarkable and unique contribution to both the historical and the archival fields that deserves universal consideration.  As a blueprint for building on this work, I would suggest that scholars pay more attention to four factors: embedding intellectual divisions more carefully within a personal and social framework; paying greater attention to issues of education and training; looking toward the role of grant agencies, foundations, and economic incentives to explore the development of both professions; and think about the ways in which technology has already promoted a convergence of the disciplines.


Be Sociable, Share!

5 thoughts on “Peter Wosh’s thoughts on the “archival divide”: remarks delivered at AHA”

  1. Peter: where was the 1909 Conference of Archivists held ?
    did Leland attend the 1910 conferences in Brussels ? thx karen w

  2. Karen —

    Thanks for the question. The first Conference of Archivists was held in New York City (actually on the campus of Columbia University) on December 30, 1909, in conjunction with the American Historical Association’s 25th annual meeting. Leland did indeed attend the 1910 conference in Brussels. He orchestrated an invitation for representatives of the American Historical Association, and served as an official AHA representative along with Gaillard Hunt of LC, Dunbar Rowland of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Arnold J.F. Van Laer of the New York State Library Manuscripts Division. The proceedings of the conference are on line at:

  3. Thanks so much Peter for your reply & also for the link to the proceedings which I had not seen before. appreciate your post & all the information provided. thanks again KW

  4. Just another comment re: the 1910 Congres….(as I read through it) is that
    according to the section linked (proceedings) –Premiere Partie Documents preliminaires Etats-Unis d’Amerique XIX-XX section linked below… Arnold JF Van Laer -Chief of the Mss. Division in the New York State Library in Albany NY –attended as a Delegate of the American Library Association along with 4 others for ALA , i.e. not under AHA — and Gaillard Hunt, Chief of the Mss Division in the Library of Congress was listed as an Official Delegate for the United States–not under AHA on the list of members on the link provided to the proceedings. I found that an important distinction also. Leland was listed as Secretary of the AHA and as an Assistant in the Dept of Historical Research of the Carnegie Institution of Washington
    Do you know how many others may have attended from AHA ? Leland is the only delegate listed under AHA at the end of the list Thanks again / Karen Weaver

    –>Peter Wosh had written above that: (Leland) “did indeed attend the 1910 conference in Brussels. He orchestrated an invitation for representatives of the American Historical Association, and served as an official AHA representative along with Gaillard Hunt of LC, Dunbar Rowland of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Arnold J.F. Van Laer of the New York State Library Manuscripts Division. The proceedings of the conference are on line at: “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.