Saturday, January 3, 2015

Christian James: On the Archive Beat on Day One of AHA 2015


National Archives Building
I am happy to have Christian James with us this weekend.  Christian is a digital historian and archivist currently working on an MLS degree.  He will be covering some of the sessions related to his field of expertise.  Welcome aboard, Christian!  --JF

I had to take the opportunity to attend this year's AHA annual conference. Last year's conference was in my backyard, Washington, D.C., yet I had to cancel my attendance plans for business reasons. And as I pursue my Master of Library Science (MLS) degree, this will be my last year to qualify for a student rate. Even better, this year's theme, “History and the Other Disciplines,” promises to tie history to the concerns of libraries, archives, and beyond. But how well will this interdisciplinary focus play out? As one of my MLS classmates observed, the choice of the word “other” might have a distancing effect. Fortunately, my first panel event saw this dynamic play out favorably.

I started out Friday's conference proceedings precisely at AHA Session #1: “Are We Losing History? Capturing Archival Records for a New Era of Research.” Kicking off the conference with Session #1 titled, “Are We Losing History?” sounds like an audacious way to begin, but the session name was surely a rhetorical question. In fact, the panel presented and sought strategies to continue leveraging historical research to help archives acquire and retain records.

The 1pm panel began to a room at least two-thirds-full – crowded, perhaps, since registration opened at noon and the line for pre-registered attendees seemed to extend the length of a football field. Panel chair Megan Phillips of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) explained that the panel had come about through a conversation between her and AHA to foster dialogue about trends in historical research and what NARA can provide strong service and access to historians. What came about – perhaps differently from the initial vision but equally as useful – was a conversation about how both public and private relationships with government can facilitate access to records both nationally and internationally.

NARA Chief Records Officer Paul Wester* began the panel with an overview of his organization's duty to transfer records from individual government agencies to the National Archives. Wester began by discussing NARA's duty to help determine records of lasting value and its records scheduling function. Wester also discussed NARA's new Capstone system, which allows agencies to more easily identify records of top officials to transfer to the Archives. The talk concluded with discussion of the needs for balance between keeping few versus many records, and for seeking input from scholars to help determine that balance. These needs are most striking in his example of public concern amid the Central Intelligence Agency's bid to implement a Capstone policy to its own records.

The next speaker, Robert E. Lee, of East View Information Services, Inc. discussed his company's work coordinating the publication of records and special collections from foreign nations, most notably Joseph Stalin's personal library. This type of work requires careful negotiation and rights management, but also demonstrates the opportunities available for the private sector to open access to records. Historian Derek Peterson followed Lee with a fascinating analysis of changing archival practices in Uganda, from the cover-ups of the British colonial government to the neglect (but relatively open access) of the administration of President Yoweri Museveni, who considers history to be a “distraction.” Now, thanks to Ugandan and U.S. universities and libraries, previously censored or neglected records are preserved and digitized.

The final speaker, Matthew Connelly, brought the conversation full circle with a review of problems facing the National Archives. To Connelly, NARA faces a crisis because of low morale, low funding, other agencies' abuse of national security classification designations, and a deluge of incoming electronic records. Connelly wondered if NARA could actually acquire more government records than it already does if it pursues more technological innovation. But nothing, Connelly insists, is more important than proper funding for the agency, which lacks the resources to best execute its mandates.

The panel broached a huge number of topics but unfortunately couldn't pursue them all fully. (I also wondered if the panel could have discussed personal digital archiving or the role of public-private partnerships.) But the four speakers each contributed to a great panel to show how historians and the public and private spheres can unite to help archivists – definitely a strong start to “History and the Other Disciplines.”