AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE SOCIETY OF ARCHIVISTS AND ITS MEMBERS
(Prepared by Craig Fees. Draft Version: 2/97)
In 1997 the Society of Archivists celebrates its fiftieth anniverary. As its main contribution to the celebrations, the Film and Sound Archives Group has initiated an oral history programme called “Celebrating Memory: An oral history of the Society of Archivists and its members”, which it hopes will become an ongoing project built into the annual work of the Group and perhaps of the Society. “Celebrating Memory” will culminate at the end of the celebration year in a series of publications including a book.
During the course of this project we aim to record as many interviews as possible with as wide a representation of the Society as we can, with a bias towards senior members of the profession who can tell us about the Society’s growth and the growth of archives, conservation, and records management as such. The tapes and the transcripts will be used to help to deepen both public and professional understanding of the field, and in the end will be deposited in the National Sound Archives where they can continue to be used to teach and to learn.
The history of the Society of Archivists has not yet been written; indeed, the recordings we are making now should make a substantial contribution to it. On the basis of the Minutes of the Council, the Annual General Meetings and the Annual Conferences, however, a number of interweaving themes appear. These can be picked out of the Chronology, below, but it might be useful to indicate some of them here.
In February 1946 eleven members of the British Records Association met together. They were all practicing archivists, and they all felt the need for a way to come together on a regular and formal basis to talk about their work, share experiences, and exchange ideas and views. The logical thing was to set up a Specialist Group within the British Records Association, and on February 24 a letter was sent to the Council of the BRA requesting permission to establish a Local Archivists Section. The BRA rejected the request on constitutional grounds.
Therefore, in June 1946 a second meeting was held. Thirteen archivists were present and they decided, with the BRA’s door closed, to form a separate organisation. A sub-committee was appointed to draw up rules for the proposed new Society of Local Archivists. There was debate about the breadth – or, rather, the narrowness – of the Society’s net; but at a third meeting in November, following discussion, it was agreed to retain the word “Local” in the name. In January 1947 the Rules of the new Society were accepted, and on July 18, 1947, the first meeting of the first Council of the Society of Local Archivists took place at the Middlesex Guildhall in Westminster. By this time the new Society had something over thirty members, scattered over six Regions in England and Wales. The Constitution was formally adopted in February 1949.
The archivists had not set out in the first place to create a new organisation, and having created it went both boldly and uncertainly forward. At its fourth meeting, in January 1947, it was agreed to apply to the BRA for institutional membership. At the beginning of 1948, however, at the second meeting of the new Society’s Council, Derick Emmison proposed that the BRA be invited to reconsider its constitution, and to allow a specialist section for local archivists to be formed; thereby paving the way for merging the local archivists’ group back into the BRA. This proposal was voted down, and at its next meeting the Council agreed instead to apply to the BRA for a permanent seat on the BRA’s Council.
There were now two organisations occupying a similar organisational space, with shared members; the one somewhat older, and with a broader membership and concern; the other still setting about defining itself and the extent of its legitimate concerns.
While establishing its identity and presence in the world (in 1949 it elected a representative onto the Standing Conference for Local History, and was listed as one of the “Associations, Societies and other bodies concerned with local government” in the annual Municipal Year Book; in 1950 it was represented at the International Congress on Archives, and so on), the Society nevertheless remained nested, in a sense, in the BRA. In 1948, for example, it asked the BRA if it would leave the first evening of its own AGM open for the Society to hold its meeting, and they continued to hold their respective AGMs in the same week until the Association changed its AGM date in 1952. And though it was growing as a force in the professional world, the Society remained to some extent in the shadow of the BRA: When it applied for membership in the International Council on Archives in 1953, for example, it was turned down because each nation was allowed only one member, and Britain was already represented by the BRA: a fact which must have rankled when, as reported in the Society’s Bulletin in October 1953, “one feature of all the reports [at the Second International Congress on Archives, concerning the replies to questionnaires on archive terminology and the training of archivists] was their expression of regret that no reply had been sent from the United Kingdom.” The Council of the Society pointedly agreed to write to the BRA to ask “what the British Records Association was doing to collect the views and co-ordinate the work of other bodies vis a vis the ICA…”
That they had two spheres of interest was recognised; but the boundaries required negotiation. Thus, in July 1948, the Society passed a motion urging the BRA to “use their influence with the Ministry of Labour to institute a course of training” for repairers; but became increasingly active themselves in promoting and creating opportunities for training. The Society learned in 1954 that the BRA was considering winding up its Committee on Local Government Records, “in view of the work being done by this Society on the same subject”. But having invited Sir Hilary Jenkinson to become its first President in 1955, he drew the Society’s attention “to certain difficulties which might attend his doing so [deriving from his position within the BRA] and had suggested that this Society might confer with the British Records Association in order that the respective spheres of activity of the two bodies might be more clearly defined.”
One element in this difficulty was the Society’s expansion to fulfill the aspirations of its members, and its continual spilling out of the limits of its initial Objects into new territory. Having been established “to discuss common problems” and “To promote the better administration of local repositories for archives”, it found itself agitating for changes, for example, to the London University course for archivists: At the AGM in 1949 “Mr. Collis said it was not the function of the Society to go around expressing opinions”, but the AGM voted to carry on doing just that, and the Society actively tried to put a stop or brake to the creation and activities of specialist archives, and stepped into the debate over proposed changes in local government boundaries.
The pressure for a broader and more active professional body led to a new constitution being adopted at the end of 1954. Significantly, the name was changed to the Society of Archivists as such, the membership was thrown open to archivists of all kinds throughout the British Isles and the Commonwealth, and its two objects were expanded to six, the last of which formally permitted the Society to be active as well as reflective. Membership jumped by thirty per cent and the finances went solidly into the black for the first time, permitting an expansion of activities. Its professional involvements widened and intensified, and in 1960 the Society was finally elected a member of the International Council on Archives, “thus formally linking the profession of archivists in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to the international archival association”.
Indeed, accelerating growth in activity and organisation – leading to the creation of specialist Groups, the Newsletter and Group publications, and a proliferation of representation on outside bodies, for example – characterises the history of the Society certainly from the mid-fifties, as the profession and the people within it became increasingly professionalised, and the problems and responsibilities more sophisticated. One consequence was that by 1979 the Honorary Secretary “reported that the administrative burden on the Officers was getting greater, and next year they would divide attendance at Committee between them,” and in 1980 a part-time clerical assistant was employed for the first time.
Now, the administrative officers are supported by a full-time Executive Secretary, themembership and administrative services are contracted to an outside agency, and apart from its Council, its eleven Regions and its seven Specialist Groups, the Society has eight Panels, six Working Parties, and representation on almost thirty outside bodies. From a place where professionals could simply come together to talk with one another about common problems, the Society has become a highly sophisticated and complex professional organisation.
In the Society’s Rules of 1947 membership was limited “(a) to those persons who are responsible for and are occupied in the practical care of local archives, or (b) to those who are giving or have given Honorary service in the care of local archives.” About the same time, the first chairman of the Society, Richard Holsworthy, argued in the Society’s Bulletin that “neither a degree nor a diploma in itself…guarantees a sound practical archivist”, going on to say that “The only sound training for an archivist is work in a record office, with tuition from outside in any subjects that require it.”
Twenty years later, in 1967, the AGM amended the constitution to create two separate categories of membership: Associate Members for persons with responsibility for the administration or care of archives; and Members proper, for “persons holding a degree of a recognised university” who (a) had taken a course in archive administration and held a professional post for two years; (b) an approved higher research degree and two years in a professional post; or (c) had three years practical professional work. So thorough was this professionalisation of archiving and the Society that in 1975 Fred Stitt felt it necessary to raise in Council “the question of the lack of non-diploma members of Council”; a proposal to co-opt being voted down.
From its earliest days, and hand in hand with the emergence of archiving as a distinct profession in its own right, the Society promoted and lobbied for training which would be appropriate for archivists and conservationists, eventually developing programmes of its own. J.P.M. Fowle was given space in the September 1949 Bulletin to air his “profound dissatisfaction” with the London University archives course and the heavy hand of Librarianship which lay on it. This was contrasted in a following article by Sylvia Tollit on the Liverpool course, which was “run in co-operation with the Lancashire Record Office and there is no connection whatever with Librarianship.”
As early as 1948 the Society approached the University of Liverpool about the possibility of their creating an external course; and Col. le Hardy of the Society gave the first lecture by a practicing County Archivist to the course at London University in 1949. The Society’s Annual Repairers Instructional Meetings expanded to two days in 1965. It set up a Training Committee in 1970. It held its first in-service training course in 1975.
The emergence of archiving as a discrete and specialised profession, and especially its emergence from librarianship – and the growing professionalisation of the Society – are tied up in the history of archive education and training. At the core of this are a number of key questions: What are archives, what are archivists, who and what are are archives for?
A great and continuing challenge to the views of the early Society lay in the specialist repositories, such as the John Rylands Library (see 1951 in the Chronology), or the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading which in 1966 created “a particular problem in the past year and one which has been brought forcibly home to the Council…”. As an independent, specialist archive, it not only stepped outside but threatened to wreck the vision of a regionally-based national archives service to which the Society was dedicated.
Nevertheless, by 1980 the Council was being asked to consider the formation of a “Specialist Repository Group”, and the Museum of English Rural Life was represented among the AGM speakers later that year. Michael Cook spoke in support of the Group, and it was formally launched in 1982.
In one sense the idea of an integrated archives service had apparently been given up. But in another sense the Society had developed in such a way that that integration could be said to have been achieved within the structure of the Society itself. However one views it, though, this change of position is a fundamental one in the development of the Society.
Britain has changed dramatically in the past fifty years, and as the places in which the nation’s memory is held, archives and their use have changed as well.
One concrete sub-theme which emerges – a recurrent theme throughout the life of the Society – has been the restless configuration and reconfiguration of local and national government structures and boundaries.
Following the 1939-45 War much of the Society’s concern revolved around nationalisation, the centralisation of administration, and the consequent break-up of fonds and division of responsibility for local and regional archives. The more recent privatisation and the transfer of government functions to private and semi-private organisations has renewed the problem in a complexly inverse way. Throughout there have been recurrent local government boundary changes which have destabilised the position of archivists within the local government system and created complex situations around archives themselves.
In the Society’s Bulletin in 1952, Peter Walne looked into the future of archives and archiving and wrote, with a kind of prescience: “We must be prepared to meet the challenge of wood-pulp paper and the monstrous outpourings of the type-writer, dictaphone and their kindred.” How rapidly things developed!
The computer and its implications were very quickly upon the Society. As early as 1964 the Council decided that the discussion meeting at that year’s AGM “should deal with automation and its effects on record making, including the use of computers.” Five years later Dr. Frank Burke of the American National Archives was invited to address the AGM on “Computer Applications to Archives…”, and in the following year (1970), K. Darwin, nominated by the Society to study computer applications to archives, became the first Archivist Fellow Commoner at Churchill College, Cambridge.
In his 1952 article Walne suggested that the rapidly increasing volume of records produced through modern technology might require a correspondingly greater use of mechanical over hand methods in conservation. There is the rise of lamination and new polymer-based materials. The Society joined the newly formed Council for Microphotography and Document Reproduction in 1962. And in 1970, in some recognition perhaps of the role of technology in archiving, it finally gave protracted and somewhat reluctant birth to the Preservation and Conservation Group.
Walne concluded his article in 1952 with the question: “Will the archivist be merely a keeper of records and the servant of the scholar or will he become a more important part of the administrative machine and the fellow-worker of the administrator in a much closer relationship?” Derek Charman answered in the Bulletin in 1954 that “the archivist should have a hand in the organisation of modern business records…” The Records Management Group burst upon the Society in 1978; it remains a live issue.
There are a number of questions about the history of the development of the Society and of its changing and enduring concerns which are reflected in the paragraphs above. How has the Society changed? How has the profession changed? What are archives? What are the limits of archiving? What are archivists?
Even more fundamental in the context of this project, however, are questions about the people themselves: Who are these archivists? When were they born? Where were they raised? What are their earliest memories? What did their parents do? Did they have brothers and sisters? Where did they have their schooling? What was it like?
How did they come into archiving? What sort of training did they have. Can they talk about the places, describe the people, illustrate the work they did and how they grew from job to job? What changes did they take part in? What were the challenges? How did it work?
How did they come to hear of the Society? How and when did they join? Can they share any memories of it? Did they hold any offices in it? What can they remember of its meetings and of its operation? What can they remember about their fellow members? Were there any memorable events and special moments?
How do they view the field now? How do they feel it has changed? Where do they think it is going? What would they wish people to know in a hundred years about archives and archiving in their time? How would they define archives and archiving today?
Generally speaking, it would be very good simply to have stories from archivists, conservators, and record managers about their lives, about their work, and about the people with whom they have worked. Stories hold a great deal of life in them, and experienced details are never trivial, no matter how small.
Compiled by David Lee
1 When and where were you born and raised?
2 What are your earliest memories?
3 What did your parents/guardians do?
4 Can you tell me about your education? Qualifications?
5 What led to your becoming an archivist and why?
6 Archive training/education.
7 Work experiences, colleagues, and places worked.
8 Effects of environment on work, etc.
9 Effects of host organisation, including budget.
10 Society of Archivists – why did you join and when? (if relevant).
11 What did membership entail in those days? Did you play any active part?
12 Society of Archivists activities, fellow members, etc.
13 Did you join any related societies, e.g., Antiquaries, local field club? Give details of their activities, if relevant to your job and/or the Society of Archivists.
14 What are your current views on archive work these days?
15 What do you think of the Society of Archivists nowadays?
16 Looking ahead, what do you see in prospect for archivists and the Society of Archivists?