Revival: History of the Archival History Roundtable Newsletter

For the first half of its 30 year career, the Archival History Roundtable printed a newsletter. Between February 1987 and the summer of 2000, the Archival History Roundtable printed and distributed fourteen newsletters, all of which are now available and word-searchable as single PDFs on the SAA-Archival History Section’s microsite, or as an omnibus PDF on Archival History News.[1]

The newsletter became a major function of the roundtable, which was created less than a year earlier in 1986, but the story of the newsletter’s birth is only now being told. After receiving a request from the roundtable, the SAA agreed to provide first $50.00, then $75.00, to support the publication and mailing of a print newsletter.[2] The financial support of SAA leadership for the AHRT newsletter allowed the roundtable to explore various topics and elaborate possible projects. At its highest known distribution in 1990, the print newsletter was addressed to 85 AHRT members.[3]

The editors of the early newsletters between 1987 and 1989 were three NARA employees, Greg Bradsher, Michele Pacifico, and Rod Ross. Though they doubled as “coordinators of the roundtable,” or “roundtable co-chairs,” their explicit obligation to produce or contribute to a newsletter was only slowly established.[4] However, the unassuming utility of the newsletter was noted during its first two years. In the AHRT newsletter, Nancy McGovern recorded the minutes of the 1988 AHRT meeting in Atlanta: “The roundtables have more latitude in their mailings than do interest sessions because roundtables are not centralized within SAA. This gives the roundtables greater opportunities for individuality. The Archival History Roundtable should give additional thought to goals and ways to achieve them.”[5]

As expectations about what the roundtable should try to accomplish remained in flux, early AHRT newsletters did not immediately announce or delineate the mission of the Archival History Roundtable. Indeed, it was not until the third issue released in January 1988 that the newsletter was described as “a publication of the Society of American Archivists Archival History Roundtable,” suggesting that the connection between the newsletter and the roundtable had not previously been clearly established. Both were new entities within the archival profession. Not until April 1990 – three years after its first issue – was the mission of the Roundtable published for the first time in the newsletter. Spurred by the SAA Council Committee on Task Forces and Roundtables, the new chair of AHRT, Jim Corsaro (1989-1991), drafted a mission statement that listed four ways in which the roundtable could accomplish its goal “to promote interest in the history of archives, archival administration and the archival profession.” The “publication of a newsletter with news of archival history research” was the fourth and final way in which the AHRT could fulfill its mission. Corsaro opened the mission statement to revisions from members. Not receiving any noteworthy revisions, Corsaro apparently sent the statement to be published in the pages of the SAA Newsletter “per the request of the SAA Council Committee on Task Forces and Roundtables.”[6] Corsaro also completed a three-year plan Reporting Form, which may have been sent to the SAA Council by April 1990. The Reporting Form also mentioned the publication of a newsletter as an indicator that the AHRT was fulfilling its mission.[7]

Still, during its early years, the AHRT newsletter became an incubator for new and sometimes grandiose ideas. Notably, Rod Ross drew from a member questionnaire to promote the facilitation of “history-oriented program sessions at SAA,” a tradition which began with a series of sessions at the 1988 meeting in Atlanta and ended only in 2014.[8] Another such innovative project was proposed in the March 1989 newsletter by Frederick Stielow, then affiliated with Catholic University of America. Already a veteran scholar in several disciplines, Stielow’s elaborate offer was to serve as an editor of a 400-500 page “Dictionary of American Archival Biography (DAAB),” which he conceived would take three to five years to complete. The volume – apparently not yet published and possibly not even written – was to be complemented by a database stored on computers at Catholic University. Stielow also defined the scope of the project and indicated that an editorial board of ten to fifteen editors was beginning to assemble.[9]

Though it seems clear that the AHRT newsletter by 1993 was becoming difficult to fill and maintain with content, the linkage between the existence of the newsletter and the vibrancy of the roundtable was maintained. As then-chair Phil Eppard (1991-1995) commented in the August 1993 edition of the Archival History Roundtable Newsletter, “contributions will help facilitate a more frequent publication of the Newsletter and help enliven the life of the Roundtable.” Perhaps the creation of the Archives Listserv – mentioned for the first time in that same AHRT newsletter of August 1993 – had become a competing outlet for communications about archival history.[10] Whatever the reason for the declining interest in the newsletter within the roundtable, the AHRT newsletter took something of a four-year hiatus, as the next preserved issue of the newsletter dates from the summer of 1997.[11]

The lone AHRT newsletter which survives from 1997 under the aegis of chair Bruce Turner (1995-2000) indicates that the SAA Council was considering a reorganization of roundtables, sections, and committees with the help of the Task Force on Organizational Effectiveness (TFOE). The proposal of the SAA Council to turn roundtables into “discussion groups” which “have no communication among members outside of the annual session” was met with the comment, perhaps by chair Bruce Turner, that “since this is the role which the Archival History Roundtable fills now, there will be little impact on this group.”[12] Two years later, the inactivity of the AHRT must have been a source of some frustration to chair Bruce Turner, who remarked wryly in the 1999 newsletter that “several projects have been suggested for the Round Table over the years but none have been undertaken. Among these are an oral history program focusing on how the profession and practice of archives has evolved in the 20th century; a bibliography of writings on archival history; or a list of writings on archives which have become ‘classics.’”[13] Ironically, Turner’s lament went against the evidence of activity assembled within the four pages of tightly-spaced text that comprised the one and only AHRT newsletter issued in 1999. By its very publication, the newsletter represented something of an achievement for a roundtable that may have been suffering for a few years from collective neglect.

Notwithstanding this triumph, by the time of the last surviving issue of the Archival History Roundtable Newsletter, which seems to have appeared in print in the summer of 2000, the interest of the AHRT in the publication of the newsletter had waned significantly from its beginnings in the late 1980s. The strong linkage between the mission of the roundtable and the publication of the newsletter had seemingly disappeared. Indeed, the decline of the newsletter was gradually compounded by a loss of institutional memory that the newsletter had ever existed.

In 2013, when I started my first term as an Archival History Roundtable Steering Committee member, the existence of the AHRT newsletter printed between 1987 and 2000 had been forgotten altogether. The AHRT chair and co-chair – indeed all the members of the AHRT steering committee in 2013-2014 – were unaware of (or at least unvocal about) the prior existence of the AHRT newsletter. Even as late as December 2016, when the Publications Working Group of the Archival History Roundtable published its report suggesting the creation of a newsletter, the existence of the early print editions of the newsletter were wholly unknown to the steering committee.

Now, the back issues of the original print edition of the Archival History Roundtable are available once again. Please download them individually through the Archival History Section’s microsite, under the (“Group Newsletter” sub-heading), or download them as a single searchable PDF at Archival History Roundtable Newsletters.

— Eric C. Stoykovich, co-editor Archival History News

[1] The earliest print newsletter was recovered among the papers of former co-chair Gregory Bradsher, and was digitized by Sylvia Naylor, both of whom work at the National Archives. The others were digitized with the help of Brad Houston, Abigail Nye, Jenna Himsl, and Alison Sielaff, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives. The redaction and watermarking of these digital PDFs were completed by this author.

[2] AHRT Chairs’ letter to members, Archival History Roundtable Newsletter (August 1987), p. 1.

[3] At first, the newsletters were distributed by mail. By at least 1993, the roundtable’s listserv was up and running. “Annual Meeting in Seattle, September 1990,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 5:1 (March 1990), p. 1.

[4] [Untitled], Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 2:1 (January 1988), p. 1.

[5] “SAA Annual Meeting,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 3:1 (March 1989), p. 1.

[6] “Mission of the Archival History Roundtable,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 4:1 (April 1990), p. 1; “Mission Statement,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 4:2 (July 1990), p. 2.

[7] “Three-Year Plan for the Roundtable,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 4:1 (April 1990), p. 4.

[8] “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thoughts on SAA Program Possibilities and the Archival History Roundtable by Rod Ross,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 2:1 (January 1988), p. 1-2.

[9] “Prospectus…Chief Editor Frederick Stielow,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 3:1 (March 1989), p. 4-5.

[10] “Newsletter Contributions,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 7:1 (August 1993), p. 3; “Roundtable Meeting in New Orleans,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter 7:1 (August 1993), p. 1.

[11] During the four years between 1993 and 1997, did the AHRT roundtable lose interest in the newsletter, or were communications taking place on the listserv through the World Wide Web?

[12] The comment in the newsletter is unattributed. “SAA and Roundtables,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter (Summer 1997), p. 1.

[13] [Bruce Turner], “Archival History Round Table,” Archival History Roundtable Newsletter (Summer 1999), p. 2.

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