Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Deciding What to Keep: Archivists as Co-creators of Historical Meanings.”
Nick Pavlik’s (Bowling Green State University) presentation on “The Evolution of Archivists’ Roles from Keepers to Selectors to Collaborators” traces the conceptualization of the archivist’s role in an ever-changing set of societal and technological contexts.
Starting with Hilary Jenkinson’s positivist view of the archivist as impartial keeper of information within the European government archives tradition, Pavlik focuses on the impact of the typewriter on archives. At the turn of the century, the typewriter had surpassed handwriting as the dominant means of record creation. The device’s capability of creating records up to three times faster than handwriting met with a general expansion of record keeping activities in the early 20th century and resulted in a new flood of quickly produced documents. It was this increase in record production that led Theodore Schellenberg at the United States’ National Archives to proclaim the archivist as a necessary selector of recorded information (a fairly interventionist role) and established the distinction between records and archives. It was a distinction that – apart from the Jenkinson’s focus on government administrators – would also lay great emphasis on the historian as one of the archive’s most important patrons.
The transition from typewriter to the computer intensified old problems and created new challenges to the archivist’s self-conceptualization. Under the influence of social history, the archivist became for some the “historical reporter of his own time” (to quote F. Gerald Ham) who documented the whole breadth of human life including so-far-underrepresented strata of society. Others such as Helen Samuels called for a ‘documentation strategy’ in a multi-institutional framework in order to create a near total record. After the introduction of the World Wide Web in the 1980s, archiving entered a ‘post-curatorial era’ (Ham) which further democratized access to information. The rise of the Community Archives Movement brought about yet another change in the archivist mindset: that from selector to collaborator (Terry Cook). In broad strokes, but very convincingly, Pavlik is able to lay out the evolution of the modern archivist’s self-understanding from impartial guardian to community partner.
Dr. Sebastian Modrow
Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries