Randall C. Jimerson: “American Archivists and the Search for Professional Identity”

Ambivalence abounds. Jimerson’s introduction to American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice offers a thumbnail sketch of the SAA’s late twentieth century efforts to articulate professional standards as well as a sense of international archival thinking (e.g. “What are those crazy Americans thinking?”) That’s quite useful to me, because before January I didn’t know anything about the archival profession; even my user experience was limited to Temple’s Urban Archives and, more recently, Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections.

Jimerson makes his pragmatism clear: theory should inform practice, but it is good practice which should be celebrated. I don’t object to this per se—Schellenberg himself gave me the willies, but Green and Meisner did not, and I’m okay not only with the idea that you can’t save everything but that you probably don’t want to (more on all that later). But there is something weird about reverse engineering theory based on daily practices which are based on modifications of older traditions partially discarded. That’s different from deriving practice from theory, and different from deriving theory from practice. I know nothing happens in a vacuum, but in this case the theorizers were very aware that they weren’t in a vacuum.

I feel a bit of tension when I consider the pragmatic approach as part of theory. Pragmatism appeals to me as a means for negotiating real-world concerns: the allocation of limited resources, institutional missions or legal departments that consign cool stuff to the shredder, etc. But that’s vocational; it’s job training; it’s a Master’s instead of a Ph.D. Theory comes from the ivory tower; theory is Amber, and all practical implementation merely its shadow. Commenting on practice, sure; being informed by practice, okay. Consisting of practice that has percolated up? That’s just a weird mechanism.

Coming back to Jimerson, I also had some issues with language. Any time the word “egalitarianism” is applied to Revolutionary America…well, I was reading aloud to my daughter and, despite the fact that she’s only six months old, I felt compelled to note that such statements were problematic. But I’ll certainly concede that the myth which entered American consciousness involves democratic and egalitarian ideals; nor will I argue against the existence of anti-intellectualism or the articulation of individualism as part of the American character. Right now I’m also reading Michael Zuckerman’s Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century, in which he argues that American individualism is bunk. Colonial authority may have become decentralized, but it was very much concerned with consensus and communal values. Town != Individual.

Jimerson was only writing an introduction to a book (and a pretty dense and useful introduction at that), so there’s a limit to how much I’m going to hold any of this against him. For purposes of this book, these things just sort of kicked me out of the reading for a second. But now I am thinking more about the construction of the archival profession in a different way, and the extent to which it is built upon a strange concoction of myth and pragmatism. In addition to getting a rendition of the SAA’s greatest hits, thanks to this intro I think I’m closer to zeroing in on a paper topic.