Society of American Archivists Records, 1935-2018

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 + Records, 1935-2018


The 1930s saw an unprecedented amount of archival activity in the United States: the establishment of the National Archives (1934); the organization of the Historical Records Survey and the Survey of Federal Archives (1936-1937); and the establishment of the Society of American Archivists (1936), the first professional organization of archivists in North America.

At the December 1935 meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), a conference of fifty-one participants met to discuss the possibility of forming a national professional organization of archivists. Conference attendees unanimously agreed to establish such an organization at the next AHA meeting and charged a steering committee to draft a constitution. The "Committee of Ten on the Organization of Archivists" was chaired by Solon J. Buck and included Ruth Blair, Theodore C. Blegen, Alexander C. Flick, Curtis W. Garrison, R.B. Haselden, Waldo G. Leland, A.R. Newsome, Margaret Cross Norton, and James A. Robertson.

Attendees of the December 1936 AHA meeting, held in Providence, Rhode Island, approved the draft constitution, and elected officers and a five-member Council. Newsome served as SAA's first president, Norton as vice president, Philip C. Brooks as secretary, and Julian P. Boyd as treasurer. Council members included Blair, Blegen, Buck, Victor H. Paltsists, and Lawrence C. Wroth. The constitution provided for the establishment of twelve committees on a wide variety of topics, including international archival affairs, maps and charts, membership, public relations, reduction of archival material, and terminology. The number of committees was more than the active membership could sustain, and many were inactive for a number of years or eventually allowed to lapse. At this time, the constitution restricted membership to "those who are or have been engaged in the custody or administration of archives or historical manuscripts or who, because of a special experience or other qualifications, are recognized as competent in archival economy." A pro forma election of every applicant for membership was also required.

The first annual meeting was held in Washington, D.C. in June 1937. By this time, 226 individuals had been elected to the Society, one third of whom were women. SAA was largely an east coast organization, with a great number of its leaders coming from the National Archives. It was incorporated in Washington, D.C. in 1945.

SAA's first publication was a 104-page volume of the proceedings of the 1936 organizing meeting and the 1937 annual meeting. The first issue of The American Archivist followed in January 1938. Under the editorship of Theodore C. Pease, professor of history at the University of Chicago, the journal focused more on the use of archives in writing history than on archival administration. This emphasis upset members who felt that The American Archivist should be a trade publication, not a scholarly journal. Tensions over this and other matters led to Pease's resignation in 1945 and the appointment of Margaret Cross Norton, state archivist of Illinois.

During WWII, SAA concentrated on issues relating to the preservation of records not only for historians, but also for the war effort. Several committees reflected these new interests. They included the Collection and Preservation of Materials for the History of Emergencies Committee, the History and Organization of Governmental Emergency Agencies Committee, the Emergency Transfer and Storage of Archives Committee, and the Protection of Archives Against the Hazards of War Committee. At the end of the war, SAA supported the formation of the International Council on Archives (ICA) as a means of rebuilding ties among archivists around the world.

In order to legitimize itself as the national association of archivists, SAA forged relations with other national organizations to discuss issues of mutual concern. A joint committee with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) on historical manuscripts eventually led to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. Meetings with the National Association of State Librarians later led to the formation of the Joint ALA-SAA Committee on Library-Archives Relationships. SAA's status as a national organization was signaled in other ways, as well. In 1947, the annual meeting was held west of the Mississippi for the first time, in Glenwood Springs and Denver, Colorado.

By 1957, membership grew to 648 individual members (as separate from institutional members or subscribers). It reflected an increasingly diverse geographical distribution, with a greater number of members coming from regions other than the east coast. To encourage membership growth, Council passed an amendment in 1955 to accept individuals who are or have been "engaged in the custody, study, teaching, or control of records, archives, or private papers," and those "who wish to support the objectives of the Society." The requirement of a pro forma election of every applicant was also discontinued.

During the mid-1950s, SAA took steps to honor members who made significant contributions to the theory and practice of archival administration, and who thereby encouraged others to improve the standards of the profession. In 1956, the Professional Standards and Training Committee recommended that Council establish "a special class of members of the Society known as Fellows of the Society of American Archivists." A constitutional amendment to that effect was approved at the 1957 annual meeting.

SAA honors the contributions of individuals and archival agencies in other ways. In 1963, the State and Local Records Committee recommended the establishment of the Distinguished Service Award to recognize a North American archival institution, organization, education program, or nonprofit or governmental organization that has given outstanding service to its public and has made an exemplary contribution to the archival profession. Other awards have included the Gondos Memorial Award; the Waldo Gifford Leland Prize; and the Philip M. Hamer Award.

Committees played an important role in advancing SAA's mission, but by the late 1960s it was apparent that various factors hobbled the efforts of committees to communicate and work effectively. Committee members were scattered across the country, conducted most of their work by correspondence and telephone, and usually met only at annual meetings. In his 1968-1969 report on the committee system, Secretary Gerald F. Ham explained that many committees had vaguely defined areas of responsibility or no longer met the needs of the membership. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Council approved a revised structure of standing and ad hoc committees at the December 1969 meeting. In this major reorganization, several committees were abolished, others were consolidated, and the functions and responsibilities of still others were broadened. Additionally, new committees on machine-readable records; oral history; urban and industrial archives; and reference, access, and photo-duplication policies were created. These changes made the committee structure more responsive to the needs of the membership, but they did not help committees work more effectively. The problem of ineffective and inactive committees would be addressed in different ways in the following years.

In 1970, President Philip P. Mason appointed the Committee for the 1970s to "analyze the present structure of the Society, its program and objectives, its relationship with other professional organizations, and most importantly, its needs during the coming decade." Recommendations made by the committee had a decisive impact on the future direction of SAA. The committee focused on eight areas: SAA's organizational structure and operations; relations with other professional groups and organizations; the committee system; SAA publications; membership relations and development; education and training; annual meetings, conferences, and symposia; and finances. An interim report of the committee was distributed to the membership in September 1971, and the final report published in the April 1972 issue of the American Archivist.

Following the recommendation of the Committee for the 1970s, the membership approved an amendment that allowed the elected secretary to be replaced by an executive director. Secretary Robert M. Warner had already served a year of his term when he agreed in 1972 to serve an additional year as the appointed (but unpaid) executive director. In 1973, Warner resigned, and Judith A. Koucky served as acting secretary until a replacement could be found. Ann Morgan Campbell was hired in July 1974 as the first paid executive director, and offices were established on the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois.

Following other recommendations of the Committee for the 1970s, SAA began publication of the SAA Newsletter in 1973 (renamed Archival Outlook in 1993), and established an executive committee to operate for Council between meetings.

In October 1978, Council made another effort to remedy the problem of inefficient and inactive committees. Acting on the recommendation of the Committee on Committees, Council adopted a three-part organization of committees, task forces, and professional affinity groups (PAGs). Standing and joint committees were assigned the function of ensuring the regular conduct of SAA's affairs or representing SAA on inter-association committees with affiliated professions. Task forces were created to address specific issues or questions facing SAA. PAGs were established on the basis of institutional affiliation and/or functional responsibility, and provided members with an opportunity to meet and work with others of similar backgrounds and professional interests. PAGs convened for the first time at the September 1979 annual meeting. All PAGs became known as sections at the end of the annual business meeting in 1983. A fourth unit of SAA, roundtables, was added in January 1985. Like sections, roundtables provided members with similar professional interests the opportunity to meet and work together. Unlike sections, they required a minimum of only twenty members.