by Richard J. Kaplan
Creating an archive for a foundation, or any other type of business institution, is an exercise in molding the archival ideal to institutional reality. Literature about correct archival procedures exists in abundance, describing how an ideal archive should look and how it should operate. Reconciling that conception to reality, however, requires abandoning the archival ideal and staking claim to a middle ground.
In this paper I examine issues and problems surrounding the design and implementation of an archive for a private, independent, nonprofit, grantmaking foundation. The focus is on the inherent conflict between theory and praxis, between what is desirable and what is possible. It analyzed instances where the ideal succumbs to reality and proffers some ideas about the effects of compromising the archival ideal.
The thoughts under discussion here come from my experience in setting up an archive for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The foundation has been in existence since 1978 and is generally ranked as the third or fourth largest in terms of its assets. In 1988, its assets approached $3 billion, and it disbursed over $167 million in grants. The staff consists of about 100 people in Chicago and another 20 in Palm Beach, Florida. The foundation has programs in the following areas: health; MacArthur fellows; peace and international cooperation; world environment and resources; special grants; general, matching and land grants; education; and world population. In addition, the foundation has departments in real estate; legal; finance; investment; information systems; research and information services; and administration. The archive is part of research and information services. The foundation is governed by its board of directors which meets ten times a year.
Before 1987, the foundation had no archive or library. Active corporate records were shelved in a central file room. Library services consisted of a piece of furniture placed in the vestibule by the elevators. The foundation’s archival records were retained by programs and departments according to their own filing systems, which ranged in complexity from the mnemonic to the excessively sophisticated to the hopelessly incomprehensible. Inactive records were stored in what was described as a fireplace safe located in the basement. Finding aids were composed of some container lists for material stored in various locations. Archival procedures consisted of an annual event called “paper-purge day,” and the ad hoc transfer of material from one location to another was occasioned by lack of storage space. Care of the foundation’s paper record had degraded to a point where an award was given each year to the program or department that generated the heftiest amount of disposable records on “paper-purge day.”
In spite of the foundation’s self-proclaimed war against bureaucratic entrenchment, the administration recognized the need for expert help to manage its inactive yet essential records. In 1987, the foundation hired its first archivist/information specialist to impose order out of the chaos.
Creating an archive from scratch brings one face-to-face with fundamental archival issues. It is here where one senses the conflict between what is desirable and what is possible. And it is here where one realizes that limits exist, even for an institution with pockets as deep as the MacArthur Foundation’s.
What are the issues confronting archivists building new archives? The fundamental issue is, “Why an archive?” Why not increase the size of the file room, instead? Why not donate the foundation’s records to an existing archive? The Rockefeller Archive Center in North Tarrytown, New York, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland and the Chicago Historical Society all count foundation records among their holdings. In other words, why should the MacArthur Foundation, or any foundation for that matter, create its own archive?
Two reasons leap out: proprietary interests and convenience. Analyzing the less complicated issue first, what could be more convenient for an organization that having its inactive yet essential records housed and maintained on its premises? Going to the archive to retrieve a document becomes routine. Papers can be transferred when its is convenient rather that when it is necessary. Access to historical documents is immediate rather than conditional. In addition to such prosaic managerial concerns, having an archive on site provides concrete evidence to support the abstract notion that institutions make history.
The real driving force behind a decision to creative, however, is the protection of the institution’s proprietary interests. Nothing else takes precedence. A young foundation with enormous assets needs assurance that records it considers proprietary or confidential receive the most discreet treatment possible. Among the examples one could cite in support of this idea are the following: records concerning the divestiture and transfer of foundation assets; frank discussions taking place among its board of directors; and basic studies formulating the foundation’s philosophy and directions. These records remain protected and confidential until their public release no longer affects personal reputation or the foundation’s fiduciary responsibility.
This idea — some would argue that it is a rationalization — runs counter to conventional archival wisdom about open access policies and perhaps offends some archivists by impugning their professionalism. But bear in mind that archives have always guaranteed confidentiality for certain collections. Public access to some documents, even entire collections, is routinely denied or restricted. Most archivists discuss these issues during negotiations with potential donors. By the very nature of their craft, archivists must provide and deny access to documents under their control. A foundation archive is no less an archive than a public one. It has the same duty and responsibility to protect the confidentiality of its papers. An archive exists to serve someone or some entity. Sometimes it serves the general public, although more often its clientele consists of an elite group of scholars. Foundation archives exist to serve the interests of their foundations.
Once a foundation resolves to have an archive, other, more pedestrian issues need to be pursued. Among these is, what has been playing the role of the archive? And as a corollary to this issue, how attached is the staff to the substitute? Inertia is a powerful force and bureaucracies use it creatively to buttress the status quo. Before embarking on a plan to create an archive, one should examine the system that has been performing some of an archive’s functions. Two reasons exist for doing this. First, the existing system probably provided good archival service to some staff members. These elements of service probably should be retained, even if they contradict standard archival operating procedures. A working procedure that makes sense need not be eliminated simply because it is not “archival.” The key to staff acceptance is to adapt what works into new archive procedures. The other reason for taking a look at what preceded the archive is to differentiate between the entities. While it is important to adapt working portions of the old to the new, it is even more important that the new archive be distinct in function and from form from what previously has existed. Open files and uncontrolled access are characteristic of a file room, not an archive. For an archive within a foundation to be successful, it must provide a distinct service. It should not compete with other functional entities, like the central file, department files or the library. It is paramount for a new archive to establish its own institutional and functional identity.
Another fundamental issue is what should be saved in the archive. Almost everyone agrees that papers having significant historical value should be stored in the archive. However, getting agreement on what constitutes significant historical value is more difficult. Each program or department in a foundation has its own conception of what is worth saving and what is not. Handbooks on archival procedures and records management offer general guidance and usually a hierarchically arranged litany of significant record types. But the real challenge comes from defining a policy that meets the foundation’s requirements and satisfies the archivist’s criteria of what is historically significant. Often the conception of what is worth saving is inversely proportional to the available storage space. Archivists by their nature prefer storing almost anything to having almost nothing to store. This tendency needs to be resisted.
Closely related, perhaps inextricable, to the previous issue is the archive’s physical requirements. How much space, what kind of space and where the space is to be located are central issues. Space allocations derive from the sum of two products; money and clout. Money often dictates the size of the archive and clout usually determines where the facility will be located. Three billion dollars will buy a lot of archival space. An archive’s clout within a foundation, however, tempers grandiose archival visions and plans. The allocation of space is similar to the art of juggling. The first object tossed into the air is what the archivist wants. The second is the archive’s place or clout within the institutional hierarchy and the third object is compromise. Keeping two objects aloft is no great feat. The artistry of juggling comes from the ability to keep the desirable outcome a possible outcome and a compromise position simultaneously in play.
As a rule, an archive’s governing institution will make sure that a new facility is not allocated excessive space. The archivist, on the other hand, works to ensure that adequate space is provided. This leads to another issue: identifying which departments’ records will fill the archive. The best way to accomplish this is to poll each department. The survey should identify the types and amounts of records produced. It should also provide information about the life cycle of different types of records. To plan for space, one needs to know when documents undergo the transformation from working papers to papers ready for archival storage. No set rules exist for determining when records should be transferred to an archive. And, I am not sure rigid policies governing the transfer of records are necessarily a good thing. A more useful approach accommodates the needs of the records’ producer and the archive.
At some point during the creation of a foundation archive, the issue of automation needs to be addressed. A good place to start is to ask yourself why the archive needs to be automated. For automation to be effective it needs to save time and effort. That is the bottom line. Excessive automation is probably more common that inadequately automated archival application. To pay for itself, automated applications must increase efficiency. Serious thought and analysis should be brought to bear on questions about what to automate and whether automation can be accomplished in-house or purchased from a vender.
The issue of whether a foundation archive need participate in a union list of archival holdings is closely related to automation and merits serious consideration. A realistic analysis of the issue reveals the pitfalls and benefits of a shared archival listing. For example, is the foundation’s interest served by listing restricted collections? And is the level of descriptive cataloging required by most on-line bibliographic archival subsystems really worth the time and effort? Or is there an alternative system that differentiates among records, acts as a finding aid, and furnished location? The cataloging of materials and the preparation of finding aids for a foundation archive are only useful insofar as they augment the retrieval of records. The rest, I have come to realize, is the equivalent of archival scholasticism foisted on the profession by a cadre of tenure-pressured archivists.
Another fundamental issue concerns staffing. Who is going to work in the archive and with degree of minimum proficiency will be expected of them? An experienced archivist is needed to supervise the planning and implementation for a new archive. In the case of the MacArthur Foundation, the archivist plays several roles. It is not unreasonable to expect an archive to cover the closely aligned professional duties associated with running a library, an archive and a records management system. This is especially true for foundations with small, functionally integrated staffs. Professional expertise is required to ensure that the design meets the test of archival reality. Staffing other positions in the archive is more problematic. Having professionally trained people is usually beneficial. But professionally trained people require professional level tasks in their daily work. Otherwise morale suffers, discontent sets in, and before too long, the archive looses a potentially valuable employee. With planning for new positions it is imperative to give serious thought to the position’s duties and authorities. It is more important to match a person’s ability to the responsibilities than it is to hire a professional for the sake of professionalism.
The remaining issues concern archival policy and procedures. Are written policy and procedure statements useful to foundation archives? Are they worth the effort? Are policy and procedure statements written to be observed or violated? It is one thing to sit down at a desk, pull out one’s archival textbooks and manuals from the Society of American Archivists, and begin drafting rules governing the operation of the archive. It is another thing to cite a passage from the archive’s policy and procedure manual to the chairman of the board as the explanation for why he is prohibited from checking out a file from a Hollinger box. Because rules, policies and procedures are written only to be broken, they need to be composed in a manner that encourages adherence and does not invite exceptions. This managerial heresy evolved from my notion that each person in a bureaucracy has a limited amount of personal and professional goodwill. Spending that goodwill to enforce what is perceived as fussy archival procedures is a waste of personal and professional capital. Archive policies on accessions, access, retention and copying should reflect the foundation’s interest first, then the archive’s
What are some of the unusual problems associated with building a foundation’s archive? Chief among them is the introduction of an alien idea into a corporate culture. I think business archivists would muster more empathy for this idea than perhaps a university or historical society archivist. The idea stems from my experience that archival functions are the antithesis of corporate culture. An archive produces nothing of value. It stores material at great expense. Its operation is governed by a different set of priorities. Its staff is highly educated yet not especially well paid. At times, the archivist is on equal footing with corporate vice presidents and clerical staff. All of these characteristics clash with prevailing corporate culture and produce ambivalence among the staff about the archive and its place in the corporate hierarchy.
Another problem concerns the distinction between corporate papers and personal papers. This problem stems from a trend in corporate culture where executives blend their professional and private lives into one persona. Legal opinions offer some guidance as to where the boundaries should be drawn. Compliance, however, depends on the individuals involved. Negotiating for the transfer of potentially sensitive papers for the archive requires diplomatic skills. It is an important undertaking, though, because it protects the institution from shotgun searches of its files caused by litigation.
It merits repeating that it is difficult for people unfamiliar with an archive to differentiate between it and a file room. Both entities appear engaged in the same function. Staff members require an explanation of the differences between the two are else they will think of the archive as a rarefied file room. If that perception takes hold, the two functions will likely merge.
I think archival idealism needs to be recast into the mold of institutional realism. My argument to this point seems one-sided. In cases where standard archival practices inhibit foundation operations, I have argued that the practices ought to be amended. In general terms I am arguing that institutional priorities take precedence over archival ones. But what are the effects of subjugating archival ideals to institutional realities? More generally, to what extend does this philosophy affect the archival profession?
The obvious effect of archival pragmatism is that the archive turns out to be something less than what most of us in the profession would identify as “a real archive.” The correlative effect is that the foundation staff’s conception of what an archive is and hoe it functions is at odds with the way the vast majority of archives operate. The former result is only slightly more disturbing to me than the latter’s inconsequential effect. What matters in the MacArthur Foundation’s archival universe is that their records are protected and retrievable.
A foundation’s attitude about archival services is bases on its ignorance of standard archival procedures combined with its desire for its archive to meet the foundation’s conception of special storage requirements for its records. Attempting to penetrate that reality armed only with bromides about the importance of maintaining irrelevant archival standards results in frustration, alienation, and ultimately, the archive’s trivialization.
What effect does this philosophy of archival pragmatism have on the profession? First of all, I think archival pragmatism is widely practiced but rarely acknowledged. Second, diversity of methods and practices represents a healthy trend in the profession. Dogmatic ideas and practices are meant to be challenged when they no longer fit into reality. A profession that adopts and codifies its operation procedures to the exclusion of outside realities risks intellectual stagnation. And finally, archival pragmatism serves to recognize the diversity characterizing the profession, the diversity that gives the profession intellectual vitality and relevancy.
Richard J. Kaplan joined the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as its archivist/information specialist in July 1987. In October 1990 he became the foundation’s director of research and information services.
Mr. Kaplan’s remarks are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.