Using Organizational Records

Now that I’m deeply entrenched in a project centered on minimally processing the records of ACLS, my mind constantly wanders to thoughts of organizational records and the best ways to promote these unique materials to researchers.

I know you all wonder about this too!

Organizational records, like all records, follow the path of the creator. But, it’s not always that easy. Organizations ebb and flow, they change leadership and staff; sometimes the mission shifts, or they get subsumed by another organization. At other times, they close their doors and retire! No organization is perfect, so we can’t expect their records to be.

But, that’s when organizational records get interesting!

Picture a sunny day: the sun moves across the sky in an even manner; a person stands beneath the sun and as time progresses, her shadow takes different shapes. Ahh, spring warmth, how I adore thee!

Okay, so now let’s bring it back to archives. The sun represents time or history; the person standing in the sun is the organization, and the inevitably shifting shadow is the record. Sometimes the records fit the footprint of the organization so well–it’s never seamless, but it gets close. Sometimes, the records only capture a portion of the organization’s form, and still, other times, the records are misshapen, they are barely recognizable to the original.

In conducting some research for this post, it has become clear that organizational records are not the most glamorous topic for scholars to address in published papers. There are case studies of users engaging with organizational records, sure, but when you pose questions about the records themselves, the creators, or even the archival processing of those records, there’s a paucity of literature. In fact, most of the writing I found that muses on these brand of records as case studies detailing how people use the records…namely, to illuminate the way in which an organization functioned. One of the better pieces includes Valerie Harris’ and Kathryn Stine’s 2011 article about organizational records during the 2008 presidential elections. There are also a few interesting pieces about the role of arrangement and description (part of the holy trinity for archivists) among organizational records collections.

In some ways, this makes sense. Organizational records are usually large and somewhat predictable. Sometimes they are very detailed, other times they aren’t. There’s a variation in the content, but not as much as one would expect from, say, personal papers. In a 1981 essay in American Archivist, Frank Burke characterized, “the dendritical structure of organizational records.” Recently, the Society of American archivists published a brochure to discuss the importance of organizational records here.

[Photo: a visualization of all the keywords I recorded while describing the Committees, Programs and Projects series, which includes the materials described in #s 1 & 2 of this post.]

In the last few months, I have found numerous points of interest in the materials that make up the ACLS collection. As a user, I’m not certain I would look to this collection for records to offer perspective on pivotal historical moments. Alas, here they are! Below are a few examples of points of entry that may be of interest to researchers.

1.     Committee on Studies of Chinese Civilizations (CSCC) that sometimes paired with Joint Committee on Contemporary China (JCCC)

With records dating from the late 1960s through the 1980s, these programs intended to establish a relationship between American and China scholars. Specifically, the programs planned seminars, conferences, programs, and major development projects such as “preparation of a historical bibliography of Chinese maps.” And how timely these programs were, because smack dab at the height of their progress, in 1972, President Richard Nixon took an important trip to The People’s Republic of China, the first trip of any U.S. President since its establishment in 1949. This means that ACLS has records of Chinese-U.S. humanities collaborations years before Mr. Nixon formally opened trade relations with the country.

By the way, ACLS maintained additional collaborations with humanities scholars in the country with Committee on Scholarly Communicatoin with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC), the Committee on Advanced Study in China (CASC), and Center for Chinese Research Materials (CCRM).

2.     Joint Committee on Eastern Europe (JCEE) along with Joint Committee on Slavic and Eastern European Studies (JCSEES), Subcommittee on East Central and Southeastern European Studies (SECSES), Coordinating Committee for Slavic and Eastern European Library Resources (COCOSEERS), American Council for Emigres in the Professions (ACEP) and International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).

1989 was a big year for the eastern bloc, a group of eastern European countries that fell under communist rule after World War II. By the time the revolutions struck the area, starting with Poland and moving to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, there had been civil protests in the region for quite some time. But, this blog isn’t a history lesson, so if you want to learn more about the important historical moments leading up to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 with the end of the Warsaw Pact and the subsequent development of new nation-states, go pester a professor! This is about ACLS!

The records found in this collection that detail the work of the programs and committees listed above start in the late 1960s and extend through the 1990s. Slavic and European studies grants, conference materials and scholarly papers pepper this collection and serve as a reminder that humanities scholars and researchers reached across geo-political boundaries to accomplish goals together. And what better way to learn about a region in flux than to view it through the lens of its academic observers!

3.     Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC) and its later iteration to include Technology (OSCT). You can read a bit about the organization in an earlier post about its 1987 leader here.

This is one of my favorite aspects of the collection to date. As someone who dabbled in history (yes, I am characterizing my graduate work as a minor dalliance), I have some understanding of the breaking (as in, not yet broken) system of academic publishing in peer-reviewed journals and getting books deals with publishing houses that have enough time and energy to devote to your work. We are all familiar with the concept of “publish or perish,” but when the cycle of publication is working against many academics, especially ones newer to the field, then it seems like everyone, including our collective knowledge base of fresh ideas, can succumb to perishing.

This is a problem that has been plaguing the academic community for years now: some voices prominent in the debate push for publishing houses especially those affiliated with universities to re-prioritize this work. Others suggest moving full-speed ahead in the digital publishing world. In other words, if you aren’t in peer-reviewed journals valorized by your field of expertise, do it yourself!

It may come as no surprise that in the early 1970s, ACLS teamed up with University of Virginia and the OSCT to attempt to answer a simple question: how does this impact academics? They developed a survey, disseminated it to thousands of working academics, aggregated the data and presented the findings. Survey respondents revealed statistics on the number of articles they published as well as the number of journals they actually read in a given year. This survey influenced the OSCT on their mission in a fast-changing environment. These days there is a resurgence of this debate, and when it began in the 1970s, ACLS played a part.

[Photo: a visualization of all the keywords I recorded while describing the OSCT sub-series, which includes the materials described in #3 of this post.]

Records follow the creator. ACLS is an international humanities organization that has succeeded in accomplishing myriad goals in their 94-year history. When researchers knock down the doors of the Library of Congress (just kidding, that would be rude), this collection will offer more than predictable organizational records. Instead, in these folders are glimpses of major episodes before, during and after their history-making moments.

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One thought on “Using Organizational Records

  1. Pingback: The beauty of finding aids | Documenting the Humanities

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