Article Summary for Lecture #3 – Berner

In “Arrangement and Description: Some Historical Observations,” Berner created a timeline of events on the management of archival materials for the first half of the 20th Century. Several archival professionals are referenced in the paper who influenced changes to the handling these materials in the U.S.; theories from other counties were not being considered at the time. Some of the problems addressed were by what system the materials should have been handled, whom should and should not have had oversight, and what tools should have been used to accomplish the task.

In the early 1900s, all print materials were being given to libraries to manage. Authors of high acclaim contested this with an argument that all documents should be kept in the location they originated, a principle of provenance, such as government materials being stored in government buildings. Provenance was not given high regard at the time. Even if the government documents were stored in government buildings, the room where they were kept would need to be organized, thus supporting the governance of librarians to all documents.

Derision was also seen in how they were organized. The use of the card catalog, especially when using a replica of the Library of Congress (LC) system, was highly touted at this time. In the 1930s, provenance was endorsed, as well as keeping materials together in a unit called a series. Surveys were made by the Historical Records Survey to identify materials to be considered in a series. The National Archives abolished their cataloging section to move from the LC system to sorting by series, or collective description. These newly organized items were stored in a new tool called in a national register. The LC created rules for this new tool including mixing manuscripts with publications in a general catalog, causing strife to the professional archivists bent on separating out manuscripts. Archives were finally given a separation factor via exclusion from Library of Congress’ rule publication National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) in the 1950s. Even with all these new ways of arranging materials, the author of this paper says that the central problem is one of providing subject access to sources, as there are only so much physical space in indexes for cross referencing all relational paths to every piece of material.

Librarians were getting the short end of the stick in this article, as librarians were the experts on organization, yet an archival profession was challenging “the legitimacy of librarianship” (p. 169). I take offense to that. The tasks are different, but one way of organization isn’t necessarily better than another. It is a matter of how a user is trying to find a document; whatever search method is best for them is the best to use.  Since the tasks with creation and maintenance of the new national registry would be equivalent to another full-time job, archival profession job positions were needed. If there comes a time where items in the future would be found easier by completely different method, we can certainly add that tool method to the others, but there will still be need of the tried and true author/title/subject card catalog. Berner was successful in presenting the problems associated with a single method of organizing a plethora of materials, and the solutions brought by several professionals. With the massive amounts of data in the US growing larger and larger each day, there is still no perfect organizational set, to which Berner also alludes to in the end.

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