SCPC’s future and the changing nature of congressional collections

To celebrate Congress Week, April 1-7, 2016, South Carolina Political Collections (SCPC) is posting daily blogs reflecting on our history and celebrating our 25th anniversary.

Work with legislative and particularly congressional collections has evolved markedly over the 25 years in which SCPC has existed.  Over that time, congressional archivists have gained recognition as a significant element of the archival community.  This has come about through the growth of the Congressional Papers Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists (CPR) and the rise to prominence of many CPR leaders within the profession itself.  The formation of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress in 2003 was a significant milestone.

SAA is publishing more and more material aimed at digital preservation and access.

SAA is publishing more and more material aimed at digital preservation and access.

A rich literature has developed, including a handbook for legislative archivists and records manuals for members of Congress.  I like to think the two-day workshop Cynthia Miller and I developed, The Acquisition, Processing, and Reference of Legislative Collections, also contributed to the development of our profession and of best practices for legislative collections.

But, clearly, I am becoming a dinosaur as the profession is at a crossroad.  Congressional offices have transitioned to an almost paperless environment.  Many of the skills I’ve developed over the past 38 years are becoming obsolete.  I have always enjoyed performing preliminary inventories of new collections or major accessions.  I could often tell within a moment of opening a carton what types of records I was seeing and what informational value those records would hold.  Weeding material having no historic value from a collection is both a science and an art, and I am good at that.  But, as I often remark, I am a 19th-century kind of guy.  Those skills have ever diminishing value in today’s electronic world.

Members of South Carolina's congressional delegation stand with Governor Nikki Haley at a press conference

Members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation stand with Governor Nikki Haley at a press conference

South Carolina’s congressional delegation totals nine individuals.  SCPC is currently receiving papers from Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressmen Jim Clyburn, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Rice, Mark Sanford and Joe Wilson.  We expect to soon have agreements with all but one member of the delegation.  We know of no other repository currently serving both its state’s U.S. senators and none serving this proportion of its state’s delegation.  Most of these offices are 95-98% born-digital.  It is a different world and presents widely different challenges.

Records are going digital in a big way.

Records are going digital in a big way.

The paper-based congressional collection is a thing of the past.  Rather than measuring major collections in thousands of cartons of records each containing 1-2,000 pages of material, we speak of gigabytes.  The best practices I helped develop cannot address many of the new challenges we face.  How do you ensure the immediate and long term preservation of electronic media?  How do you make electronic media available to your public?  How do you weed irrelevant material from these often vast electronic files?

I would like to say I am on top of this situation, but I am not and the profession is not.  But an ever-growing number of younger archivists, such as our own Dorothy Walker and Laura Litwer, are working to come up with answers to these “problems.” I hope my experience allows me to play a valuable role in overseeing and directing their work.

Kenneth Stampp

Historian Kenneth Stampp

But I often think of famed historian Kenneth Stampp (1912-2009), author of the landmark history, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery and the Ante-Bellum South.

Years ago I met Stampp when he visited the South Caroliniana Library to look at its rich ante-bellum plantation holdings, being considered for inclusion in a microfilm publication being produced over his name.  As he sat in our reading room, he told me that he was so glad that he came of age during the era when scholars worked with the actual paper records created by flesh and blood men and women.  He reflected that he would hate to have to spend hours reading microfilm or microfiche in completing his necessary research.  I have thought of Stampp so often since that conversation, but never more than now, when the very nature of archival work is changing so dramatically.

–Herb Hartsook


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