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Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 419-421

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Closing an Era: Historical Perspectives on Modern Archives and Records Management. By Richard J. Cox. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. xiii, 252 pp. $65.00. ISBN 0-313-31331-8.

This volume is a collection of nine essay chapters, most recast from previous writings, by Richard Cox, former editor of American Archivist and lead professor of archival studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Cox is known for his outspoken opinions on the need for archival scholarship in history, theory, and practice, his advocacy for strong programs of graduate archival education, and his participation in one of the most influential studies so far on the management and description of digital records. These nine essays bring all these interests together and provide a challenging group of readings for intending and practicing archivists alike.

Cox repeatedly makes the case for the study and writing of archival and record-keeping history, deeming it indispensable for an informed understanding and rejuvenation of archival theory and practice and demonstrating its value by offering substantial segments of it to support his argument in several of the essays. The challenge of digital records is central to his focus, chiefly because their nature and behaviors highlight the inadequacies of current theory and practice. But he does not abandon his critique at a safe historical distance. He adjures archivists to emerge from the irrelevance of their anchorite cells, abandoning the shelter of antiquarian clerical work focused on paper records and the delusion of archival objectivity, to address the contemporary world with its multicultural struggles and cyberspatial difficulties. Cox asserts that the archival profession is still stuck in the paper past, replicating paper-based practices in its Encoded Archival Description project (putting old collection-level finding aids onto the Web), digitization projects (substituting computer files for microforms), and Web sites (reproducing printed guides and failing to use the technology to reach new audiences). Even the job advertisements, he complains, seem not to have been changed in twenty years.

He also critiques the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in several essays, mostly for timidly hanging back and failing to push for a national records policy. Cox's suggested elements for such a policy would not only assure adequate funding and statutory support for the uniform preservation [End Page 419] of federal records but would provide the leadership and regulatory requirements that would establish records policy and practice in state and local governments and regulated industries. He points to NARA's failure to carry out its own legal mandate, thus occasioning the PROFS case, in which historical and archival professional groups had to sue in order to have records laws enforced on the evidence of the Iran-Contra scandal.

He is kinder to NARA's offspring, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. In an article responding to the quashing of the NHPRC's effort in 1996 to address digital record keeping and state and local records in preference to supporting the long-running letterpress editions of the papers of famous Americans, Cox calls on the history of paper publication of historical documents as a preservation method to emphasize its anachronistic character in the present day. For the real causes of its continuation, he points to the self-interest of the historical editing community in hanging on to outdated editing standards in the face of open criticism, refusing to adopt new technologies that would improve access immeasurably, indulging in outrageous footnote bloat in order to be recognized as historians rather than mere archivists, and failing to prove the value of projects projected to last more than a hundred years and costing an average of over $87,000 per volume for editing and publication subvention. He goes straight to the heart of the matter: "[T]he real reason why electronic records must be a priority over the documentary editions is simple. Most of the records represented by the documentary editions are not immediately threatened," whereas digital records are. There is no good answer to this argument, since it reflects modern records preservation thinking...


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