Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England

Margot Note (Director of Archives and Information Management, World Monuments Fund, New York, USA)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 6 September 2011




Note, M. (2011), "Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England", Library Review, Vol. 60 No. 8, pp. 723-735.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

In Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England, Elizabeth Shepherd, Reader, Department of Information Studies, University College London, amassed the “first comprehensive study” of how the archives and records management profession in England developed during the 1900s (p. 1). Few other studies have been conducted on the advancement of the archival profession, apart from institutional histories, and this volume fills a significant gap in the literature.

The book spans over 165 years of British archives from the Public Record Office Act 1838, which secured the preservation of law and government records. Other noteworthy events include the commencement of the construction of the Public Record Office (PRO) in 1851 and the establishment of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (HMC) in 1869, as well as the development of archives and the archival profession ending with the formation of The National Archives in 2003.

The definition of “archivist” has evolved during the professionalisation process. Early descriptions concentrated on the traits that the occupation had to have to be considered a profession, to definitions that focused on power, to ones that revolved around the notion of jurisdiction. The emphasis on having a body of knowledge means of education, control over entry into the profession, professional associations, codes of ethics, as well as other factors have advanced over time. During the 1800s, archivists were not recognised as a unique profession; they consisted of historians, scholars, antiquarians, and records agents. As the recognition of the usefulness of archives grew, so did the profession with most of the development happening in the twentieth century.

The formation of British archival practices appeared early in print, such as Charles Johnson's booklet on archival principles in 1919, Sir Hilary Jenkinson's seminal Manual of Archive Administration based on PRO practices in 1922, and Herbert G. Fowler's The Care of County Muniments in the following year. Shepherd emphasises the participation of government in organising public archives, the diversity that grew as the profession matured, with regional groups and forceful individuals in the lead. For example, Fowler established the first‐county record office, used classification and standards, and created a training program on his own.

In two broadly chronological chapters each, the book covers four themes: political engagement and the instatement of archives and records legislation, the emergence of a distinct archival profession, professional organisation development, and training and education for archives and records management.

Shepherd also includes archival progress in Scotland, Wales and Ireland when relevant. A section in the introduction provides a concise, excellent overview of the archival profession in continental Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australia, which is a necessary read for all archivists.

As an American trained archivist, with a working knowledge of the history of archives around the world, I am puzzled by the profession's lack of a uniquely British perspective on archives–beyond Jenkinson's manual. The Dutch trio of Samuel Muller, Johan Feith, and Robert Fruin published The Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives in 1898, which had a major influence on archival development around the world. The USA contributed T.R. Schellenberg's influential Modern Archives in 1956. Canada, for instance, has its total archives concept, while Australia created the records continuum model. Shepherd notes:

The failure to develop a distinctive English thread in archival science, especially in more theoretical and conceptual aspects, resulted in great difficulties in modernising the curriculum and effectively prevented the development of research in the discipline until the late twentieth century […]. Canada, the USA, and Australia […] published widely in the international literature, while the English voice was still very indistinct (p. 218).

Despite the deficiency of the Brits to create a discrete influence, Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England contributes an important historical narrative of the development of British archives and the archival profession. Although much has been written about the very beginnings of archival practice and our contemporary dilemma of modern archives, country‐specific accounts of the events between these times are lacking. Shepherd has done a fine job of constructing a sequential, themed survey of how British archives and records have been collected, preserved, and made accessible, as well as the professionalisation of archivists.

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