The origins of the Society of American Archivists

As the Society for American Archivists (SAA) meets for the 82nd annual meeting here in Washington, DC, we’re taking a look back at the origins of the organization. SAA was founded just two years after Congress created the National Archives and came to be, in part, because the efforts of National Archives staff.

The nation’s first association of archivists was the Public Archives Commission of the American Historical Association (AHA). It was established 1899 and held its first conference in 1909 in conjunction with AHA’s annual meeting. But, by the time the National Archives was created in 1934, the commission had largely disbanded.

The following year, first Archivist of the United States R.D.W. Connor, with the help of the National Archives Director of Publications, Solon Buck, organized a program on the need for an archival organization for AHA’s 1935 annual meeting.

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R.D.W. Connor, First Archivist of the United States, ca. 1935. (National Archives Identifier 12168818)

The group met in Chattanooga, TN, in December 1935. The discussion began with a presentation by Theodore C. Blegen, Superintendent of the Minnesota Historical Society, on “Problems of American Archivists.”

Bulletin No. 2 - Conference of Archivists at Chattanooga, Dec. 28, 1935_Page_3
“Problems of American Archivists,” by Theodore C. Blegen, from Bulletin No. 2, Conference of Archivists at Chattanooga, Dec. 28, 1935. (Records of the National Archives)

Problems included the lack of public records laws at both the state and Federal level; a lack of archival educational resources and opportunities; a lack of classification, cataloging, and description guidelines; and a lack of housing, care, and repair standards for records, among others.

At the end, he recommended a professional association of American archivists be established to help mitigate the problems. The group then discussed establishing such an association and formed a committee of ten, with an executive committee of three, to write a constitution and organize a meeting.

The executive committee included Solon Buck from the National Archives, archival pioneer and Secretary of the American Council on Learned Societies Waldo G. Leland, and Curtis Garrison, Archivist of the Pennsylvania State Library.

The three men drafted a constitution for a “Society of American Archivists” and, with the approval of the full committee, presented it at the 1936 AHA annual meeting in Providence, RI. After a few minor revisions, the constitution was approved, officers elected, and SAA was born. 

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Solon J. Buck at 10th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, 10/24/1946. (National Archives Identifier 74228991)

Buck was elected a member of the council, and Philip C. Brooks from the National Archives was elected secretary. Buck also served on the program committee for SAA’s first annual meeting, which was held at the National Archives on June 18–19, 1937.

By the time of the first annual meeting rolled around, SAA had 243 members, although anyone could attend the meeting for a 50-cent fee, including National Archives staff (although it seems staff had to be a member of the society to go without being charged leave). 

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National Archives Memo authorizing staff to participate in the first annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, June 17, 1937. (Records of the National Archives)

National Archives staff also participated as speakers. Roscoe R. Hill, Chief of the Division of Classification, lead a roundtable discussion on archival practices and procedures. Philip M. Hamer, Director of the Survey of Federal Archives, talked about Federal records outside the Washington, DC, area. And Archivist of the U.S. Connor served as toastmaster for the first annual dinner, which was held at the Mayflower Hotel.

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SAA’s first annual dinner, June 18, 1937. (Records of the National Archives)

Connor went on to serve as SAA’s third president (1941–43), immediately following Waldo Leland. Just a couple years later Buck was chosen as the fifth president. In fact, six of the 10 Archivists of the United States served at one point or another as SAA’s president, as did Acting and Deputy Archivists. Twelve of SAA’s presidents have come from the National Archives, with many, many more having affiliation with the agency at some point in their career.

The next SAA president will be the 13th National Archives staff member to serve in that capacity—Meredith Evans, Director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, will serve as SAA’s 74th president from 2018 to 2019. Congratulations, Meredith!

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Meredith Evans, Director of the Jimmy Carter Library.

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