T. R. Schellenberg: Maker of a Modern, American Archives

We continue of celebration of American Archives Month by looking at renowned archival theorist, T. R. Schellenberg. Today’s post is from Alyssa Manfredi in the National Archives History Office.

Theodore Roosevelt Schellenberg was born in 1903 in Kansas. An archivist, theoretician, scholar, and author, he was recognized as a pioneer of appraisal theory and approach, revolutionizing the future of American archives.

Schellenberg received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Kansas in 1928 and 1930, respectively, and went on to get his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1934. After graduation, he was an executive secretary and a historian before landing his first role at the National Archives as a deputy examiner in 1935. 

Through his work experience, he became interested in standardizing archival appraisal techniques. In the context of archival theory, appraisal refers to the mode in which an institution examines and decides the worth of a record. In 1939, while chief of the Division of Agriculture Department Archives, he published a paper on European archival practices and its limited applicability to American appraisal.

Before this time, most archivists were following European appraisal practices, such as what is known as the Dutch Manual by Muller, Feith and Fruin, and British Archivist Sir Hilary Jenkinson’s Manual of Archive Administration. These archival practices suggested keeping all documents acquired by an organization, and gave the archivists little to no power in determining the value of a record. The National Archives had just been created in 1934, and for the ever-growing stream of records into the American archives, these outdated European theories had to be revised in order to create an efficient, succinct, and useful collection.

In 1950, Schellenberg became the Director of Archival Management at the National Archives, where he polished and published his 1956 magnum opus, Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques. Schellenberg’s theories gave the archivist more authority in determining a record’s worth than their European counterparts. He devised a passage of questions and steps an archivist would go through to determine the value of records to an organization.

His position as director along with his interest in improving archival methods allowed Schellenberg to implement professional standards across his department. He not only improved the appraisal methods in use, he also implemented training modules to standardize these practices and created consistent job descriptions for staff roles across the organization. These practices formed the basis of why the National Archives was created in the first place: to improve government efficiency.

His theory divided the records into categories of primary use and secondary use. That is, use by the record’s creator or original owner, or use by historians, researchers, and the general public for informational or evidential purposes. He distinguished informational and evidential values as well: informational records are about particular people, events, materials, or properties, and evidential records document the process of an organization’s history.

Schellenberg retired from the National Archives in 1963 but continued to train students and archivists in his new appraisal thinking. He taught courses at American University and lectured at symposiums to fellow archivists and records managers. His second textbook, Management of Archives, was published in 1965 and emphasized the importance of archival management. He added that these methodological archival lessons should be systematically taught in library schools. 

T. R. Schellenberg died in 1970 at age 66, but his legacy continues to live on long after his passing. Archival practices have come a long way since Schellenberg’s time, but his ideas on appraisal granted archivists more agency in their roles as managers of archives.

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