An Introduction to SAA

To be ignorant
of what occurred before
you were born
is to remain always a child.

For what is the worth
of human life,
unless it is woven into
the life of our ancestors
by the records of history?



History is not what happened in the past. It is, as the word itself suggests, a story, written by subsequent generations. The veracity and accuracy of the account, however, is totally dependent upon the surviving record at hand—documents, manuscripts, letters, publications, photos, and memorabilia—from which the story must often be pieced together and reconstructed, item by item, clue by clue. This is true whether the work is medical research done by scientists, or a family genealogy sought by a curious individual. From students to scholars, business professionals to creative artists, we are all in constant need of access to information, not only from the past, but of the present. With the rapid increase in high-tech communications—satellite links, computer modems, e-mail, and the like—Marshall McLuhan's view of the world as a global village has shrunk to that of a single, multilingual, multicultural neighborhood.

As a result we are bombarded with information from around the world every day, buried under an avalanche of paper, inundated with electronic messages. As individuals, we frequently choose what we need to use at a particular moment, and discard the rest. But everything we create in the act of communication, formal or informal—every memo, e-mail message, snapshot, blueprint, magazine article, cartoon, videotape, radio and television broadcast, or CD-ROM—is part of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, forming a picture of our civilization that changes according to one's perspective and potential use. How much of that picture will be available for future generations to know us and learn from us—just as we attempt to reconstruct a picture of the past for our own enlightenment? Each piece of the puzzle becomes invaluable, and what is not saved is lost, possibly forever. To whom do we trust the care and safe-keeping of this treasure?

Archivists have accepted the challenge, and the responsibility, to collect, preserve, and protect this fragile, constantly changing record of who we are and what we do. From the smallest shoe box stored in a hall closet to the voluminous National Archives, documents and memorabilia require special handling and an awareness of the materials' particular value and possible use. Archivists are educated, trained, and experienced to deal with the various questions and problems that arise in the preservation of such material. They are able to bring a specialized perspective and an informed interpretation to decisions concerning the material's worth and usefulness. They are familiar with the nature and characteristics of all types of human documentation—from ancient Egyptian papyrus to contemporary e-mail. And archivists understand that within each document is a drama, behind each letter or photograph is a person. They safe-guard not the residue of our culture, but the immediate and permanent resources that will define who we are and explain what we did for posterity.

To accomplish this job the archivist must be part doctor, part scientist. She or he must keep the body of information healthy and functioning, while determining how best to draw out and maximize its inherent qualities. To do this the archivist must first identify and appraise the value of the material, deciding what to keep and what to dispose of based on the material's uniqueness, usability, and importance.  Each of these characteristics is variable; a document's importance or potential usefulness may not be revealed for an extended period and, as time passes, new uses for old records may emerge. Then the archivist is responsible for preserving the physical integrity of the material, protecting it from loss, deterioration, or unauthorized disposal. The next step is organizing the collected material(s) in a coherent and systematic way. This, in turn, ensures its accessibility to researchers, compilers, analysts, information services, and other potential users. Finally, the archivist must provide for outreach opportunities that give the material an ongoing life outside of its safe storage—via publications, exhibits, and other visible displays and applications.

Today, records and relevant materials are created not only from official government management, but as the result of all manner of personal, social, economic, functional, and symbolic activities of individuals, organizations, and institutions. These records are used daily in the valuable research done on behalf of scientific, medical, cultural, scholarly, legal, and commercial interests. The development of particular subject areas and special interest groups—from Civil War buffs to religious convents, gay and lesbian coalitions to sports statisticians—demand complete, available records with which to work and to document their purpose. Crucial information resides in contracts, meeting minutes, maps, diaries, account ledgers, and artworks.  For example, court transcripts may explain aspects of our social relationships as well as legal ones, or a tapestry may illustrate an event otherwise unknown. For these reasons, archives are vital to maintain the specific detailed information that would otherwise disappear or be forgotten.

In all of these ways, archivists are able to help us forge a better and more useful individual and collective memory. To tell the story of our lives and those of our ancestors in a full, truthful, and unbiased manner, we need not only to ask "What did we do?" but also "Why did we do it?" and "What were our thoughts and motivation as we did it?" The answers to such questions are necessary to give depth and texture to the dry details of existence and fill in the gaps between the known and the speculative.  Although such answers may have their genesis in the past, the insight they offer is crucial to give meaning and direction to our future. These answers survive in our archives.


From the earliest annals of recorded civilization, archives have served personal and public, practical and symbolic uses. According to the type, value, and significance of the documents, the responsibility of maintenance might fall to scholars, religious figures, or minor government administrators. In Europe during the Middle Ages, as feudal kingdoms consolidated into nations and laws began to be codified, precise record keeping became increasingly necessary and prevalent. Gradually, the changing circumstances of European society and governments affected the manner in which records were used and preserved. By the time of the French Revolution it was widely accepted that records were critical because they protected the rights of the people, and that such records must be available for public scrutiny and use.

The first settlers in America brought with them the knowledge and practice of precise record-keeping. Records of marriages, births, and baptisms were saved by the Church, and often by individual families as well. Hunters and trappers listed their business transactions; merchants kept track of sales; homemakers and famous figures alike wrote letters, diaries, and memoirs; land titles were recorded and filed away for safe-keeping; and as settlements grew into towns and territories, civic documents increased. After the Revolutionary War, the first Continental Congress acknowledged that it was expected to keep official records on behalf of all citizens, and followed the practices they had learned in Europe. In 1791, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the first of its kind, was formed to "preserve the manuscripts of the present day to the remotest ages of posterity." Similar local and national organizations soon followed, many concerned with collecting the private papers and memorabilia of famous individuals in addition to official documents.

Slowly, as more independent historical societies and archival repositories were created, they began to be even more concerned with the most efficient ways of preserving their materials. By the early 1800s one Ohio society developed a manner of protecting its holdings in "air-tight metallic cases, regularly numbered and indexed, so that it may be known what is in each case without opening it." But each archive had its own system of organization and storage, with varying degrees of success. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that common archival theories and practices were shared among many separate societies and associations, ultimately leading to the formation of a distinct archives profession in the United States. The American Historical Association, created in 1884, took as its major focus the development of standardized systems of archival organization by helping to foster interaction among the various independent archives. The AHA spawned several subgroups, such as the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Public Archives Commission and, in 1909, a Conference of Archivists. This latter group met annually and worked to establish new archives and to promote and improve those already in existence. During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration created the Historical Records Survey and the Survey of Federal Archives, and then, in 1934, Congress established the National Archives as an independent federal agency.

The Society of American Archivists

Perhaps inevitably, as a result of the greater recognition and support that archival activity was receiving within the government at this time, the members of the Conference of Archivists realized that a distinction should be made between the historians and scholars who used the archival materials and the archivists who were responsible for the material's care, organization, and management. The archvists believed that their field was a particular science for which a professional association was needed in order to continue the growth and advancement of the profession. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) was founded in December 1936, " promote sound principles of archival economy and to facilitate cooperation among archivists and archival agencies." A more democratic body than its predecessor, it opened its ranks not just to directors of large archives institutions, but to all "who are or have been engaged in the custody or administration of archives or historical manuscripts." This included archives of all sizes and orientation, from small private and business archives to large historical collections.

Once born, SAA acted quickly. A president, A.R. Newsome, and a board of directors were elected by its initial 124 individual and four institutional members. In its first full year membership increased to 243 archivists and institutions, and SAA began the practice of holding an annual convention at which professional papers were delivered, information was exchanged, and philosophies of archival organization were discussed. At the Society's first convention in June 1937, President Newsome outlined a course for SAA that has been followed to the present day: "to become the practical self-help agency of archivists for the solution of their complex problems" and "to strive to nationalize archival information and technique"; to seek "the solution of archival problems involving external relations with all archival agencies, with learned societies, and with the public"; and "to encourage the development of a genuine archival profession in the United States" in which SAA would "set training standards and advance archival administration through its meetings and publications." Primary among these publications was the Society's journal of record, the American Archivist, whose premiere issue appeared in January 1938.

Volunteer members ran SAA under a tight economy during the final years of the Great Depression and during World War II. At war's end, SAA supported the formation of the International Council on Archives in order to encourage and facilitate exchanges among foreign and domestic archives.

Starting in the 1950s, SAA became an advocate and focal point for the development of professional standards, and as early as the 1960s started sharing information on how to address the challenge of managing computer-generated records. In the 1970s SAA issued the first of a series of guidelines for graduate archival education, began offering continuing education and workshops on archival techniques and management, and published the first of several basic manuals covering archival procedures. SAA membership grew considerably in the 1970s and early 1980s, and numerous special-interest groups (sections and roundtables) were formed within the Society to address the diversity of employing institutions and professional interests of SAA's members.

From the beginning, SAA's strength and source of growth has been the volunteer efforts of its members, who are passionately dedicated to their profession. But by the early 1970s, the administrative needs of the organization had grown to the point at which it was necessary to hire an executive director, and to establish a national headquarters office. The executive director now oversees a staff of 12 and a budget of $2 million.

Mission and Priorities

SAA developed a strategic plan in 1993 to define the organization's direction and purpose, and at that time established the following mission statement: The Society of American Archivists serves the education and information needs of its members and provides leadership to help ensure the identification, preservation, and use of the nation's historical record.

Beginning in 2005 the Society's governing Council continually re-examines the strategic priorities of the organization in light of changes in society and the profession. In addition to providing core membership services, the Society has identified the following priorities (framed as issue statements) as its principal areas of focus now and in the immediate future:  

Strategic Priority #1:  Technology:  Rapidly changing information technologies challenge archival principles, practices, and communication protocols, demanding effective leadership from the archives community to access, capture, and preserve records in all formats.

Strategic Priority #2:  Diversity:  The relevance of archives to society and the completeness of the documentary record hinge in part on the profession's success in ensuring that its members, the holdings that they collect and manage, and the users that they serve reflect the diversity of society as a whole.

Strategic Priority #3:  Public Awareness/Advocacy:  Archivists must take an active role in promoting the importance of archives and archivists in order to increase public support, shape public policy, and obtain the resources necessary to protect the accessibility of archival records that serve cultural functions as well as ensure the protection of citizens' rights, the accountability of organizations and governments, and the accessibility of historical records.

To view SAA's current strategic plan, click here.

Advocacy in the public policy arena has become an increasingly important trend for SAA's leadership. During the past two decades, SAA officers and leaders have provided testimony to Congress and interacted with government leaders on issues ranging from the qualifications of nominees for Archivist of the United States, to citizens' rights to access records of former presidents and other elected officials, to intellectual property issues.  SAA supports efforts that use the latest advances in information technology to provide greater access to data, and to promote the value of archives and archivists.

Member Services

SAA today numbers approximately 5,000 individual and 650 institutional members.  The Society maintains offices in Chicago's Loop.  Foremost among SAA's many activities are services that the Society provides to members. These include:

  • Information:  SAA strives to keep its members abreast of the latest news and developments in the profession through a variety of high-quality programs and activities, including the American Archivist (North America's premier professional journal for archivists), Archival Outlook (a bimonthly newsletter), In the Loop (a biweekly online newsletter), a robust book publishing program, and various e-publications.  For more about SAA periodicals and books, see below.
  • Education:  SAA offers more than 60 continuing education workshops throughout the year in locations around the country, as well as the largest gathering of archivists at its annual meeting each summer.  For more about SAA education offerings, see below.  
  • Community:  SAA connects its members with colleagues who share their professional interests and aspirations through various networking opportunities, such as special-interest groups (sections and roundtables) and student chapters.
  • Advocacy:  SAA serves as an advocate—in both government and public opinion forums—on behalf of archivists on such key issues as intellectual property, copyright and fair use, declassification or destruction of federal records, abuses of privacy and confidentiality, the Freedom of Information Act, and others that may affect archivists' ability to function in a fair, professional, and successful manner.  In addition, SAA works to improve and enhance public awareness of the importance of archives and archivists.

Standing committees and boards offer assistance and support in areas of organizational activity and special interest, such as Membership, Diversity, Ethics and Professional Conduct, Education, Publications, Annual Meeting Programming, and Awards.

Sections are volunteer-driven special-interest groups that reflect particular areas of interest and expertise of SAA members.  They include: Acquisitions and Appraisal, Archivists of Religious Collections, Business Archives, College and University Archives, Description, Electronic Records, Government Records, Manuscript Repositories, Museum Archives, Oral History, Preservation, Reference, Access and Outreach, and Visual Materials. Each section has a list serve and a website which offer opportunities for exchange of information and ideas.

Roundtables also are volunteer-driven groups that address diverse areas of concern.  They serve members and non-member "participants" in a more informal capacity.  Roundtables include:  Archivists and Archives of Color, Architectural Records, Archival Educators, Archival History, Archives Management, Art and Architecture Thesaurus, Congressional Papers, Labor Archives, Lesbian and Gay Archives, Local Government Records, Visual Materials Cataloging and Access, On-Line Computer Library Center (OCLC) Users, Performing Arts, Privacy and Confidentiality, Recorded Sound, Records Management, Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN) Users, Science, Technology and Health Care, Women's Collections, and Women's Religious Archives.


SAA is proud of its efforts to improve and facilitate the education and training of future archivists and to provide continuing education opportunities to those currently engaged in the profession. In 1994 the Society established standards and curriculum guidelines for archival education in graduate school programs where no such programs had previously existed. These guidelines were reviewed and replaced by the Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies in 2002. Overview committees constantly monitor the continuing education programs and support materials that SAA offers in order to ensure their quality and effectiveness. Workshops on a wide variety of topics and ranging from beginning to advanced levels are presented at various sites around the country.

SAA's annual meeting alone typically presents more than 75 educational sessions, seminars, and topical workshops. SAA also serves as a distributor for more than 120 quality books and publications of specific interest to archivists, as well as publishing its own valuable series of books, pamphlets, and manuals.

Moreover, as new interactive technologies continue to expand the nature and scope of communication and the exchange of information, SAA is poised at the forefront of the electronic frontier, helping to establish the new criteria and methodology necessary for the creation, retrieval, preservation, and accessibility of computer records and less formal documents alike.

With the advent of CD-ROM storage and distribution of records, plus online libraries and archival collections on the Internet, there is a greater opportunity for public and private use of archival material than ever before. SAA is in position to represent the best interests of both the caretakers of such material—archivists—and those who stand to benefit most from its availability: scholars, administrators, and the public. SAA's work to explore and expand the potential for all types of electronic archives and recordkeeping systems will continue well on into the twenty-first century.


SAA has published numerous books and pamphlets on various archives topics, most notably, the Archival Fundamental Series—seven titles which provide a foundation for modern archival theory and practice. These volumes are intended to strengthen and augment the knowledge and skills of archivists who are performing a wide range of duties in all types of archival and manuscript repositories. This series, along with other SAA-produced publications and a multitude of related titles from other publishers, is available through SAA. A catalog of titles is published annually and is available upon request in both print and electronic formats.

In addition, SAA regularly publishes several periodicals to keep members informed on topics of vital concern. They are:

American Archivist

As journal of record for SAA, The American Archivist provides a forum for North American archival professionals to discuss trends and issues in archival theory and practice both in the United States and abroad through essays, case studies, in-depth perspectives, and reviews of recent books.

Archival Outlook

SAA's bimonthly newsletter updates members on SAA business and the work of the governing Council, committees, and task forces. It also reports on national, regional, and international archival new, as well as details upcoming events, awards, educational offerings, and lists position announcements.

Various Section Newsletters

These newsletters update and report on the work of SAA sections.

SAA Directory of Archival Education 

An online directory of graduate archival education programs in the U.S. and Canada.


The course of life does not change arbitrarily, it evolves. Innovations do not occur in a vacuum, but are informed by an awareness of the past and are inspired by a vision of the future. The role of archivists has evolved dramatically during the twentieth century, due to an expanded awareness of the value of documents and materials, a growth in the diversification of subjects requiring archival administration, advances in technologies, and an ever-increasing demand for information of all kinds.

Along the way, new categories of data and types of storage offer new problems to be solved, questions to be answered. If the majority of humankind's collective knowledge is to become computerized—or eventually redefined by some technology not yet known—how will this affect our access to and understanding of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that forms the complete picture of our civilization? After all, aren't computers merely another kind of storage container for documents, in some sense no different from those "air-tight metallic containers" used in Ohio in the early 1800s? Or do they offer a fundamental challenge to the way we work, think, and relate to one another?

In 1950, Waldo Gifford Leland wrote in the American Archivist, "The ultimate purpose of the preservation and efficient administration of public records goes far beyond the improvement of administrative processes and the facilitation of the public business. The ultimate purpose is to make it possible for our present generation to have enduring and dependable knowledge of its past, and for future generations to have such knowledge of their past, of which our present is a part . . . . It is in the high ideals and purposes of scholarship and in its concern for the public good that the archivist must find. . . motives and seek. . . inspiration."

Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future.
And time future contained in time past.

—T.S. Eliot


Revised April 2010