SAA Remembers Meyer H. Fishbein

Meyer H. Fishbein, an SAA Fellow and Honorary Member, passed away on January 31, 2017. He had celebrated his 100th birthday on May 6, 2016. Below is a tribute from Fishbein's friend, colleague, and fellow SAA member Charles Dollar.

Meyer Fishbein was born in 1916 in New York City. After graduating from high school in Brooklyn, he took several courses at City College. Early in World War II he joined the US Army and served in the Corps of Engineers based mainly in Britain and France. After his discharge from the army, he and his wife moved to Washington, DC, where he joined the staff of the National Archives at the entry level of what is now called an Archives Technician. His first job was to move boxes of records of the short-lived National Recovery Administration from the National Archives loading dock to an archives stack area. He recounts that out of curiosity he peeked at some of the records and unwittingly was set on the road of becoming an archivist, even though he did not meet the academic qualifications for being an archivist at the National Archives. He began taking courses at American University while working full-time at the Archives. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he began work on a master’s degree, taking several courses on archives taught by Ernst Posner. His graduate courses made him eligible to become an archivist. One of his first work assignments dealt with records of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which is probably where he first became interested in historical statistics created by federal agencies.  

During the 1950s and 1960s there were several reorganizations of the National Archives, and Meyer took on new responsibilities, especially in the appraisal of records. After Ted Schellenberg’s retirement, Meyer headed the Records Appraisal Staff. His first exposure to machine-readable records was punch cards from Decennial Censuses. He concluded the punch cards were records and could not be routinely destroyed; they should be appraised for their permanent value (taking an opposite position than Schellemberg). Recognizing that punch cards were only the tip of a machine-readable records iceberg, he urged Wayne Grover, Archivist of the United States, and his deputy Bob Bahmer, to begin to focus on machine readable-records stored on computer magnetic tapes. Convinced that Meyer was on the right track, they asked him to work on a project for the Bureau of the Budget that resulted in recommendations to conduct a government-wide inventory of computer tapes and to develop a retention schedule for machine-readable records that was consistent with record retention schedules for paper records.

Bob Bahmer, who succeeded Wayne Grover as Archivist of the United States in 1965, was grooming Bert Rhoads to succeed him. One of the initiatives Bahmer and Rhoads focused on was a series of conferences on various types of records in the National Archives that informed scholars how they could use these records in their research. They asked Meyer to organize a conference on The National Archives and Statistical Research that convened at the National Archives on May 27–28, 1968. It was an extraordinary conference that included prominent economic historians. Meyer did a masterful job of orchestrating the conference and editing the proceedings that were published by Ohio University Press in 1973.

Meyer continued to head the Records Appraisal Division until about 1978 when this function was transferred to the Office of Federal Records Centers. When Mabel Deutrich became Assistant Archivist for the Office of the National Archives, Meyer succeeded her as Director of the Military Archives Division. He continued in this position until his retirement in the early 1980s.

Meyer was a pioneer in focusing attention on the identification and retention of machine-readable records. His article on “Appraising Information in Machine Language Form” in The American Archivist (1972) and offering recommendations for training archivists on how to handle “ADP” records were seminal. A major contribution was his leadership within the International Council on Archives to provide an international forum on archival handling of machine-readable records. In 1971, he was invited to organize a task force to consider alternatives for promoting archival handling of machine-readable records. This evolved into the ADP Records Committee which he chaired until 1984 when Wolf Buchman, archivist at the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, Germany, became Chair. Under Meyer’s leadership the ADP Committee produced an ADP Newsletter for the International Council on Archives that enabled many archives and archivists in the international community to begin programs for machine-readable records.

Now a personal note. I met Meyer Fishbein in February 1968 at a conference on machine-readable records in Atlanta, Georgia, organized by the National Archives and Records Service. I had been invited to give a paper, largely, I think, because conference organizers wanted a historian with some knowledge of the use of computers and statistical in historical research. My paper on "New Wine in Old Bottles? Computers and Historical Research” attracted the attention of both Meyer and Bert Rhoads, soon to be named Archivist of the United States that six years later would lead to my joining the staff of the National Archives.

At the Atlanta Conference, there was a good bit of socializing at night and I learned that Meyer and I shared at least two things in common: bourbon whiskey and an interest in computers. We were not altogether on the same whiskey page because his preference was Old Grandad and mine was Wellers. We were on the same page with computers but not exactly on what statistical sources could be exploited. Meyer’s interest was in statistical sources that federal agencies create. Like many American historians at the time, the National Archives was not on my radar screen as a source for statistical research sources.

Meyer and I moved in different professional associations: he was an archivist and I was a historian. I did not attend meetings of the Society of American Archivists nor did he attend meetings of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association, or least the ones I attended. Nonetheless, we stayed in touch and, in the spring of 1971, he invited me to attend a meeting in Italy to organize a task force on ADP records for the International Council on Archives. I had never heard of the International Council of Archives and I knew Oklahoma State University would not support international travel to attend a meeting of archivists. I declined the invitation without thinking any more about it until several years later.

In 1974, Bert Rhoads recruited me to become director of the Machine-Readable Archives Division, a newly formed unit at the National Archives to set up a government-wide program for machine-readable records. Meyer was very gracious to me as I began learning about the work of archivists and specifically the studies he had done about ADP records created by federal agencies. His persuasive argument that computer tapes should not be routinely disposed as “non-records” because they contained federal records and must be appraised and scheduled just as paper records were, especially in the Bureau of the Census, became the foundation of the program of the Machine-Readable Archives Division. The success of the division in preserving the electronic records (including mitigation of technology obsolescence) of the 1960 Decennial Census in the mid-1970s was based on Meyer’s foundational arguments. His foundational work in the development of General Records Schedule 20 Records Retention Schedule for Machine-Readable Records was a critical component of the program. As many state archives began to grapple with machine-readable records, they incorporated General Records 20 into their records disposition programs.

Meyer’s professionalism and generosity also were evident when the International Council on Archives met in Washington, DC, in August of 1976. By this time, he and I both understood that at some undefined point in the future I would succeed him as the National Archives representative on the ADP Records Committee of the International Council on archives. Meyer introduced me to members of the committee and invited me to sit in on committee meetings. I was delighted to meet these members, who included Lionel Bell of the Public Records Office of the United Kingdom and Michael Carrol of the National Archives of Canada. After Meyer’s retirement I succeeded him as the National Arches and Records Administration representative on the ADP Committee, which was given a new name to more closely associate it with computer technologies.

The last time I saw Meyer was in 2014 when the Society of American Archivists met in Washington, DC. I learned his daughter planned to bring him to the conference hotel for a recognition of his contributions. Two retired colleagues from the National Archives who knew Meyer and me joined him at a conference table for a conversation. As soon as he saw me he said, “Chuck Buck,” a moniker for me that he first used as we were sipping bourbon whiskey in Atlanta, more than half a century earlier.

Archivally speaking, I have traveled a long distance since Meyer and I first met. But whatever distance I have traveled has been made possible by Meyer’s pioneering work in the 1960s. He was a pioneer and trailblazer and his contributions informed the machine-readable records program of the National Archives and Records Administration and my career at the National Archives. I am not the only beneficiary of Meyer’s pioneering work. Every archivist who works with the complexities of appraising, preserving, and facilitating access to digital records in the twenty-first century is indebted to him.

Thanks Meyer.

Prepared by Charles Dollar

Meyer Fishbein in The American Archivist

"The Archivist Meets the Records Creator" (1965): Issue 28.2  

"A Viewpoint on Appraisal of National Records" (1970): Issue 33.2. 

"Appraising Information in Machine Language Form" (1972): 35.1.

"ADP and Archives: Selected Publications on Automatic Data Processing," compiled by Fishbein (1975): Issue 38.1

"Reflections on Appraising Statistical Records" (1987): Issue 50.2.