Ohio History Journal

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Every time I am introduced as an archivist I am reminded of the

story that was written back in 1935 by one of the Washington news-

paper columnists who writes about government people. The story

appeared shortly after the National Archives was established and

our big building at Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue was con-

structed. The first archivist of the United States had just been ap-

pointed, and there was some publicity about the government putting

archivists on its payroll. The columnist, it seems, received a number

of inquiries as to just what an archivist was. He did some investi-

gating and finally came up with his answer. As nearly as he could

determine, he wrote, an archivist is a "dead file clerk." The in-

triguing point about his statement was that the punctuation didn't

make it clear as to who was dead, the file clerk or the files.

Every story ought to have a moral, and this one illustrates perhaps

as well as any the need for a better public understanding of the

role of the professional archivist and of archives in our society.

For the archivist who serves government, whether state or federal,

it is imperative that any notion that the archivist is a "dead file

clerk," regardless of how this phrase is interpreted, be dispelled.

Unless such erroneous notions are eliminated no archives or records

program worthy of the name can succeed, because it won't be sup-

ported either materially or administratively.

Traditionally perhaps, the archivist has been regarded as a

cloistered being, as a fellow slightly stooped and more than a little

nearsighted, who spends his time poring over fading parchments

and yellowing papers, an antiquarian quite removed from the stern

realities of modern competitive life, who if he should ever emerge

from his ivory tower, would be dazzled by the bright lights and

fast pace of present-day bureaucracy.

Whatever justification there may have been in the past for the


* An address delivered before the annual dinner of the Ohio Historical Society,

April 30, 1954. Dr. Bahmer is the assistant archivist of the United States.