a note from Alan Sica about archive preservation
Alan Sica sent out the following request to a few ASA listservs. With his permission, I’m reposting it here. As you’ll see below, I think the note raises a number of interesting questions/issues that I’d never before considered.
Historians of sociology, social theorists, and other scholars,
Please take five minutes to read what follows, as it affects our discipline’s future historiography.
Two weeks from now the ruling body of the ASA, the Council, will meet at the Association’s headquarters in Washington, DC and, in addition to other things, will decide the fate of 588 boxes of archived journal-related material: whether to preserve them or destroy them. I am writing to ask that you contact Council members (their email addresses follow this note) with your opinion one way or the other. Obviously, I hope you “vote” to preserve the materials, but if you believe they are not worth preserving, you could register that opinion as well.
The background to this event is long and complicated, but here is the relatively short version: Ever since 1997 the ASA has been sending its official papers to the Special Collections unit in Paterno Library at Penn State University, an arrangement I helped create during the ‘90s. Two years ago Penn State’s lawyers and librarians realized, based on the agreement signed with ASA when the Archive was founded, that some of the materials could never be used for historical research, thus giving them no archival value. After protracted discussions among concerned parties, Penn State returned the materials to ASA, which has been storing them in Bethesda, MD for the last year or so in a facility which is not suited for research or examination.
Beginning in 1997, ASA journal editors were asked to send all their files to Penn State following their tours of duty, so the holdings are extensive and should be complete. Over the years these materials were catalogued by Penn State’s special collections staff, and the “finding guide” is 434 pages long. Most of the materials are files from ASR between 1991 and 2010, but there are also many boxes which pertain to the other ASA journals as well (including Sociological Theory, of which I was editor in the early ‘90s). The files contain submitted manuscripts, reviewers’ comments, editors’ letters to authors, and in some cases authors’ responses.
Thus far no historian of sociology has examined the boxes, but they have been looked through by Michael Murphy, the in-house ASA archivist. The ASA lawyer believes that the materials should never be seen by anybody other than ASA staff members due to ASA’s confidentiality and ethics statements. But historians like myself (including Andy Abbott, Craig Calhoun, Chas Camic, Randy Collins, Stephen Turner and others to whom I’ve written) have gone on record as opposing destruction. We believe that if the materials are digitized or otherwise preserved, they could be extremely useful to historians 75 years hence after all interested parties are long gone, especially given that such a complete record of ASA journal work will not again be available. It is also worth noting that the period in question (1991-2010) is precisely when computerization of scholarship supplanted the traditional, paper-based methods that had been in place for centuries.
Andy Abbott also pointed out to me that AJS has “kept everything” back to 1967, with some materials long before that as well. Thus, unless these ASA materials are saved, the “history of sociology” for future historians could in large part become the history of the AJS.
Sally Hillsman, Executive Officer of ASA, met with me privately a year ago and we discussed how to proceed with this difficult matter. She asked me an empirical question: “Do the authors and reviewers represented in the journal records wish for their remarks to become available to historians eventually, or do they not?” To answer that I asked some Penn State researchers to mount a sample survey of authors and reviewers named in the files (data given us by ASA), which they carried out between July and December of 2013 (as some of you likely know, having received their emailed inquiries). The results show that 88% of reviewers and 87% of authors agree that the materials should be preserved, and that an “embargo” (of some years hence, with 50 to 75 often suggested) be placed on the materials so that no living scholar would be affected should the contents of their remarks become public.
Historians know how precious archival materials are to their work. While I understand the legalistic point of view expressed by the Penn State and ASA attorneys, and also the strong ethical principles on which ASA is founded, I regard it as criminally negligent, even abusive, of our future history to destroy these materials without a thought to their eventual scholarly use. Given the well-known fact that ASR, for instance, rejects 94% of submitted manuscripts (with the other ASA journals not far behind in their equivalent rates), if historians look only to published articles, they will have missed the great bulk of what was being done as sociology during this period. This may seem unimportant now, but will be viewed quite differently a century or so hence.
A final note: lately my R.A. and I have been going through the Luther Bernard Papers in the Penn State library. The large collection of sociologists’ autobiographies he collected between 1929 and 1932 has become a unique source for historians of early U.S. sociology. I thank Bernard (and his wife, Jessie) for saving and donating them to the library each time I read a new one, learning more about our collective past. We should follow their example in preserving our intellectual past.
ASA Council members:
ASA Council members email addresses:
[email addresses removed to avoid spamming]
Thanks for taking the time to read this and to email the Council.
Like I said this note raised a lot of questions. To what extent should anonymous reviews ever be made public? Do reviewers know that in the future their reviews will be dissected by historians of the field? What role should the ASA have in preserving intellectual discussions? Is it criminally negligent to not preserve those discussions? What happens to author-reviewer debates in the Manuscript Central era? Is there a cloud somewhere that is storing all of these for perpetuity? What is the best way to preserve intellectual debates like this going forward?