Archival Aerobics: Jogging the Institutional Memory


by Gregory Sanford[1]


In July 1777 a powerful British army swept along Lake Champlain, brushing aside American troops at Ft. Ticonderoga, NY and at Hubbardton in what is now Vermont.  New York and New Hampshire claimed Vermont, unsettling the land titles of settlers. Within the disputed area different factions sought to impose their views of government through force and terror.  In July, amidst this maelstrom, town delegates crafted a radical constitution not only creating Vermont, but also setting out as fundamental principles a range of civil liberties.  Freedom of expression, trial by jury and the right to both observe and instruct elected officials were among those enumerated liberties.


The government established by that constitution then proceeded to enact laws banishing those deemed enemies of the state, seizing and selling their property, and establishing penalties for anyone who defamed public officials. 


How do we balance our commitment to the fundamental principles underlying our state and national governments with demands that those governments secure us from external and internal threats?   That societal tension is as familiar to us as it was to 18th Century New Englanders.  It is a continuing issue.


Archivists define their role as identifying, preserving and keeping accessible records of continuing value.  "Continuing value" is not a particularly felicitous phrase.  It neither captures the imagination of our parent institutions, nor stirs the breasts of the general public. 


To identify archival records we have developed appraisal tools build upon hierarchies of values.  Yet appraisal is also a difficult concept to convey to institutional and general audiences.  Our professional language and descriptive tools may, at times, even obscure the broad narratives held within our vaults; narratives that can inform our public dialogues and social actions.


The Vermont State Archives is seeking to wed the archival concept of continuing value with the idea that there are continuing issues; issues that each generation has had to address within its own social expectations and fiscal realities.  As a society we have always grappled with economic development, taxation, education, public health, crime and punishment, and the tensions between the "freedom to" and the "freedom from."  Such issues are, unlike archival concepts, broadly understood.


The Archives "continuing issues" effort derives from several observed realities.  As noted, archival concepts and terminology are often difficult to communicate outside the profession.  Within state government, archival management, when thought of at all, is perceived as a historical, rather than an institutional, function, while the Archives is seen as a preserve for historians.  This is not helpful in attracting institutional support, particularly in times of economic stress.


Vermont has a citizen legislature, with the 180 representatives and senators meeting for approximately five months every year.  Staff support is limited (the Legislative Council consists of a dozen attorneys to draft bills and conduct studies), legislators do not have offices, and background on issues is provided by agency personnel, lobbyists and citizens. 


Legislators and public officials have neither the training, time or inclination to conduct their own archival research, no matter how good or widely distributed our finding aids.  The challenge is to break this barrier of misperception and under-utilization to reassert the importance of the Archives institutional role.


 Approximately fifteen years ago the Archives began to aggressively alert officials and reporters of the existence of records germane to a current issue. We also converted our statutorily mandated publication program, the State Papers of Vermont series, from annotated compilations of 18th century documents into guides for continuing issues of institutional interest.[2] 


The Internet transformed our efforts, moving us beyond unsolicited, idiosyncratic contacts with officials to broadly reach non-traditional audiences inside and outside state government.  The Archives Web site ( is organized around continuing issues, including a section of that name.  We can now not only present key institutional information, but also, as state buildings gained Internet connections, we can deliver that information directly to all three branches of government.


Our first Web-based continuing issue stemmed from extensive public dialogue over the value of contested primaries (the continuing issue of candidate selection).  We posted a particularly rich document from the 1914 direct primary debate and linked it to our history of statewide elections.  The document's pro/con format foreshadowed the current discussion of the intent and actual practice of the primary.  Reporters began to use the primary material as background in their reports. 


The 2000 debate over civil unions, extending marriage-like benefits to gay and lesbian couples, raised myriad continuing issues. In response we put up summaries on the history of impeachment (linked to a resolution calling for the impeachment of the Supreme Court justices whose interpretation of the common benefits clause led to civil unions) and on referenda (linked to calls for a referendum, rather than legislation, on civil unions).  We continue to add new issues as time and resources allow.


Civil unions helped clarify our goals.  We did not present marriage as a continuing issue.  Rather we focused on institutional procedural issues associated with civil unions.  What is the impeachment process and how have we employed it?  When have we resorted to referenda and how did we avoid constitutional strictures against delegating legislative authority?  This not only buffered us from the highly emotive and divisive debate over marriage, but also anchored our role as a source of institutional memory.[3]


We continue to tweak how we present a continuing issue.  In the first case we simply re-keyed and posted a 1914 legislative document.  For the impeachment and referenda sections we combined overviews with brief histories of each occurrence.  We did so, in part, because of our observation that public officials wanted summaries and were unlikely, as noted, to sift through source documents, even when offered on-line.   Our most recent efforts, histories of the veto and of judicial review, provide summaries and links to the source documents.  We therefore have reintegrated records back into the conceptual overviews.


Continuing issues is labor intensive and, to a degree, we have created expectations that are hard to sustain.  Conversely, continuing issues, by their nature, recur.  Two years ago the presence of three credible gubernatorial candidates raised the possibility that none would receive a majority, as required for election under the Vermont Constitution. We posted a history of elections without majority winners.  This year there are again three credible candidates and we can direct inquiries to the Web site.[4]


Though benefits are somewhat anecdotal, there is a noticeable change in how our institutional role is perceived.  For the last two biennia we have been asked to participate in the orientation of new legislators.[5]  We are sought out for either records or legislative testimony on the history of issues or procedures.  The speaker of the house, among others, has recommended issues for our treatment.[6]  The press routinely seeks us out for background on stories.  Vermont's education communities have become interested and we are working with them to develop continuing issues into dialectic teaching tools that support state social studies criteria.  We have also adapted various continuing issues to public presentations, enhancing the visibility of the Archives and how its records support public dialogues.[7]


Does "continuing issues" distract from the record-centered focus of archival management?  We believe it harks back to a traditional role of the Vermont State Archives.  Vermont's founders were clear on the institutional role of a state archives; it was to preserve evidence of key government actions.  In 1782, for example, the legislature charged the secretary of state with preserving and keeping accessible such evidentiary records as original acts of the legislature, land grant charters, etc. 


The passing of the Revolutionary generation ended reliance on personal memories of the intent of government actions, broadening the role of the archives as government's institutional memory.  Vermont Secretary of State William Slade recognized this transition and began publishing, as well as preserving, archival records.  In the introduction to his 1823 volume of state papers Slade wrote:


The general diffusion of intelligence constitutes the life of a free government . . . The whole science of government consists in a knowledge of the practical operation of principles . . .[Political] institutions, therefore--their origin, their nature, their practical operation, and their whole history, should be studied, and understood . . . Without the possession of such a history, and a practical regard to the lessons it inculcates,  legislation will be, at best, but a succession of experiments, and, as a necessary consequence, every action of government will be characterized with instability and want of wisdom"[8]


Slade went on to explain the need to place that history "within the reach of the people."  He fulfilled this vision by publishing selected documents.  Over time, however, Slade's original goal of making the "practical operations" of government accessible was lost and the state papers series focused exclusively upon publishing annotated versions of 18th century documents.  Over time an increasingly professional staff concentrated on archival description, though improved finding aids failed to attract institutional use.   Making continuing issues available as an on-line resource restores Slade's archival vision and enhances understanding of the archival role.  


[1] Gregory Sanford is Vermont State Archivist, a position he has held since 1982.  He received the 2002 New England Archivists' Distinguished Service Award and the Vermont State Archives continuing issues section received the SAA's 2002 Hamer-Kegan Award for increasing public awareness of manuscripts and archives through publication.  This is the first time the Hamer-Kegan Award has been accorded a Web publication. This paper was originally published in the New England Archivist Newsletter, October 2002.

[2] Volume 19 of the series was an index to municipal acts and charters; Volume 21 provided a history of statewide elections; and Volume 22 offered an index to legislative reports within the house and senate journals.  The General Assembly: A Potpourri was published outside the series and provided a history of legislative committees, lists of legislative leaders over time, and a list of gubernatorial vetoes.  The General Assembly expanded upon the municipal charter index and now incorporates charter information as part of the Vermont Statutes Annotated (as an appendix to Title 24 ).

[3] How to select a continuing issue needs to be developed further.  Time, previous research (from our reference files, for example), and availability of quality records all play a role.  By their nature continuing issues are based on a current debate of wide public interest.  Therefore there is the risk of offending one or more sides of that debate if it is perceived we are supporting a position.  Though a legal history of marriage or gay and lesbian rights would have been of interest, they also would have been more labor intensive within the time allotted and, given the high emotions surrounding the debate, ran the risk of attracting negative attention.  Since we wanted to serve the legislators by giving them information on specific proposals before them--impeachment, referenda--we selected those issues for presentation.

[4] The site was recently used by the Legislative Council to determine previous legislative procedures in such cases.  We also received inquiries from Mississippi, which has a similar provision, but which never needed to exercise it until a couple of years ago.

[5] See, for example, our talk at the 2000 orientation at:

[6]  The Speaker, the chief of the Vermont Associated Press Bureau, and a senior legislator wrote letters in support of the nomination of the continuing issues Web site for the Hamer-Kegan Award.  Their support suggests the broadening awareness of Archives' as a resource.

[7] This year, to mark the 225th anniversary of the 1777 Constitution we combined an exhibit with a series of events at which participants were turned into "delegates" to the 1777 convention and asked to debate and vote upon proposals of amendments to the original Constitution.  This allowed participants to understand the continuing value of constitutionally identified fundamental principles and moved the 1777 Constitution from artifact to living document.  This broadens understanding of the concept of "continuing value."   

[8] William Slade, Vermont State Papers (Middlebury, VT; J.W. Copeland, 1823). P. xv.