The Advancing Foundation Archives conference concluded with two capstone speakers: Jack Meyers, president of the Rockefeller Archive Center and Nicki Lodico, director of information management for the Ford Foundation.
Closing Remarks of Jack Meyers:
I was reflecting on the difference between the problems we face now and those faced by attendees at the conference thirty years ago. At that time, the organizers faced a real challenge. Foundations are not organizations that naturally think historically, and I think this is partially because of the kind of things Darren was talking about this morning, that the very things that give foundations their freedom, the lack of paying customers for example, are the things that inhibit that. Think about it for a minute. No corporation could stay in business if it didn't think historically, if it kept making the same mistakes over and over again without learning from them. And no nonprofit could continue to exist if it kept making the same mistakes over and over again. Donors would simply stop giving money or audiences would stop coming to events. Foundations, on the other hand, can make the same mistakes year after year, decade after decade, and still be just fine, as long as they have a good investment manager. There is no internal imperative to think historically in foundations. This was a major challenge for the first people who began to try to talk to foundations about their archives—they were telling them that there were things that could, in fact, be learned from their past, whether these things were mistakes or successes. And foundations weren't exactly sure why this was important for their current work.
The other challenge came from the historians, who had to be convinced that there was something valuable in foundation archives. Not a lot of people showed up at the [Rockefeller] Archive Center in the first decade or so of its existence. It took researchers some time to understand that, in addition to information about the foundations themselves, foundation archives contained rich historical material about organizations and people from all over the world.
These were the things that the first conference thirty years ago really tried to tackle. To make the case to both sides that archives had value to foundations and that historians could learn from those archives.
What I found fascinating about today's meeting is that we've taken it as a given that these archives are valuable historically. There hasn't been a lot of discussion about that, and that's a real sign of progress, I think. So, I want to thank everybody for today. Both the organizers and all of you for taking the time out of the press of immediate business to come here and spend a whole day thinking together about the field's new issues. As Darren said, I hope it's not another thirty years until we do this again.
Of course, there are still a lot of challenges out there. Many of the challenges come from two words that didn't even appear in the report 30 years ago. I looked back and the words "digital records" are nowhere to be found in the proceedings in 1990. But they present huge new challenges, both for your organizations and for those of us who are involved in running an archive for researchers. The issues mentioned today about how to give context to all this stuff that institutions are producing, and whether that context comes from new kinds of finding aids, or oral histories or linkages to other kinds of information will be a major challenge for all of us to unwind in the coming years.
There aren't simple answers to any of this. If there were, we could have sent you all an informational booklet, and we wouldn't have had this conference. The issues are something that as a community we really need to discuss together in order to move toward solutions—probably not a single solution but many solutions that will, themselves, inevitably evolve over time. But that's the value of ongoing discussions.
Closing Remarks of Nicki Lodico:
I just have a few things to add, and one is that I have had the great good fortune of working with Jack and his team since 2011. Wow, it's been quite a journey and it has been an amazing learning experience and an amazing partnership. I can't say that I've ever had a better partnership with another colleague organization. It's really been fantastic. Many of you in this room know that the Ford Foundation has been very happy to share what we've learned the hard way, and I invite you all to continue to be in contact because that's something that we're very willing to do and feel that we're obligated to do for the sector, and we take that very seriously.
I just want to share a few soundbites from today. First, "You want to keep records that tell your story but doing this isn't without risk." "Unfortunately, risk is an ever-changing landscape." That one terrifies me slightly. "Be flexible." We heard that, I think, in just about everyone's presentation. "Email has caused major disruptions in how we record our work." I think we all feel that universally. "We need to start paying attention to datasets," which is an emerging key challenge for records managers and archivists, and I don't know that anyone has any answers, but academia may be able to teach us a bit about what they know. "Oral history presents an enormous opportunity to record an organization's history." We're learning that now. We're working with Eric and his team. We've recently gone through the opening of oral histories that were recorded in the 1970s and wow, some of them were really "wow." But worth the wait. And then, "Partnership." Great work is happening in the sector, and I think we should continue to support each other and to champion this work.
And lastly, I want to say that Darren Walker does not say what he doesn't mean. So, I'm going to take him up on his gracious offer this morning of sponsoring a continued discussion about archives and records and philanthropy, and I hope to see you all at our next meeting.
To build a complete and nuanced picture of the history of philanthropy, the archival record must capture the history of foundations large and small and record the work of grantees in all sectors of society and across the globe. Publications like this one, as well as the recorded presentations available on YouTube, can provide support for new and growing foundation archives. But there is more work ahead. The ever-changing nature of how, where, and in what form foundations create and store records will require continued collaboration among archivists, records managers, legal experts, and other legal professionals.