Sydel Silverman and Her Quest to Preserve Anthropological Records

"For anthropology, the unpublished records of the past are of more than historical interest.... They constitute primary data of all research."


The National Anthropological Archives recently acquired the papers of Sydel Silverman, an anthropologist known for her work as a researcher, writer, academic administrator, and foundation executive. After receiving her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1963, she taught at Queens College in New York (1962 to '75) and became executive officer of the CUNY Ph.D. program in  anthropology (1975 to '86). She later served as president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation from 1987 to 1999.

While at the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Silverman's interest in the history of anthropology led her to become heavily involved in an effort to preserve anthropological records. In 1991, along with Dr. Nancy Parezo, she began planning a conference that would deal with the preservation of anthropology's historical record. The conference, called "Preserving the Anthropological Record: Issues and Strategies," was held in spring 1992. Anthropologists, archaeologists, archivists, librarians, museum specialists, and potential funders met to identify the issues associated with preserving anthropological records. The conference attendees discussed the issues of records creation and use, ethical concerns, and the necessity of educating stakeholders.

Silverman2.jpg In "Preserving the Anthropological Record," an article written about the conference for the February 1993 issue of Current Anthropology, Silverman described the Resolution on Preserving Anthropological Records that the conference adopted. The resolution stated that "anthropologists have a professional responsibility to serve as stewards" of their "unpublished anthropological materials" because they are "irreplaceable" and "unique resources" that are "essential for future research and education." Anthropological records contain cultural information that is valuable to many different parties: the anthropologist who gathered the data, the informants who supplied the anthropologist with that data, other members of the informants' community, or those who wish to study that community.

Papers from the conference were published in a volume entitled Preserving the Anthropological Record, co-edited by Silverman and Parezo. This publication described why anthropological records should be kept, the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders, preservation issues, guidelines, and strategies. In the book's introduction, Silverman expressed the core concern of the conference members: "For anthropology, the unpublished records of the past are of more than historical interest.... They constitute the primary data of all research -- data that are unique and unrecoverable." Silverman and the rest of the conference participants recognized that much of the anthropological record consisted of grey literature -- field notes, interviews, data sets, and more -- that could be of great value to future researchers.

In May 1993, a second Wenner-Gren conference, "Preserving the Anthropological Record II: Toward a Disciplinary Center," was held to define an action plan. This conference led to the creation of CoPAR, the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records. According to the statement on its homepage, CoPAR "sponsors programs that foster awareness of the importance of preserving anthropological records; provides consulting and technical support to archival repositories; provides information on records location and access; and fosters collaboration between archivists responsible for anthropological collections and tribal archivists." For more information on CoPAR, and Sydel Silverman's involvement in the movement to preserve anthropological records, visit the National Anthropological Archives website.

Images: Smithsonian Institution.

This post also appears on the Smithsonian Collections Blog, an Atlantic partner site.