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October 07, 2011

Ruth W. Helmuth, University Archivist, 1964-1985


As October begins another Archives Month in Ohio, it seems fitting to celebrate the CWRU Archives’ Founding Mother, Ruth W. Helmuth. Practitioner, educator, advocate. It is difficult to identify an aspect of the archival profession’s development in the 1970s and 1980s to which Ruth Helmuth did not contribute.

As a practitioner she merged classical archival theory with innovative use of technology and practices from related fields. The functional classification system she developed to describe the hierarchical arrangement of archival series was adapted by dozens of college and university archives. Even though she wasn’t certain how they would be used, she knew, in 1983, that the new desktop computers would be an important tool for archivists and provided funds and encouragement for her staff to experiment.

In the 1970s there were few opportunities for formal archival education in the United States. In 1970, Ruth Helmuth began a ten-year summer workshop that trained hundreds of archivists. In 1975, under her leadership, Case Western Reserve University established a double-degree program in archives administration which offered an MSLS from the School of Library Science and an MA in History. This was one of the earliest such programs in the United States. She worked within the Society of American Archivists (SAA) to develop educational opportunities and raise standards as a member of the Education and Training Committee, the Basic Workshop Committee, and the Professional Standards Committee.

Ruth’s service to the broader profession included chairing the Society of American Archivists’ College and University Archives Section and the Nominating Committee. She served on SAA Council and as Vice President and President. She was one of the founding members of the Society of Ohio Archivists (SOA), one of the earliest statewide archival associations. She also served a seven-year term on the Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board. She served on panels to review qualifications for the Archivist of the United States and director of the Gerald Ford Library.

In recognition of her accomplishments, SAA made her a Fellow, SOA issued a Special Citation, and CWRU named its archival endowment fund for her. A tribute by former MIT Archivist, Helen Samuels, at Ruth’s death summarizes the esteem in which Ruth Helmuth is held by the hundreds of archivists she influenced:

“Ruth taught us the basics and grounded us in our profession. Even more, she instilled in us the excitement and commitment to be first rate academic archivists. She trained a generation of college and university archivists, and I believe, contributed greatly to the strength and leadership that college and university archivists have played in our profession.” (Helen Samuels, posting to the Archives and Archivists list, July 22, 1997)

In 2011, in celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Society of American Archivists published a set of 75 trading cards featuring, among other notable achievements, people who made significant contributions to SAA or the archival profession. Ruth’s selection gave us one more opportunity to bask in her reflected glory and be grateful for her legacy.

Posted by jmt3 at October 7, 2011 02:55 PM

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