Archives and Knowledge Management

Bridging the Divide Between Scholarship and Practice: A View from the Rockefeller Archive Center

Editors’ Note: Laura Miller and Rachel Wimpee, historians and project directors at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), continue HistPhil‘s forum on archives and knowledge management. The RAC is the nation’s leading repository of philanthropic archives, holding the records of such important institutions as the Rockefeller, Ford, and Russell Sage Foundations, as well as numerous nonprofits and civil society organizations. It works to bring archival evidence and historical inquiry into contemporary philanthropic practice, fosters scholarship that draws on the history of philanthropy, and develops digitized online resources that make its collections more widely available. Both Miller and Wimpee work closely with foundations to help them understand the connections between their institutional histories and their current practice. In the following post, they describe in more detail the RAC’s important work.

How can history inform current philanthropic practice?  Over the past few years, our team of historians at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) has reflected on that question and how we might respond to it. We do this because our research center is attached to a repository of millions of philanthropic records from dozens of foundations and civil society organizations spanning over a century of history. The response we are crafting has been a series of activities to provide practitioners, scholars, and the public with an intellectual framework to understand and engage with debates about philanthropy:

  • We regularly publish our research in a variety of venues. One of our most widely-consulted publications is a narrative website on the history of the Rockefeller Foundation. We also publish dozens of research reports, where scholars describe current projects that draw on RAC collections.
  • When foundations engage in strategic thinking about new initiatives, we are often asked to provide them with background papers giving historical perspective and to participate in program staff meetings.
  • We contribute to foundation staff development through history presentations, meetings, and exhibits on specific foundation histories.
  • We maintain an up-to-the-minute bibliography of published works citing RAC records. That list has just surpassed six thousand items.
  • Former foundation staff members are themselves a treasure trove for historical research and practice. We regularly conduct oral histories and interviews with those individuals.
  • We regularly host foundation boards and program teams. During these visits, we create exhibits and give presentations focused on institutional history and culture, such as major turning points, fields of foundation activities, and presidential transitions.
  • Through a competitive research stipend program and our own open access policies, we foster independent scholarship on foundations and the many fields touched by philanthropy. Each year, approximately four hundred researchers visit the Rockefeller Archive Center, while thousands of others access our holdings through online finding aids and off-site reference services.
  • We promote transparency. Our vast archival holdings make the RAC itself a vehicle for long-term foundation accountability.

These experiences have led us to conclude that history and practice form a dynamic relationship, where we must at the same time affirm our expertise and recognize the limits of our knowledge and methodology.

Foundation staff become particularly engaged when they can see history as an interaction with their predecessors.

We find that our most effective connection occurs through primary sources.  When foundation staff members visit the Archive Center, we take them on a tour through our vaults and show them the rich trove that exists in our archives–an experience that has received high praise from visitors.  When we lead history sessions, we incorporate the voices of past by reading from letters and memos.  We do this because we’ve learned that foundation staff respond to examples of their predecessors’ wrangling with challenges similar to the ones they face now.

We also do this because their predecessors are eloquent and humorous.  Why on earth would we want to merely summarize Rockefeller Foundation Natural Sciences Director Warren Weaver’s 1946 “Notes on Officers’ Techniques”, when we can quote him directly instead?

Communication between historians and practitioners must be a two-way street.

The world of present-day philanthropic practice can feel far-removed from the historian’s archival comfort zone, but we cannot expect a receptive ear from foundations if we do not engage with their concepts and lexicon.  In order to help foundation officers connect their forward-looking work with historical precedent, we have to understand the questions that they are posing.  Just as we have worked with foundation staff to help them understand their past, in turn, they have helped us understand their current activities.  Public historians call this process “shared authority.”  As Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello explains, this means being “open to engaging in acts of translation in which we seek to understand fully another’s voice and perspective and demystify the language that we and others use to talk about what we do.”

What does this look like on the ground?  To provide just one example, we leave ample time at the end of our history sessions to engage in a conversation about current work.  We now conclude our talks with open-ended questions that seek to link past and present.  In a history session about foundations’ youth employment programs, we asked:  Do foundations shy away from risky projects out of fear of failure?  Which metrics matter when evaluating programs?  How might these stories from our vaults inform current efforts?  The lively discussion that followed reminded us that these in-depth conversations between scholars and practitioners — these “acts of translation” — are essential to our work.

In addition to the many lessons we’ve learned in working with foundations, challenges remain.  There are not always neat parallels between a foundation’s past and present work: funding structures have changed, program officers rarely spend their entire careers at one foundation as once was common, and changing context means that what worked in the 1950s won’t necessarily work today.  We also understand that history’s purpose is not — and should not be — merely utilitarian. Humanistic inquiry opens up new approaches to understanding problems, whether they be in the past or present. How do we push both historians and practitioners to see the relevance of concepts, ideas, and analytical approaches that are embedded in unfamiliar ways of operating?  At the RAC, these questions are always at the forefront of our minds as we seek opportunities to come together in conversation, to spark new points of connection.

-Laura Miller and Rachel Wimpee

Dr. Rachel Wimpee is a Historian and Project Director at the Rockefeller Archive Center. She holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from New York University with scholarly interests in gender, secularity, cultural representation and production, and the role of the humanities in public life. She joined the Archive Center in 2013 as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. An organizer of and participant in convenings on the humanities, history of philanthropy, and foundation archives, Dr. Wimpee is contributing to an emerging dialogue between scholars, archivists, and philanthropic practitioners. She holds a certificate in not-for-profit financial management and reporting and sits on the board of directors of the Croton-Harmon Education Foundation.

Laura Miller is a Historian and Project Director in the Research & Education division of the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC). She holds a Ph.D. in twentieth-century U.S. History and a M.A. in Public History from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At the Archive Center, her work focuses on the history of the Rockefeller Foundation and American philanthropy. To help Rockefeller Foundation staff connect their forward-looking work with historical precedent, she gives regular history presentations to Foundation staff, and advises on the Foundation’s history as it relates to their current programmatic efforts.  She also researches and writes essays and biographies for the RAC’s Rockefeller Foundation history website (  Miller came to the RAC with extensive public history experience, and has worked on projects for the National Park Service, the Organization of American Historians, and several local history organizations in Western Massachusetts. She is a coeditor of National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog (, and a member of NCPH’s Digital Media Group.

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