Lessons learned about conference presentations

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For those interested in building professional reputations, presenting at regional or national conferences is a great way to do so.  But pulling together a proposal and getting it approved is a daunting task.  So with the Call For Proposals for SAA 2019 out (and due November 16th), let me share what I learned from presenting at the recent SAA/CoSA/NAGARA meeting in Washington, DC.

First of all, do not assume that you can be a standalone session presenter.  I’ve been attending conferences for a number of years and can’t remember seeing one of these.  That means there are two styles of sessions: cohesive and complementary.

  • Complementary sessions are where people with similar interests coalesce into one session.  The SAA program committee facilitates this sort of collaboration by creating a Google doc where people can post their ideas and seek out others with similar ideas.
  • Cohesive sessions usually come out of preexisting relationships and/or work.  I’ve seen sessions where grant partners present their progress or co-authors discuss an upcoming book.

If you don’t have a preexisting group or you don’t work at an institution large enough to have various folks who’ve all contributed different parts to a project, it can be difficult to conjure up a plan for a cohesive session.  But by my nature, I like to learn from colleagues who are doing similar work, and this turned out to be a good foundational step to coordinating a cohesive session.

When I began working on a functional scheduling project at the State Archives of North Carolina, I reached out to the folks in Washington and Wyoming who had already completed their functional schedules.  Although cold calling folks can be a little intimidating, I’ve found that archives people are usually willing to share their knowledge.  With this connection in place, when I finished the project and started thinking about presenting my work, I contacted Russell Wood and Mike Strom again, and they graciously agreed to join me on a session proposal.  We had a conference call to talk through the elements of our proposal and shared a draft via email before we submitted.

After our proposal was approved, we stayed in communication via email and had several conference calls to hash out details for our presentation.  Because I’d taken the lead in creating the session, I also took on the responsibility of generating a slide deck template.  Based on our conversations, I laid out the common elements of our projects about which we could each provide perspective:

  • Motivations
  • Scope
  • Structure
  • Process
  • Impacts
  • Challenges

You can find these slides at https://sched.co/ESmq.  Several of our session attendees commented that they appreciated the unified visual appearance of our slides, so I think this effort was a worthwhile means of contributing to the cohesiveness of the session.  And I think presenting different perspectives on the same work was useful to our participants.

The format of our presentation was a panel discussion, so we allowed time after our individual presentations for questions from the audience.  Wanting to avoid the possibility of a deadly silent room, we prepared some questions ahead of time that we could use as conversation prompts in case our presentations didn’t generate any questions from the attendees (but luckily this was not the case).

Much of the advice that I’ve laid out about structuring a cohesive session could also be applied to a complementary session — it’ll just take a little more effort to coordinate folks who don’t have a preexisting relationship.  Good luck with your proposals!


“Archives, History, and Technology: Prologue and Possibilities for SAA and the Archival Community”

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In preparation for next week’s annual SAA meeting, it’s time for me to take a look back at Nancy McGovern’s address delivered at the annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, in 2017.  McGovern has served on the senior staff of the Center for Electronic Records at the U.S. National Archives (1986-96), as electronic records manager at the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary (1996-1998) and at Audata, a digital services consulting firm in the United Kingdom (1998-2001), as director of Research and Assessment Services and digital preservation officer at Cornell University Library (2001-6), and as the research assistant professor and digital preservation officer at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (2006-11); she is currently the Director of Digital Preservation at MIT Libraries.  Her speech was published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the American Archivist.

McGovern introduced three topics as context for her address:

  • Technology.  She incorporated numerous definitions of technology, arguing that the “people part” of technology — “sociotechnical system involving the ‘manufacture and use of objects involving people and other objects in combination'” is the hardest part (10).  Rather than bemoaning the difficulties that accompany technological change, McGovern encouraged archivists to focus on the opportunities for advancement and improvement that technology can bring to our profession.
  • History.  McGovern drew a simple line between technology and history: “History helps us to understand where specific technologies came from so we can better understand how to use and evolve them; to understand the evolution of our archival principles and practice; and to know ourselves” (11).
  • Archives.  McGovern used the American Archivist as a window onto archival theory and practice over time and challenged archivists to investigate more fully both this journal and”” the SAA Archives as sources of our history.

Doing a deep dive into the American Archivist enabled McGovern to discover the first uses of a number of technological terms, including machine readable (1963), digital records (1982), electronic record (1984), digital preservation (1992), and born digital (2002).  But all of this was merely a preface to connecting to the theme for the 2017 annual meeting and discussing the archival community.  She used the stages of the organization maturity model to evaluate SAA overall as moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4 (15):

  1. “Acknowledge: understanding that this is a local concern
  2. “Act: initiating projects
  3. “Consolidate: segueing from projects to programs
  4. “Institutionalize: incorporating larger environment; rationalizing programs
  5. “Externalize: embracing inter-institutional collaboration and dependency”

For digital practice in particular, which she defined as “continually working to bring content and lessons from the past to benefit the present on behalf of the future” (16), McGovern pegged SAA as shifting from Stage 2 to Stage 3.  The same is true for SAA’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion.  She argued one of the most important elements for developing diversity and inclusion is discomfort, which promotes awareness.  Where these two priorities overlap, McGovern pointed out there is a lack of diversity both among and within the institutions that engage in digital practice.  She suggested collaboration across professions — with libraries, data scientists, digital preservationists, software developers, records managers, and museums — should help develop these priorities and move SAA towards the goal of Stage 5.

McGovern laid out her vision for the next 20 years of SAA/archives/archivists (19-20):

  • We’ll collaborate with affiliated professions.
  • Our “members, policies, practice, collections, repositories” will all be inclusive.
  • We’ll practice “diverse diversity,” meaning “the need to ensure that diversity discussions address all forms of potential exclusion.”
  • We’ll work to use technologies in such a way that “outcomes are integrated from idea to creation to discovery and use.”
  • We’ll be responsive to social, cultural, legal, and technological change.
  • “We advance by pushing ourselves, playing to our strengths, and working together.”

McGovern concluded by suggesting next steps — for herself, but clearly with the implication she’d like to have others join her on this journey (20):

  • “I will—engage in any discussion however challenging that SAA needs or wants to have.
  • “I will—continue to contribute my expertise to help meet SAA’s objectives.
  • “We should—seek ways to collaborate with domains that share our goals and interests.
  • “We should—work to build a critical mass of members who are actively engaged in our priority areas.
  • “Don’t forget—that our practice is only limited by our own decisions in establishing policies and our familiarity with the development of practice, our own creativity and adaptability.”

Secondary values and unused records

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The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster seems to me a perfect example of secondary value.  The Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines it as “the usefulness or significance of records based on purposes other than that for which they were originally created.”  The poster was part of a set of three created by the British government during World War Two to boost morale, but only the first two were ever published.  The third was intended to be released in case of a German invasion of Britain — the fact that I found these images of these posters on a website selling various items with this slogan tells you the real value of this poster has been to shopkeepers and Internet retailers!

Thoughts of government records that were created and never used for their intended purpose led me to find a list compiled by Mental Floss of speeches that were written but never delivered:

  1. the 1969 speech written by William Safire and sent to Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t return from their landing on the moon
  2. the 1944 speech written by Dwight D. Eisenhower in case the D-Day invasion failed
  3. the 1970 speech written by Wamsutta James for Plymouth’s 350th anniversary celebration of the arrival of the Pilgrims (a speech that was rejected by the event organizers for its unvarnished explanations of the difficult relationship of Native Americans with the Pilgrims)
  4. the 1974 speech written by Raymond Price to enable Nixon to go on TV and announce that he was going to fight to keep his job
  5. the November 1963 speech that JFK was intended to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas (but never delivered because he was assassinated)
  6. the 2000 address Anna Quindlen wrote for Villanova’s commencement (but never delivered due to controversy over her views on abortion)
  7. the September 11, 2001, speech National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice intended to deliver at Johns Hopkins University (but the attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania occurred)
  8. the 1983 speech written by Aquino for his return to the Philippines from exile in the U.S. (but never delivered because he was assassinated upon his return)
  9. the October 1962 speech written for JFK that suggested the U.S. would use nuclear weapons if necessary to eradicate the Soviet missile installations in Cuba (an alternative JFK didn’t exercise)
  10. the September 2012 speech written for Romney to undo the damage from his comment that 47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes
  11. the 2008 victory and concession speeches of Sarah Palin
  12. the April 1945 speech by FDR that was intended for a Jefferson Day celebration (but he died the day before its intended broadcast)


“The Site of Memory”

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At the Society of North Carolina Archivists annual meeting this year, I had the pleasure of hearing Holly Smith (the archivist of Spelman College) deliver the keynote address.  She spoke about the importance of documenting underrepresented communities and made several comments worth noting:

  • She quoted the West African proverb, “No one is ever truly dead until they are forgotten.”
  • She acknowledged HBCUs have a challenge to avoid developing a singular narrative of African Americans.
  • She contended that we are all repositories — and sometimes people may choose not to share their stories, so we as archivists must respect that wish and trust them as stewards of that information.

She also referenced the writing of Toni Morrison on the differences between facts and truths, which motivated me to find this article and see what this great novelist had to say.  In 1995, her talk “The Site of Memory” was published in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir.  Morrison compared her work as a modern writer to that of the authors of slave narratives.  While they frequently felt inhibited from revealing their interior lives, Morrison suggested her purpose is “moving that veil aside.”  In order to do so, she needs two things — to trust her own recollections as well as those of others.  Because these interior lives may not always be a part of the record, she sees herself as a literary archaeologist.  By adding a dose of imagination, Morrison creates fictional masterpieces.

Morrison incorporated the words of other well-known authors to delve into the concept of memory:

  • Zora Neale Hurston: “‘Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.'”
  • She looked at how Frederick Douglass, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Baldwin wrote about the death of relatives.  Morrison said of her own ancestors, “these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.”

Tying together the various pieces she introduced, Morrison contended that “the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”  She compared the imagination of writers to flooding by rivers:

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.  Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.  It is emotional memory — what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.”

And to incorporate the point referenced by Holly Smith: Morrison acknowledged, “Fiction, by definition, is distinct from fact.”  But she went on to say that the more important distinction is fact from truth — “facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”  This relates back to her point about being a literary archaeologist, for she takes the image created by “the remains” of someone’s life story and adds her own recollections and imagination to create “a kind of a truth.”  I think ultimately she’s suggesting truth is more nuanced and doesn’t exist without our own personal filters.  In many ways, this is similar to my topic last week and Lee Smith’s evaluation of facts and truths.

Writing memories

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It’s time to get down in writing some of the ideas I’ve had on the back burner for a while, and the first of these relates to a talk I heard Lee Smith give at the National Humanities Center in March.  It was largely a reading from her memoir Dimestore, but she also provided some insights into her thoughts about writing.  In some ways, she found it more challenging to write nonfiction because she found herself stopping to ask, is this true?  But at the same time, she suggested writing is a therapeutic activity because it can fix loved ones in our memory.

Smith drew an interesting distinction between facts and truth.  After many decades of writing fiction along with this more recent nonfiction effort, she decided she can tell “the truth” better with fiction because she can make her story work to fit that truth, where the stories of real life may not quite so neatly add up to the narrative she wishes to communicate.  When she was writing the memoir, she brought her cousins together for a family reunion and realized everyone had different stories from shared events.  She decided that in the context of a memoir, as long as she believed them to be true, she could incorporate her memories into this work of nonfiction.  But she eventually decided she considers herself to be more of a storyteller than a writer.

This term storyteller actually has some interesting connotations.  As Smith pointed out, when she was growing up, if someone was accused of “telling a story,” it had the connotation of telling a lie.  Yet by the age of 9, she had begun her career of writing stories for entertainment — sometimes related to stories she heard at her father’s dimestore or at the courthouse where her grandfather was treasurer or at her grandmother’s house or in her mother’s kitchen.

In 1983, Smith wrote a novel entitled Oral History.  She explained she had worried about the homogenization of American language, so she spent many years recording her family in southwestern Virginia and wrote this novel to try to preserve some of their vernacular.  In a chapter narrated by the character Sally, she includes this commentary about memory:

“A lot of big things happened, is what I’m saying. It’s funny how you don’t remember those, though, how after the passing of so many years what you hold to is what you never thought about at the time, like Pappy out on the porch singing or me and Mama having coffee so early in the morning” (244).

So what are the connections between writing and memory and fact and truth?  Whether or not we ever put pen to paper, I would suggest that the memories in our own lives that we hold dear are those that resonate with the narrative we’ve constructed of our lives — the events and people that come together to make us who we are.  Absent a daily diary, most of us don’t possess the day-by-day memories of every occurrence, but we remember the more formative interactions, both good and bad.  In doing so, perhaps we are reinforcing “the truth” of who we are.

Archival Principles: Authenticity

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block AI conclude my series on archival principles today with a look at authenticity.  The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines authenticity as:

the quality of being genuine, not a counterfeit, and free from tampering, and is typically inferred from internal and external evidence, including its physical characteristics, structure, content, and context.

Often times, the evaluation of authenticity focuses on the creation of the record and the path taken by this record before it comes to rest in an archival repository.  This is summed up by the term provenance, or “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”  I think archivists have embraced the principle of authenticity because of the desire to demonstrate the uniqueness of archival records.

Authenticity used to be demonstrated by signatures or wax seals, and these could be validated by testing inks and papers.  But with the emergence of born-digital records, there are no tactile measurements of authenticity.  Instead, many archivists have adapted the tools of digital forensics in order to be able to demonstrate that no changes have occurred to the files since they were deposited at the archival repository.

While for some authenticity may also bring the connotation of reliability, that gets complicated in the archival realm, so that will be the topic for musings on another day.

Archival Principles: Access

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block AThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines access as:

1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools.

2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance.

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, but I generally argue that if materials warrant archival preservation, they need to be made accessible.  The arrangement process I described last week helps facilitate access to archival records by identifying their content and other elements and concisely recording this information in a finding aid or other research aid.  Unfortunately, thoughts about access don’t always seem to bear on decisions about accessioning or preserving materials.  In researching my master’s paper, I found particularly with born-digital materials a lack of planning about how electronic materials will be made accessible to researchers.

Traditionally, access to archival records has been provided to researchers who come to the reading rooms of archival repositories.  Occasionally, remote researchers would request materials be microfilmed for their review off-site.  Increasingly, the researcher’s impulse to “let me Google that” is leading repositories to consider digitizing materials to make them available for online access.

There are certainly advantages to providing remote access to digital copies of archival materials.  For one, doing so removes some of the stumbling blocks that researchers unfamiliar with archival practices and protocols face when visiting a reading room for the first time.  It can also broaden the reach of your repository to those who may never be able to darken the door.

But there are also accompanying disadvantages.  Items that are put online can often be discovered by search engine rather than by navigating through a finding aid on the archives website.  Archives are increasingly thinking about the metadata they associate with files to enhance this discoverability, but making it easier for people to Google materials means they may miss out on the context of the rest of the collection in which the particular document or picture is located.  Without any personal interactions with an archivist, the researcher may also miss out on advice about other related materials.

The other issue repositories must address if they want to provide online access — and which can become a disadvantage if it’s ignored — is what’s the plan for accomplishing this?

  • What should be digitized — individual items that are requested? entire collections that are heavily researched? everything?
  • Can the scanning be handled in-house or will it need to be outsourced?
  • Does the repository have a collection management system that can provide the technological infrastructure necessary to upload digital assets to the World Wide Web?

Much more could be written about this, but for now I’ll conclude by saying that scanning materials in a haphazard will only create headaches both in the short-term and definitely in the long-term.

One final issue that has become more contentious in the era of online access is the appropriate role/responsibility of the archival repository in protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the donors and the subjects of the archival materials.  When these materials were only available under restricted conditions within archival reading rooms, many donors didn’t think too carefully about the ramifications of the materials being publicly accessible.  But now even with yearbooks and college newspapers and other materials that were clearly public at the time of their publication are appearing with increasing regularity among digital collections, more and more people are embracing the idea long common in Europe of the right to be forgotten — and archival repositories are left to figure out how to handle take-down requests.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the realm of archival access.

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