Attending the Tri-State Archivists Meeting (combining the annual meetings of the Society of North Carolina Archivists, the Society of Georgia Archivists, and the South Carolina Archival Association) gave me pause to compare the professional development activities common in my new profession of libraries and archives with those to which I was accustomed in my sixteen years of teaching high school social studies.  Although both professions place a premium of continuing education, it seems to me that the desired outcomes of conferences and other such events are quite different.

The impression that public school educators are generally underpaid and overworked is, unfortunately, far too accurate.  Teachers are required to earn continuing education credits to keep a valid teaching license, and these credits are generally accrued by attending workshops or by taking coursework toward an additional degree.  Some workshops and conferences are held during the regular school year (which requires teachers to write lesson plans for and secure payment for a substitute teacher) and many are also conducted during the summer.  Whether it’s in February or July, attendance at conferences requires a substantial investment of time and money for teachers.  When I had to be away from my classes, I generally found that it took me about 3-4 times as long to prepare lesson plans and detailed emergency procedures and everything else that was necessary for a substitute as it did for me to prepare the necessary materials for me to teach my own classes.  So I did not frequently attend conferences that took place during the school year.  But in order to attend workshops during the summer, I was making a substantial investment of my “free” time, because many workshops typically last a week, and the minimal stipends provided by organizations never covered all of the costs that I incurred.  Given these various costs of professional development for teachers, it is easy to understand why my colleagues were not generally fond of sessions that did not provide some practical ideas — preferably in the form of handouts and lesson plans — that could be taken back to one’s own classroom and implemented with little modification.  I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in two summer seminars sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and these were definitely the most intellectually demanding workshops in which I participated, as they were led by university professors and had extensive reading required before arrival.  But even these workshops also built in time for the preparation and sharing of relevant lesson plans during the course of the week.

I have attended two annual meetings of the Society of American Archivists along with the recent Tri-State Conference.  While teachers that come together for training seem much more interested in practical takeaways, archivists seem to place a higher premium on networking.  There are plenty of opportunities to meet with other archivists with similar interests to discuss strategies or to plan grant applications or to hash out articles or monographs to be written.  Section meetings at SAA tend a little more toward the practical; for instance, the Manuscripts Repositories section chose as its focus in 2012-2013 an electronic records initiative called the Jump In Initiative.  And I have to credit OCLC Research for being good about bringing its research to share — in hard-copy format — at SAA meetings.  But I have generally left archival meetings with more notes that make me reflect about the purpose of archival work than I have with practical information about techniques or strategies that can be implemented.  My unofficial sampling of attendees at local and state meetings versus national gatherings indicates that there is a higher preponderance of practitioners at the local and state meetings while there are more academics in attendance at SAA, but the paucity of generalizable solutions afflicts all of these levels.

So I’ve been asking myself what teachers and archivists could learn from each other about doing professional development well.  Full disclosure — I was one of the rare K-12 teachers who would register for conferences such as the Organization of American Historians, so I always embraced the idea that developing my intellectual curiosity helped to make me a better teacher — even if no practical lesson plans were gathered — because it made me more passionate about my subject matter.  The routine, mundane tasks of teaching can sometimes be so overwhelming that I think it is valuable for teachers to build in time for intellectual inquiry.  One simple model that could be adapted from SAA was where registrants for the New Orleans meeting were given the opportunity to sign up for a lunch-time discussion of a preprint of an article written by Mark Greene for the upcoming issue of The American Archivist.  Those of us who’d done our homework had a lively discussion in August, and this could easily be done at teachers’ meetings, reading an article about trends in historical inquiry, for example.

Archivists could also learn some things from teachers.  The archival world defines itself on uniqueness, so while it may be quite fascinating to learn what practitioners are doing in other repositories, even if I share some of their problems, their solutions are not likely to be one-size-fits-all.  While teachers are faced with the arduous task of differentiating lessons for dozens of learners in one classroom, they still cultivate a culture of generalization that could be invaluable to the archival profession.  Rather than just hearing a laundry list of accomplishments by different repositories, I would be much more enthusiastic to hear speakers identify the common problems that they have addressed and to specify the solutions that could be implemented in multiple repositories — for example, open source software products or standardized procedures.  I certainly don’t want to obscure the uniqueness that shapes the collections of archival repositories, but at the same time, there certainly are issues — such as handling electronic records — that affect most repositories.  Just as with teaching, archives are never going to suffer from excess resources, so if we can figure out ways to stop reinventing the wheel, everyone can benefit.