“But a Thin Veil of Paper”

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Frank Boles delivered his presidential address at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Austin, Texas.  He worked for the Chicago Historical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He then worked at the University of Michigan as an archivist at the Bentley Historical Library and as an instructor in archival administration within UM’s School of Information.  Since 1991, Boles has served as director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.  His address was published in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the American Archivist.

Although this was not the speech Boles first intended to deliver, this relatively short alternate certainly ranks high on the list of inspiring thoughts about archival work.  His basic premise was that archivists make a profound difference in the world.  He acknowledged there are elements to archival work that don’t revolve around history, specifically (20):

  • documenting transactions
  • preserving “records needed for administrative purposes”
  • preserving “material for reasons of legal and fiscal accountability”

While he recognized the importance of this work, he also contended that it is short-lived, while the past is the enduring purpose for archives because:

“It explains why we are.  It opens a window to our individual and collective souls. Archives are, and will remain, that place where, above everything else, the souls of a person and of a community are both preserved and laid bare.  Insofar as any human can find truth, truth is in our holdings. Insofar as any human can find immortality, immortality is in our stacks” (20-21).

Given his professional expertise in the field of appraisal, it makes sense that Boles identified it as the crucial “professional tool that defines remembrance and forgetfulness” (21).  He criticized archivists who refuse to bear the burden of selection because of fear of mistakes.  He also acknowledged the importance of arrangement and description, comparing archivists to foresters who must care for the “vast stands of intellectual timber.”  But he warned against focusing too much on the nitty-gritty work of description (e.g., coding, controlled vocabularies) rather than viewing it as “a bridge always helping the users move from what they know to what they wish to learn” (22).

Boles recognized the difficulties of handling electronic records and challenged archivists to prepare ourselves for this work rather than hoping someone else will provide some panacea.  As for preservation, he pointed out the necessity of re-appraisal rather than buying time for all records indiscriminately by carrying out costly conservation or digitization efforts.  Boles also included advocacy as a crucial responsibility for archivists.  He suggested archivists should advocate not for self-serving motives but “to ensure we can carry forward our collective missions with sufficient resources and working within a positive and helpful legal framework” (24).

In his conclusion, Boles returned to the importance of memory and the role of archivists in preserving it:

“We cause to be remembered triumph and tragedy.  We give voice to those who can no longer speak.  We preserve memories for those who can no longer remember.  Archivists weave a veil of paper, through which, however dimly, the present can see the past and the living can hear the dead.  We archivists are the stewards of humanity’s legacy” (25).

In identifying the care of archives as a form of stewardship, he asserted it requires both “deep learning and supple adjustment” (25).  Acknowledging this can be a difficult balance to strike, Boles urged archivists to see the profession as a calling rather than merely a job:

“Hear the archival calling.  Hear it both in your head and in your heart, and choose to live it.  Doing so gives archivists the vision and the power to link present to past, and living to dead.  Doing so is the highest goal to which we aspire.  Doing so is truly within your grasp if you choose to reach out” (25).

The next time you find yourself questioning the importance of your work, I suggest taking a few minutes to read this address.  I guarantee you’ll be able to resume your work with much greater vigor, determination, and sense of purpose.

“The Power of Archives: Archivists’ Values and Value in the Postmodern Age”

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Mark A. Greene delivered his presidential address at the 2008 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in San Francisco, California.  He began his career as an archivist at Carleton College (1985-1989), and then spent ten years as curator of manuscripts acquisition at the Minnesota Historical Society.  He spent two years as the head of research center programs at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.  From 2002-2015 , he served as director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, where he currently serves as Senior Archivist Emeritus.  His address was published in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of the American Archivist.

Greene’s basic premise was that defining a profession is the key to power, and “one of our profession’s weaknesses is that we tend to focus too much on our processes and not enough on our purpose” (18).  He claimed archivists exercise power “by shaping the historical record, by promoting freedom of government information, by protecting rights, by educating young minds, by affecting the way scholars apprehend and understand the materials in our repositories, by providing substance to powerful entertainment” (20).

Greene asserted that in order for archivists to translate importance into power, we must first define our values and then use our power.  He identified ten values that he believes are key to the archival profession — though he also challenged readers to debate his list and suggest additional core values for archivists.

1. Professionalism

He focused on “internalizing a common set of values, defining our importance,
and claiming power” as vital characteristics of the archival profession.  He pointed to former SAA presidents Rand Jimerson and Maygene Daniels for their thoughts on leading the public to value the archives profession.

2. Collectivity

Greene asserted that one of the contributions of archival thought is our focus on the aggregate rather than the individual — a notion of ours that could be modeled for other professions.  He viewed this value both through the prism of strength in numbers among the profession and as collaboration with allied professions.

3. Activism

He defined three elements to activism:

• “‘agency’ — our active shaping of the historical record” (25) — which he argued is most evident in the act of appraisal.  He went on to say that agency is “part of our ability to claim importance and relevance: we make decisions that define what our institutions and society can remember, attain, conceive; we actively shape the way that users encounter our materials and the way they in turn shape the past, including controlling what portions of the past are easily accessible to all and which are accessible only to our physical visitors.  We should be proud of these decisions, not shrink from them” (26).

• advocacy — which must be supported both through personal effort and financial commitments.  Here Greene looked to incoming SAA president Frank Boles for inspiration.

• “our deliberate decisions to give voice to the otherwise underdocumented individuals and communities in our midst” (25)

4. Selection

Greene explained the archival appraisal process succinctly:

“We select because we affirm the necessity of such appraisal and our professional ability to do it thoughtfully and defensibly (though not objectively and scientifically)” (27).  He went on to explain that the appropriate time for appraisal is “at the point of acquisition” (28).

5. Preservation

He was wary about including preservation as a core value, arguing that “use should almost always trump preservation” (29).  He concluded that the appropriate role for archivists is to “provide a professional assessment of what should be preserved and why” (30).

6. Democracy

Greene viewed democracy primarily through the lens of governmental accountability.  He also asserted archivists should be watchdogs for greater access to records.

7. Service

He argued that an archivist must first serve the needs of one’s institution and clients and then consider the greater social good.  He defined service as “the linchpin between access and use” (32) and suggested that archivists have a responsibility to market our repositories to our constituents.

8. Diversity

Greene interpreted diversity primarily as the need to have diverse holdings and users.  He argued that individual repositories must shoulder the responsibility of introducing archives to “underserved” communities and attracting minority populations into the profession.  He pointed back to SAA president Elizabeth Adkins for her promotion of diversity.

9. Use and Access

He suggested archivists “should do everything we legally, ethically, and practically can to promote, ease, and sustain use by whomever our user group(s) happens to be” (34).  Where the interests of rights-holders and calls for privacy and confidentiality compromise access, Greene argued archivists should at the very least fight for sunset provisions that will allow for eventual access to the materials after the death of the subjects.  He also acknowledged the symbolic use of archives, wherein people who may never themselves enter an archives still “‘use’ certain material simply by being proud or happy or secure that it exists” (36).

10. History

Greene cautioned that the legalistic bent of archival discourse in the 1990s negated the role of history for archives, thereby excluding “the very value that our institutions and society most often identify and cherish about our profession” (36).  He asserted,

“We preserve and make accessible for use the primary sources of history.  Through our active selection, our conscious choices in writing descriptions, and our role as mediators in reference, we help translate primary sources into sources of meaning for users” (38).

Greene’s conclusion brought home his point about the power of archives: “When values are shared, a new level of shared meaning evolves, leading to aligned, effective action and results — in other words, power” (39).  He also suggested a possible “elevator speech” that summarizes the archival profession:

“Archivists are professionals with the power of defining and making accessible the primary sources of history, primary sources that protect rights, educate students, inform the public, and support a primal human desire to understand our past” (40).

The end of the story: In August 2008, SAA followed up on his challenge to develop shared values by appointing a task force to determine the feasibility of such an endeavor.  This task force recommended moving forward, so in July 2009, another task force was chosen to develop a values statement.  In May 2011, the SAA Council approved a set of core values for archivists, and in January 2012, the SAA Council resolved to co-publish the Core Values of Archivists with SAA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists.

“Our Journey Toward Diversity — and a Call to (More) Action”

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Elizabeth W. Adkins delivered her presidential address at the 2007 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Chicago.  She began as an archives specialist at Kraft Foods in 1986 and after one year became the archives manager (1987-1996).  She was the manager of archives services (1996-2001) and director of Global Information Management (2001-2009) for Ford Motor Company.  She transitioned to the same position at CSC (2009-2013) and then served as senior principal of Information Governance for one year (2013-2014).  Beginning in 2015, she has served as the director of Information Governance at Grant Thornton LLP.  An expanded version of her address was published in the Spring/Summer 2008 issue of the American Archivist.

Adkins was only the second corporate archivist to serve as president of SAA — the other being William Overman in 1957-1958.  She chose to focus her address on the topic of diversity — specifically:

  • how SAA defines diversity
  • how SAA measures up regarding diversity vs. how related professions have done
  • how SAA has encouraged diversity
  • how SAA can expand its commitment to diversity and act accordingly

For her definition, she turned to the 1999 report of SAA’s Task Force on Diversity, which incorporates “personal and cultural background, socioeconomic status, and physical limitations” as well as “gender, race, ethnicity, geographical location, age, or physical abilities” (24).  She looked at the 2004 census of the archival profession and compared it to 1956 and 1982 surveys to identify trends in membership in the archival profession.  Most notably, the number of women in the profession rose from 33% to 66% in this time period.  She also recognized that baby boom archivists were beginning to retire without the necessary influx of younger archivists to replace them.  Although there was some progress in the racial and ethnic diversity of the archival profession, it still lagged far behind the diversity of the American population at large.  Adkins found similar issues with diversity among the librarian, museum professional, and IT communities.  To clarify the importance of encouraging diversity, Adkins asserted:

“The archives profession cannot make its full contribution to society if many highly capable people view it as closed or irrelevant to them” (27).

In her history of SAA’s diversity efforts, Adkins highlighted the decade of the 1970s as the era when there began to be concerted efforts to address diversity within the membership and leadership ranks.  Coming out of the recommendations of the Committee for the 1970s were a Committee on the Status of Women and a Women’s Caucus.  In 1972, SAA adopted a resolution “eliminating discrimination within the Society on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, lifestyle, or political affiliation” (32).  Professional affinity groups — which have evolved into today’s sections and roundtables — began within SAA in the late 1970s to address the personal and professional interests of members.  The major detractor to the push for diversity was that government archivists left SAA in 1974 to form the National Association of State Archives and Records Administrators.  During the 1980s, there was a Task Force on Minorities, which made several recommendations that were adopted:

  • creation of a Membership Committee
  • new member orientation at annual meetings
  • single-day registration fee for annual meetings

But other recommendations, such as offering scholarships to minority archival students, did not garner action at the time.  In 1997, the SAA Council created a Task Force on Diversity.  In addition to defining diversity, as noted above, this task force presented numerous recommendations to the SAA council (34-35):

  • “develop an official SAA position statement on diversity”
  • “incorporate diversity into SAA’s strategic planning process”
  • “reinforce and expand existing activities that support diversity”
  • “identify and establish new initiatives to support diversity”

In May 2003, the SAA Council voted to create a Committee on Diversity.  Adkins identified several actions and decisions by SAA in the early 21st century regarding diversity (38):

  • “Diversity has been and will be incorporated into every Council agenda
    for the foreseeable future.
  • The Council, SAA staff, and all SAA units must report on diversity initiatives.
  • The president-elect and the Appointments Committee are required to report on the demographics of all committee appointments and on what was done to seek diversity in committee appointments.
  • The Program Committee and Host Committee must report on efforts to address diversity issues in the planning and scheduling of annual meeting programming.
  • The Diversity Committee has been asked to provide a report on the state of diversity at the annual business meeting each year.”

Adkins pointed to a practice initiated by her predecessor, Richard Pearce-Moses, that encouraged broader involvement in SAA leadership — that being allowing members to apply for appointments to SAA committees rather than relying on the acquaintance of the president.  She also pointed to the creation of student chapters — beginning in the 1990s — as a good way to grow more leaders for the profession.

Adkins acknowledged that while some progress had been made, much remained to be done for diversity within SAA.  She first listed the recommendations of the Task Force on Diversity that had received action:

  • a position statement on diversity was created, and diversity became an integral part of SAA’s strategic plan
  • more annual meeting sessions focused on diversity
  • open applications for appointments (although the Task Force recommended included an intern on each committee — a recommendation that has recently resurfaced)
  • profiling the diversity of SAA
  • developing educational opportunities for nonarchivists serving underrepresented groups
  • incorporating more diversity content into exhibits at annual meetings

Adkins also offered suggestions for how to address some of the other recommendations of the Task Force:

  • encourage university archivists to promote the use of archival materials in minority studies programs — both to increase usage of the archives and as a form of outreach to potential young professionals
  • redesign SAA’s website so that both its structure and content attract greater diversity (Part of this recommendation was to provide resources in multiple languages, but I can find no evidence of this outside of Spanish versions of two brochures regarding donating records to a repository.)
  • develop alternative entry points into the archival profession so that required educational criteria don’t create a barrier
  • increase financial aid for meeting and workshop attendance and for scholarships for graduate archival education
  • replicate successful initiatives in archival education that recruit minorities and document diverse groups
  • develop continuing education that focuses on serving diverse communities
  • create membership materials that better appeal to underrepresented groups
  • develop a mentoring program within SAA for underrepresented groups
  • conduct better public relations efforts, especially among the young and underrepresented ethnic and racial groups
  • create internships for high school and college students as well as community representatives from underrepresented groups

Adkins asserted that embracing diversity benefits all within SAA.  She suggested that it requires transparency and an ongoing commitment to inclusion.  She concluded with a simple call to action:

“Handshakes, smiles, compliments, and conversation—these things cost absolutely nothing and can be offered by every single SAA member at every meeting.  That welcoming, respectful attitude must be the foundation upon which we build our path to diversity.  With inclusion as our foundation, the actions I suggest here will be important steps along the way.  But the journey cannot stop; we must keep moving forward—not just with words, but with action” (49).

“Janus in Cyberspace: Archives on the Threshold of the Digital Era”

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Richard Pearce-Moses delivered his presidential address at the 2006 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Washington, D.C.  During his archival career, Pearce-Moses worked as a Local Records Management Consultant for the Texas State Library, as Documentary Collections Archivist and Automation Coordinator for the Heard Museum, and as Curator of Photographs at the Arizona State University Libraries.  He also worked for nearly twelve years at the Arizona State Library and Archives — as Director of Digital Government Information, Coordinator of the Cultural Inventory Project, and lastly Deputy Director for Technology and Information Resources.  Finally, he was the first director of the Master of Archival Studies program at Clayton State University (2010-15).  This address was published in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the American Archivist.

Pearce-Moses used his presidential address to challenge archivists to focus on the future.  Like Herbert Angel in his 1967 presidential address, Pearce-Moses referenced Janus, the Roman god who faces both forward and backward — suggesting he is the “perfect patron of archivists” (13).  While archivists have an established history of protecting the past, Pearce-Moses asserted the core reason for this work is to make these records available in the future.

He acknowledged some of the changes brought on by new digital technologies, such as shorter planning horizons and greater expectations for access to information.  He considered three scenarios for what could happen to archives in the future:

  1. Status Quo.  This scenario was quickly dismissed by Pearce-Moses because of its implausibility.  The rapidly changing formats of records guarantee that things cannot stay the same.
  2. Worst-Case.  This scenario will come true if archivists don’t learn the skills necessary for the digital era.  Pearce-Moses noticed that increasingly business people involved in the oversight of electronic records are highly regarded while those caring for records rarely rise to the top of the organizational hierarchy.  Therefore, if archivists don’t embrace the digital era, his view of the future is that “records of enduring value are lost and poorly organized.  Often people cannot find the records they need, and if they do, those records are hard to use, understand, or trust. We will have lost our social memory” (16).
  3. Best-Case.  The rosy picture of the future depicts archives as critical institutions that preserve key records, providing easy access to them along with expert assistance.

Pearce-Moses suggested a number of steps necessary to make the best-case scenario a reality — most importantly, archivists must learn new skills to become comfortable with digital records.

  • Archivists should be as knowledgeable about digital records as we are about paper records.
  • Archivists must “appreciate that the fundamental nature of records has changed in the digital environment” (17).  The work that has been done on this front in the theoretical world needs to be translated into practical knowledge.
  • “Work with electronic records will not be a job for specialists as the majority of records will be digital” (18).  (Based on current job postings, I’m not sure we’ve reached this point of familiarity and flexibility yet in the archival world.)
  • Archivists must develop the soft skills necessary to work with people who work in the technological world.
  • Archivists need to think strategically — “We cannot predict the future, but we can influence it and confront it in more informed ways” (19).
  • We need trend spotters who can identify changes that will impact archives.
  • We need embracers who are willing and able to incorporate new technologies into archival work.
  • We need planners and evaluators to make sure archives’ use of technology ultimately suits the needs of the patrons.

In addition to these skills, Pearce-Moses listed some attitudes that are crucial for crossing this threshold into the digital world — many of which overlap with the skills already mentioned:

  • early adopters
  • risk takers
  • problem solvers
  • creativity
  • initiative/drive
  • reality — “Let us celebrate the reality of what we can accomplished, rather than bemoan the dream we did not fully realize” (20).

Finally, Pearce-Moses defined a set of core principles and goals that should guide the work of archivists (20-21):

  • “Archivists select and keep records that have enduring value as reliable
    memories of the past.”
  • “We organize our collections so that the information in the records can
    be found and interpreted in proper context.”
  • “We help people use and understand those records.”
  • “We protect records from degradation, ensuring that they remain accessible
    over time.”
  • “Archivists know that ‘what is past is prologue,’ that history informs and
    influences the future.”
  • “We understand the importance of authenticity and trustworthiness.”
  • “We are driven by knowledge that records play a key role in holding
    people and organizations accountable.”

Pearce-Moses concluded with this challenge to archivists:

“Ultimately, to thrive in this world, to realize the best-case scenario, we need
the spirit and attitudes of pioneers.  We need the courage and—maybe more
important—the desire to step outside our comfort zones.  We need the willingness to leave what is comfortable and familiar and to pass through the doorway
to the unknown.  If we learn to be comfortable taking risks, we can take a
leading role on the digital frontier.  We can be pioneers—first through the
door, scoping the terrain, and figuring out what to do next.  And if we are on the
leading edge, we will be better positioned to fulfill our social mandate of
preserving the cultural record” (22).