Having taken a week to reflect on SAA 2016, this week I want to review the newly published presidential address by Kathleen D. Roe.  Roe recently retired from her position as the Director of Archives and Records Management Operations at the New York State Archives.  She delivered her presidential address at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Cleveland, Ohio, and it was published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of the American Archivist.

Roe asserted that while a focus on best practices is important, this alone cannot advance the profession.  She posed a number of important questions (7):

  • “Why do we keep what we keep?
  • “Why should people care?
  • “Why do archives matter?”

Roe argued, “Archives are, in fact and in reality, the essential evidence of our society.  It is absolutely critical that an even and representative archival record first survives and then is made available to any and all possible users” (7).  But rather than approaching people with rational reasons regarding the importance of archives, she contended that the better tactic is to address first the emotional weight of archives, focusing on the limbic brain.  One of Roe’s initiatives during her year as SAA president was the “Year of Living Dangerously,” which challenged archivists to talk about why archives matter.  Roe listed four examples, including specific, heart-touching stories for each.

  1. Archives Provide Essential Evidence.  An NPR research librarian found records at the National Archives that helped identify African American, Japanese American, and Puerto Rican troops that were exposed to chemical weapons testing during World War II, thereby underscoring the principle of government accountability.
  2. Archives Support the Creation of New Knowledge.  A research geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey used images and data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Barry Archives to document visually the effects of climate change on glaciers.
  3. Archives Provide a Laboratory for Students to Understand the Human Experience.  A struggling high school student became engaged in school while researching Ted Bundy for a History Day project and went on not only to graduate from high school but to graduate from college and law school.
  4. Importance to Cultural Heritage for Communities.  A Korean businessman challenged his archivist son to employ archives to tell their story.

Roe challenged her listeners, “We need to talk about the outcomes and values, the impact of archives” (11) — predicting that without such focus, archives could easily die (and be subsumed by other fields).

I wholeheartedly agree with Roe.  While archivists certainly need to iron out the details of how we do our work, I feel like we spend so much time focusing on these practices that we neglect our purpose — which ultimately has to be use of the archives.  Developing the best procedures in the world  is a meaningless task unless these procedures facilitate someone’s use of the archives.

SAA2016

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