As long as I’ve paused my series on archives and history to look at Archives*Records 2016, I want to reflect on the evolution of presidential addresses for the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  Having read the speeches from Albert. R. Newsome through Kathleen Roe (and heard Dennis Meissner’s recent speech in Atlanta), I’ve noticed a number of changes that have occurred over the years.

  1. The tenure of the president was originally longer.  Newsome served for three years, and the 2nd-8th presidents all served for two years.  Needless to say, these presidents had more opportunities to address their peers at annual meetings.
  2. For many years, the presidential address was a studied research article — or at least that’s what was published in the American Archivist.  In most cases, only the journal version of the address is accessible to me, so I cannot differentiate specifically between what was presented and what was published, but a common footnote mentions something along the lines of the published article being an expanded version of the presented address.

    Here are the current definitions provided in the editorial policy for the American Archivist:

    • Research Articles are analytical and critical expositions based on original investigation or on systematic review of literature.  A wide variety of subjects are encouraged.
    • Perspectives are commentaries, reflective or opinion pieces, addressing issues or practices that concern archivists and their constituents.
  3. Over the last few decades, perspectives have dominated the SAA presidential addresses (and this format peppered the series in previous years as well).  I would further divide perspectives (with examples of each):
    • Reflections on the state of the profession.  These speeches usually identify problems currently plaguing the archival profession.
    • Aspirational pieces on what archivists should do.  These speeches challenge archivists to do our work in better ways.
    • Inspirational pieces on what archivists should be.  These speeches challenge archivists to look beyond quotidian concerns and consider the bigger picture of the importance of archival work.
      • Mark Greene laid out his core archival values
      • Frank Boles made his argument for the profound value of archival work

Both personally and professionally, I find the research articles and the aspirational/inspirational pieces most useful to me.  I’ll admit that the process by which someone is nominated to become SAA president is somewhat of a mystery to me, but I trust these individuals have distinguished themselves professionally in a manner befitting of their nomination.  I also realize that the “sage-on-a-stage” model has its critics among conference participants, but personally, I recognize the limitations of my own knowledge and experience, so I still relish the opportunity to learn at the feet of someone with greater knowledge and experience.

I’m not sure what it says about the profession when those with the most experience are no longer the primary ones producing research articles.  On the one hand, I suppose it’s good the American Archivist provides younger, non-tenured professionals with an opportunity to publish.  But I hope the sages of the profession don’t forget the responsibility to share their wisdom with those of us who are still eager to learn.

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