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!


2017 SNCA Conference

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The annual conference for the Society of North Carolina Archivists (SNCA) took place in Asheville on Thursday and Friday.  This year’s theme was “Working together: documenting diverse dialogues and communities.”

The plenary session featured Dr. Darin Waters, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.  His talk was entitled “Assisting the Discovery of Ourselves.”  He recounted some of his experiences with noted historian John Hope Franklin and pointed us to Franklin’s 1969 article published in the American Archivist entitled “Archival Odyssey: Taking Students to the Sources.”

Waters also spoke of his support for the project at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office, which led an effort to identify and digitize slave deeds found in their records.

Waters asserted that history is about identity and explained that archives allow us to evaluate people’s efforts at self-determination.  He provided the example of an 1865 letter that a former slave, Jourdon Anderson, wrote to his master.  He also contended that archives are necessary to dispel false narratives and correct collective memory.

Waters is taking his viewpoints beyond the campus with a radio show with fellow professor Marcus Harvey.  Frank Stasio of WUNC’s The State of Things interviewed them earlier this week about their broadcasts.  SNCA member Gene Hyde, head of Special Collections at UNC Asheville, was a recent guest on their show.


Meredith Evans, the director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, delivered the keynote address.  She suggested four keys to archival work:

  • collecting – It’s no longer feasible to collect upon the death of the donor because electronic materials need to be collected in real time.
  • connecting – Archivists need to connect not just with donors of materials but also for purposes of funding and with users.
  • collaborating – Evans defined this as doing work with people who work somewhere else (and emphasized that all must pull their weight!).
  • community – She contended it’s our social responsibility to spend time with people in our community.

Archives*Records 2016

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The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists concluded yesterday in Atlanta, Georgia.  This year’s meeting was a joint meeting with the Council of State Archivists.

David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, spoke during the opening plenary session and as usual provided some interesting food for thought.  In assessing the impact of presidential directives and executive orders on the work of NARA, he suggested that rather than being burdensome, these requirements are “insinuation opportunities” that open the door for NARA to begin conversations regarding records management.  What a beautiful way of looking at the glass as half full!  (See his blog for a full version of his comments.)

Chris Taylor, Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society, delivered the keynote address.  He suggested that instead of talking about best practices, we need to start embracing the idea of next practices.  I like this idea of constantly evaluating and iterating professional practices.

The business meeting of the Government Records Section included a panel discussion led by David Brown, archivist of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Geof Huth, Chief Records Officer of the New York State Unified Court System.  They encouraged archivists to examine our orthodoxies and become disruptors.  I was especially interested in two comments made by Booth:

  • Archivists have better things to worry about than some post-apocalyptic need to access records, so analog copies of digital records are unnecessary.
  • Old paper documents can have both artistic and artifactual values.  He dubbed the digitization of paper records as an “electrified” system.

Brown also contributed some nuggets of wisdom:

  • Competence comes from giving people answers, not options.
  • If the wall shakes when you’re beating your head against it, you’re accomplishing something.

The advice I most want to implement came from Kathleen Roe, former president of the SAA and retired state archivist for New York.  She asserted, “Archivists need to be proactive, not reactive.”  In my opinion, this mindset has the greatest possibility of changing the archival profession.

For information about other sessions specifically related to records management topics, check out The Schedule, the blog for SAA’s Records Management Roundtable.

“Letting Sleeping Dogmas Lie”


Frank G. Burke delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in September 1992 in Montreal, Quebec.  Burke began his career working in manuscripts collections at the University of Chicago and the Library of Congress.  He worked at the National Archives from 1967-1987, including serving as executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission from 1975-1988 (except for the period from April 1985- December 1987 when he was Acting Archivist of the United States).  From 1988-1996, he was a professor of archival studies in the College of Library and Information Services at the University of Maryland.  His address was published in the Fall 1992 issue of the American Archivist.

Burke introduced his address by recounting a February 1992 message from the ARCHIVES.LISTSERV that sparked a passionate debate about the education of archivists.  He then cited the archival literature, beginning with a 1939 report from the SAA Committee on Training and continuing through the 1992 draft report on the curriculum project of the Committee on Automated Records and Techniques.  The combination lit review and online forum helped Burke identify four dogmas to which archivists subscribe (532):

  1. “Archives are unique.”
  2. Most archivists have training as historians.
  3. A few core courses and a practicum constitute sufficient archival education.
  4. “Only archivists can teach archives to future archivists.”

Burke then evaluated each of these dogmas individually.  He acknowledged archives are unique but asserted they can still share similarities and, therefore, “can be treated as classes or types of material, and that treatment can be shared with others” (532).  He posited that archivists were afflicted by “intellectual elephantiasis,” touching and describing parts of the animal while not recognizing that the entire elephant represents information — with archives, manuscripts, records management, etc. only parts of that whole.  He challenged archivists to recognize our relationships with other information professionals, much as various individuals in the medical profession may have specific specialties but still share a common field.

Burke suggested finding archivists who trained as historians would be quite likely at the National Archives or at state archives but not as much in “academic special collections, local historical societies, special libraries,” etc. (533).  He suggested the wisdom of broadening the attraction of archival work to other academic departments beyond the history department, noting that manuscript repository members outnumbered government records members at the time (and were not as likely to be trained as historians).

At the time of his SAA presidency, Burke was a professor at the University of Maryland, so it makes sense that his analysis in this address of archival education was extensive.  Of course, this was not a new topic of interest, having fairly recently been addressed by SAA presidents William Joyce and Ruth Helmuth.  Burke drew an interesting difference between the terms training and education:

“Are we training people, as we train assembly line workers to do as we say, with no deviation, or are we educating them to think, to stretch, to question, and thus to create?” (533)

He evaluated the education available in history departments and library schools and suggested the best course could be re-envisioning the core curriculum at library schools and developing four courses that would be useful to archivists as well as librarians, manuscript curators, and museum specialists (534).

  1. “the history of cultural institutions and their place in society; the development,
    communication, and uses of information in society; and the professions that have had to develop in order to deal with information creation, preservation, and dissemination”
  2. evaluating materials for collection or retention
  3. “adding value to assembled materials through their organization and description”
  4. research materials — e.g., physical characteristics, preservation

Burke pointed out the inconsistency of the argument that only archivists can teach archivists alongside the dogmatic assertion that most archivists are trained as historians.  He suggested several paths forward, including double master’s programs (i.e., a professional degree + an academic degree, such as history).  He also acknowledged the 50-year old Bemis committee proposal for Ph.D. archivists who would become administrators and educators and M.A. archivists who would become practitioners.  Lastly, he expressed hope that a Ph.D. program in archival studies would develop.  According to the SAA Directory of Archival Education, it appears the practice today is to offer Ph.D. degrees in library and/or information studies with a focus in archival studies.  (A few programs are listed with an even more generic Doctor of Philosophy without any specifics.)

Burke loosely based his title on Abraham Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress in 1862 (not his second inaugural address, as cited):

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Although archivists were not involved in a civil war in 1992, Burke did make a strong argument about how the poor state of the economy was affecting archives and especially educational institutions.  His closing challenge did have the tone of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, urging archivists to “recognize the family to which we all belong, provide service without feeling servitude, and advance the cause of knowledge and experimentation, inquiry, and doubt, without concern that the icons of the past shall fall” (536-37).

“Archival Education: Two Fables”


Still no luck in finding the presidential address from the 1986 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), so I’ll proceed to the 1987 address delivered by William L. Joyce at the annual meeting in New York.  Joyce served as Curator of Manuscripts at the American Antiquarian Society, Manuscripts Librarian at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan, Assistant Director for Rare Books and Manuscripts at the New York Public Library, and associate university librarian for rare books and special collections at Princeton University.  This address was published in the Winter/Spring 1988 issue of the American Archivist.

Joyce served on numerous task forces and committees related to archival education, so he was certainly well-versed in the topic.  He identified a number of signs indicating increased interest in professional education and identity for archivists:

  • numerous relevant sessions at SAA annual meetings
  • revised “Guidelines for Graduate Archival Education Programs”
  • SAA representation on accreditation teams evaluating graduate archival education programs
  • SAA’s development of “basic archival education packages” as well as specialized courses (18)
  • SAA’s funding for an education officer
  • development of a program of certification for archivists

As indicated by his title, Joyce incorporated two fables into his address.  The story of the Man and the Satyr was used to encourage archivists to be flexible in defining their identity rather than being like the confused satyr who couldn’t comprehend how the man’s breath could at one time warm his hands and another time cool his porridge.  More specifically, he argued that archivists could carve out an autonomous professional identity while also fulfilling the dual need of serving as “specialized practitioners” in the information community (19).  And the fable of the Lioness and the Vixen illustrated the value of consensus in crafting a “community of professional authority and competence” (18).  Joyce argued that this sense of community is vital to the continuation and growth of the archival field.

Joyce suggested that, in keeping with the work of Terry Eastwood, more emphasis on archival theory should help to strengthen the profession.  He pointed proudly to the life cycle model as a “uniquely American contribution to archival theory” (20).  He suggested integrating more of the work of social scientists and sociologists into archival work as a means of promoting the understanding of institutions and their functions — which he pointed out is very much in keeping with the “provenance-based approach to organizing information” (20).  He bemoaned the lack of emphasis on methodology, paleography, and diplomatics and asserted,

“Perhaps by reemphasizing the theoretical importance of the attributes of the record in its fullest historical context, we might redirect interest toward understanding the sources themselves” (21).

Joyce referenced Andrea Hinding’s ode to paper records in her 1984 greeting at the SAA annual meeting and warned archivists against “being unduly directed by the technological imperative” (21).  He suggested educational programs need to provide adequate coverage to all three eras of historical records:

  1. hand-produced documents
  2. mechanically-produced documents
  3. electronically-produced documents

In conclusion, Joyce identified “several pragmatic limitations to the vitality of our graduate archival education programs” (21):

  • enrollments must be small, therefore, faculty positions will be limited
  • archival educators are essential to these programs, but the modest number of such positions requires other archivists to also contribute to the archival literature
  • establishing standards and enforcement mechanisms will necessarily impact some existing archivists adversely — so Joyce advised that “we need to work diligently to ensure that the creation of a community of the competent does not destroy a community of diversity and deprive us of some of the differences in interest and perspective that have brought us vitality” (22)
  • every effort needs to be made to insure the graduates of archival education programs have the skills necessary to qualify for jobs — and that such jobs are actually available

Given that Jackie Dooley chose to focus her 2013 presidential address on the state of archival education and especially on the lives of young archival professionals, it would seem that Joyce’s final piece of advice was not fully heeded.  In my humble opinion, this has resulted from ignoring his first limitation and instead filling graduate programs with as  many paying customers as possible, irrespective of the availability of well-compensated jobs for qualified graduates.

“A Time to Take Stock”

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For some reason, the online portal of the American Archivist labels the closing remarks that J. Frank Cook delivered at the 1982 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) as a presidential address.  Being accustomed to finding these presidential addresses published in the subsequent fall or winter issue, I set about reading and summarizing the article by Cook in the Winter 1983 issue, assuming that Edward Weldon had not delivered the customary presidential address at the end of his 1981-1982 term in office.  Only after completing this task did I realize that in the Spring 1983 issue, Weldon’s speech is published.  So enjoy this extra post, and come back next time to hear from Weldon.

Cook served at the archives of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, first as assistant archivist (1965-1970) and then as director (beginning in 1971).  As a means of reflecting on his performance, Cook listed the six pledges he made upon his nomination as vice president of SAA and commented on his accomplishments within the preceding year:

  1. strong appointments — necessary to depend more heavily on volunteers due to budget cuts, so it was vital to select great people
  2. certification — advocated for it for archivists, for education and training programs, and for repositories, but recognized that “the trend is away from certification because of the financial burden in these hard times, opposition to additional regulations, and the possibility of professional associations being charged with restraint of trade by someone denied certification” (10).
  3. politically independent, well-funded National Archives and Records Service (NARA would become independent of the General Services Administration in 1985)
  4. electronic records — pledged to assist “efforts to collect, preserve, and access the records created by technologically innovative information systems” (10).
  5. publish proceedings of the Annual Meeting — I can’t find evidence that this ever happened
  6. hold more annual meetings on college campuses — the 1981 annual meeting had been held at Berkeley, and that was the last time a meeting was held on a college campus

The remainder of Cook’s remarks were organized around three Ps:

  • Planning
  • Professional Associations
  • Professional Affinity Groups (PAGs)

Planning: Cook appointed a Task Force on Goals and Priorities for the Archival Profession, which was given this mission statement:

“To identify, analyze, and report to the Society of American Archivists and the archival profession on major archival needs and the relationships and relative priority of these needs and to suggest how these needs might best be addressed in a coordinated fashion” (11).

He emphasized there needed to be greater cooperation among archivists as well as with clients, records creators, and “those who are inventing the innovative systems in which the records are being stored and accessed” (11).  Cook also asserted that archival theory needed to be adapted “to fit all the myriad forms in which the stuff of history is being cast and all the manifold ways our society goes about obtaining access to its history” (11).  He listed two possibilities to address concerns for the future:

  1. Committee on Education and Professional Development was investigating the development of an archival institute to handle professional training
  2. better coordinated advocacy among archival and other related professional groups

Professional Associations: Cook contended that SAA needed closer relationships with other related professional associations — such as the National Association of State Archives and Records Administrators.  The best I can tell, the first time SAA held a joint meeting with the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators and the Council of State Archivists was in 2006 (and again in 2010, 2013, and 2014).

Professional Affinity Groups: There had been discussion about disbanding PAGs in favor of committees or sections, a problem Cook summarized as follows:

“we simply have too many committees, task forces, liaison groups, and PAGs for efficient management by Council” (13).

But Cook pledged to keep working to make the PAG system effective.  He did emphasize the importance of having PAGs actually accomplish rather than merely exist, and he explained that the SAA Council would be dividing itself into three sub-committees to streamline reporting procedures:

  1. PAGs
  2. task forces
  3. standing committees and representatives

For the modern connection, you can check out the recently proposed changes to SAA affinity groups.

“Education for American Archivists: A View from the Trenches”

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Ruth W. Helmuth delivered her presidential address in September 1981 at the 45th annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held at the University of California-Berkeley.  Her address was published in the Fall 1981 issue of the American Archivist.  She founded the archives at Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and served as university archivist until her retirement in 1985.  She devoted much time to developing formal training for archivists in both degree and post-graduate instruction.

Helmuth chose to focus her presidential address on archival education, addressing the basic problem: “what is the most appropriate education now available to American archivists?” (295).  She incorporated the viewpoints of both the teaching archivist and the SAA Committee on Education and Professional Development.  She specified, “My primary interest is not in the ideal, but in the possible; my intent is not to lament our failures, but to contemplate our successes, however modest” (295).  She considered three types of professional archival training:

  1. short-term, non-credit
  2. post-appointment, in-service
  3. pre-appointment, graduate education

For her purposes, Helmuth defined an archivist/manuscript curator as:

“a responsible custodian of original source materials, whose work involves the acquisition, appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, and reference use of such materials of all kinds, and concern with the whole cycle of records creation and disposal” (295-96).

Helmuth suggested that the diversity of American archivists (i.e., working in various sorts of repositories) complicated decisions about archival education  with considerations that are not significant in Europe.  She also explained that the National Archives’ preference for post-appointment training shaped the offerings of and expectations for archival education.

Helmuth contended, “good archivists are born, not made” (298).  She went on to list the attributes she considered vital for good archivists:

  • intelligence
  • “need to bring order out of chaos”
  • “ability to scan rapidly and accurately”
  • “concern for people and ease in dealing with them”
  • “inspire trust”
  • imagination
  • creativity

Helmuth proposed that archivists need a general cultural background — mostly related to the research process and good writing skills.  She also listed specifics that need to be taught:

  • archival theory
  • conservation
  • law
  • administration
  • management
  • computers
  • information transfer
  • classification
  • indexing
  • reprography (e.g., microfilming, offset printing, etc.)

Most importantly, she asserted the necessity of a practicum to prepare new archivists.

Helmuth explained that the SAA had been interested in archival education since the report of the Committee for the 1970s, leading to the issuance of archival education guidelines in 1977.  (These original guidelines were revised in 1988 and 1994; see also the proceedings from a 1977 session on Professional Archival Training.  In 2002, the “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies” were approved and subsequently updated in 2005 and 2011.)  These guidelines focused on pre-appointment, graduate level training and included three significant elements:

  1. elements of archival theory
  2. practicum standards
  3. instructor qualifications

Regarding instructors, Helmuth contended they should be practitioners:

“In the health sciences, all of the faculty outside of the laboratory have clinical appointments.  The understanding is that their teaching is more useful and more vital because they are at the same time practitioners of their art” (301).

Although she acknowledged the value of creating tenure-track positions for archival educators, she also listed Dolores Renze at Denver, Gerry Ham at Wisconsin, and Phil Mason at Wayne State as archival instructors who could not easily be replaced by non-practitioners:

“there are some special values we will lose as we grow away from this period of the personal influence of archivists of recognized stature and competence who have  been willing to exert themselves in behalf of their students and the profession
generally” (302).

She went on to state unequivocally — and indeed to identify as her motto — “‘Archivists should teach archivists'” (302).  As further explanation, she suggested,

“The essential element of the archival art or craft is judgment; seldom is there only one obvious solution for any problem, and the skillful teacher illuminates the various possibilities and discriminates among them” (302).

She concluded, “We are a first-choice profession, and our education programs should be designed to assure that fact.  And if education is to be a successful instrument of policy for this profession, all archivists will have to be actively concerned with it” (302).

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