“Objectives of the Society of American Archivists”

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I’ve been combing through back issues of the American Archivist for a bibliography project — more on that when it’s complete — and I had a bit of serendipity.  I came across the first presidential address to the Society of American Archivists (SAA), delivered by Albert R. Newsome at the 1937 annual meeting held in Washington, DC.  It was initially printed in the SAA Proceedings and was reprinted in the July 1963 issue of the American Archivist.  You can also find my reviews of his other presidential addresses from 1938 and 1939.  At the time of this address, he was head of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he had previously served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission (the predecessor to the State Archives of North Carolina).

Newsome spoke of the “nationalization of archival interests in the United States” — referring to the creation of the National Archives and the establishment of SAA (299).  He reflected on the first third of the 20th century as a time of pioneering for the archival realm:

  • local activity
  • public recognition
  • establishment of state archives
  • passage of relevant legislation
  • developing consciousness of an archival community
  • assistance from the American Historical Association and the Public Archives Commission

In the second third of the 20th century, much of this pioneering work came to fruition with the expansion of state archives, the formation of the National Archives, numerous surveys conducted of archives, and the creation of SAA.  As for this new organization, Newsome said “the Society faces its immediate problems with caution and conservatism; its future, with optimism and boldness” (300).  Elaborating on the SAA constitution, he laid out these objectives for the organization (301):

  • “appropriate the lessons of successful experience anywhere”
  • “accumulate and disseminate useful information”
  • “facilitate the discussion of problems and the sharing of experiences and discoveries”
  • “stimulate experimentation, discovery, and improvement”
  • “seek a wholesome degree of uniformity in archival practice, procedure, and ideology”
  • “encourage productive scholarship in many fields of knowledge”

Newsome then acknowledged three categories of archival problems: internal economy, external relations, and professional development.  By internal economy, he meant problems concerning “the collection, preservation, availability, and use of archives” (301).  To address the issue of what archives should collect, he suggested better cooperation among government officials, standards for appraisal, and procedures for the transfer and accession of archival materials.  He presented preservation as a technical issue that could be addressed through training by SAA meetings and publications.  He contended the availability of archives would be enhanced by better classification and filing systems, research room rules, inventories, and publication of materials to broader audiences.  He concluded archivists should have a goal “of a more extensive use of archives by scholarly investigators” (302).

As for external relations, Newsome determined that all archival organizations should cooperate — “to plan the interchange of information, to prevent overlapping effort, and to discover ways of mutual aid” (303).  He also promoted interaction with other learned societies, the development of public support, passage of relevant legislation, and the public exhibition of archival materials.  He concluded, “Archival science cannot live unto itself.  The character of its external relations may be basic to the solution of its problems of internal economy” (304).

Finally, Newsome challenged SAA to develop the archival profession in the U.S., suggesting it could be shaped by standardizing archival terminology, by developing educational standards, and by a bibliography and a manual of archives.  He concluded his address with an oft-cited analysis:

“A hospitable Providence was the place of the Society’s birth.  May a kindly Providence bless and immortalize its career” (304).


“Archives, History, and Technology: Prologue and Possibilities for SAA and the Archival Community”

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In preparation for next week’s annual SAA meeting, it’s time for me to take a look back at Nancy McGovern’s address delivered at the annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, in 2017.  McGovern has served on the senior staff of the Center for Electronic Records at the U.S. National Archives (1986-96), as electronic records manager at the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary (1996-1998) and at Audata, a digital services consulting firm in the United Kingdom (1998-2001), as director of Research and Assessment Services and digital preservation officer at Cornell University Library (2001-6), and as the research assistant professor and digital preservation officer at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (2006-11); she is currently the Director of Digital Preservation at MIT Libraries.  Her speech was published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the American Archivist.

McGovern introduced three topics as context for her address:

  • Technology.  She incorporated numerous definitions of technology, arguing that the “people part” of technology — “sociotechnical system involving the ‘manufacture and use of objects involving people and other objects in combination'” is the hardest part (10).  Rather than bemoaning the difficulties that accompany technological change, McGovern encouraged archivists to focus on the opportunities for advancement and improvement that technology can bring to our profession.
  • History.  McGovern drew a simple line between technology and history: “History helps us to understand where specific technologies came from so we can better understand how to use and evolve them; to understand the evolution of our archival principles and practice; and to know ourselves” (11).
  • Archives.  McGovern used the American Archivist as a window onto archival theory and practice over time and challenged archivists to investigate more fully both this journal and”” the SAA Archives as sources of our history.

Doing a deep dive into the American Archivist enabled McGovern to discover the first uses of a number of technological terms, including machine readable (1963), digital records (1982), electronic record (1984), digital preservation (1992), and born digital (2002).  But all of this was merely a preface to connecting to the theme for the 2017 annual meeting and discussing the archival community.  She used the stages of the organization maturity model to evaluate SAA overall as moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4 (15):

  1. “Acknowledge: understanding that this is a local concern
  2. “Act: initiating projects
  3. “Consolidate: segueing from projects to programs
  4. “Institutionalize: incorporating larger environment; rationalizing programs
  5. “Externalize: embracing inter-institutional collaboration and dependency”

For digital practice in particular, which she defined as “continually working to bring content and lessons from the past to benefit the present on behalf of the future” (16), McGovern pegged SAA as shifting from Stage 2 to Stage 3.  The same is true for SAA’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion.  She argued one of the most important elements for developing diversity and inclusion is discomfort, which promotes awareness.  Where these two priorities overlap, McGovern pointed out there is a lack of diversity both among and within the institutions that engage in digital practice.  She suggested collaboration across professions — with libraries, data scientists, digital preservationists, software developers, records managers, and museums — should help develop these priorities and move SAA towards the goal of Stage 5.

McGovern laid out her vision for the next 20 years of SAA/archives/archivists (19-20):

  • We’ll collaborate with affiliated professions.
  • Our “members, policies, practice, collections, repositories” will all be inclusive.
  • We’ll practice “diverse diversity,” meaning “the need to ensure that diversity discussions address all forms of potential exclusion.”
  • We’ll work to use technologies in such a way that “outcomes are integrated from idea to creation to discovery and use.”
  • We’ll be responsive to social, cultural, legal, and technological change.
  • “We advance by pushing ourselves, playing to our strengths, and working together.”

McGovern concluded by suggesting next steps — for herself, but clearly with the implication she’d like to have others join her on this journey (20):

  • “I will—engage in any discussion however challenging that SAA needs or wants to have.
  • “I will—continue to contribute my expertise to help meet SAA’s objectives.
  • “We should—seek ways to collaborate with domains that share our goals and interests.
  • “We should—work to build a critical mass of members who are actively engaged in our priority areas.
  • “Don’t forget—that our practice is only limited by our own decisions in establishing policies and our familiarity with the development of practice, our own creativity and adaptability.”

“Bare Necessities”

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Dennis Meissner delivered his presidential address at the 2016 meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Atlanta, Georgia.  He has spent his career at the Minnesota Historical Society — including as Manuscripts Processing Supervisor, Archival Processing Manager, Head of Collections Management, and finally Deputy Director for Programs (2014-2017).  His speech was published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the American Archivist.

Meissner began his speech with the simple premise that “before you go out and do something, you need to be something” (6).  He defined three goals for the archival profession:

1. Becoming a More Inclusive Profession.  Meissner reflected on Elizabeth Adkins’ 2007 presidential address, which looked at the long-term efforts of the profession to encourage diversity, but ultimately decided the focus should be on inclusivity.  He explained the first step is to develop our cultural competence, which progresses along a continuum:

  • denial of difference
  • defense against difference
  • minimizing difference
  • acceptance of difference
  • adaptation to difference
  • integration of difference

Meissner suggested progressing along this continuum can occur by developing a business case/strategy for inclusion, assessing the distribution of SAA members along the continuum, developing learning opportunities, and establishing performance targets for inclusion efforts.

2. Becoming a Profession of Advocates.  Just as Mark Greene asserted in his inaugural address, Meissner said advocacy must be an integral part of our daily being.  He also looked back to Greene’s presidential address and suggested embracing the archival values outlined by Greene is the first step in advocacy.  He went on to define the key components of advocacy as “conviction, evidence, communication, and persuasion” (12).  He referenced Kathleen Roe‘s presidential address for her point that archivists are less good at explaining the whys than we are the whats and the hows of the work we do.  In order to become more effective advocates, Meissner said we need more compelling stories, along with the qualitative and quantitative evidence to support them, and the requisite tools and resources to enable their usage.  This evidence includes both user-centric data as well as analysis of the economic impact of archives.

3. Becoming a Profession of Givers.  Meissner acknowledged that his suggestions will take money, so he challenged SAA members to become givers rather than merely consumers who pay only for the things we use.


To follow up on this address: in November 2016, Meissner submitted to the SAA Council a Proposal for a Committee on Research and Evaluation.  The Task Force on Research/Data and Evaluation, which has a mandate running from May 2017 – November 2018, is looking into whether SAA should create a standing body to conduct, facilitate, and/or evaluate research that is practical, useful, and meaningful for SAA and the archival community.


The Evolution of SAA Presidential Addresses

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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.

“Why Archives?”


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.


“An Archival Roadmap”

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Danna C. Bell delivered her presidential address at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Washington, D.C.  She worked as a reference librarian and coordinator of bibliographic instruction at Marymount University (1990-1993).  She worked as an archivist within the Washingtoniana Division of the District of Columbia Public Library (1993-1997) and the Henry Lee Moon Library at the NAACP.  She was the Curator of the National Equal Justice Library (1997-1998).  She joined the Library of Congress staff in 1998, first as a Learning Center Specialist, then as a member of the Digital Reference Team, and currently as an Educational Outreach Specialist.  Her address was published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of the American Archivist.

Bell began her speech with an ode to the power of the primary sources that call archives home.  She recalled seeing letters — written by Gene Roddenberry to Carl Sagan and by Martin Luther King to A. Philip Randolph — that made her “squeal with delight.”

“To me, these two letters were reminders that behind the signatures were real people; that they sent letters to colleagues; and there was more to them than their accomplishments.  These letters engaged me, excited me, and made me want to learn more” (10).

After describing a middle school class that learned about a map from the Battle of Princeton, Bell challenged archivists to “always remember that we are more than just preservers of information.  We are guardians of knowledge, of inspiration, and of our connections to one another.  We need to remind ourselves of the power we hold and the responsibility we accepted when we decided to become archivists” (10).

Bell described four touchstones on her archival roadmap:

  1. Context matters because it can help people establish connections.
  2. Effective communication is key — archivists should strive to be good storytellers.
  3. Archivists must collaborate with our champions and listen to our supporters.
  4. Bell identified those who have been models for her life — her mother, Maya Angelou, Leanita McClain, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Drawing on the powerful example of Bethune’s last will and testament, Bell shared her wishes for SAA:

  • Archivists need to focus on the basic fundamentals of “appraisal, arrangement, description, and reference” (14).
  • SAA needs “to balance the needs of students and new professionals with the needs of those who are further along in our careers” (14).
  • SAA should review archival education programs.
  • SAA should develop a document to explain “the work and worth of archivists” (15).
  • Archivists should value working with the K-12 community.
  • SAA members should recognize “membership in a professional association with professional staff has substantial costs” (15).
  • SAA members should support each other rather than attacking each other, should embrace the possibility of change, and should listen to each other.
  • After thanking SAA staff, volunteers, and Council, Bell ended with a thought-provoking quote from Verne Harris:

“‘Archives are not the quiet retreat for professionals and scholars and craftspersons.  They are a crucible of human experience; a battleground for meaning and significance.  A Babel of stories.  A place and a space of complex and ever shifting power plays'” (16).

“Feeding Our Young”

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Jackie Dooley delivered her presidential at the 2013 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She began her career at the Library of Congress as a prints and photographs cataloger (1983-84).  She was a special collections librarian at the University of California, San Diego (1985-92).  She then worked as Head of Collections Cataloging at the Getty Research Institute (1992-95).  She was Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of California, Irvine (1995-2008).  Since 2008, Dooley has worked at OCLC Research.  Her address was published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the American Archivist.

Dooley focused her address on the plight of new archivists, which she defined as both students and new professionals.  She cited some interesting statistics about SAA’s membership (11):

  • “21 percent are under the age of thirty; a total of 49 percent are under
    the age of forty.
  • 51 percent have been SAA members for five years or less.
  • 21 percent of individual members are students.
  • 19 percent pay dues in the ‘under $20,000/year’ category”

She included some insights into her SAA presidency — rather than set her own agenda, she instead “decided to focus on listening, and to lots of different voices.  To be an effective leader, one must know whom she is leading and carefully consider their needs and concerns” (12).  Her desire to listen led her into the social media world.  She subscribed to the listserv of the Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable (SNAP), and she discerned three primary themes among these messages: “network, learn about SAA and our profession, and get a job” (13).  She also entered the “Tweet-o-sphere,” where she discovered great rage against SAA and developed personal frustration at the “impossibility of conducting nuanced dialogue in messages of 140 characters or fewer” (15).  Yet Dooley still discovered some useful information from Twitter, especially relating to employment (16):

  • “How frustrated some new archivists are by the dismal job market
  • How virulently angry some are about management practices they’ve encountered in the workplace
  • How unfettered they can be in expressing their anger and disgust, sometimes anonymously
  • How controversial the topic of internships can be”

She also began following some blogs of young archivists, including the one that inspired the title of her speech.  She acknowledged the job horror stories that were the crux of this site are nothing new, but obviously the mechanism for communicating them was much broader than the smoky bars where complaints were aired when she was a new professional.  Dooley posed a thought-provoking question about the typically negative focus of much social media:

“Is there a blog out there that addresses the positive employers and strategies part?  One that could serve to feed our young instead of focusing principally on the absurd job postings that require a graduate degrees for part-time, temporary positions that offer no benefits and barely pay a living wage?” (16)

She asserted the way SAA can improve the job market is by “developing modes of advocacy that heighten the image and value of archives” (17).  She identified the “severe lack of true entry-level jobs” as a significant impediment to entry into the archives profession.  She acknowledged that some experience is necessary to qualify for most any professional job, but she urged those in charge of defining archives positions to include “paraprofessioanl, intern, fellow, student, temporary, or part-time” in their definition of experience (18).  She  referenced the ire generated from the booklet SAA and NARA wrote in 2012 about using volunteers in archives.  She asserted volunteers don’t directly compete with professionals because professional work requires leadership, not just doing.  She also cited the 2013 court decision that adopted strict guidelines for unpaid internships, which included a strong education component for such internship experiences.

Dooley acknowledged the criticism that archival graduate schools are producing too many graduates for the available positions, but her response was to point to the “soft edges” of the archival profession that overlaps with “librarianship, records management, digital libraries and repositories, information technology, discovery system design,” etc. (19).  She included three pointed questions for archival education programs (19-20):

  • “Are they teaching the subjects that make a student competitive in the job market? (One word: digital.)
  • What will graduate schools that require internships do to ensure that their students gain meaningful preprofessional experience if the available opportunities start to dry up?
  • Are graduate schools doing enough to help students realize how many other types of work truly take advantage of archivists’ skills?”

Dooley concluded with three suggestions for how experienced archivists can aid those new to the profession (20):

  • “Offer praise and credit wherever you see it due.”
  • “Listen without correcting.  New archivists have legitimate complaints.”
  • “Learn: they know things we don’t.  We know how things have always worked—or not.  They know what’s possible today.”

She also offered three suggestions of how new archivists can aid established archivists (21):

  • “Trust us”
  • “Teach us”
  • “Don’t stereotype us: we’re as different from each other as you are from the members of your cohort.”

Both in her introduction and conclusion, Dooley summarized her intended takeaways (21):

  • “The limited job market for new archivists is a very serious problem, and we all should think deeply about how we might better understand and address it.
  • More job postings could be designed as true entry-level positions.
  • We’ll all understand each other better if we engage using shared communication channels.
  • Social media are here to stay; they should connect generations, not separate them.
  • Civil public discourse plays an essential role in a mutually supportive professional environment.”

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