“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.”

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Archival Profession and Future Challenges”

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This week’s address is exciting for me because it marks the first speech I heard in person.  Gregor Trinkaus-Randall delivered his presidential address at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in San Diego, California.  He first  worked at the State Historical Society in Wisconsin and then moved to be an “Archives, Library, Preservation and Security” consultant at Yale.  He also worked at the Computer Museum, the USS Constitution Museum in Boston Harbor, and the Peabody Museum of Salem.  Since 1988 he has served as the Preservation Specialist at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.  His address was published in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of the American Archivist.

Trinkaus-Randall identified the digital age as one both exciting and challenging and suggested collaboration as the key to progress:

“We need to break out of these silos and push ourselves into the wide world of information professionals, whether kicking and screaming or willfully, or we risk being left behind. . . .  We need to interact with others such as librarians, museum curators, and IT personnel as well to ensure that users and researchers have access to ALL, and I emphasize ALL, our holdings” (12-13).

He summarized his interactions with the leadership of the American Library Association and the American Association of Museums regarding collaboration, emphasizing four possibilities:

  • coordinated educational offerings
  • combined research on digital preservation, especially that useful to smaller institutions
  • advocacy across libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs)
  • coordinated leadership training

Funding comes into play with both digital preservation and advocacy as LAMs must work in a concerted way to insure funding for ongoing initiatives, such as digital preservation.  Trinkaus-Randall went on to suggest that communication must be improved — both with allied professions as well as within the archival profession.  He asserted,

“We need both instigators as well as radical collaborators to move us forward. . . .  Collaboration is our way of the future” (15).

He also identified the need for better research into our users and especially how they search for information.  The possibility of federated searching is certainly a reason to foster collaboration among LAMs.  Finally, regarding the preservation of ever-changing digital media, he asserted, “we will need to ‘curate’ from its inception and through its life cycle” (17).  In closing Trinkaus-Randall acknowledged the image problem of archivists as inhabiting “dusty, moldy, backrooms or basements, caring for equally dusty, old, and often irrelevant collections” (17).  He challenged his listeners to overcome this stereotype through advocacy, cooperation, collaboration, and leadership.

“On the Occasion of SAA’s Diamond Jubilee: A Profession Coming of Age in the Digital Era”

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Helen R. Tibbo delivered her presidential address at the 2011 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Chicago, Illinois.  She has spent her career in education, serving on the faculty of the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1989.  I both took several classes from her and worked with her on the Closing the Digital Curation Gap grant project during my time at SILS.  Her address was published in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of the American Archivist.

Tibbo identified the 75th anniversary of SAA as a turning point for the archival profession — a “coming of age in the digital era” (18).  She suggested three steps necessary for archivists to move forward in this digital era (19):

  1. learn about new technologies
  2. acquire new skills
  3. implement these skills

She cited research that underscored the overwhelming shift from analog to digital — in 2000 about 75% of information was in analog form, but by 2011 over 99% of information was born digital.  She identified some milestones related to electronic records:

1939: Records Disposition Act defined punch cards as records

1943: Records Disposal Act included in its description the phrase “regardless of physical form”

1965: the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) helped the Bureau of the Budget inventory punch cards and computer tapes

1968: the Data Archives Staff was formed by the Archivist of the United States

1970: NARS accessioned the first electronic records from federal agencies

1989: the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators and the University of Pittsburgh sponsored “Camp Pitt,” an advanced institute for government archivists focusing on archival electronic records

1993: Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President brought attention to the importance of email management and preservation

The intervening years “have witnessed extensive progress toward robust repository models and architectures, preservation tools and strategies, collaborations and community building, and trustworthy and sustainable digital curation” (23-24).  Yet archives still struggle to plant themselves firmly in the digital realm.  A 2010 report from OCLC entitled Taking Our Pulse listed these results of a survey of special collections in Association of Research Libraries institutions (24-25):

  • “Half of archival collections have no online presence;
  • User demand for digitized collections remains insatiable;
  • Management of born-digital archival materials is still in its infancy;
  • 75 percent of general library budgets have been reduced;
  • The current tough economy renders ‘business as usual’ impossible.”

Tibbo asserted that while cost is certainly a factor inhibiting electronic records management in archives, inadequate education is the more significant problem.  She suggested there should be graduate programs in digital archiving, technical courses, and systematic continuing education for archivists.  She pointed to three initiatives during her tenure as SAA president that addressed these needs:

  • The “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies” (GPAS) were updated.  Tibbo explained “GPAS can only provide a framework and metrics for excellence but no recognition or enforcement” (26).  However, Tibbo contended GPAS serves an important role in raising expectations for  graduate programs.
  • The SAA Digital Archives Continuing Education Task Force designed the Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) Curriculum and Certificate Program.
  • Along with Cal Lee, Tibbo helped develop the DigCCurr digital curation curriculum at SILS.  This framework includes the Matrix of Digital Knowledge and Competencies and the High-Level Categories of Digital Curation Functions.

Tibbo concluded with four challenges to her listeners (33):

  1. “do something significant before next year’s SAA conference to advance your skills and knowledge”
  2. “design your digital repository or how you are going to participate in some sort of digital consortium”
  3. “go get funding support”
  4. “take some steps and do something to preserve digital content important to your collection and your users”

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