“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).


“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 Value of Records”

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Around the time of this year’s inauguration, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) website published a collection of previous presidential addresses.  On that page, I found one of the addresses I couldn’t find during my original review of these addresses.  This particular address also answers another question I had — he explained that President Connor decided to deliver only one address during his two-year term, a practice which was continued by his successors, with William D. McCain being the last of the two-year presidents.  McCain delivered his address at the 1952 SAA annual meeting held in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was published in the January 1953 issue of the American Archivist.

McCain had a varied professional path, working as a college lecturer in Mississippi before serving as a genealogist and archivist at the Morristown National Historic Park in New Jersey.  He worked briefly as Assistant Archivist at the U.S. National Archives and then directed the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History from 1938 until World War II.  He served in the war first with an Army antiaircraft artillery unit and then was assigned as a military historian recording the progression of U.S. Fifth Army through North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy.  In 1944, McCain joined the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (aka “Monuments Men”) as Regional Archivist for the Lombardia region of Italy.  From December 1945 until May 1955, he resumed his work as director of the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History.  He also served in the military during the Korean War and commented in this address that he wrote it “in the rear and forward command posts of a combat unit deployed in the defense of a vital area of the United States” (4).  He then became President of Mississippi Southern College (today, The University of Southern Mississippi), where he served until retirement.

McCain reflected briefly upon the addresses of his predecessors, acknowledging their contributions to the knowledge and morale of the SAA.  He also read all issues of the American Archivist before writing his address — all 5,161 pages! — for inspiration.  In keeping with the post-war concerns of his era, he almost titled his address “Shall Our Records Engulf Us?”  Although he shifted his title, he did spend time explaining the problems caused by keeping too many records — both for repositories and especially for researchers.  On the former issue, he cited a contemporary article from Reader’s Digest that said:

“‘And you and I are not sure why we keep half the stuff we do . . . most of the filing that we human beings do is a manifestation of some of our worst traits — our miserliness or stinginess, our fear of the future, our dependence on material props, our weakness for hugging old experiences to our hearts instead of moving bravely on to new ones'” (5).

He suggested having too many records is overwhelming to researchers and quoted another article in the American Archivist that concluded “‘the impetus to scholarship seems to decrease in inverse ratio to the amount of source material available in these days of mass record-making and reproduction'” (6).

In order to address this problem, McCain encouraged archivists to focus on the value and utility of records.  He posed several questions to consider (6):

  • “Did you ever stop and wonder what useful purpose you were serving in accumulating and preserving records?”
  • “Do you consider that you are making any contribution toward the welfare of mankind with your work?”
  • “Since you believe that records are valuable, do you think that all people have some idea of their importance?”

McCain looked to a comment in the U.S. Senate to define historical value: “‘Public records make up the backbone of history.  All men with a deep sense of the historical know this to be so'” (7).  Yet he acknowledged that not all Americans shared this deep sense of the importance of history and challenged his audience to make history more interesting for all.  In the midst of the Cold War, McCain asserted a major problem of Communism was that it “adopted a philosophy in which untruthfulness has been elevated to the status of a science and has become a prescribed rule of conduct in private and public affairs.  The great power of tradition and precedent is one of the chief stabilizing forces that protect us from these people who would lead us backward into a dark age of indecency and immorality in all planes of our existence” (7-8).  In an analysis that has considerable relevance to archival work even today, McCain concluded:

“If there were no authentic records of our past, the fantastic lying of the Communists would have a far greater effect in their efforts to destroy us” (8).

McCain explained that records have significant business and fiscal value.  To address the value of government records, he quoted from an address of a former president of Panama:

“‘A government without archives would be something like a warrior without weapons, a physician without medicines, a farmer without seed, an artisan without tools.  Public records are the solid ground on which the statesman can tread with security in the incessant toil of conducting the affairs of a nation.  They are the silent, impartial, reliable and eternal witness that bears testimony to the toils, the misfortunes, the growth and the glories of peoples'” (8).

McCain used his military experience to explain that records can be used to develop morale, pride, and honor.  He also suggested local records can build up local pride and acknowledged the obvious value of records to genealogists.  He then turned to Venetian bishop Baldassare Bonifacio to summarize the utility of archives:

“‘If we had been completely deprived of these precious crumbs, we should all be compelled to grope in the dark, to feel our way with our hands not only in history but also in the other disciplines'” (11).

McCain acknowledged records can provide knowledge where human memory fails.  In the end, he asserted archivists must do a better job of explaining the value of records in order to garner more respect for the profession:

“When there is a general appreciation of the usefulness of records and of the work of those who preserve them and make them available for research, then the professional archivist will be raised to the level of respect accorded such professional men as doctors, dentists, bankers, lawyers, educators, and engineers” (11).

“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.

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