Thoughts on the SAA Annual Meeting

Like many other archivists, I attended this year’s Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting. There were nearly 2,500 people there, which broke all previous attendance records and made for some very cramped (and very interesting) sessions! As a member of this year’s Host Committee,* I spent some time at the registration desk before attending some very thought-provoking sessions. Professional conferences are a great way to brush up on current trends in the field while also learning new things and expanding your network. Here are a few of my thoughts about this conference: what impressed me, certain themes that I noticed, and what these themes might say about the archives profession in general.

First, I have to give kudos to the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and its members for embracing technology to make this conference run more smoothly. A free, easy-to-use conference app allowed people to set up their own personal schedules and see what was happening at any given time. The SAA is in the process of putting up MP3 recordings of many sessions for further learning opportunities. Danna C. Bell’s outgoing presidential address was filmed and published on the conference website, and anyone is welcome to read Kathleen Roe’s incoming presidential remarks online (more on these speeches later). There were so many people posting about the conference on Twitter that it was nearly impossible to keep up with what everyone was saying. Sessions had specific hashtags, and many presenters posted their Twitter handles during their presentations. There was free wi-fi for conference attendees, and a charging station set up in the career center. The Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable blog will be posting a number of session summaries over the coming weeks. Overall, this was a pretty tech-heavy conference for a profession that is widely believed to be full of people who want to work with old stuff – what a great way to show that many archivists love technology as much as (and sometimes more than!) 17th century diaries that have that delightful “old book” scent.

A few themes really struck me during this year’s conference:

Technology: I loved seeing so many sessions about electronic records and digital initiatives! In the first group of sessions alone, there were panels focused on born-digital collections, oral history collections in the digital age, access to archival science on Wikipedia, and cloud archiving. In other words, almost half of the ten panels in the first group of sessions involved technology, which is fantastic. Despite the cliché of “dusty old archives,” archivists have been working with technology for a long time: digitizing materials to make them more accessible and/or to preserve them, acquiring and processing born-digital collections, encoding finding aids to make them more searchable online, the list goes on and on. One of the things we’re really struggling with right now is coming up with best practices and standards for born-digital materials. Many repositories aren’t collecting these types of materials yet, and there’s a good chance that a large chunk of them will be lost to future researchers if they’re not dealt with quickly and properly – some call this the Digital Dark Age. It’s easy to think that anything produced on a computer will be around forever, but hardware and software are both unstable and innovations in technology happen quickly. Realistically speaking, it wasn’t that long ago that we were still using floppy disks. How many of you have floppy disk drives now? My current laptop doesn’t even have a CD/DVD drive! I certainly wouldn’t be able to open or read a document that was saved in WordPerfect on a 5.25” floppy disk in the late 1990s, and that’s less than 20 years ago. Who knows what kinds of software and hardware we’ll be using in another decade or two? Who knows if we’ll even be able to read thumb drives, or access any files that were saved in a cloud? We’re trying to keep these records perpetually. Think about the implications of that, and you’ll start to see why it’s so important that we figure out how to deal with born-digital materials sooner rather than later.

Archival education and issues related to students and new professionals: Perhaps I noticed this as a theme partially because it’s of interest to me as a recent student and a fairly new professional. I also ended up meeting, for the first time, lots of people I follow on Twitter (a good number of whom are students and new professionals). There’s an entire SAA roundtable devoted to this theme, and it’s something that is being discussed by people throughout the profession – even those who have been archivists for decades. Some major questions that I saw pop up again and again: How do we make archival education more efficient and effective? Are graduate programs in archives taking on too many students and oversaturating the job market? How can we better prepare students for the job market? What kinds of tools and skills do you need to get a job in this field? What responsibilities does a school have to its students? How do we attract a more diverse set of people to archives programs and the field in general? What are the implications of unpaid internships for the interns, the organizations they’re working for, and the profession as a whole? What about term/temporary positions, or part-time positions? A lot of these are questions that you could ask in many different professions, but they’re still worth asking in this one.

Biting the bullet and getting things done: This was especially prevalent in talks about technology, and I heard this message over and over throughout the conference. How do we start collecting born-digital materials? Just do it. Want to digitize materials to put online for wider access, but scared of the copyright implications? Just do it. As archivists, we think a lot about the ethical and legal implications of what we’re doing, so we ask ourselves a lot of questions. Should my repository really collect born-digital materials if we don’t have a way of processing them or making them accessible to researchers? Are we violating copyright law by posting letters from the 1950s online for the whole world to see? These are valid and important questions to ask, but many panelists at the conference were trying to make the point that we have to start somewhere. If we continue to act in fear of what might or might not happen, nothing will get done, and in the meantime we are losing essential records, hindering research opportunities, etc. We can only talk so much; we must back up those discussions with actions. Collect born-digital materials and find a way to process them. Find a way to make them accessible. Introduce the methods and technology to numerous people who work in the repository so the knowledge doesn’t just rest with one person. Put materials online with the assumption that your actions are covered by fair use (if you’re in the United States). Get it done, even if best practices and standards haven’t been perfected. Do enough to make sure the records you’re collecting will be safe and whole when they’re handed down to the next person in your position. Be creative and innovative. Spearhead projects. Work with other repositories to strengthen those projects. Be an advocate for your repository and your profession. No more excuses!

Finally, I’d like to briefly discuss the two presidential speeches mentioned above. Danna C. Bell’s outgoing address had some powerful moments. She discussed the importance of stories, and how much power archivists have in deciding which stories to keep and how to make those stories accessible. Stories can change us, and primary sources provide real stories from history that can change a person’s life forever. Sharing stories through archival sources can get school children interested in history and archives, and collaborating with other cultural heritage repositories can make outreach efforts even more powerful. I personally believe that regular and innovative outreach to school children would help diversify the profession, which is important in a field that is trying to collect the history of a whole society. She ends the address by saying that we must continue moving forward and being advocates “for our repositories, for our profession, and ourselves” by listening to each other.

Which brings me to Kathleen Roe’s incoming remarks. I think it’s safe to say that most archivists have been met with puzzled looks when we tell friends and family what we do. Most of us have an elevator speech prepared – I often say I’m like an archaeologist with paper (not necessarily true, but easier to understand than including digital and unusual materials), or that I get unique collections of records ready for researcher use (my current job focuses on processing). I’m getting off track, though – why don’t people know about archives and archivists? If you say you’re a doctor or a librarian, people will give you a knowing nod. They understand what you are telling them and at least think they understand the basic functions of your profession. But for archivists? We get blank stares more often than not. Kathleen Roe’s major theme is advocacy – as archivists, we need to let people know who we are and why we are important. We need to be better about sharing our stories and telling people why archives are essential to a well-functioning society. Roe’s incoming remarks challenged archivists to do just that. At the end of this engaging speech, she passed out pledge cards to people willing to spend time over the next year “living dangerously for archives” – committing acts of advocacy to further themselves and the profession. I have to say, it was a fantastic way to end the conference. It’s important to remember that we’re not in this alone, and we don’t exist in a bubble with our collections. We must talk to people about archives, and we can’t expect the rest of the world to see our value if we’re not willing to tell them why we’re valuable.

It was a real pleasure to attend this conference, and I learned a lot that will be useful to me in the future. It’s amazing how a few sentences uttered by one panelist can open up a whole new world of thoughts and ideas. In this one week, I was able to catch up on new ideas and theories about born-digital materials and records management while also connecting with people who will be able to help me if I have questions about these topics as I’m discussing them with the ACLS over the next few months.

 

* If you are ever planning on visiting D.C., I highly recommend looking over the posts on the Host Committee blog – they cover everything from restaurants to outdoor attractions to packing and transportation tips to places of worship. It’s a great resource for visitors, whether attending a conference or not.

Strength in the humanities: The ACLS 2014 annual meeting

This weekend was a good one for the humanities – the ACLS annual meeting took place in Philadelphia from Thursday to Saturday, bringing together some of the brightest and most influential people in the fields. The ACLS graciously extended an invitation to me, so I took the train out and spent a few great days having inspiring conversations and listening to some truly thought-provoking speeches.

The annual meeting brings people together to discuss the state of the organization, its role in the humanities, and the humanities fields in general. There are panels giving presentations about specific topics or projects, speakers who give lectures or lead conversations, and of course there is the report of the President. Pauline Yu gave an excellent speech this year. She focused largely on the 1964 Report of the Commission on the Humanities (published 50 years ago!), which the ACLS produced alongside the Council of Graduate Schools in America and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa and which eventually led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Comparing the present to the past is often a powerful tool, and this was no exception: In 1957, the ACLS was on the verge of bankruptcy. After some major changes, it picked itself back up, and today it is financially stable with a healthy treasury. Its robust fellowship programs continue to grow, and one only needs to look at the list of recent fellows to see the great diversity of projects funded by the ACLS, as pointed out by President Yu during her speech. Indeed, she affirmed that the humanities are not, in fact, dying.

And why would anyone think that the humanities are dying? For those of you who are not fully engulfed in the current conversation about the state of the humanities, it’s been a contentious one. For decades, the “crisis in the humanities” has been a hot topic of debate, and there’s no exception to that today – if anything, the conversation has become more heated in the past few years, in part because of the recent recession and its profound effects on society as a whole. If you do a Google search for “humanities crisis” (without the quotation marks), you’ll get more than 19 million results. Click on just a few of these results, and you’ll see a slew of articles and op-eds about how the humanities are crashing and burning: Lee Siegel says in this article that literature should be privately enjoyed, not studied in the classroom;* Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed state here that the humanities crisis is happening in public universities; some point out that the downward-trending role of the humanities might have something to do with gender; and the New York Times has published on the subject in this article (with a quote from Pauline Yu on the second page!). It’s easy to worry about a decline in the humanities, especially when politicians are pushing to defund them, as in Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent budget proposal, which states that the government should not be funding arts, libraries, museums, or the humanities in general. Well-known statistician Nate Silver has written about it on his blog, stating that the crisis is not nearly as bad as everyone is thinking, but also ending the article in the following way: “Perhaps we should at once encourage or require college students to take coursework in English – and tell them to be wary about majoring in it.”

It’s not all bad, though. Several pieces have pointed out that there might not be a problem at all, or at least the problem is not what everyone is saying it is: Anne E. Fernald states in this op-ed that “the crisis is not with the humanities. The crisis is with the failure to value them enough.” Michael Bérubé, one of the presenters at the meeting this weekend, says here that the actual numbers do not show a decline in the humanities at all. Additionally, all this talk of a crisis has encouraged hundreds (if not thousands) of people to blog, tweet, and post their thoughts about the subject all over the internet. One article called “The Unintended Value of the Humanities” gives some food for thought, and there has even been a book recently published called The Value of the Humanities. An infographic titled “The Humanities Matter!” is an excellent resource to pull out anytime someone might ask you, “but why would anyone want to study English/classics/history/religion/(insert humanities subject here)?” In short: people are defending the humanities, which is great!

But I digress – back to the meeting (being there just made me so excited about the humanities; I had to write a bit about this debate)! From reports of fellowship projects to conversations about the public face of the humanities to a panel about the results of a recent census of the ACLS’ constituent societies, there were a lot of interesting thoughts and ideas to take in. One project of particular interest to me was “CSI Dixie: Race, the Body Politic, and the View from the South’s County Coroners’ Offices.” Stephen Berry, the 2013 ACLS Digital Innovation Fellow, has used coroners’ reports to expertly paint a vivid picture of the Antebellum South, and will be launching a website on this subject soon – I look forward to seeing it once it has gone up. I was also particularly interested in the census of constituent societies, the results of which will be publicly available at some point in the (hopefully near) future – for those of you who are interested in the state of learned societies, look forward to this! In general, the societies seem to be growing in a healthy way in terms of membership, conference attendance, and revenue, which goes to show that Pauline Yu was right: the humanities are not dying.

Meeting attendees were also able to hear from Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One of the things President Lewis stressed was that the future of humanities research and scholarship will be more teamwork-oriented than ever before. In order to bring the humanities into the digital landscape in a responsible and accessible way, scholars will have to work together with computer scientists, metadata experts, and people in a wide variety of other fields. I do think that sound digital humanities scholarship needs to be rooted in sound humanities scholarship in general, but he has a solid point here. Personally, I believe this foray into extended teamwork is exciting. Everything seems to be merging together and becoming more interdisciplinary, and we can only become stronger by working with each other and trying to understand disciplines outside of our own.

 

* I heartily disagree with this assessment – I understand the literature I studied in school in way that I never would’ve been able to without having an open discussion about it, and university classes made me appreciate and love the likes of Chekhov, Faulkner, and numerous other phenomenal authors that I might otherwise have never read in the first place.