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.

What I’m reading this week

Book I am reading

Shockingly, not all the books I read relate directly to the topic of this blog or even tangentially inform my daily work in the archive. As the weather starts getting warmer and the cherry blossoms begin to bloom around the city, I am treating myself to some spring fiction (a bit heartier than beach books, but not nearly as heavy as winter ones. Don’t get me started on autumn reading!). So if you’re interested in the fantasy worlds that have consumed me, email me. Here, I’ll continue keeping a record of the archive-related material that comes across my desk.

Digital content I am reading

This article focuses on the way e-books impact “social reading” especially for those of us that use our local public library systems to read e-books. The authors remark,

Reading is both a solitary and a social activity. We read in solitude then come together to talk about what we’ve read. Our desire to talk about books is the same whether we read ebooks or print. The digitization of books did not change our desire to talk about books, but it has given us new possibilities for how we can share ideas and connect to one another.

As an archivist and public historian, I am constantly concerned with the “user;” that mythic and nebulous abstract that perches on my shoulder every day and asks, How will I read this material? How will I find it? images-1

Any good archivist worth her weight in manuscript materials will tell you that the user is one of the most important factors of her job. A figment of her imagination, at least in the beginning, yes. Still, ever important in the process of arranging, describing and promoting materials. This post urges me to think  a step beyond the user and consider the interaction of users, this kind of social activity that broadens the scope of use.

This article also adds something to the mix! For a helpful definition of social reading, check out this blog.

This blog post from the Society of American Archivists blog “Off the Record,” asks about establishing legal rights that would uphold “archival privilege.

I have heard some archivists argue that an ‘archival privilege’ of confidentiality exists, or should exist, to shield an archives from a hostile court’s order. They assert that, like spouses sharing the daily intimacy of life, a priest counseling a penitent, a psychiatrist caring for a patient, or a lawyer talking to a client, an archivist’s relationship to a donor is such that a legally sustainable sphere of privacy should extend to any material donated with donor-imposed restrictions on use.

For the most part, I completely agree with this statement. A case at Boston College over subpoenaed oral histories convinced me that archivists are the first, and sometimes, only line of defense of historical records. But, the other part of me, especially the part that comes to work at the federal government everyday, that thinks…nah, that kind of inner circle confidentiality is tempting but quite difficult to navigate in reality. The materials are for use by the people and if those people include other, more litigious members of the government, then we have to accept that. I wonder, in the end, if “archival privilege” is a limiting perspective, one that censors more than it helps.

archivists-of-hazzard

This article is for fun! The New York Times covered a phenomenon of people posting videos detailing ways to behave in different situations: while at the gym or over dinner. This phenomenon also includes etiquette for the digital age: the code of manners one should follow while on Twitter or Instagram, for example. Of course, many people weighed in on text etiquette, which I can sum up on only a few words: Don’t be rude. Value present, human interaction. Don’t be rude!

I spend so much of my time pondering the endless possibilities of digital technology, tools, and environments, but not nearly enough time understanding the consequences of such a connected world. In fact, I am eating dinner with a friends as I type this!

Waldo Leland: An archivally-slanted biography

Among this crowd, Waldo Gifford Leland may be best known as a defining figure responsible for shaping ACLS as Director, 1939-1948 and Executive Secretary, 1927-1939. You can read more about Leland on The Collection page. But Leland was also deeply invested in contributing to the archives field as an advocate, historian, archival theorist and all around mover and shaker! A prolific and influential voice, it’s difficult to secure a diploma in the Archives and Records management field without reading some of Leland’s pieces (I’m speaking from experience)!

This post will focus on (some of) Leland’s contributions to the field of archives and provide some unique insight for researchers focused on the history of archival institutions.

Part I of ACLS’s manuscript materials contains Waldo Leland’s personal papers, which should be intriguing for anyone interested in his vast professional accomplishments, correspondence files and other records. You can find out more about Part I of the collection on the Information for Researchers page.

Part II of ACLS’s manuscript materials includes numerous boxes that contain articles authored by Leland, writing about Leland including some biographical sketches, and correspondence about Leland. Much of his published archival writing can be found in American Archivist, the official journal of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). In a 1962 address found here, Leland complimented the journal on many counts. My favorite remark:

…For all these excellent contributions, even though I may not understand some of them, I am proud of the United States, which, once the last in this domain, is now probably the first.

Leland was a crucial voice in advocating for archives profession in the U.S. He was recognized by serving 2 terms as SAA President in the 1940s. With Presidential addresses including “The Archivist in Times of Emergency” and “Historians and Archivists in the First World War,” Leland set the stage for a professionalization of the field. Today, there’s even a  prestigious SAA award given in his honor.

Archival Accomplishments: The Big 3

Leland made considerable contributions to the field of archives over the years, but three are normally recognized as the most significant and set him on his way to becoming an influential figure in archival history today.

First, Leland conceived of the first Conference of Archivists in the U.S. In 1909, a group of archivists met at Columbia University in conjunction with the American Historical Association’s annual meeting. If you’re wondering if Leland had the time to write about the Conference, the answer is yes! You can find his 1950 article about the Conference here. He used the meeting to introduce archival concepts popular in Europe that would soon be adopted and institutionalized into domestic archival practices. Chances are, if you’re a practicing archivist, you’ve been impacted by his best practices or theory in your daily work. The next year, in 1910, Leland led a delegation of Americans to the first International Congress of Archivists and Librarians in Brussels. And thus was born a flourishing global exchange and influence in the profession.

Second, Leland played an instrumental role in the establishment of the National Archives and Records Administration (1934). Yes, that National Archives! Leland’s dreams were not too shabby! Leland’s portrait also hangs in the grand stairwell of the National Archives, along with only 4 other portraits. In a draft letter in Part II of the ACLS collection, one author writes:

…Leland produced…some of the most important promotional literature to advance the archival cause.

Along with John Franklin Jameson (who you can read more about below), Leland lobbied congress to allocate funds to build the National Archives in 1926. But, first he worked hard to prove the need for an archival repository that housed materials born of nationally-historic moments. As historian Rodney Ross listed:

Leland called attention to the value of America’s governmental records; surveyed the deplorable conditions of their storage; compared the American situation to that in enlightened quarters in Europe; offered a remedy, both as to the type of building needed and as to the form and responsibilities of an agency that could best meet the nation’s archival needs; addressed the subject of the destruction of relatively worthless records, thereby putting in a plug for records scheduling; and emphasized the necessity of adhering to the principle of respect des fonds (Ross 1983).

Phew!

From that experience came a friendship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who signed the National Archives Act in 1934 and Leland’s thrust further into the national spotlight.

Third,  Leland authored the landmark Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington (1904), which can be found in electronic format courtesy of Hathi Trust here.

With technology today, providing a comprehensive guide to the archival holdings in federal agencies in Washington, D.C. may seem redundant. You can easily peruse repository websites to learn about their collecting areas, view digitized copies of photographs and documents, or find their online finding aids like these at the Library of Congress. But, for the time, the work by Leland and his co-author Claude Halstead Van Tyne made archives more accessible to researchers and provided a wider public an opportunity to learn about the cultural and historical heritage of the country.

The Guide includes descriptions of holdings from:

  • Department of State
  • Treasury Department
  • Department of War
  • Department of Justice
  • Post Office Department
  • Navy Department
  • Department of the Interior
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Commerce & Labor
  • Civil Service Commission
  • Interstate Commerce Commission
  • The Smithsonian Institution
  • The Supreme Court of the United States
  • Court of Claims
  • House of Representatives
  • Senate
  • Library of Congress

Thank you to the Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division for allowing me to finger through a hard copy edition of Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States in Washington.

Colleagues: Getting by with a little help from his friends

Leland wrote countless articles about the profession and the leaders who transformed it.

In 1953, he wrote a personal essay about R.D.W. Connor, the first archivist of the United States with whom he had a “dear friendship.” You can find it here. He wrote:

In these and all other ways Robert Connor accomplished his grat national task with success and honor. Considering the man he was, this does not surprise us, but our gratification is none the less complete.

He also wrote about John Franklin Jameson in a 1956 article found here, who Leland met while at the Carnegie Institution. Together, they successfully lobbied Congress to create the National Archives, for which funding was secured in 1926. Of Jameson, he remarked:

But a chief factor in Jameson’s success was his own personal character, his total absence of self-seeking, his reputation and prestige as a scholar, and his patient and tactful persistence.

Archival History: What is past is present

Leland contributed to the archival movement and archival practices. In 1955, the National Archives published excerpts of his work. On “Public Obligation to Care for Archives,” Leland proclaimed:

…This is recognized in all civilized countries, as to neglect properly to perform this function is not only unbefitting the dignity of a great state, but it endangers an inheritance which future generations have a right to demand shall pass to them unimpaired. (Report on the Public Archives and Historical Interests of the State of Illinois, 1913)

In the letters that accompany the leaflet are correspondence about the Lewis and Clark papers!

At a 1949 American Historical Association meeting, Leland spoke:

This relationship is proudly acknowledged on both sides and it is of great importance that it be maintained and strengthened. The archivist must, it is true, deal with a vast number of technical problems, but he must not, because of that necessity, become a mere technician. The ultimate purpose of the preservation and efficient administration of the public records goes far beyond the improvement of administrative processes and the facilitation of the public business. The ultimate purpose is to make it possible for our present generation to have enduring and dependable knowledge of their past, of which our present is a part. To achieve this ultimate purpose the necessary technical and administrative processes must be controlled by the scholar, and it is in the high ideals and purposes of scholarship and in its concern for the public good that the archivist must find his motives and seek his inspiration.

A kind of impassioned battle cry, Leland challenged archivists to master the skill sets required in the field, but to move beyond those skills in order to engage our collective history while maintaining a focus future generations.

Dig in: How researchers can use these materials

Perhaps ahead of his time, Leland saw the intersection of archival work, the humanities, philosophy and the field of social sciences. Much of his writing that advocates for archival education also engages questions of responsibility and cross-disciplinary teaching (if not in those words). In 1948, while he was a public face for archives and the Director of ACLS, he wrote “Education for Freedom and Responsibility” where he commented:

The humanities have also recognized the importance of the intensive study of ideas, of their inception, rise, dominance, and decline, and of their influence on human history.

For researchers interested in the confluence of disciplines and how they played out in organizational setting, the ACLS collection (especially Part I) may be an exciting place to start. Or for researchers focused on the history, exchange and interaction among certain organizations may find rich materials in both Part I and Part II of the ACLS collection. Finally, for those historians of the archival profession, digging through Waldo Leland’s correspondence, drafts of published work and notes could be helpful in identifying the many hats he wore and how his vision shaped the way we access and understand our cultural heritage.