Eira Tansey

Culminating Thoughts on SAA13

Being an archivist is fundamentally about relationships. While our job responsibilities generally emphasize “the stuff,” and “the stuff” is what we talk about when we talk to the public about what archivists do, to me this is an occupational description that doesn’t capture the essence of what we do. Because when you strip it all down, what we really “do” are building and maintaining relationships of all kinds. And I think the future of the profession, as well as individual success, depend a lot on our ability to forge relationships with one another, and especially with people outside of our comfort zone or echo chamber.

Coming away from SAA’s 2013 annual meeting, this thought process has been rattling around in my head, along with trying to figure out how we continue some of the discussions we started here in New Orleans last week. Most of my thoughts are percolating around three issues: professional discourse, member engagement with professional organizations, and closing the gap between digital archives education and practice.

Obligatory disclaimer: All views expressed here are mine, and mine only. They do not represent the views of my employer or any organization I am affiliated with.

Professional Discourse

During SAA, and following it, I’ve been marinating on the concept of professional discourse, and its related cousin, collegiality. And I’m mainly thinking about the way the Twitter backchannel figures into this. I’m far from the first one to do this. At the risk of concern trolling and tone policing, I want to come out and say that I’ve seen a lot of snark and escalating group arguments on the Twitter backchannel that really disappoint me. I think many aspects of calling out on the interwebz are very damaging, so I’m not going to point to specific examples, even if asked. I’ve seen examples of public snark coming from all sectors of archivists on Twitter, from students and new professionals to very established members of the profession.

A lot of people might roll their eyes and say, “So what? Just move along and ignore it.” Here’s the thing… many times I’ve wanted to reach out to someone visible on Twitter (in a general sense, this is not about any specific individual) to tap their knowledge for something I need help with, or ask their advice on a particular situation. Seeing public dissemination of snark makes me hesitate to ask them for their help, since I typically prefer to work with people I view as collaborative even in the face of disagreement and containing grace under fire. So when I see people snarking, or digging in their heels on an argument devoid of professional civility on Twitter, I’m less eager to work with them. From my perspective, snark on a public backchannel is effectively a form of pre-emptive silencing and a damper on potential collaboration.

I should probably make it clear that any organization needs healthy arguments within itself to keep its mission and leaders accountable. I support healthy arguments within the profession about professional values and ethics. And I recognize that significant issues of privilege play into defining the boundaries of “healthy arguments,” which is why I’m glad this post was recently written. Where my discomfort enters is here: I wish people were more sensitive to the extraordinarily public way Twitter amplifies these internal dissensions. Speaking for myself only, I try really, really hard to save my GRAR for appropriate offline spaces, because I know that many people are reading what I say on Twitter and forming their opinions about me based on what I say on the interwebz. First impressions count as much online as they do face to face. I’d feel like a total jerk if someone were afraid to approach me because of something I said online. During SAA, I met many people for the first time who said they had been following me on Twitter – and they often referenced very specific things I said on Twitter. I’m fine with this, because I’ve never felt that Twitter is a safe space where I can say things without professional consequence.

As a result, I do my best to force myself to step away from Twitter if I’m feeling myself getting GRAAAAR. I simply don’t want to say anything on Twitter I wouldn’t say to someone’s face. One thing I kept finding myself saying over and over and over on Twitter during SAA was, “I’d love to talk about this offline.” And every time I said that, I meant it genuinely, because after 4 years of observing this stuff, I truly believe Twitter is best used to start conversations, not to solve arguments. From my perspective, the single most powerful thing you can do on Twitter is to ask if someone wants to continue the conversation off Twitter. Ideally this is done in person, but if not in person, maybe through a form of communication that best facilitates long-form discussion. There were a couple of instances during the conference where people either extended or took up an offer to move the discussion face to face – and to those colleagues who did that, please know how very grateful I am.

On a final note, let me say this: we are all complex human beings, and every single one of us sometimes says dumb stuff we probably regret in retrospect. Let’s try not to hold someone’s dissenting opinion against them in perpetuity, because frankly, this profession is really small, people change, and none of us are ever going to agree about everything all the time.


Membership Engagement

I know I bang this drum every year on Twitter, but I believe quite strongly that if you’re in town for the business meeting on the last day of the conference, you have a fundamental professional obligation to attend and be present for the quorum. I’m leaving alone the idea of moving it up earlier for now – I’ve seen good arguments for and against doing it. I don’t know how feasible this is in reality, so I’ll hold my thoughts on that until someone smarter than me can weigh in on the logistics of moving it earlier in the week. And I’d like to continue seeing efforts to make the business meeting more accessible to people unable to attend in person for whatever reason.

That said, I’ve heard people say they skip this meeting because it’s boring or they’d rather sightsee – but their presence is essential, because the business meeting needs a 100 person quorum in order to vote on anything. And even if that quorum is met, SAA members still have an obligation to show up at the meeting to bear witness to the decisions being made within their organization.  At this year’s meeting, we almost didn’t have such a quorum. I grew up in a household where I was constantly raised with the idea that if you have the chance/opportunity to contribute your voice or vote (i.e. if you are a voting member still in town during the business meeting), and you choose not to, you effectively forfeit your right to complain. I’ve noticed that there is not always the kind of student/new professional presence I’d hope for at the business meeting – so a special plea for y’all who identify as students and new professionals to do whatever you can to ensure you’re there in the future. I realize so much of this ties into meeting costs and accessibility (not everyone can afford a flight out after the business meeting, if they can make it to the conference at all), and I’m hopeful that the good work of the Annual Meeting Task Force will be implemented so we can reduce barriers as much as possible to attending the annual meeting.

Another thing that I find terribly disappointing (however many folks on Twitter have noted this is pretty common for professional organizations) is the low rate of voting in SAA. For this year’s 2013 slate of candidates, it was reported that only 17% of the membership voted (I’m still working on finding independent verification for this on the SAA website). Look, I understand we’re not going to get 100% (or maybe even 50%, sadly) anytime soon. But 17% is cause for concern. I have no idea if this is possible, but I’d love for SAA to break down who voted by factors like membership type and length. But we can and have had better membership response rates.

What does it mean when so little of the membership is voting for SAA leadership? Maybe it means no one is excited by the candidates. Maybe it means people are really busy. Maybe it means people don’t feel like their vote matters. Maybe people just don’t care. Maybe it has something to do with the 10% drop in student membership. It’s probably some of all of the above. But man – this bums me out big time. Voting in the elections maybe takes 30 minutes, tops, of your time (assuming you read all the candidate bios). Less than A FIFTH of the membership is deciding things for the rest of the organization. Are we seeing some kind of crazy real-life version of the Pareto principle?

One thing I’m wondering is whether people don’t vote simply because they don’t understand what Council or Nominating Committee does. There are a lot of aspects of SAA’s organization that still mystify me, though (I think) I know a lot more than I used to. I think more public awareness of how SAA functions as an organization is always a good thing, but awareness is only part of the picture. If anyone is aware of efforts related to this topic, please clue me in.

Closing the gap between education on digital archives and DOING digital archives

I just chaired a lightning talks panel (Session 301) at SAA, titled “Building Better Bridges: Archivists Cross the Digital Divide.” It was a wide-ranging panel looking at various emerging digital divides within the profession. One of the reasons I wanted to chair this session is because I’m concerned about an emerging gap between the availability of digital archives education and practice.

We have some incredible resources on digital archives education, such as the DAS program (full disclosure: I’m trying to complete the DAS program within the next year) and plenty of webinars and workshops. What I don’t see much of yet are opportunities for archivists without institutional opportunities to get their hands dirty with electronic records workflows. I’d love to see some sort of optional practicum attached to the DAS program where individuals could “do the digital stuff,” preferably with both sandbox and guided project components. While I’m not that familiar with Simmons, I’ve always been fascinated by their digital curriculum laboratory concept and wonder if it could serve as a model for this idea.

I think when many talk about digital archives education and reskilling, it’s taken on faith that individuals have an institutional outlet to “do digital stuff”, but the reality is that there are a lot of students, project archivists, unemployed people, and folks with simply different and unchanging job responsibilities that make it difficult to always translate the learning to the “doing” part of digital archives. I was thrilled to hear that the DAS subcommittee is considering a similar idea, and hope it comes to fruition shortly. If there is anyone else out there interested in this idea, or people building something like it, please get in touch.

And about New Orleans

I’m so thrilled SAA came to New Orleans this year. I’m a Midwesterner by birth and formation (go Cleveland for SAA 2015!), but I’ve lived in the Crescent City for the last 5 years, and I’ve learned more about myself here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before. It’s a remarkable place to be, and I loved seeing 1,600 archivists enjoying themselves in our beautiful city. My sincere appreciation to those of you who extended a personal thanks for the work I did with the local arrangements blog – it was a lot of heavy lifting, and I was gratified to hear it was useful for so many. I’m truly honored and privileged to be a part of this incredible profession. Until next time…

Categorised as: SAA


  1. Jennifer S. says:

    Very well done, Eira!

  2. Sam says:


    Thank you for taking time to expand your Twitter snippets into this blog. I especially appreciate your thoughts on Twitter civility. I have definitely been in or watched conversations in the LAM community that made me reluctant to approach individuals in person or electronically. I try really hard to tweet productively during conference sessions and keep any snarky or personal comments to myself – I had the bizarre experience last year of being livetweeted during a presentation, and it was eye opening. I also try to balance the amount of praise and critique I put out into the world, but the nature of Twitter means individual Tweets often stand alone – devoid of forgiving context.

    I, for one, went into the conference with very little idea of how SAA is structured or governed. I didn’t know we voted on substantial matters at a business meeting (I assumed like many orgs or SAA sections that it would be done online). I didn’t know resolutions could be submitted. I had a very loose understanding of the leadership (fortunately, my unfamiliarity with the Council enabled me to engage fearlessly with many friendly Council members). I talked a bit about that in my last blogpost: http://archivasaurus.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/the-newbies-guide-to-acting-up-in-saa/

    So, I will definitely keep an eye out for any future initiatives to promote awareness of SAA’s inner workings. I’m definitely looking into it on my own.

    Best wishes,

  3. Lance Stuchell says:

    Thanks for writing this post, Eira. I was not able to attend SAA this year and this was a great recap. I REALLY liked what you said about digital archives. There are very strong parallels between what you said about that and the state of digital preservation education and solution development. I would love to talk to you about your ideas some time.

    OK, now to the real reason I am commenting 🙂 As an active participant in both the First and Second Great Twitter Battle of the Intern Guide, I want to touch on what you said about professional discourse. First off, I agree with every word. Seriously, every wood. I think what you said is the standard of how to best communicate on Twitter. However, for me personally, this is a standard that I cannot uphold, at least not all of the time. Somewhat unconsciously, my Twitter feed has become a pretty good representation of the things that float around my head. I guess I should do that on Facebook, or make my tweets private, but I don’t. For better or for worse, I put things out there with my name attached. I like talking about sports and food, and mostly I like to try to be funny. I also sometimes have strong opinions. And there are occasions where I am mad, hurt, frustrated, or scared. Did I mention mad? Like in real life, 9 times out of 10 I pull back, just like you talked about. I engage more privately or just eat the comment altogether. But then there is time #10. It is the #10s where I do not apply that standard. I do not want to misrepresent this as some act of passion, where I am so mad that I lose myself and say something I do not mean. It may surprise people, but I usually think through what I tweet. Now, I would never purposely hurt or belittle someone. There was one instance during the first intern guide brouhaha that I tweeted a reply to someone that others took as me dismissing their opinions. In that case, that was a mistake that I immediately regretted and tried to make right, both off and on line. That remains the only tweet I have ever deleted for non-typo reasons. Those other tweets, the other #10s, are still there, even though some may view them as less than professional, or snarky, or they irritated people, or downright pissed them off. They may have even give people the wrong impression of me or made them hesitant to approach me. I wish I was able to articulate those points in a better way, but I do not regret saying them. Not at all. I guess in those cases, I would rather deal with the consequences of saying something than live with the fact that I said nothing publicly or artificially toned it down. This is not an excuse. I do truly wish I could follow what you said here all the time. I wish I could go 10 for 10. But I am probably never going to get there.

  4. Christiane E. (@tn_archivist) says:


    Like Lance, most of what I put on Twitter is just what floats around in my head, for good or ill. And like Lance, I’d rather live with the fact that I said something and irked folks rather than not saying anything. I have paid a price for this (I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say I’m STILL paying for a couple of tweets from almost two years ago).

    However, I also don’t put anything on Twitter that I wouldn’t say to you offline and I really do think about what I put out there for public consumption. I’ll admit that if someone were to feel unwelcome to talk or collaborate with me based off of my tweets, I would feel terrible. This being said, if people don’t want to collaborate with me based off of my snarky tweets, they may not be folks that I would get on with IRL. Of course the immediate remark is “Well, you could be missing out on someone awesome!” I will always respond to that, “Can’t I say the same to them?” I don’t take snark as “a form of preemptive silencing and a damper on potential collaboration,” probably because when I put sarcastic things out on Twitter, I’m doing it for the laughs or to let off steam. If I see someone with wit/snarky humor, I usually see a kindred spirit, someone I’d be more inclined to work with. I’ve often found that “grace under fire” can be expressed in a variety of ways, from merely staying calm to tossing up a zinger that relieves the tension. Different experiences lead to different interpretations of interactions however, and you’re just as entitled to your opinion as I am mine. 🙂

    After reading what you’ve written and digesting it a bit, I don’t think you’ve said anything controversial here. I think a call for Twitter civility is warranted, ESPECIALLY if the discourse made you uncomfortable and less welcomed. I also think you’re spot on with your take that Twitter is a good place for conversations to start (140 characters is not enough for nuance). I guess what I’m trying to say is while we may not agree on what makes us consider someone a good candidate to collaborate with, we both want the same things: people who treat other people’s (and our) opinions with respect and thoughtfulness, who don’t shout down our thoughts with anger or derision, and who are willing to agree to disagree with us politely.

    As Lance says here (curse you Lance for getting here first!), “I do truly wish I could follow what you said here all the time.” Unfortunately, I’m an abrasive, sometimes belligerent, snark-filled woman and I’ve made my peace with that. I work my butt off to remain open-minded and calm and it’s sometimes a struggle. I will, however, keep your words in mind the next time I’m inclined to casually be sarcastic. Civility truly isn’t too much to ask.

    (End rambling piece that went nowhere)

  5. Jackie Dooley says:

    Thanks to you all for these astute comments. You may know that a couple of people hurled some nasty insults at me via twitter during and/or after my presidential address in NOLA. That didn’t bother me (tough skin!), though I was appalled at the worst of the behavior (and some of it under the cowardly veil of a pseudonym). What did bother me over the course of the year was some of the truly ugly things said about classes of people (managers and supervisors, for example). Certainly it’s true that some members of any class are guilty of moral crimes; that doesn’t make the behavior of those who damn the entire class admirable.

    This said, lots of snarky things get said on Twitter that do no harm. Everybody has to blow off steam sometimes!

  6. […] with the like-minded.   Lance was one of several people who offered insightful comments under a thoughtful blog post that Eira Tansey wrote at the end of the Society of American Archivists conference last year. […]

  7. […] Tansey called for professional engagement in a post she wrote at her blog after the Society of American Archivists conference last year.   She asked […]

  8. […] for professional engagement in a post she wrote at her blog after the Society of American Archivists conference last year.   She asked […]