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.
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.
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