Eira Tansey

On the concerns of new archivists

<standard disclaimer about these only being my own views>

If you’re an archivist active on Twitter and/or in SAA, you probably know about the #thatdarnlist brouhaha and the recent discussions over the SAA code of conduct. I’ve mostly stayed on the public sidelines of these discussions for many reasons. However, something I’ve observed* is the idea that those pushing for new approaches to the listserv and/or the code of conduct are newbies to the profession who have an ax to grind, and should turn their attention to real issues.

Let’s be clear: using someone’s professional status as a newbie to dismiss their concerns is one of the most toxic attitudes established professionals can transmit to their newer, typically younger, often more professionally vulnerable colleagues. And if anyone is wondering about my own consistency, I believe ageism is one of the few (only?) -isms that actually cuts in two directions, and have asked people not to use language such as “old guard” which I feel is decidedly uncool. We are at our strongest when we realize our challenges are truly multi-generational.

Perhaps I find dismissive attitudes to the concerns of newbies so disturbing because I’m going through my own period of professional transformation. I still very much identify as a new archivist, and only graduated in 2012. On the other hand, I’m lucky to have started a professional position last year, and have leadership roles in the profession. This means I no longer feel quite like the very new, very shaky baby archivist I was just a few years ago. Numerous established archivists have graciously shared their knowledge, contacts, stories, and ideas with me, and I am profoundly grateful for their generosity. It’s made my transition to a professional career undeniably easier knowing that sound advice is a phone call or email away. The overwhelming majority of archivists I’ve dealt with are supportive and caring colleagues.

And this is the way it should be, for everyone. Using someone’s length of time in the profession, whether measured in decades or months, as a proxy for the validity of their ideas, is intellectually lazy. Ideas should stand or fall on their own merits, not on the CV length of those supporting or arguing against them. This is why the concept of blind review continues to hold weight in academic publishing.

Let’s talk for a minute about institutional (or perhaps more accurately, professional-organizational) knowledge. This often gets mixed up with the idea that newbies don’t know what they’re talking about, because they don’t remember “The Great Battle of What-Have-You in Fill-in-the-year”:

1. Let’s reject the idea that time in the profession is a barrier to understanding the broad scope of institutional history. Yes, it’s different if you were there in person. There’s no way lived experience can be replicated for someone who wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean those of us who weren’t there aren’t capable of reading back through the literature, talking to our mentors, and learning about long-standing professional areas of disagreement. Put me on your archival history pub quiz team, I’ll take Committee for the 1970’s for $400, Alex.

2. Recognize there is a line between saying, “Hey, here’s what happened the last time our profession addressed this issue, and here were the outcomes. You should understand this and have this information going forward if you decide this is a battle worth your time” versus saying “Hey, here’s what happened the last time our profession addressed this issue, and it never worked out, therefore your ideas are not worth considering.” We are a profession that ostensibly professes to be open to change, to new ideas, and to incorporating the voices of those not often heard in the public when it comes to building the archival record. It’s time to do the same with the way we think about concepts of professionalism. Even in perennial points of argument, the factors around unresolved issues change with each generation.

In closing…The archival record is only as good as the archivists charged to care for it. Archivists who are told their voices are not worth listening to because they are new will have difficulties developing into the thoughtful leaders we need. And we desperately need to grow these leaders to fight for the continued survival of our profession and our institutions.

*for those unaware of my MO, I do not single out or link to specific examples on my own website, and would appreciate the same within the comments

Categorised as: professionalism


  1. Stephanie Bennett says:

    Agree in spades. Trained archivists all, regardless of age or standing, have opinions and are free to express them. It’s important for us all to work on keeping these expressions professional and constructive. Being an archivist has shown me how much can be learned from my colleagues; people’s willingness to learn, though, depends on tone, attitude, diction.

  2. Kathleen Roe says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Eira. Love the reference to the Committee on the 70s, led by my mentor Phil Mason. I’ve been mulling over ways to open wider dialogue, increase communication, encourage exchange in ways people feel are productive among all of us in SAA and the profession…its a responsibility I have specifically in the coming year, but have always had (as we all do) as an SAA member. Any thoughts, suggestions, “how abouts” from you and others would be welcome either via email (kathleen.d.roe@gmail.com) or twitter (KDRoe122) or live at the SAA meeting. Talk to me!

    • admin says:

      Kathleen, given your status as incoming president of SAA, I appreciate your outreach. Thanks!