Eira Tansey

Posts for the ‘professionalism’ Category

Professionals Without Professionalism, Part 1

The big talk of the town right now within the American archivist profession is that a major listserv, known as Archives and Archivists, or A&A, is being shut down at the end of 2017. A&A is administered by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), and has been in existence for well over two decades. SAA is a membership-supported (i.e. dues-paying) organization, though non-members have long been able to subscribe to A&A. A&A has such a longstanding notorious reputation within the profession that it has its own derogatory nickname that’s been in use for years – #ThatDarnList (almost always hashtagged because it’s most frequently deployed on Twitter, where’s it’s been in use since at least 2009).

Why is A&A so notorious? Simply put, because A&A has a long track record of being a hostile environment for many archivists – especially women, people of color, and young/early-career archivists. Many archivists have written about this, these links from the last few years give a good overview:

https://storify.com/Zanish/thatdarnlist
https://archivasaurus.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/are-we-a-profession-or-arent-we/
http://annajcook.blogspot.com/2014/05/once-upon-listserv-thoughts-on.html
https://offtherecord.archivists.org/2014/06/27/the-de-evolution-of-the-archives-and-archivists-list/
https://thefeministlibrarian.com/2014/09/10/in-which-i-write-letters-open-letter-to-saa-re-thatdarnlist/
https://concernedarchivists.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/thatdarnlist-the-saga-continues/

It is also a problem that SAA has increasingly acknowledged since 2014. Read these two reports from the organization:
2014: https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/0814-1-IV-D-A&AList.pdf
2017: https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/1117-V-A-A&AList.pdf

Lest you think this problem has been brought on by “snowflake leftist social justice warrior” millenials who eat too much avocado toast and complain about unpaid internships, A&A has had a bad reputation way before anyone coined the term millenial. Things apparently got pretty wild in 1992-1993. Don’t believe me? Well go back and read these two pieces from American Archivist.

Frank Burke (1992) Letting Sleeping Dogmas Lie:

Anne Kenney (1993) SAA Is Us: Promoting Participation in the Work of the Society:

Like many other archivists, I’ve cheered the recent decision by SAA Council to end the listserv. I left active subscription to A&A a few years ago and have not returned. I have personally encountered the hostile atmosphere of A&A, and it’s become increasingly embarrassing to see how bullshit on the listserv comes off to new archivists and information professionals who are adjacent to archives. Archivists claim to be professionals, but judging from the listserv, it’s hard to see where some of our fellow archivists could actually claim any sense of professionalism. A&A has not been a good resource for years – many of the most knowledgeable people in our field left it long ago. In fact, the toxicity is now so notorious that it’s getting written about outside of our field. Somehow I don’t think this is the kind of public awareness that the Committee on Public Awareness had in mind.

SAA has said that it will be exploring other avenues for communication platforms in the coming months. SAA already hosts a number of other listservs – each of SAA’s sections have listservs, and non-members are allowed to subscribe to up to three of them.

One of the larger conversations provoked by the shutting down of A&A is the question of staying professionally involved. According to the #thatdarnlist hashtag, many of the subscribers to A&A are now concerned about losing access to this source of information about the profession. I’ve encountered a similar sentiment on a regional archivists listserv, and I find it strange. More on that in a forthcoming post.

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