Eira Tansey

Posts for the ‘professionalism’ Category

Professionals without Professionalism, Part 3

Part 1: The shutdown of the Archives & Archivists listserv

Part 2: The landscape of archivist professional dialogue

After spending a lot of time thinking about what the current state of archivist discourse is like, I started thinking about how much more and better and varied it could be. So, this last post in this series is a bit of a wishlist of things I want to see develop over the coming years.

Let’s start planting some seeds, archivists.

We need to increase the amount of conversation in general and with more archivists’ voices at the table. 

It’s striking to me how few archivists are engaged in public conversation about the profession. I wish it were a professional norm among everyone to engage in active conversations about the nature of our work, and yet there are many archivists out there who are not participating in these conversations whatsoever. As a result, the same voices dominate conversations about digital preservation, archival social justice, metadata, DACS, copyright, etc etc.  I personally find this really baffling. Sometimes I get the sense that lots of people are listening, and reading but not… contributing. Why is this? Is it because they feel like they don’t have something to contribute? Is it because we’re afraid to critique others’ ideas? I often hear anecdotal evidence that people are “not supported” in their jobs to read and write, but I also don’t know of many archivists who are working in a billable hours environment.

Divest our dialogue from platforms owned by profit-oriented companies.

This is a big one for me because I am planning to leave Twitter soon, and the only reason I haven’t quit sooner is because Archivist Twitter brings me a lot of joy and information.

I don’t really know what the answer to this is. Could we go back to 2005 with everyone owning their own domain, when people read blogs and left really thoughtful comments on them, and our main hits of new information came via RSS, and that was the main internet discourse? I know that that environment had its issues, but I miss how non-monetized it was and how people didn’t give a shit about their brand and how it was SLOW. I guess I can dream. I personally want to revive Reading Archivists.

We need a renewed emphasis on the public implications of institutional recordkeeping, especially by governments.

I am a bit skeptical of the recent emphasis on collecting social justice from demonstrations and private parties as the major expression of archival social justice (and I say this as someone who is active in some of those efforts). In my opinion, the greatest impact we could have on effecting social justice through recordkeeping is to assert the public interest on records issues – like demanding consistent access to law enforcement records, pushing against the creation of surveillance records, and so on.

Millions of people are affected by records that will never be transferred to an archival repository. These are also the same records that will disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Archivists need to be active participants in these efforts, and right now, we generally are not.

We need the voices of government and corporate archivists in our professional dialogues.

I’m not the first archivist to observe how atomized our already small profession is, and how dominated by university affiliations the general makeup of the Society of American Archivists has been. Clearly many archivists have found organizational homes elsewhere that meet their needs more than SAA. I don’t blame them, but I still miss their voices. As a past Nominating Committee member, and a current chair of the SAA Records Management Section, I’ve seen how much the domination of academic archivists within SAA has pernicious underdiscussed effects. While I’m an academic archivist myself, a huge part of my work is informed by public records issues. It is stunning to me how many archivists within SAA spaces do not understand extremely basic information about FOIA and the way state records issues depart from federal records issues, and I think this is because we do not hear from government archivists as often as we hear from academic archivists within archival discourse.

This would be kind of amusing if it weren’t such an obstacle for our profession. The worst is during the inevitable “politicians who fuck up their recordkeeping obligations.” I’ve seen SAA leaders, who come from an academic background, sharing information that blatantly is contradictory to NARA policy. How the hell are we supposed to advocate for the archival profession when we can’t even get our news stories right?

We need ways for great minds that think alike to find each other for collaboration

Much like finding a way to divest from profit-driven platforms, this one is a bit of a head-scratcher but I still feel strongly about it. I’m pretty well-connected and know who to ask if I’m thinking about starting a new project and want to find collaborators. But this takes a really long time to figure this out for new professionals and it shouldn’t have to be this hard. I wish there was a universal matchmaking directory where people could say “here are the projects I’m working on, I’m looking for collaborators to help me with this part” and then we could all be doing fun amazing things together.

We need more archivists to represent our profession outside of our profession

As my interests have drifted towards environmental issues, I’ve started to attend conferences in other fields. I’ve also published in non-archives journals. And it’s the best thing ever. I realize that flexible conference funding is a huge area of privilege, and I wish I had a good answer for how to start solving this. But I strongly encourage other archivists within whatever capacity they have to present to, work with, and write for non-archivist audiences when possible. It helps us learn how to talk about what we do to people who have no idea what we do (or at history conferences, people who think they know what we do), and often times non-archivists get super-excited about your work when you talk about it, which is lovely and affirming.

What’s on your archives dialogue wishlist?



Professionals Without Professionalism, Part 2

Part Two: Or, the landscape of archivist professional dialogue (Part One here)

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the announcement of the #thatdarnlist shutdown wasn’t the rampant denialism of longstanding problems, but the fact that a lot of A&A subscribers seemed to be genuinely baffled about where to find information about the archives profession after the list is shut down at the end of 2017.

Archivists are information professionals. That a bunch of information professionals are melting down about where to find professional information is truly bewildering. Or as Matt Francis put it:

Seriously, y’all.

So as an act of public service (you can and should thank me for this labor by buying me a beer the next time you see me) here are some of my recommendations for “How to be a professionally conversant American archivist in 2017”. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but it is fairly reflective of the way that I consume professional content. I tend to focus on the American archives profession, and I hope readers will contribute non-US suggestions in the comments.

I can already hear someone howling “but I don’t have tiiiiiiiiiiiiiime to review all these sources.” If you want to be treated like a professional, you need to act like it, and that means being conversant with the ongoing conversations in your profession. No one is saying you have to read everything, but you have to pay attention to something on at least a semi-regular basis, or else quit calling yourself an archivist. I have Additional Strong Feelings about this that I’ll save for Part 3.

Peer-Reviewed Literature

Why you should pay attention to it: Even with peer reviewing’s myriad nonsense (and there is so much, but trust me when I say it’s a million times worse outside of the archives profession), there is no substitute for a process that allows people to call you out on your bullshit. I sometimes see questionable assertions (aka hot takes) by archivists bubble up on social media or blogs that I know would not last through peer review if the person had to marshal evidence for their claim. At its best, peer-reviewed literature can have long-lasting impacts on practice (Greene and Meissner!), provide inspirational reading that feels as relevant today as it did when it came out decades ago (Gerry Ham!), and provide a clear ethical framework for moving our work forward (Michelle Caswell!)

My favorite resources: Many of you might know I created an entire calendar assigning reading days to prominent journals in the field. Since I originally created it for the type of reading I need to do for my work, it skews heavily towards American archives and academic libraries. It’s due for an overhaul, but I think it’s a handy tool and I’m always delighted to hear other people find it useful. (github version if you want to adapt for your own needs)


Why you should pay attention to it: Blogs occupy that nice space between needing to say more than can be said via social media, but with greater immediacy and casualness than peer review demands. Within archives-land, there are repositories that have blogs, there are archival organizations that have blogs, and there are archivists that have blogs. A lot of the prominent archivist blogs from several years ago are far quieter these days (ArchivesNext, You Ought to Be Ashamed, Chaos->Order) which is a bummer. Those blogs were sites of incredible archivist dialogue, and I sort of miss blog comment-oriented discourse.

Individual archivist blogs are a gold-mine, since many of us tend to put up copies of conference talks (which often never get published elsewhere). If you’re an archivist who does talks and you don’t have your own blog, please put something up so we can share your work and give your conference talks a second life!

My favorite resources:

Social Media

Why you should pay attention to it: Social media – and especially Twitter – is often scapegoated whenever discussions about A&A come up. I think this is unfair, because it tends to erase how useful it can be, particularly given the exodus of many archivists from listservs to Twitter. I have as much of a love/hate relationship with social media as the next person, but I think there is an undeniable amount of fantastic knowledge you can pick up from Twitter. Speaking only for myself, Twitter has helped me find professional development workshops, calls for papers, interesting conferences, and a good sounding board for “Has anyone ever….?” questions.

The free-for-all nature of Twitter is part of why it’s an environment so prone to hostility, but the fact that it isn’t a walled garden also helps make it a very interdisciplinary experience. I’ve discovered the work of a lot of environmental studies people through it that otherwise would have been far more difficult to find via other avenues. Social media deservedly gets a lot of flak for enabling a build-your-own-echo-chamber space. At the same time, I don’t think Twitter gets enough credit for fostering the ability to easily find voices you might not normally encounter. My work has been undeniably improved by listening to many voices on Twitter from marginalized groups that often are not represented in peer-reviewed publications, as conference headliners, etc.

Because Facebook is a walled garden, it lacks both the best-of and worst-of Twitter experiences. And I think the jury is still out on mastodon – I have an account on scholar.social, and there are a few archivists there, but it doesn’t yet feel like a critical mass.

My favorite resources: I know there are a lot of archivists and archival organizations active on Facebook, but for my money (well, time) Twitter is where I’ve gotten the most value. Almost all of the bloggers mentioned above are active or semi-active on Twitter, and are great people to follow. If you’re not currently active on archivist Twitter and want to give it a try, I think a good time to dive in is during conferences, when you can use conference hashtags to quickly identify interesting users. Some archivists on Twitter only talk about archives, some talk mostly about their personal interests, and others fall somewhere in the middle. Lots of people maintain lists of archivists on Twitter (like Kate Theimer’s  list) which is a quick way to follow lots of users at once.


Why you should pay attention to it: Alright, let me say out of the gate that this is a thin area at the moment, and I really hope we start seeing more archives podcasts. There is a lot to be said for non-textual mediums as sources of learning new things. At MAC 2017, there was a great session about podcasting, though it was more of a “archives doing podcasts about their holdings” than an “archivists doing podcasts about the profession” vibe.

What are my favorite resources: It’s no longer active, but there was a good podcast running for a brief period between 2013-2014 called More Podcast Less Process. Lost in the Stacks is a radio show hosted by librarians and archivists from the Georgia Tech Library, and they also distribute the show as a podcast. There are rumors that the reviews folks over at American Archivist are working on a podcast, and I am super pumped to see what they come up with.

What’s Next?

I have a long wish list for the archivist information & professional discourse ecosystem. Who knows if it will all ever be realized, but it’s fun to speculate. Look for that in Part 3!

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:


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