SAA New Orleans: Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Contributed by Hillary Kativa

All-attendee reception at the National World War II Museum

As the recipient of this year’s DVAG travel grant, I was fortunate to travel to New Orleans last month to attend the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists.  In many ways, it was a trip of firsts: my first national conference, my first trip to New Orleans, and my first taste of gumbo, turtle soup, and a whole host of regional delicacies.  On all counts, I was charmed by the creativity and camaraderie that permeated both the city and the annual meeting and came home inspired by the sights and sounds of colleagues, lively debate, and even a little street corner jazz.

In keeping with my role as the Digital Collections and Rights Manager at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I primarily attended sessions related to digital projects and initiatives, which dominated this year’s annual meeting.  On the whole, these sessions provided snapshots of a field at the crossroads, as presenters collectively highlighted past projects and shared strategies for refining future digitization work through user studies, staff training, new technologies, and the like.  To wit, at the very first session I attended (Disruptive Components: Reimagining Archival Access Systems), a team of archivists, catalogers, and technology specialists from Princeton’s Mudd Manuscript Library demonstrated their new finding aids site and discussed their efforts to treat description as data in order to enhance searching and remove barriers to access of archival materials.  The user experience was also a hot topic at several other sessions: Exploring the User Experience with Digital Primary Sources outlined several user studies  designed to decode how users search digital collections and what content they value, such as rights information and attribution info.  The panel for Digitization Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary, Cross-Profession Discussion even featured two users on the panel, which added an interesting flavor to the discussion of access, quality control, and the role of digital collections in scholarly research.  As we move beyond the era of just getting collections online and begin to think more strategically about what and how we digitize, these sessions were both reassuring and illuminating.  (In many ways, the best part of the annual meeting was the chance to sit in a room of my peers and think “yes, I have that problem too!”)

Along those lines, other sessions of note included Building Better Bridges: Archivists Cross the Digital Divide, which featured a series of short “lightning talks” on issues of knowledge transfer, cross-training, and digital services as a new archival skill set.  Collaboration in Digitization Workflows: How Archivists and Camera Technicians Can Work Together similarly discussed how archivists, digitization technicians, preservation staff, and other professionals can collaborate and educate one another about workflows and best practices.  Interestingly, both of these sessions touched on the professionalization of digital services and how the digitization process encompasses many activities traditionally performed by archivists, including appraisal, processing, and conservation.  To this point, many speakers expressed concern about the rise of “Digital” Archivists and argued for all archivists to be “digital conversant” and integrate basic digital skills into their knowledge base.

The state of the archival profession, particularly the plight of young professionals, was likewise the subject of SAA President Jackie Dooley’s Presidential Address entitled “Feeding Our Young.”  As SAA’s outgoing President, Dooley recapped her year-long listening tour and highlighted issues relevant to many DVAG members, such as the current lack of true entry-level jobs and stagnant wages.  While Dooley acknowledged that little can be done to change the profession overnight, she encouraged attendees to think carefully about how they measure “professional” work and to provide assistance to young professionals through mentorships, internships, and the like.  Dooley also lauded the creation of the Student and New Archives Professionals Roundtable and encouraged attendees to continue the momentum of professional debate and outreach.

Of course, the SAA annual meeting wasn’t all work and no play and New Orleans presented plenty of opportunities to kick up my heels.  The annual meeting’s All-Attendee Reception at the National World War II Museum was a great chance to fraternize with old friends and new acquaintances amidst lifesize aircraft and even a replica of the famed Stage Door Canteen.  For the public historians among us, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, located in the home of the nation’s first licensed pharmacist, was not to be missed.  An obvious labor of love, the museum is a treasure trove of pharmaceutical artifacts, including home remedies, voodoo medicine, and even a few love potions.    And of course, I also took some time to eat and drink my way through Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, forging a trail of beignets, po’ boys, hurricanes, oysters, and gumbo.

By the end of this year’s annual meeting, my mind (much like my stomach) was brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm for the next frontier of digital initiatives and I’m so grateful to DVAG for the opportunity to be part of the SAA community that gathered in New Orleans.  Especially for the young professionals among us: make any effort you can to attend the annual meeting.  Hopefully, like me, you’ll make connections, gain new perspectives, and come back inspired to contribute to our field in new and exciting ways.

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