SAA Annual Meeting 2015: Our Scholarship Recipient Reports Back

The following post is written by Jessica Hoffman, this year’s recipient of DVAG’s scholarship to attend the Society of American Archivists annual meeting. If you couldn’t attend SAA and are interesting in hearing more — or if you did attend and want to share your experiences! — please come to our SAA Wrap-Up Happy Hour at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop-Up Garden on South Street! We hope to see you there next Tuesday, September 29th, at 6pm.

Thanks to the generous DVAG travel grant, I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 SAA Annual Meeting in Cleveland, Ohio this year. The Annual Meeting is an amazing opportunity to make new personal and professional connections, to foster existing ones, and to learn from colleagues in the field who can speak from their own challenges and triumphs. This was my second Annual Meeting; I was able to attend the Archives * Records meeting in Washington, D.C. last year as a graduate student.

Attending the SAA Annual Meeting in this context (for the second time, with the support of DVAG, and as a new professional) allowed me to hone in on one aspect of the archival profession that has always spoke to me—the storytelling aspect. As a result of my time volunteering with the South Asian American Digital Archive, I have an interest in underdocumented groups and persons in the U.S. archival record. Luckily for me, this was a strong theme at this year’s meeting, and it was fascinating to hear many different perspectives about its advantages, complications, and pitfalls.

The Opening Plenary (Plenary I): Telling the Stories of Archives and Archivists got the conference off to a strong start, with SAA President Kathleen Roe, Daniel Horowitz Garcia of StoryCorps, and Tom Owen of PGAV Destinations speaking to the importance of storytelling to connect people and to help us advocate for our profession to users, donors, resource allocators, and legislators. An exemplary service award was presented to Mark Greene, a brilliant mind and writer in our field, who I’m sure we all had to read in graduate school!

Three Tokyo-area graduate students and faculty and two archivists from the Texas Medical Library in Houston presented on their digital project in Session 104: Advocating for Access: Japanese-U.S. Pilot Project About Atomic-bomb-Related Archives. The project is a collaborative effort to provide access to records related to the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It’s an example of a successful, international, large-scale collaboration between two institutions with different funding, technology, skills, space, and mindsets about archives. As would be expected, cultural differences were present. The cultural differences around an issue like crowdsourced, collaborative transcription, for example (something that one would normally assume to be an acceptable option) were eye-opening—the sensitivity and value of the atomic bomb-related records increased in light of the Fukishima incident following the earthquake in 2012, and the Japanese cohort felt that allowing the Japanese documents to be perused and interpreted by many people was not a viable or appropriate option.

Like me, I think a lot of people were drawn to Session 201: “Mind Your Own F#@king Business”: Documenting Communities that Don’t Want to be Documented and the Diversity of the American Record just from the title! It turned out to be my favorite session of the conference, and was well-attended, thought-provoking, and a great counterpoint to the traditional conversation about under- or undocumented communities in the American archival record. Taking the form of a pecha kucha presentation (20 slides for 20 seconds each per presenter), the session asked the question, “What do we do with the ‘right to be forgotten’?” The six presenters spoke about such groups as graffiti artists, terrorists, polygamist Mormons, Native Americans, and law enforcement officers—all who have resisted attempts by archivists and historians to document their culture and daily lives for different reasons. The takeaway was that we as archivists should focus on respecting communities’ needs and desires regarding their own records and stories, which are deeply personal, rather than on what the documentation means for our careers and field. We need to move beyond fears of losing content, because it may not be our job to save it. Libby Coyner, the presenter from the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records, pointed out that “sometimes the gap in the record becomes the record itself.” [NB: Someone at this session pointed out on Twitter that communities who wish to remain undocumented should have that choice, but government representatives like police and other law enforcement should not have that choice. An excellent point, in my opinion.]

The exterior of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio


The All-Attendee Reception was, as was expected, a lot of fun, and we were able to explore the exhibits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum while getting a sugar high from fluorescent candy popcorn and cake pops.

Session 309: The Community IS the Archives: Challenging the Role of the Repository in Community Archives presented a model for serving community archives in a new way, by challenging the traditional notion of the institutional archival repository as the only option for preserving records of value, and by recognizing that records have value because of a community’s actions and efforts, not just because of the judgment of a trained archivist. Instead, the presenters advocated for a decentralized, distributed archives model in which communities retain control over their own records, but are linked to a larger organization or repository for resources as needed (such as training, mentorship, fundraising, supplies, etc.). The lesson I took from this session was that this doesn’t happen overnight: building meaningful partnerships over a long period of time is essential to working with a community archives, and if we are to serve our communities in this way, we need to approach this work as learners, not as knowers.

Another favorite session was Session 508: The Role of Archives and Archivists in the Search for Truth and Reconciliation. Ry Moran, the Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba and formerly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), discussed the notion of “truth” in archives and what it means for those seeking reconciliation from their own government. The TRC spent years gathering testimonies and documents from survivors of the Residential School system in Canada. Prior to this session, I had no idea how widespread and damaging these residential schools in Canada were to First Nations people. It was inspiring to learn about the lengths to which the Centre has gone to preserve the narratives of survivors of the Residential Schools in Canada. As well, it was interesting to hear how the Centre is using indigenous practices and philosophies to inform their treatment of collections and the management of the organization.

One outlier to my theme of attending sessions around a storytelling theme was Session 401: Arrangement, Description, and Access for Digital Archives, in which five panelists and a moderator spoke to challenges around arrangement, description, and access of digital archives. These practical issues are not discussed as often as ingest and management of digital archives, so I’m sure it was useful for archivists who work with digital archives. Since I don’t work with digital archives, this session was a bit over my head, but it was quite interesting to see what systems and tools the panelists use on a day-to-day basis. I certainly look forward to a time when I have more experience working with and managing digital archives. Another session of note was Session 601: Don’t Break it on Tuesdays and Other Tales: ArchivesSpace in Practice, which discussed efforts by five early adopters of ArchivesSpace to migrate data from previous systems (Archivists Toolkit, Archon, Re:Discovery, and a custom-built system), including challenges they experienced and how ArchivesSpace is working for them.

The storytelling theme makes the profession feel accessible, exciting, immediate, and important. This feeling applies not only to new professionals like myself, but could also be useful when advocating for support for the archival profession from resource holders. Everyone loves a good story, especially one that opens their eyes to the lives and experiences of others. It was clear to me that my colleagues and fellow information professionals at the national meeting were excited and passionate about sharing and preserving not only the narratives of those represented in their repositories’ collections; but also their own stories–of working with donors, learning how to become a part of a community and how it affects their archival work, how they are growing in their careers, etc. through articles, blogs, meetings, etc. We tell our stories to each other, and to those outside the field, and we build relationships–this is how we can advocate for our profession and to demonstrate the value and significance of archives.

Storytelling seems to transcend the issues inherent in the profession–lack of funding, obsolete media, preservation, access, misunderstanding of what we do, etc. But the issues are still there, and they are complex. And that is what the Annual Meeting is for—to tell the stories, encourage one another, and yes, discuss the issues and solve problems. Many pointed out that the very act of storytelling can be biased, impartial, and subjective, which seems to contradict the very core of our profession, but this is part of our challenge: to let the stories tell themselves as much as possible, to put people’s lives and stories in context, and to do our jobs with respect, compassion, creativity, and an open mind.

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