SAA 2017: Report from Portland, OR

Posted on behalf of Alexandra M. Wilder


I was honored to receive the 2017 travel grant from DVAG to attend the Society of American Archivists (SAA) 2017 annual meeting in Portland, Oregon, last month. As the 2017 recipient of the F. Gerald Ham and Elsie Ham Scholarship from SAA, my conference registration was covered, however, the travel grant from DVAG covered my travel and lodging expenses, which enabled me to attend the conference and accept the scholarship award in person as part of Plenary 2.

As a recent graduate and part-time manuscript cataloger at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, attending the SAA conference was a valuable opportunity for me to engage with current issues in the field and meet fellow archives professionals.

I attended many fascinating sessions but will focus on just a few here. After registration on Wednesday and the opening Plenary– which featured a particularly stirring address by Greg Eow, the Associate Director for Collections at the MIT Libraries– I attended “Archival Ethics: It Could Happen to You!” (#104) on Thursday morning. The session featured Julie Graham, Accessioning Archivist, University of California, Los Angeles; Menzi Behrnd-Klodt, Consultant, Klodt and Associates; Elena Danielson, Archivist Emerita, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University; and Sara (Sue) Hodson, Curator of Literary Manuscripts, The Huntington Library. Having read papers by Danielson and Hodson as part of my MSLIS studies at Drexel University, it was particularly meaningful to hear them speak in person on the always-relevant and topical issue of archival ethics. The panelists noted the recent example of archivists who were fired from the University of Oregon for their involvement in the release of presidential records to a professor. Without sharing specific examples from the audience, with respect to the fact that the session was not recorded so that audience members could share examples from their professional work in which they were faced with ethical dilemmas, my main takeaway was how important it is to be able to be part of a professional network of archivists in order to have colleagues to turn to for advice. As the constant refrain of archives work– “it depends”– indicates, issues that may arise are so varied that it is difficult to apply one approach to all cases. I also noted Elena’s Danielson’s statement that, due to recent world events, she carries around a copy of On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder in her purse (!) and added it to the top of my TBR pile.

Later that morning, I attended “Pioneering a Gold Standard: An Odyssey to Digitize Helen Keller’s Archive for a Sighted, Hearing, Blind, and Deaf Audience” (#209). This session on the creation of the digital Helen Keller Archive, from the archives held at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City, featured Helen Selsdon, Archivist, American Foundation for the Blind; Toya Dubin, President, Hudson Archival; Crista Earl, Director, Web Services, American Foundation for the Blind; and Elizabeth Neal, Associate Director, Web Content Strategy, American Foundation for the Blind. The panelists shared that their goal was “to pioneer the most accessible archive in the world.” They talked about the grant proposal process– if your grant proposal is rejected, try, try, and try again!– as well as usability tests and software collaborations. While the panelists were talking specifically about their project, and featured many examples, they also stressed that digital archives and websites should always strive for accessibility, and noted that “an accessible site is a discoverable site.” Additionally, some accessibility basics to remember include keeping your layout simple, not using pop-ups as they interfere with screen readers and the like, and always employing usability testers. All in all, the Helen Keller archive is an ambitious and important project that has many elements that can be incorporated into other websites, as we all strive to make our digital archives as accessible as possible.


I have a scholarly interest in archives that are comprised of controversial materials or materials that reflect aspects of history and society that we would rather forget. On the other side of this same coin are condolence archives, which represent painful events that human beings feel compelled to commemorate. As such, I was eager for the chance to attend “Documenting Sorrow: Collecting and Archiving in Digital and Physical Formats Memorial Materials from School Shootings” (#306) on Friday morning, despite the fact that the box of tissues placed at the entrance to the meeting room next to the handouts indicated that the session ahead would be an emotional one. The session featured Julia Diane Larson, Reference Archivist, University of California, Santa Barbara; Melissa Barthelemy, Doctoral Candidate in Public History, University of California, Santa Barbara; Tamara Kennelly, University Archivist, Virginia Tech; Annie Platoff, Reference Librarian, University of California, Santa Barbara; and Danelle Moon, Director Special Research Collections, University of California, Santa Barbara. The panelists provided a link to download a chapter entitled “Response to the Unthinkable: Collecting and Archiving Condolence and Temporary Memorial Materials following Public Tragedies,” by Ashley Maynor, which helpfully summarizes many of the approaches they discussed in the session. The panelists noted that archivists should “let the materials do as they were intended: provide comfort,” and that “whenever possible, [materials managers should] share the burden among different organizational departments or entities.” One particular example of how overwhelming public response to tragedy can be was the volume of stuffed animals that were sent from around the country to Newtown, CT, after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school mass shooting. While the public were sending the stuffed animals in an expression of their grief and commiseration, the town was unprepared to deal with the volume of materials and was overwhelmed. In this instance, making use of social media and “official communications and press releases [to] communicate the community’s needs, or lack thereof, for certain types of donations” is very important. I definitely made use of the tissues during this presentation and was grateful to the organizers for their foresight in providing them.

Later on Friday morning, I split my time between two sessions occurring at the same time. The first was, “Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives: Developing a Plan of Action” (#402), featuring Michelle Caswell, Assistant Professor, UCLA; Marika Cifor, Doctoral Candidate, UCLA; Jamie A. Lee, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona; and Ricardo L. Punzalan, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland College of Information Studies. The panelists– taking cues from Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”— crowdsourced approaches to generate a concrete plan of action for identifying and dismantling white supremacy in archives. It was stirring to see audience members approach the microphone to list examples of white privilege in archives from their experience. For each privilege cited, there was a brainstorming session to generate a concrete plan of action. Taking an active approach to this issue was clearly meaningful for everyone in the room and I left with a sharper view of white privilege in archives and ways in which to identify, name, and dismantle it.

“Preserving the Spark: Challenges in Archiving Activist Movements” (#404) featured Michael Lotstein, Head of University Archives, Yale University Library; Stephanie Bennett, Collections Archivist, Wake Forest University; Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University Archivist, Assistant Professor, Kent State University; Nabil Kashyap, Librarian for Digital Initiatives and Scholarship, Swarthmore College; and Jarrett M. Drake, Digital Archivist, Princeton University. Issues of archivist-activists, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the lack of diversity in archives are all ones that Jarrett Drake has spoken on with incredible insight and I have been following his writing (and his tweets) for some time now. I was grateful for a chance to see Drake speak in person, among the other excellent panelists, and was saddened to learn that he has decided to leave the archival profession, which he discusses in this recent piece. This session also involved audience participation as small groups were assembled to address approaches for documenting the historical record of social movements and communities. Small group participants were encouraged to share the roadblocks they have faced in their attempts to document the work of activists. As a new professional, I didn’t have any examples of my own to share, but I was thankful for the chance to hear examples from other session participants and hear examples that were, or weren’t, successful with regard to navigating these roadblocks.
I learned a great deal from my experience at the annual conference and, as you can see, was able to participate in important conversations and issues facing the profession today. If you weren’t able to attend the conference this year, I hosted a re-cap with DVAG Thursday, August 25 at Cooperage (123 South 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106) from 5:30-7:00 pm. This year, we particularly encouraged students and interns to attend. Thanks to all who attended!

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