Publishing with a Purpose: Insights into the SAA Publications Program

by Dennis Riley

Dennis Riley received his M.A. in Archives Management from New York University in 2012.  He has worked for the National Archives in New York City since December 2010.  Prior to joining the National Archives, he worked for the U.S. Department of State in a specialized collection-archives-records management capacity.

I have to admit that, as a graduate student, I paid little thought how SAA books came to be. All I knew was that my professors at NYU assigned a number of SAA titles as required texts, and that I found others equally useful when it came time to research and write some papers. At best, I took SAA publications for granted; at worst I viewed them as a drain on my meager funds.

And then I was made the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse when I was appointed last year as an intern on the Publications Board. I attended my first Publications Board meeting at SAA 2012 in San Diego and assumed it would be like most business meetings: rather dry, inefficient, and not produce any tangible results. I’m happy to report my experience with the Publications Board has been quite the opposite. In fact, my fears were completely unfounded and that first meeting was definitely one of the highlights of the SAA Annual Meeting for me.

Why have I drunk the kool-aid and become a booster of the SAA publications program?

For starters, participating on the Publications Board has exposed me to the wider concerns our professional organization faces, in particular how to ensure members are able to face emerging challenges in the field, how archives can stay relevant in society as a whole, and the financial realities of SAA as an organization.

One of the big revelations for me was how important the revenue generated by the publications program is to the overall financial well-being of SAA. In hindsight it is perhaps obvious, but reviewing how publications revenue fits into the overall SAA budget was a stark reminder that everything we expect SAA to do on our behalf has cost implications. As much as we may want and advocate for free information, publishing quality texts that are relevant and useful to the profession costs money.

Which brings me to another revelation regarding SAA publications: their breadth, depth, and overall high quality. Again this may be self-evident, but compared to other professional organizations, SAA enjoys a robust publications program that is committed to ensuring that the titles produced meet the evolving needs of its members.  Each year SAA publishes a number of new titles (in itself a major accomplishment) while also ensuring that dozens of others remain in print.  As a whole, the output of the SAA publications program has contributed numerous seminal works that advance both theory and practice in the archival world – and allow all of us to have the necessary knowledge and tools to carry out our professional responsibilities to a higher degree.

This commitment to excellence is ensured by the Publications Editor and the eight members of the Publications Board, as well as the SAA publications staff, whose consistent dedication to ensuring the program adheres to high standards has impressed me to no end. Case in point has been the discussions involving the future of the publications program relative to updating the Archival Fundamental Series (AFS II). This has not only encompassed what topics need to be addressed to fill gaps in existing literature, but also how best to deliver new titles with an eye towards electronic publication, all while maintaining a reasonable pricing scheme. In short, no easy, simple task. 

The recently launched series, Trends in Archives Practice, is the culmination of two years of careful consideration of how best to augment the existing literature in a flexible, proactive manner. Also part of these discussions has been an acute concern that this new series meets the needs of students and new professionals and provides us with critical information to practice our profession in the real world, not just in academic seminars.  I am extremely excited about the possibilities this new model presents.  The modular approach will allow SAA to be more nimble in production and output.  The e-publication format will allow folks to purchase those titles that are most relevant to their needs, effectively mixing and matching topics to suit each individual, again while keeping the purchase price low.  And for those (like myself) who still enjoy the feel of a hard copy, physical book, there is the option to purchase modules bundled together around a central theme.

In my opinion, the initial offering – Archival Arrangement and Description – reinforces my academic and professional experience in a very critical, useful way: from deconstructing the alphabet soup of descriptive standards (Module 1), to offering practical guidance on the processing of electronic records (Module 2), to evaluating tools and software to provide access in an increasingly digital world (Module 3).  In January, the Publications Board brainstormed the way forward and has begun to develop the next series of modules clustered around three themes: digital preservation, intellectual property and copyright, and information technology issues.

I realize my opinion may seem effusive; my intent is not to come off as some starry-eyed, poster-child shamelessly plugging SAA books.  What I hope to convey is how my participation has enlightened me to the extensive effort, thought, and dedication involved in producing any single title, much less a comprehensive body of literature.  These decisions are not made in a vacuum, but are the result of a real sense of commitment to address the needs of the profession, including the needs of students and new professionals.

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About Lisa H

Lisa is the archivist/librarian at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College. She stumbled into archival work by way of the museum world and is always seeking ways to break down the silos of these professions. Lisa has worked in museums, libraries, and archives in Illinois, New York, and Alaska. While not at work, Lisa spends her free time biking, working on art projects, and putting her useless knowledge to good use on bar trivia teams. You can find her on Twitter @lisahuntsha.

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