Director of Archives and Records Management Operations, New York State Archives
Candidate for Vice President/President-Elect
Read her bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.
How did I get started in the archives field?
Quick answer, Geneva made me do it. Like many others who have come to this field, I began by pursuing graduate work in history. One of my friends had just chosen the 16th century Irish navy as a thesis topic, and I have to admit it left me wondering if I really could hone in on something that specific as the “passion” of my career—30 years on one country, one time period, one topic? hmmm. Fortunately, the professor to whom I confessed my reservations steered me to an opening for a student assistant at the State of Michigan Archives as a way to explore other options. That’s where I met Geneva Kebler Wiskemann, a tiny woman who walked fast and talked faster, and exuded an incomparable passion for archives. She guided me through learning various work processes, but far more important, as we worked, she talked and talked and talked to me about why archives, particularly government archives, are essential to the lives of individuals and the functioning of government and organizations. It was not just work, or a pleasant occupation for Geneva—archives and serving the public was a mission with purpose, significant outcomes, and something that can and does make a difference. Her vision and energy were infectious, and I’ve thankfully never recovered from that exposure. At Geneva’s urging, after finishing my M.A. in history I went to Wayne State University’s MLS program with a concentration in archives then taught by Dr. Philip P. Mason. Phil’s thorough and thoughtful education in archives and his careful mentoring expanded and enhanced my commitment to archives as a field where opportunities could, and still do, exist for me to make contributions that I find intellectually stimulating, personally rewarding, and most important, allow me to contribute to a profession that can and does change lives and affects society in subtle, but significant ways. So that’s how—but more important, why—I became an archivist.
Should SAA focus it services more on archives professionals or the archives profession?
SAA is first and foremost an association for archives professionals. It serves that role best, therefore, when it has very clear goals and initiatives that provide support, training, and services focused on the membership. However, it would be unhelpful for SAA to behave as if the issues and status of the archives profession as a whole in this country were not critical factors affecting the professional health of our membership. As a quick example, legal battles over who and when access can be given or denied to records in our holdings is an archival issue that recently has come up repeatedly, and may have significant impact on SAA members as they work with donors and researchers in their own institutions. SAA does not have to assume all the work or always take the lead–addressing larger archival issues is often best accomplished when we work in collaboration with other groups like the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, the National Coalition for History, or the National Archives and the Library of Congress. There will always be some shifting percentage of focus on our membership directly and our larger profession or professional issues nationally. It is important for all of us to articulate to SAA and our leadership what things are most essential for focus whether for our membership or for the archives profession. SAA is not “them”, it is “us”, and we need to collectively define our organization’s focus. So my answer ends with a question back to the SNAP Roundtable members—what do you think is most important at this time for SAA’s focus?
How do you see the role of the SNAP Roundtable within SAA?
The first thought for me is simple—being vocal. The Roundtable gives people an immediate virtual network of others with a similar context, colleagues who are likely to have common experiences, concerns, and a desire to communicate. It can provide the environment for exploring ideas or needs, and particularly at this time when there are real challenges for students in the job market and for new professionals, talking to others is incredibly important and helpful.
At my first SAA meeting, I became immediately and fortunately embroiled in the activities of the Description Section, thanks to the collegiality and great-hearted inclusiveness of Vicki Walch, (now one of my dearest friends) who was chairing that group. It gave me a cadre of people to talk with both at the meeting and long after about archival issues, their own practices, and just simple information exchange. SNAP has a great opportunity to offer that initial “connectedness”—providing faces and names that are recognizable and help create a sense of place within the SAA community. The various social media and web resources the SNAP Roundtable uses provide and extra “boost” in getting to know people, their concerns and interests, in an ongoing way that extends beyond and even instead of the annual meeting. We all need to feel connected to real people, not an amorphous thing called “SAA”. SNAP can make that possible.
Some roundtables and sections are really focused on exchange within the membership about some specific archival function or practice—and that is an essential role. In addition to that, SNAP has the opportunity to also bring forward issues and ideas to SAA leadership, staff, and other colleagues on behalf of its members. SNAP can provide leadership with an authentic voice (or voices—personally I love cacophony) to inform deliberations, programs and decisions. I hope you will bring that voice to committee and Council meetings, to sessions, to the Off-the-Record blog, and anywhere you feel the SNAP perspective should be heard.
What do you feel is the responsibility of SAA leadership and your leadership role in particular,
to students and new professionals?
Because SAA’s officers and Council are elected, that act of election brings with it a responsibility to listen, to gather information, and to take into account the varied voices of the membership. Our leadership, we as leaders, need to actively seek input, and to constantly encourage and expand ways for members to provide that commentary. Those in leadership roles, particularly the president, can do a lot to “humanize” SAA for new members and professionals by the simple act of making themselves available, whether at the Annual meeting, electronically, (you have an “Ask an archivist” component, why not “Ask the president and/or council?”) or by creating new opportunities on an individual or group basis. It would be great fun to think of ways to do that—I’m up for almost anything involving coffee–how about a virtual coffee break where SNAPpers suggest a topic and get online or a conference call and chat with some groups of leaders, members with special knowledge, or senior members? Or we could have the president and officers stand at the elevator banks at the annual meeting and not let anyone on until they introduce themselves. Okay, maybe that’s a fire hazard…
Beyond communicating though, it is incumbent on leadership, and on me for whatever future roles I take in SAA, to make things change for the better for this profession. I see myself and my role more as a “pusher” than a leader. I think we can reach a collective vision of what needs to be done, and Council is bringing forward a new strategic plan, so there are strong sources of direction for the Society and for groups within it like SNAP. I see my role as variously coordinating, facilitating, urging, energizing, problem-solving, and yes, sometimes pushing people to take action to bring reality to our goals and plans. The role I have often taken in my career, and one I hope I can pursue with the SNAP Roundtable, is to turn “we ought to do” into “how we will do” and ultimately to “we did it”. That means an active role for both of us—with both productive and challenging times through the process. But that activist approach can make a big difference for the archival endeavor, and I think it’s all worth it.
What advice do you have for new professionals in our field?
Advice is very tricky—and I’m not big on telling others what they “need” to know or do—I think we all find our way following different road markers. Since you asked, let me try to offer some really general observations from both the “head” and the “heart” of my life as an archives professional.
From the practical perspective, being realistic and flexible about the work of archives is important. There will and should be change in our profession—and that is such a great opportunity and energizer. For example, dare I say it, EAD will be superceded at least a couple times in your careers (and I look forward to seeing some of you be the change agents who make that happen). Electronic records and the approaches we use with them will morph and you will, if you are realistic, get a chuckle out of what we “used to do”. Training should be a constant in our professional lives, and we should always seek new and better ways to connect users to the invaluable stories and information in archives.
At the core, the people who have made the most contributions in many different aspects of our field, who are the “best” in my book, are those who care deeply about being an archivist. Think about what makes you passionate about archives, and be able to give it word. If you really love what we do and can explain to yourself and others how it makes a difference, then the workplace induced stressors, the road blocks, and the strange circumstances that frame working life may still be there, but ultimately will not dominate or squelch your energy and your commitment.
Actively seeking out your “place” in SAA, whether collectively as a roundtable, or as individuals, is so very important. Screwing up your courage and approaching another member, be it someone new or a “leader”, volunteering to take on a task or role, attending a committee meeting whether you are a member or not—all those and many more are ways to follow the tried but true advice of President John Kennedy to “ask what you can do”—and doing so is our responsibility as members of the archival community. SAA will always and only be the association we all make it or allow it to be.