SAA 2013 Candidate Interviews: Beth Yakel

Beth Yakel
Professor/Associate/Assistant, University of Michigan, School of Information
Candidate for Vice President/President-Elect
Read her bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.


How did you get your start in the archives field?

When I was in college I was interested in history and literary studies.  At first, it seemed that library science was the best path, but then I discovered the archives through an internship class. The first collection I processed with the Sarah Helen Whitman collection at the John Hay Library at Brown.  She was a Providence RI transcendentalist and whose claim to fame was that for a short time she was the fiancée of Edgar Allen Poe.  I was hooked, this combined by interest in history and literature with library science. So although I looked for master’s programs in library science, I was only interested in those with some flavor of archives and ended up at the University of Michigan.  This was not an easy feat in the dark ages of archival education. The most any program had to offer in terms of archives was 2 or 3 courses, but I grabbed at it.  My first job was as archivist and record manager for the Archdiocese of Detroit.  It had everything – records dating back to the founding of Detroit in 1701 and modern records as part of the records management program. I was a ‘lone arranger’ as they say. This had good and bad points.  It was bad in that I had to create my own network of people as mentors and colleagues to talk to.  But it was great because I got to do everything and had to figure out a lot on my own.

Should SAA focus its services more on archives professionals (archivists) or the archives profession as a whole?

This question is set up oppositionally. Fundamentally, I do not think they are totally in opposition but there will be times when choices need to be made.  Many of SAA services (educational offerings, books, annual meeting) are open to all, albeit at different costs (although considering the dues, perhaps not all that different costs). But SAA does first and foremost have an obligation to its members.

One area where they may be a lot of divergence is in advocacy efforts. Should SAA advocate more for more internally-oriented measures, such as descriptive standards, or should SAA advocate more broadly for larger public issues, such as open government, addressing the orphan works problem, or increased funding for public archives? While something like standards affect archivists and users, more publicly oriented issues can affect a much broader group of citizens both users and non-users of archives as well as SAA member archivists and non-members. I think SAA needs to do both and of course, this is a careful balancing act.  But as a profession, I think we subscribe to certain values and SAA needs to promote those larger societal values.

In the same way, SAA can’t just concern itself with SAA members (who are probably a minority of people working in archives).  Archival salaries are low for SAA members and non-members; so advocating for higher salaries is a common concern. Likewise, being clear about what the different standards are for archival activities, such as donor agreements, helps everyone – from SAA members to those volunteers in small historical societies trying very hard to manage their collection in a responsible manner. So SAA needs to be aware of the different audiences for its various products (workshops, publications) as well as public advocacy statements.  SAA is not just talking to or trying to engage SAA members in different discussions there is a broader constituency. At some level anything that strengthens any archives or archivists in the field strengthens SAA.

How do you see the SNAP Roundtable within the larger picture of SAA?

The initiation of the SNAP Roundtable has been a great grassroots development.  I think it provides a safe place for new professionals and students to gather where they will see familiar faces in the room, or, if there are no familiar faces, at least know that everyone else in the room is in the same boat – new to SAA, maybe at their first or second meeting, and facing similar professional issues, looking for a job, just taking a new job. SNAP – both at the SAA annual meeting and particularly online – is a great place for peer mentoring.

SNAP is also good because it creates a forum to coalesce and synthesize the particular issues regarding students and new professionals. SNAP can sort through these and then present them as one voice to SAA as a whole. This is very helpful for leadership.

Still, while SNAP is a good place to network, the downside is that its leaders should not let this be the only place for new members and students and SNAP leaders should encourage members to integrate into the larger SAA organization.  Yes, push people out of their comfort zone. Traditionally, the other SAA roundtables and sections have been the pathway for new professionals to get involved in the broader SAA community.  I do not think that SNAP can or should replace this; SNAP should look at ways to strengthen the mentoring, inculcating, integrating, and hopefully welcoming processes that go on in the sections and roundtables.

What do you feel is the responsibility of SAA leadership, and your leadership role in particular, to students and new archives professionals?

Most importantly, my primary responsibility is to make SAA a better place to hand off to the future generation.  In making all decisions, but especially those which have long term implications, the leadership needs to think about all of SAA’s constituencies, particularly the younger generation.

The other primary leadership responsibility to students and new archives professionals is to make sure that they feel welcomed, mentored, and appreciated in SAA and the profession. Questions we should be asking are: How can SAA make internship opportunities better? How should the mentoring program be structured? (Yes, I have read recent entries on the SNAP blog about this issue.)

What advice do you have for new professionals in our field?

Get involved. Take on some volunteer activity in SAA or a local archival organization.

Plan ahead. Think about where you want your career to be in 5 or 10 years.  Find out what you need to do to get there.

Stay up to date in developments in the field. The profession has changed considerably since I became an archivist and it is still rapidly changing.

Challenge yourself. Whether it is walking up to someone and saying hi at a professional meeting, submitting an SAA proposal, writing a response to a blog post or tackling a new piece of technology, get out of your comfort zone.

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This entry was posted in Candidate Interviews 2013 and tagged , on by .

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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