SAA Candidate Interview: Dennis Meissner

Dennis Meissner
Head of Collections Management, Minnesota Historical Society
Candidate for Vice President/President Elect
Read his bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.


How did you get your start in the archives field?

SNAP members will probably find my career entry strange. While I was looking for a summer job, my undergraduate adviser introduced me to the legendary Lucile Kane, who in turn introduced me to the world of manuscript collections and the researchers who depend upon them. I knew I was onto something inherently wonderful, stuck at it through entry level jobs, did graduate work in history on the side, and eventually found myself in mid-career supervising a team of processing archivists.

Although the path into an archival career has today become more standardized–and in a very good way–what remains constant is the allure of archives that hooks all of us who make this profession our home. I have enjoyed the ride immensely and never looked back.

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

Although there is one SAA, it is nevertheless a flexible container that holds archivists of many different flavors. It is a community made up of constituencies, some clearly defined and others less so. SNAP is an important constituency. It is large, it is growing, and its members have some distinct needs that set them apart, including not least of all employment and professional uptake.

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

Because SNAP is an important constituency, and in some senses more vulnerable than well established constituencies, the leadership of SAA has a clear obligation to pay attention to it and to help it achieve its objectives, as long as those objectives are clear, as long as there are resources that can be put into play, and as long as SNAP objectives do not run counter to larger goals of SAA.

That’s the formal responsibility of SAA leaders to SNAP. Informally, all SAA leaders have a personal responsibility to serve as mentors to students and new professionals, and to do what they can to bring them into SAA’s culture, programs, and power structure. The president’s job is simply to apply a little more leverage to that same effort: to listen, to counsel, to facilitate, and to try to break up small logjams when they occur.

What steps can SAA take to improve the perception of the archives profession in a variety of settings (academics, business, government, etc.)?

As I said in my candidate statement, the direct advocacy efforts performed by SAA leaders and staff will likely be limited to influencing national legislation or executive actions that directly affect the well-being of archives and archivists. The settings that you mention in your question are, I think, largely workplace settings. The key influencers for the archives profession in those settings are the the archivists who work there or in related places. They manifest their influence through their own professionalism and authority, and by being articulate ambassadors and spokespersons for archival values and issues.

SAA, however, still has a key role in facilitating that decentralized advocacy effort. It can create and provide briefing packets to help archivists deliver important messages. It can, through its continuing education efforts, train members to be effective advocates. And it can maintain a public relations hub, through staff and component groups, to advise and assist its members at critical junctures

What role do you think SAA can play in ensuring MLS programs are producing the archivists employers need?

From the perspective of a hiring manager, I will respectfully offer the opinion that MLS programs will never produce the archivists that employers need, at least not fully formed. The job of academic education will remain that of grounding incipient professionals in the history, theoretical principles, and standards upon which archival work is based. They will provide the deep context, perspective, and sense of professional direction that every archivist needs. But more specific workaday competencies need to be learned in the workplace itself. MLS programs can teach the principles of appraisal and cataloging, but not how to make efficient field decisions or to bang out catalog records and finding aids.

SAA’s most effective role in the foreseeable future may continue to be the development and presentation of high-quality continuing education workshops aimed largely at practices and mechanics. This level of education greatly facilitates the transition from classroom to workplace. At a higher level, SAA can continue to use the Archival Educators Roundtable to maintain a communication channel with educators and their programs. It also needs to revisit the Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies on a regular basis.

How do you plan to engage new and young professionals in SAA?

As recent announcements on the SAA landing page have made apparent, the opportunities for service within the SAA structure are legion. That sort of self-engagement is the best way to begin. SNAP itself is a rapidly improving resource for becoming engaged in SAA work and for making your own voice heard. I would intend to stay in regular contact with SNAP leaders as a means toward ensuring an open communication channel between new/young professionals and the leadership structure. Recent experience has certainly demonstrated that SAA Council takes SNAP and its needs seriously and seeks ways to promote them.

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

First off, I would say get involved early on in professional associations; the dividends are great and cumulative on multiple levels. And that doesn’t mean just SAA. The many local and regional associations offer great opportunities to meet and collaborate with archival leaders, to get involved in governance, and to participate in conference programs. I learned a lot of what I know in MAC and then paid it forward into SAA.

Next, seek out mentors throughout the profession, whether formally or informally. Ask someone a question, and I think you’ll find that archivists are a helpful lot at heart and pleased to share knowledge and opinions. Finally, pay attention to what’s going on in SAA component groups and Council. You’ll soon gain an understanding of the organization, its issues and priorities, and its most active members.

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This entry was posted in Candidate Interviews 2014 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.

One thought on “SAA Candidate Interview: Dennis Meissner

  1. Pingback: Friday News for February 28, 2014 | Florida-Archivist.org

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