City Archivist and Director, Seattle (WA) Archives and Records Management Program
Lecturer, Information School, University of Washington
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?
My story is nothing remarkable. I earned an undergraduate degree in history at a time when there were even fewer jobs in history related fields than in recent years. I took on a variety of jobs over the next decade: carpenter, small town newspaper reporter, camp counselor, bartender, etc. Then a friend working at Portland State University pointed me toward the new Public History Program. It was an opportunity to continue studying history while taking some courses that promised wider employment opportunities. The program had several tracks including archives. I took all the courses that bore any relationship to archives, as well as two practica. These two hands-on experiences sealed the deal for me; getting elbow-deep into archival records convinced me that archives was my future. Happily, one of my instructors—the City Archivist in Portland—hired me on a part-time basis while I looked for a permanent, full time position. During the course of the following year, I applied for several (many!!) full time positions until I was hired by the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. A little over two years later, I was hired as the first City Archivist in Seattle.
How do you see the SNAP Roundtable within the larger picture of SAA?
There are at least three answers to this question. First, I see SNAP as one of the 30+ roundtables that make up a “grassroots” or decentralized constituency with SAA. In this respect, SNAP should expect the same rights and assume the same responsibilities as every other roundtable.
Second, SNAP is currently the fourth largest roundtable and the largest of those that can be identified as representing a specific demographic. The SNAP members are different from my demographic—many of the issues you face are distant memories for me. I expect the relevant questions that are being asked by many SNAP members are: How do I position myself for the future? Are there enough jobs? Do the jobs pay enough to support me now? What about when I have a family? How do I get attention in SAA? How do I get involved in a professional organization that seems to be cliquish and run by Scott Cline’s cohort? These questions should concern all of us who are working for the betterment of the profession. I was on Council when SNAP became a roundtable. It was a very exciting development and brought many constructive questions and challenges to “the way things have always been done.” Frankly, SNAP can be a real pain in the tuchus. And I would hope it continues to be. SNAP is a unique and important partner in bringing constructive change to SAA.
The third answer is a question from me to you. How does SNAP see itself within the larger picture of SAA?
What do you feel is the responsibility of SAA leadership, and your leadership role in particular, to students and new archives professionals?
On one level, SAA leadership’s responsibility to SNAP is no different than its responsibility to all members. It must be the best association it can in advocating for the profession, providing continuing education opportunities, developing and disseminating appropriate resources, and a host of other things envisioned in its Strategic Plan.
On the other hand, leadership must recognize two things about SNAP. First, SNAP members as individuals and in the aggregate are a great source creative ideas and potential innovation that can help transform SAA. Second, as I alluded earlier, students and new professional face a difficult work environment and the challenge of integrating into the association. SAA’s job is to foster a culture of mentorship, collegiality, and inclusiveness for that cohort. In addition, SAA needs to be nimble, flexible, inclusive, and change-oriented. These functions and characteristics will benefit everyone, but perhaps most benefit students and new professionals.
What steps can SAA take to improve the perception of the archives profession in a variety of settings (academics, business, government, etc.)?
My experience suggests that the perception of archivists by academics, business, government, and other employers is quite good, if those players know what archives are and what archivists do. But therein lies the problem; very many of those players don’t understand what the profession is all about. So, the real question here is what can we do to educate those who don’t know much, if anything, about archives. SAA has a critical role to play in raising the profession’s profile. But it is not SAA’s role to be the sole advocate. Let me suggest two particularly important things SAA can do. First, it must partner and collaborate with other archival associations (NAGARA, COSA, the regional, state, and local associations, and student chapters) and heritage groups to advocate on behalf of the entire heritage community. Positive perceptions and support for heritage issues will benefit archives and archivists. Second, SAA can (and does) educate and support members at all levels regarding advocacy. As both Dennis and I suggest in our candidate statements, those of us on the ground are the best advocates/ambassadors for our profession. We know our communities, we know who our natural partners are, we should be carrying the ball. SAA, by being a robust national professional association, can have our backs. Our local legitimacy is based on our ability to effectively articulate our message and our skill at building strategic partnerships; but, it also is built, in part, on our professionalism and our being associated with a respected and dynamic professional association. It is incumbent on SAA leadership, staff, and membership to ensure that SAA is and remains just such an association.
What role do you think SAA can play in ensuring MLS programs are producing the archivists employers need?
(I will assume this question also refers to those History Departments and non-MLS Information Science programs that offer excellent archival education.)
As I suggest in the perception question above, we need to be careful in assuming what role SAA can legitimately play in what are essentially advocacy situations. Frankly, SAA cannot ensure (and certainly not dictate) that graduate archival education programs do anything; those programs are independent of SAA. What SAA can do is take the strongest positions possible—use its bully pulpit, as it were—on what it considers optimum educational requirements for archivists and to use a variety of methods for publicizing that to archival education programs. An example of something SAA can do (and has done) is the adoption of the Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies (last revised in 2011) and Best Practices for Internships as a Component of Graduate Archival Education (2014) and their dissemination to archival educators and archival education programs. There is a professional and ethical responsibility for archival educators to develop and offer courses and practical experiences that will position their students to compete on the open market.
But more, SAA needs to partner with educators, other heritage organizations, and institutions that have a vested interest in information professionals in a serious exercise of thinking outside the employment box. Archival knowledge and archival thinking have value and can provide added value to employers outside the traditional archival field. Perhaps the most obvious example for someone writing from Seattle is to look at Amazon or Costco. These are corporations that cannot operate successfully without employees who are taxonomists or information architects, and who understand how users/customers access and use information. We need to leverage that need as best we can within the context of archival education.
How do you plan to engage new and young professionals in SAA?
A central function of the Vice-President/President-elect is making appointments to the many volunteer committees and boards in SAA. These groups should be a reflection of the entire association membership; it seems reasonable that the Vice-President would ensure that new and young professionals are appointed. I would also encourage students and new professionals to be proactive in seeking active participation in the various SAA component groups. While I was on Council (and I presume to this day), SNAP was not shy about presenting ideas to leadership about a variety of issues of particular concern to young professionals. I would encourage SNAP to continue actively representing its interests to SAA leadership at all levels.
Even more important than this is encouraging leadership to seek out the opinions of new professional, just as they would of their own age cohort. Engagement—being open to acute listening and respectful response—is a difficult art. I have written about the need for “genuine encounter” and believe this is a necessary component of the inter-human approach that I would take to engaging new professionals. And I would expect leadership to be similarly open when new professionals seek them out. That notion of “genuine encounter” is a motivating value that I bring to any leadership capacity.
What advice do you have for new professionals in our field?
When asked this question, I usually spend a great deal of time going over many advice paths and end with the caution that everyone’s experience is different and the advice I give is based on what has worked in my life. So, buyer beware.
Rather than go on at length or even give the Letterman top 10 pieces of advice, I’ll suggest a by no means complete list of Cline’s favorite five.
Network. Get to know colleagues in all age ranges, geographic centers, and archival interests. You will make life-long friends, valued colleagues, and sources of knowledge in areas beyond your particular expertise. You might also open doors to future job opportunities, to leadership opportunities, and to meaningful professional engagement.
Be a life-long learner. Knowledge needed by archivists is expanding rapidly and one can’t afford to stop learning. This advice also reaches beyond archival knowledge. We live in a complex world in which external forces can easily change the archivist’s personal context. At the same time, don’t forget your past, especially the roots of our profession. Hobbes was correct that knowledge is power.
Live your values. We all bring personal values to whatever we do. Understand what your values are and to the extent possible bring them to your work. Be true to yourself, genuine with others, and embrace the obligations inherent in life.
Get outside of your comfort zone and stay outside as much as you can. Comfort zones can foster complacency and stifle innovation and creativity.
Cultivate an understanding of the political, act strategically, and be open to opportunity. Whether it is in your job or your participation in SAA, being politically astute often allows you to create your own opportunity. Then, you need to act on that opportunity in a strategic manner so that it does not close as quickly as it opened.