SAA 2015: Plenary 2, The SAA Presidential Address

In advance of the 2015 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, roundtable and section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest Author: Michael Barera, Archivist at Texas A&M University-Commerce

President Kathleen Roe began with a brief recap on the previous day’s events, including the All-Attendee Reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. For this session, she outlined a variation on the traditional presidential address: the “leadership plenary”, which was created with the idea of “letting you know where we all together are leading the organization”.

Next, Awards Committee co-chair Steven Booth took the stage; he noted that more than 21 awards were given and 146 nominations received this year, the latter constituting a 21% increase from last year. Then, he proceeded to mete out the student and travel awards to the following recipients: Paige Hohmann (Pease Writing Award), Noah Geraci (Ham Archival Scholarship), Desiree Alaniz (scholarship), Maria Sanchez-Tucker (Foreman Scholarship), Colin Post (Peterson Student Travel Award), and Mary Grace Golfo (Holmes Travel Award). Booth finished by noting that more awards would be presented at the Awards Assembly, at 6pm later in the day.

President Roe then briefly returned to the podium to note the three-year, grant-funded expansion on the Mosaic Program and recognize the 2015 Mosaic class, which consists of five archives students.

Following this, SAA Councilperson Helen Wong Smith took the stage to present an explanation for Council adopting its cultural diversity competence resolution; she sees it as a necessity for a diverse organization such as SAA, and she notes that we shouldn’t limit diversity to simply ethnicity. She then outlines a number of potential problems regarding cultural diversity that we need to be aware of: cultural destructivism, cultural denial/indifference, and cultural precompetence, among others. She contends that we need to move toward cultural proficiency and competency, and to do this it is necessary to: 1) understand culture as multi-level and multi-faceted, 2) understand the barriers to effective communication, 3) practice culturally competent-centered communication, and 4) implement cultural competence. She reminds the audience that this is an active process, and thatwe need to be nonjudgmental and accept a holistic approach to this change.

Next, incoming SAA president Dennis Meissner gave his address. He began by rhetorically inviting the audience to “ask me why archives are important”, from which (drawing from Plenary I) he asserted that telling stories is a big part of being able to explain why archives are important to him. However, he then argued that “stories are only half of the equation…they can’t carry the load on their own…they need to be supported by data”. He elaborated on this by claiming that “we have been remarkably poor about counting the things that might demonstrate the value of what we do”. He then criticized some traditional approaches to metrics and measuring, declaring that “no one cares…how many times our collections will stretch to the moon and back”.

He also argued that we need to know more about our users; as he phrased it, “we need to stop focusing on supply, and start focusing on demand”. In this area, he noted that “our colleagues in museums and libraries are jumps ahead of us” and suggested that we could look to them for the way forward. Furthermore, he argued that we must find useful data, including through better survey strategies; to this point he used slides that displayed key value propositions on the American Alliance of Museums’ homepage as well as a (Minnesota) Cultural Data Project report that shows the impact of arts and culture on the Minnesota economy simply with numbers.To him, “none of this is magic, but it is hard work”. He then returns to the idea of storytelling, noting that this data “can underlay and support the stories we need to tell”. Meissner then laments that “we’ve been fretting about relevance since I’ve been an archivist”, although he “wants to help [amass] data” that will demonstrate the value of archives, and hopes all archivists will be able to join him in this effort.

Finally, President Roe returned to the podium to give her presidential address. It it, she reflected back on her first SAA meeting in 1984 and David Gray’s speech, which she described as being “very relevant”, and lamented that “we have not made anywhere near the progress we need to have made” since then. She then asked archivists “which would you rather be called, a ‘fascinating treasure’ or a ‘bulwark of freedom’?”; Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the latter term in reference to archives. In her words, “the most sophisticated archival procedures” won’t ensure our value in society; instead, there really is a critical need for us to work for advocacy and awareness to demonstrate the value of archives. In her eyes, the big question we have to answer is why?

Roe then explained that while most people can talk about what they do and how they do it, it is much harder to explain why. She argued that we and our institutions need to be “understood, valued, and supported”. To illustrate her point, she recounted the story of Samuel Pierpont Langley story: the well-funded effort to achieve human-powered flight that failed. In Roe’s analysis, “he was after the ‘what’, [but] he did not know ‘why’”. She argued that we need to reach the cortex (our “rational brain”) with data while also engaging the limbic brain (the “heart of the brain”) with stories and the critical “why”. This brings us to an important question: “how much use justifies how much cost?” “We have to start with why.” According to her, after we establish the “why”, then we can make more rational appeals to the “what” and the “how”. The big question is why do archives matter? Roe argues that they provide essential evidence, ensure transparency, and keep governments accountable; she illustrated her points by recounting the story of NPR’s investigative work on US World War II mustard gas experiments on American soldiers, which necessitated documents at NARA, as well as similarly archives-dependent work on glacier melt and climate change since the early 20th century. In her words, “none of that could have happened without archives and archivists”. Roe also made the case that interacting with students in archives is also incredibly valuable, giving the example of a “transformed student” who participated in History Day in Florida and then at the national level. In another demonstration of the value of archives, Roe shared the story of a young Korean American archivist who was trying to convince his father of the value of archives; his father eventually said: “Write a book. Tell our story in that book.”

According to Roe, “we need to talk about the outcomes and values”; without this, data is just a “heap of data”. Furthermore, we can’t wait for people to ask us what we do, because they won’t always ask: instead, “we have to step forward and engage”. If we don’t do enough, we might as well paraphrase Nietszche: “Archives are dead, and we have killed them, you and I.” Furthermore, Roe argues that it isn’t about just SAA doing this: we all need to help on the advocacy front. “Every single one of us can and must contribute in some way…it is something we all have to do.” She then concludes with a personal story about her father, who was a radio operator in the Pacific Theater in World War II: he changed (and saved) lives through what he did, laying wires. Roe continued with some especially powerful words: “archives have import, archives matter, and it is up to us to show the truth of that…The time is now, the choice is yours. What will you do?”

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