SAA 2015: SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) Meeting

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

After beginning with a brief welcome and the obligatory approval of the meeting agenda, the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) began in earnest with an assessment of its progress in 2014-15. This included recognition of COPA’s contribution to the forthcoming SAA website revision, which (after it comes out) will include a public awareness component, which was largely informed by its section/roundtable “minisite” counterparts. Also noted was that general information for the general public will be included in this contribution, not just the “for archivists” bit. The committee members also noted that COPA “was really in an experimental mode” and has some unanswered questions that have slowed down its progress this year, reasoning that “this area of work for achivists is just difficult” and that “we’re going to have to keep working on it”. On a more positive note, the committee concluded that “ask an Archivist Day [October 1] was spectacular”; on a related note, they praised NARA for its rotating Twitter account that spotlights people and projects throughout the organization. Committee members also noted that it is important to have measurable goals for awareness, although this is admittedly vague.

The members of the committee then progressed to discussing key ideas and questions from the past year, beginning with asking if there is a perceptible difference between “archivists change lives” and “archives change lives”, concluding that there probably is not. They then pondered whether COPA is primarily engaging archivists or the general public, which produced a litany of responses from the committee members (“our key audience is our own members”, “we can’t really do anything without membership buy-in”, and “doing awesome work isn’t going to get you media attention, no matter how much awesome work you do”). The group also noted that it is also important for local and regional groups to be active on awareness, and that grassroots advocacy could be a great approach; in other words, “we need to teach people to fish themselves”.

COPA members then began brainstorming ideas, mentioning an outreach forum (perhaps similar to the research forum) as well as print-on-demand posters. However, while “there are a lot of great ideas”, there is quite simply only “a narrow capacity for this committee”. Therefore, they decided as a group that they needed to set their priorities; “we can’t do everything”, or even “everything important”. Furthermore, COPA came to the agreement that they need to leave space or flexibility in the schedule (“slosh room”) to allow for unforeseen activities like “Ask an Archivist”.

Next, COPA discussed what (exactly) their message is, noting that “archives change lives” is what it is now. They also decided that they should provide scripts and guidance for implementation without quashing local needs or goals; “it needs to be…blunt”, essentially to the point of advertising, although SAA in all likelihood does not have the resources for much traditional advertising. The committee frames its work as, essentially, extending “Archives Month” to “Archives Year” or even longer. However, they note that “what we thought would work best is not what we could do”. Finally, COPA noted that collaborating with SAA sections, committees, and roundtables is also key for them, not just working with local or regional groups.

Next, COPA turned its attention to its work plan for 2015-16. They began by checking last year’s “strategies” and removing/adding as appropriate; some are very specific, such as a debate over the use of the word “enable” versus “encourage” when discussing SAA members undertaking PR or advocacy efforts. While doing this, though, the committee noted that “these things don’t happen overnight”. A few miscellaneous points are then made, including the observation that there is a StoryCorps-style video recording booth at the 2015 Annual Meeting and that Brad Meltzer could be a real asset to the committee and the organization. The next topic to emerge regards the results from “A Year of Living Dangerously”, which are expected to be on display at the plenary session; the committee comes to the agreement that the key is people documenting the story and then sharing it. Serendipitously, after COPA notices her walking past the meeting room, President Kathleen Roe is invited in and then proceeds to explain that the results of her year-long effort are being organized and tabulated. She observed that the key is “getting people to tell the stories” and get to the “importance part”, elaborating that in general archivists were better at the shorter, Twitter-style stories; “we have good raw material, but only a few people really got it”. Before a brief intermission, COPA discussed and debated a number of other e-mails, such as e-mails, reading room volume levels, and the importance of elevator speeches.

After reconvening, COPA then turned its focus to deciding upon its course of action for the coming year, keeping in mind its dual role of helping SAA members as well as creating messages on behalf of them to the general public. Their initial ideas included:

  • Picking anniversaries to celebrate, and “becoming more agile” with time. Mentioned in this context were Linda Whitaker and other “speak from the heart” archivists, and the idea to let the content lead (baseball cards, love letters, etc.), and work in the archives/archivist side in the stories as well. As Peter Gottlieb said, “I think we should work on this in the background from the coming year, but not make it a priority.”
  • Putting together a list of people with content expertise and forwarding it to SAA.
  • Actions that individual archivists can take (such as surveys), which if successful could then grow into a larger effort; Archives Month is an example of this “scaled-up success”, as it originally started in New York City.
  • Dennis Riley suggesting that perhaps a “Speaker’s Bureau” could be created that gives suggestions for speaking to different groups. In his words, this idea would be akin to “teaching people to fish, and providing the tackle”.
  • Also noted was that “Ask the Archivist” will be continuing this year.
  • At this point, David Carmicheal noted that “I’m looking for the ideas people are excited enough about that they’ll go out and do.”
  • The committee brainstormed the steps for encouraging archivists to become advocates: 1) convince them of the importance, 2) give them the tools to do it, 3) get them to document and share their activities, and 4) get people to get the story, and be aware and be able to explain how they got the stories. However, once you get the story, how are you going to share it? Answers to this question that were brainstormed included the website and a blog, the latter of which seemed especially intriguing for young professionals. Noting the issue of scheduling for a blog, COPA reasoned that having assignments may be a good idea for encouraging participation, although they recognized that they should always leave the door open for more participation. In all, everyone seemed very excited about the blog idea, and there was a high level of buy-in into it among the committee.
  • Creating a “strategic communications” subgroup within RAO concerning messaging. David argued that “I don’t think we can have too many people working on this”, and the group seemed to be very supportive of the idea.
  • The idea that perhaps the blog should be a way to solicit new ideas for stories, and then the best could be featured on the SAA website.

At this point, the group expressed satisfaction with what it had accomplished, which it also believes to be realistic.

Before concluding, COPA recapped the session, noting that they would go forward with the blog (with Sami Norling taking the lead), help SAA revise and relaunch its (new) website (chiefly by providing more content), collect a list of names and respective areas of expertise (for “potential spokespeople”) among the membership and forward it to SAA, and encourage other groups working on awareness issues. At the very end of the session, COPA briefly discussed the technical issue of communications, positing that there is perhaps value in touching base with a regular conference call or e-mail roundtable, perhaps in the form of quarterly hour-long meetings.


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