SAA 2016 Candidate Interview: Geoffrey Huth

This post is part of the 2016 Candidate Interview series, presented in preparation for the 2016 SAA Election (March 14-April 3). Candidate statements will be posted daily through Friday, March 11. Read more statements from 2016 candidates here or check out our previous election series.

Geoffrey Huth 
Chief Records Officer, New York State Unified Court System
Candidate for Council
Read his bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.

  1. What role should SNAP Roundtable play in SAA?

I’d hazard to say that the SNAP Roundtable should determine its own role, that the reason for SAA’s diversity of affinity groups is for members with similar interests to come together to discuss issues of shared concern, to determine what they want out of SAA, and to work to make those desires realities. That is the role of every SAA affinity group, but it is also one that SNAP well understands, so the roundtable needs no advice in that regard. As a matter of fact, I’d say that SNAP, instead, has created a model that other affinity groups should follow.

Here’s what I see as SNAP’s model: First, be passionate about the mission and role of your affinity groups and use the power of those shared concerns to identify what additional support, services, and value SAA needs to provide your members. Second, find ways to make those goals realities, which SNAP has done both by creating new value itself (take, for instance, this set of interviews) and by making the case to SAA Council in those cases where SNAP cannot create change by itself. Both elements are essential: to take charge to make value under the group’s own umbrella and to work with the rest of SAA—and not only Council—to create the change your group needs. The third leg of this model is to maintain the group over time, to build leadership that can replace the initial leaders—and this is also something SNAP has done. Continuity of effort is essential, and part of what has made this continuity possible within SNAP has been the passion that drives the group.

  1. How can SAA leaders, and your role in particular, better engage SNAP constituents?

First, I should note that I see the term “SAA leaders” in a possibly broader manner than you intend here. I see all of us ever elected to any SAA position as leaders of the SAA, as people who have decided that they care enough about the direction of our organization to take the reins of SAA as a whole or of any affinity. Even those among us who have been appointed to task forces, working groups, and boards of SAA are leaders of the organization. Leaders are those who work in a concerted, and usually formal, way to move the organization forward.

That being said, I’d like to say that all of those leaders have to think about the entire membership of SAA and work to consider the views of every one of us when making decisions. So I’d argue that SAA leadership at the top and subsidiary levels always must consider the aspirations, needs, and beliefs of the members as a whole when conducting its formal work. Even if we identify most closely with certain sections or roundtables of SAA (as I once did with the Government and Electronic Records sections), we must consider the entirety of our association when we consider what we do as leaders. This doesn’t require that we agree with everyone—only that we fairly and faithfully consider the universe of our members.

I like to speak with breadth, to ensure we include any leaders within our discussion of leaders, but I’m sure you want me to talk about how SAA Council should engage with SNAP members. First, SAA has long had in place its official means of doing this: Every affinity group has a Council liaison whose role is to work closely with particular affinity groups and relay their concerns to SAA Council. As a former Council member, I have seen this happen in every such meeting I attended. Even if a group did not address all of its concerns in a formal report or query to Council, members of Council were sure to raise the concerns of those groups and help articulate their needs. And I think that person-to-person interaction and coordination is the most valuable, especially in an organization as small as ours.

Finally, how should I, as an individual on Council, engage with SNAP members? As I do with all other members of SAA—by talking to people, by learning their concerns, by listening to them, and by reporting back what I learn. If I’m not the SNAP liaison, then my responsibility is less formal, but it remains there. When I’m at an SAA conference, I don’t spend most of my time with any one group. I move around. I find people and talk to them. If I’m staffing a table at the exhibition hall, I try to engage people in discussions about SAA. At receptions, I do the same.

But there is one thing I have not done well, and your question has made me realize this: I don’t spend enough time interacting with SAA members away from the conference. I certainly still spend plenty of time interacting with members, because I have continuing responsibilities that bring me in contact with members over the course of the year. But what I need to do is actively interact with SAA groups outside of my official responsibilities. So I’d say that I should interact with SNAP during its Twitter events and follow up in other ways to be to make sure I have a good sense of the group’s issues, concerns, and valuable work for the Society. And I should do this with the other SAA affinity groups as well.

  1. What current policy issue do you feel is the most imperative to the archival profession?

In my opinion, the policy issue of greatest importance to the profession right now is the enduring lack of diversity in our field. I have grappled with this myself for years, without success. We have a profession that lacks diversity by almost any measure we can identify, and that lack of diversity appears to be increasing. Think of these three basic ways of identifying humans: race, gender, and politics. Those three are intricately and inalienably interconnected in our society, and we are nowhere close to having a membership that represents diversity on any of those counts. We are overwhelmingly white, female, and liberal (and I fit in two of these), and I believe that lack of diversity narrows our thinking and restricts our imagination as a profession.

I honestly want more conservatives in the profession because they would help us question our preconceived notions by holding points of view archivists too rarely show any interest in even representing in archives. And a profession that remains so white when other professions are more quickly becoming diversified (even if not at all swiftly) is a profession pushing itself to the margins of relevance. How, for instance, can we simultaneously trumpet a need to diversify the archival record and yet fail to attract a diverse body of people to our field?

The reasons for this situation are multitudinous. Minorities continue to struggle for parity in our society, and percentagewise fewer attend college. The field of archives itself is not the best paying of professions, leading educated minorities, and to some degree men, to opt for better paying professions. And people can easily perceive our profession as elitist, as a profession that serves the academy while giving short shrift society as a whole.

To change this, we need to change the profession first, to make ourselves more about the general public, to demonstrate how we valuably support the lives and aspirations of everyday people. And this is a terribly difficult feat for us to achieve. Second, as I’ve said for years, we need to attract a diverse body of people into the field starting in high school. If we wait till college, we will usually be too late. Of course, this is also difficult. Finally, we must create enough value for our organizations that our own pay rises—as a profession, not as individuals.

If we cannot prove how archivists, as knowledge professionals in a knowledge economy, are essential to society’s economic viability, then this step will be impossible, too. But pay levels attract interest because they show the financial benefit of that profession and because they demonstrate the level of respect the profession commands. In all intellectual professions such as ours, money and respect mean almost everything when people are deciding what to do with their lives.

  1. How can SAA improve public understanding of the archives profession?

The other day, I read an article written by staff at a museum, where the staff referred to the museum’s “archives,” by which they meant its collection of artifacts. If museums can’t understand the difference between their archives and their artifact collections, I shudder at our ability to help the public understand archives better. But I know the answer has to be deeper than elevator speeches.

Here’s the problem, as I see it. We struggle against three linguistic bêtes noires when we simply use the word “archives.” First is the fact that most words beginning with “arch-“ in English are reduced in meaning by the general population to “old stuff,” and “stuff” is never used the archivist’s sense of “records”—it always means “artifacts.” The second is the competing use in the computing world of the word “archive.” And the third issue is that an archives is sometimes an “archives,” sometimes “special collections,” sometimes a “record room” (honest), sometimes a “manuscripts repository,” sometimes a part of an historical society. And, sure, archivists (and manuscript curators and special collections librarians and records managers) know the differences between all of these realities, but it’s a heavy lift for us to expect the general population, on its own, to merge all those concepts into one generous umbrella term: “archives.” With those three barriers to understanding so firmly in place, I’d posit that we first have to rename the profession. Then we’d have a fighting chance.

But I’ll put that dream aside. Instead, I’d argue for all of us who manage or oversee archives to refer to ourselves as “archivists” and to refer to our holdings as “archives.” Simplify. I honestly believe that this is the first and essential step. Until we stop using a panoply of narrower terms for our work, our collections, and ourselves, we cannot hold a sensible conversation with a population that only occasionally interacts with us. Second, we must make our archives as open and accommodating as possible. I remember using archives when I was a young man, and I was intimidated by all the physical and bureaucratic barriers to access. We cannot eliminate all of those, but we can develop archives that are more welcoming spaces for users, and we can eliminate elitist controls that still exist in this country and which serve to turn people away. Third, we need to have a conversation with the public that does not consist of talking narrowly about history. (We might need even to accept that much history makes only scant use of formal archives.)

We’ve tried this before, but we have not succeeded as we should have. A call to people’s interest in “history” is misguided, because some people have no concern for formal history but they have a deep interest in the past. The concept of the past is a vague one, but humanity’s presence is built upon strata of the past, and everyone innately understands that they can understand more about the present if they can reach back into those pasts. So we must promote archives as the maintenance of the past—as a way for people to find their ancestors, as a way for people to protect their property rights (a central point of many government archives), as a way for a people to protect its heritage, as a lens through which to see the present more clearly and to imagine the future more accurately.

All of that is a heavy list, requiring historical records curators (newly coined generic term) to accept their similarities, avoid unnecessary jockeying for the tiny spotlight we might inhabit, and to work together to bring our good work into society’s larger consciousness.

  1. How can SAA improve archival education?

I went to library school in the late 1980s. Compared to that time, archival education today is the future I dreamed of. But we all know that archival education can do more, and that we certainly must better prepare archivists for a more complicated archival reality.

First, because it might be easy to overlook these, I’d like to note how SAA does work to improve archival education. The Society’s publications and training programs, and even the annual conference in all of its sometimes overwhelming variety, are exactly about education. To a great degree, SAA is an organization focused on education. Often new ideas in archives make their way to archivists because of SAA, and SAA provides more soap boxes for making these new ideas known than probably any other organization on the planet. These are not small accomplishments, but they don’t address the core of the question, I believe, which I read as being about graduate education.

Partly, the same words apply: The information delivered in conferences, our journal, and the workshops SAA presents across the country help to expand our knowledge of archives, and this knowledge becomes subsumed into graduate archival education. As a matter of fact, it is a two-way street: much of the new ideas in archives come out of universities, just as many come out of everyday archivists finding solutions to new or continuing problems. SAA programs, such as the Digital Archives Specialist certificate and its bundle of workshops, help to define the reach and realm of archivy, and thus help to expand the quality and variety of offerings in graduate programs.

So SAA helps improve graduate education by helping to distribute knowledge that can be, and is, plowed back into academic programs. But SAA’s biggest role in education is the role of continuing education, and that role is essential. The world of archives now changes faster than it ever has, so continuing education is essential to the archivist, and SAA provides the richest veins of such education of any organization in our field. What we need to do, and what SAA is working on constantly, is the enhancement and multiplication of education opportunities, and that is of help to others of us. My own knowledge of the field would be meager now without SAA and other professional organizations. I could not have become what I needed to be if I didn’t have the on-the-job training I still have and if that had not been deepened by what I’ve learned via SAA.

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

Do what you love. Work is work, in the end, so the only way to love it is because you do love it. So find work that you love and make that work a core part of your life. For me, passion for archives (and more broadly for information) is what drives me. I decided this life could be something I love, and I’ve made sure I loved it.

And that is the other part of advice: Understand that your love can change over time, that you don’t have to do exactly what you imagined would be best for you. Originally, I planned to be curator of literary manuscripts. I had the background for it, it would have combined two skills of mine, and it may have been bliss. But I found bliss elsewhere: with labor records, with government records, with digital records, with records management, with spending my life figuring out how records worked and how we could work to transform them into knowledge.

Be flexible. Move for a job that might change your life. Leave if a job doesn’t work for you. But be ready to take whatever job is available for you when you need one. That’s what I did, and I still found my bliss that way. I realized my life could not be imagined ahead of time and that the apparent randomness of my life was a kind of plan. I accepted fate.

But I also helped fate do its work. So the other advice I have is this: Never stop learning. Never stop growing. You need the job you have now, but you need to grow into your next job. Make your future as surely as your future will make you.

 

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