SAA 2017 Candidate Interview: Brenda Gunn

This post is part of the 2017 Candidate Interview series, presented in preparation for the 2017 SAA Election (March 13-March 31). Candidate statements will be posted daily through March 13. Read more statements from 2017 candidates here or check out our previous election series.

Brenda Gunn
Director for Research and Collections and the Janey Slaughter Briscoe Archivist, Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
Candidate for Council
Read her bio and response to questions posed by the Nominating Committee here.

1.     What role should SNAP Roundtable play in SAA?

From its beginnings, SNAP arrived on the SAA scene with a strong voice and a focused attention on issues relevant to its members.  It seems to be that SNAP wasn’t formed around an interest in a format or a process or a topic. Rather you came together around common experiences and deep concerns for your constituency. From my perspective, SNAP has served as a very strong voice for its members, raising awareness on salary and labor issues within the field, diversity and inclusion, transparency in SAA governance to name just a few. And the roundtable has done a phenomenal job of supporting its members if and when they encounter obstacles upon entering the field and celebrating when those challenges are eliminated.

I believe SNAP’s role is to continue the path that it has created for itself. Continue to be an idea incubator. Continue to question governance because through questioning comes change and clarity. Continue to remind leaders of the necessity for transparency and that they are accountable to the membership. Participate in conversations with SAA leaders and where none exist, invite and/or begin those conversations. The growth of this group has been an exciting thing to witness.

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

SAA leaders serve a multitude of constituencies with different preferences for communication. So, one of the ways to engage is to meet members where they are and in what format or in which medium they actively communicate. Since SNAP constituents have issues that are relevant, pertinent, and personal to them  (this is true for all groups), SAA leaders should be conversant and knowledgeable on what those issues are and be ready to engage in the most effective way for the group. Roundtables, and particularly SNAP, use their internal mechanisms, their SAA Council Liaison, and their own personal network to advocate for their concerns, which is great. Council liaisons have multiple groups to meet with as a responsibility of their positions; If I am elected, I would like to establish a regular cross-roundtable or -group conversation out of which could come an articulation of mutual concerns and ideas for upcoming council meetings.

3.     How can SAA improve archival education?

I’d like to see SAA take an environmental scan of where archival education is happening. It seems that the focus is on education through Schools of Information, both traditional bricks and mortar and online programs. But, I’m not sure if SAA has its eye on what’s happening in other areas, and I’m particularly thinking of public history programs and/or history programs (without the emphasis on public history).  Graduates of history programs and other humanities and liberal arts programs have similarly dismal experiences of late obtaining employment in their chosen field. As these academic programs promote alternative careers for PhD’s, say in history, archives and libraries grow in desirability as an alternative to an academic teaching and research career.  Once, and not so long ago, the track into an archives job was through history programs, and I see that as a reemerging trend, one that adds more individuals competing for an already taxed job market for archivists coming from archival programs.  These history programs typically don’t have the archival training (the exception being specific public history programs featuring a combination of the two disciplines) in the curriculum. SAA could take a role in encouraging the existing archival education programs to include more history or cultural contextualizing classes to better balance the theoretical and practical. Going further, SAA could establish an accrediting program that would honor those programs that meet the curricular elements outlined by the organization.

4.     What do you feel is the most pressing issue in the archival profession today?

When you have a field that can’t absorb the new talent emerging from graduate schools and can’t bring them into professional level positions with commensurate salaries and benefits, then this is a problem. And I would say it is a pressing issue because I don’t think we fully understand all the reasons for this to be the case. Do we have too many archival education programs? And are those programs accepting too many students? What about the other programs out of which come archivists – the public history programs and the PhD programs that see archives as “alternative careers” to an academic teaching one? Are we still in a place of advocating for our profession so that resource allocators know what it takes and how much it takes to run an archival program and support staff with a living wage? These are pressing questions in my mind, and a conversation that I know is paramount for this group in particular. My archives mentor and former SAA President David B. Gracy II wrote about archival advocacy in his presidential address in 1984. He focused on programmatic aspects of archives and the documentary record that was in danger of vanishing because of the public’s lack of understanding for and appreciation of archives. (His talk is actually much more nuanced and thoughtful than my paraphrasing here. Go read it at: “Our Future is Now,” American Archivist, Winter 1985, Vol. 48 No. 1, page 12-21) It is time we pivoted from advocacy for the profession and archives in an exclusively big picture sense, and commit time and energy to addressing the labor issues in the field.

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

One of the best pieces of advice I received was to always have something outside of work from which you can derive energy. Volunteer with some friends toward a cause you feel passionate about. This fullness and satisfaction can then be used and channeled into your work. You’ll derive strength from it and can draw upon in when needed. Cultivate and nurture resilience in yourself. Be self aware –-You know when the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on before the others around you (you know you listened to that speech one time a long time ago)? Well I believe you have to be in a good and healthy place in order to help others. Develop a self-awareness that will enable you to tell when you need recharging, and know what it takes to do that.


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