SAA 2017: Plenary 1

In advance of the 2017 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, 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, Texas A&M University-Commerce

SAA President Nance McGovern began the plenary by introducing Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate. Elizabeth welcomed all attendees by sharing a story of the Willamette River’s name and the land surrounding it, as far as the Ring of Fire, as well as an excerpt from a poem about the Cascade Mountains and a story about a salmon feast. The most powerful line in the excerpt: “We are all one.” She concluded with: “Welcome to Oregon. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest.” Nance then returned to the microphone and presented a basket hat to Elizabeth before welcoming all attendees to Archives 2017.

Nance proceeded to lead those present in a moment of silence for all archivists who had died in the previous year, giving special recognition to Mark Greene. She then continued her introductory remarks by noting the importance of education to SAA and  acknowledged the 2017 Annual Meeting’s program committee and host committee. She proceeded to announce a number of awards and scholarships, and highlighted that 182 award nominations were received this year. She concluded this portion of the plenary by extending her thanks to the awards committee co-chairs and everyone involved with these nominations.

Gregor Trinkaus-Randall came to the podium to introduce this year’s class of SAA Fellows. He described the distinction as “the highest honor bestowed on individuals by SAA.” This year’s class consists of:

  • Robin Chandler
  • Brenda Gunn
  • Pamela Hackbart-Dean
  • Cal Lee
  • Michele Pacifico
  • John H. Slate

Next, Gerald Chaudron and Nance McGovern presented an array of other awards:

  • Hamer Award: Center for Home Movies
  • Diversity Award (two awardees): Texas Disability History Collection (University of Texas at Arlington Libraries) and Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies (University of Minnesota Libraries)
  • Sister M. Claude Lane Award: Wesley W. Wilson
  • Emerging Leader Award: Natalie Baur
  • J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award: Environmental Data and Governance Initiative
  • Council Exemplary Service Award: Core Sustainable Heritage Team
  • Teaching with Primary Sources Award: Teaching with Primary Sources Committee of the Reference, Access, and Outreach Section
  • Special, unlisted award: Terry Baxter

After the conclusion of the awards portion of the plenary, David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, came to the podium to address the attendees. He began with an update on NHPRC funding, noting that $4 million has been restored to its budget after the president’s initial budget had allocated no funding for it whatsoever. Furthermore, he observed that in the current administration transition, roughly 4,100 appointees have left Washington, DC, and their replacements have been slower in coming than in the past. Despite the challenge, NARA has worked to insure that the former appointees leave their records behind, while also training their replacements, although many federal agencies “are struggling with not having senior people in place.”

David proceeded to give an update on the Obama presidential site planning process. The Obama Foundation has “announced a commitment to digitize all unclassified records instead of building a physical library,” upon the development of which David commented “I am very excited about this, it is something that I have been dreaming of.” However, there will be many challenges before it can be successfully implemented. There will still be a physical museum, and the Foundation is also interested in opening a Chicago Public Library branch on the same site.

David then turned his attention to government reform, chiefly the long-term plans to reduce the size of the NARA workforce and make it “more efficient” (although, he lamented, there was not much staff participation in this planning process). He then segued into a report on open government by joking “you may be wondering if open government still exists, and I’m pleased to report that it does.” There is still a plan for open government, and at NARA there are new and ongoing initiatives involving open access, scan-on-demand, and Wikipedia edit-a-thons (among other programs). These are chiefly being run through its History Hub and Innovation Hub, while the organization is currently pursuing a new social media strategy and continuing to monitor the success of its Citizen Archivist Dashboard.

David briefly addressed the importance of civil society, noting that there are groups of great importance in Washington, DC, and around the country that “are pushing the government toward openness and more transparency, and we are working with them.” The Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) was present at the SAA Annual Meeting (they had an exhibit table on the lower floor); for those unfamiliar with it, he described SNAC as “an aggregate of biographical information about people and groups” that are represented in multiple archival repositories. Additionally, he briefly mentioned the issue of balancing access and protection in light of a recent case of a historian who had worked with NARA for multiple years who was caught stealing World War II dog tags from the archives and selling them on eBay. As he observed, “we’re all in the same boat” in terms of balancing access with protecting our collections.

David then concluded his portion of the plenary with a selection of five of his favorite documents from NARA’s archives:

  1. A letter from a dying Civil War solider “written by Walt Whitman, his friend”
  2. An 1898 letter from Annie Oakley to President William McKinley after the sinking of the USS Maine
  3. A petition from the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, which argued against extending the franchise to women, in part, because “it would be an official endorsement of nagging as a national cause”
  4. A 1940 letter from a 12-year-old Fidel Castro to President Franklin Roosevelt asking to see a $10 bill
  5. A 1987 letter from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump after he appeared on The Donahue Show predicting he would do well in an election if he ever chose to run for office

Finally, the featured speaker for the plenary took the stage: Greg Eow, the Associate Director for Collections at MIT Libraries, who spoke on “The Burden of Archival Identity.” He began his address by arguing that “archival values…are becoming more central” to heritage institutions, and that they may play the critical role in the realm of scholarly communications. In other words, he emphasized that what archivists do is “really, really important.” He posited that the archival community needs to address three existential questions:

  1. Does there need to be an archival profession? (or, are archival values realized outside the profession?)
  2. If there does need to be a profession, does neutrality need to be a value?
  3. If it does stand for something beyond that, how does the archival profession relate to other related fields like librarianship and museum studies?

At this point, Greg confided that “everything I say about this topic I learned from my PhD advisor, Thomas Haskell,” who had just died a few days before this speech, something that Greg admitted he has been struggling to process. He then observed that “coming to SAA is a bit of a homecoming…this is the first professional society I joined,” back in 1998. He then moved to the Atlanta area, where he became the archivist at a small historical society and joined the Society of Georgia Archivists. It was at this point, Greg said, “I really became an archivist.” He then went on to be both a historian and a librarian in addition to an archivist, and now he is also an administrator.

Greg returned to the existential question: “What does it mean to be an archivist? What is the role of the profession?” He began to answer and unpack these questions by noting that “I’m making a claim that participating in professions is important,” and that this is “actually quite controversial and needs to be defended.” He then provided some additional context by noting Burton Bledstein, who wrote a book very critical of professions and professional organizations in the 1970s. As Greg noted, “professions can be sources of control and can refract power,” either “for good or for ill.” At this point, he cut to the chase, noting that Jarrett Drake wrote an article on the problems of the archival profession, an article Greg described as both “very brave” and “very useful.” Ultimately, however, he disagreed with Jarrett’s thesis, arguing instead that “professions are really important” using an extended quote from Timothy Snyder’s 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century: “Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power.”

Greg then asked another rhetorical existential question about the archival profession and gave a direct answer once more: “Can we be neutral? No, we can’t.” He pondered if we need to adopt an activist mindset and become champions for social justice, strongly hinting that we do. “The fact of the matter is that power relationships infuse our institutions and our profession and we need to take an active role to weed them out.” Along these lines, he reported that his employer, MIT, has taken the plunge and has integrated this belief into its everyday operations.

Greg then segued to the topic of open access, stating that “I need archivists more engaged in the open access movement” and wondering “how much of our money is going to an increasingly small number of commercial vendors” whose end content is trapped behind paywalls? In light of this, he pondered if there is a disconnect between the archival community and the open access community.

Greg told the story of Chris Bourg, the MIT Libraries director, who had gone to the university’s provost and asked for a task force to write a report on the future of the MIT Libraries when she became the director. The task force was comprised of mostly faculty, and did not feature a single archivist. Their recommendation was that the MIT Libraries needs to be a global platform for gathering up the research of MIT and sharing it with the world. As Greg observed, this is tied to the shift from the “outside-in library” to the “inside-out library” in the world of library science, a shift that has placed much greater emphasis on libraries’ archival collections. As he put it, “this has really put archives at the forefront” of libraries and their future. Greg concluded by arguing that “this is the opportunity for archives…to assume the central role…in the scholarly communications environment” and that, more fundamentally, “archives are super important, and they will only become more important.”

Nance then returned to the podium one last time with some brief news and notes. She happily reported that there were a total of 2,045 registrants for the conference, making it the largest West Coast meeting ever. The Portland Food Truck Experience would be held across the street from the Oregon Convention Center immediately following the plenary, where it would serve as the All-Attendee Reception. She concluded by exhorting all in attendance to “have a great conference.”

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