SAA 2017: Open Forums Archival Advocacy and Awareness Amid Social/Political Upheaval

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: Alexandra Alisauskas, MAS/MLIS Candidate, University of British Columbia

Co-sponsored by SAA Committees on Public Policy and Public Awareness and Issues and Advocacy Section, the 2nd annual Advocacy Forum brought together five panelists whose professional practices lie, in various ways, at the intersection of archives and activism. Outgoing COPA chair and panel co-moderator Sami Norling framed the discussion by asking the introductory question of whether there should be a distinction between archival advocacy and awareness, or how they can inform each other (particularly in light of the challenges posed by recent political and social changes).

Each of the panelists introduced themselves and their version of archival awareness or advocacy. Holly Croft, Digital Archivist at Georgia College and State University came to the archival profession after twelve years of working for different members of congress and on political campaigns, and spoke of her commitment to advocacy as a result of this public service work.

Eira Tansey is a digital archivist and records manager at the University of Cincinnati and also the resident caretaker of Project_ARCC (https://projectarcc.org), a space for archivists responding to climate change. Her research is related to archives and environmental change, and she recently marched under the banner of archivist at the Climate March in Washington, D.C.

Bonnie Gordon, Assistant Digital Archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center, and Maggie Schreiner, Project Archivist at NYU, represented the Interference Archive (http://interferencearchive.org), an organization with which they both volunteer. The Interference Archive is dedicated to collecting materials from grassroots organizing from the 1960s to the present, and has an open stacks policy in order to fulfill their mission of making these materials accessible to the communities that produce them. Along with a working group model of organization (they are fully run by volunteers), the Interference Archive promotes their space as a social center with many outreach and programming events.

Matt Price is not an archivist, but a historian of science. He discussed his work with EDGI (https://envirodatagov.org), the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which works to preserve environmental governance in the United States by archiving climate data whose future stewardship under the US government is uncertain. Matt shared a few issues that have come up in his work with the project, including questions of how to engage in a sustained and meaningful fashion with collected materials once they have been preserved. He also brought up the broader issue EDGI uncovered in their data preservation initiatives that, in the words of Matt, “the internet is organized in a stupid way.” He concluded his introduction with a call to question the system in which data custodianship is bestowed upon governments and corporations, and the need to restructure this model.

Following these introductory remarks, the discussion was opened to questions from the panel moderators and the audience. While the discussion was far reaching, several themes recurred and resonated with discussions occurring throughout 2017’s SAA.

Sami began the question period by asking what the role of archivists should be in creating public policy or supporting social movements. This question elicited responses from the panelists and audience members that pushed against the position of neutrality or passivity traditionally ascribed to the archival profession (a call to action also made in Gregory Eow’s plenary lecture). All of the panelists signaled the need for archivists to transcend the idea of collecting in and of itself as an inherent good. Eira suggested that archivists should take an active role in discussions around record keeping practices that directly affect people’s lives (personal and corporate data, criminal records expungement) rather than focusing primarily on the preservation of symbolic objects. Holly shared her advocacy experience fighting the closure of the Georgia Archives in 2012 (which were eventually moved to the University System of Georgia), and the need for archivists to proactively build sustained relationships with legislators in order to help guide these decisions. Both Maggie and Matt spoke of promoting the use of collections as tools for activist organizing. At the Interference Archive, this takes the form of their open stacks policy which gives full access to users, and which also builds intersectional connections between activist movements both between its collections and those using the archive. Matt related the Interference Archive’s merging of activist and archivist activity to EDGI’s instrumental collecting of data for use by citizen groups, lawmakers, and others.

Other questions raised and discussed included the potential repercussions of advocacy when you live in an area or deal with donors who do not share your perspectives; the need to address the underlying labor issues in the US that make this a contentious situation (Eira); how to sustain and channel the current upswing in activist interest toward tangible archival work or processes; and the core value of education in both political and archival work.

The panel concluded with some ideas of how to promote archival awareness and advocacy inside and outside of SAA. Eira suggested that archivists need to familiarize themselves with open record laws and record keeping policies, as these have far reaching ramifications for large groups of people. Eira, Bonnie, and Matt also suggested that there are obvious openings and affinities between the archival and journalistic profession, and that alliances should be forged between the two fields. Maggie drew attention to the fact that Hewlett Packard, a sponsor of this year’s SAA, is invested in the prison-industrial complex and Israeli apartheid, and the need for greater awareness initiatives within SAA. Holly ended the panel remarks by stating that she had hope that the activist interests of the incoming generation of archivists will result in a membership-driven push for further social justice agendas within SAA.

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