Forum: Continuing the Conversation (Archival Education – and Beyond)

Forum: Continuing the Conversation (Archival Education – and Beyond)
Guest author Brynn White


Advocacy is at the top of the agenda for incoming SAA President Kathleen Roe and the underlying initiative behind next year’s conspicuously-without-theme annual conference in Cleveland. This refusal to compartmentalize is a wise concession to the overwhelming but important realization that advocacy incorporates everything that we do as archivists, from community and stakeholder outreach to daily job performance. Increasing the value of the field and its practitioners also inevitably entails commitment to effectively developing the archivists of tomorrow, which was reflected in conference activity centered on temporary (often entry-level) project positions, internships, freelance consultation work, and the root of it all: archival education.

Focus on the latter was in itself a continuation of a provocative session from the 2013 conference spearheaded by SNAP. This year’s panel “Archival Education – Outcomes and Opportunities” – featuring the highly articulate perspectives of a recent graduate, hiring manager, and graduate program head – kicked off the first block of sessions in the conference’s most concentrated day. In anticipation of lingering questions, eager voices, and a few ruffled feathers a “Continuing the Conversation” forum was scheduled an hour after the session’s conclusion to allow interested parties to reflect, nourish, and caffeinate before revisiting the topic in a more informal and intimate atmosphere.

Attendees were instructed to turn their chairs towards the center in an effort to facilitate the forum’s goals for friendly discourse and a diversity of opinion, the latter of which appeared promising due to the seeming balance of students, new professionals, veterans, and educators in the room. The moderator Danielle Cunniff Plumer began by acknowledging that in 75 minutes answers would likely not be obtained, and that for an issue where “no one size fits all” there would likely be a variety of “right ways” and a slew of “wrong ways,” which we can only work towards and away from by discourse and diplomatic debate.

Dr. Richard J. Cox of the University of Pittsburgh immediately took to the floor to discuss initiatives undertaken by his program, such as the IMLS-sponsored Emerging Archival Scholars Program (EASP), that he felt went unacknowledged in SAA and session discussions. This attempt to build dialogue from current and specific activity was steered toward a more generalizable discussion on an unaddressed question from the morning’s session on iSchools versus in-person programs. Further defendants of the online learning environment, including the head of the one at San Jose State Dr. Pat Franks, spoke out on the measures taken to assure students received the same professional development, with it even posited that the initiative required of online students to independently and proactively assert themselves within their archival community ultimately better conditioned them for a career. Discussions on MLIS degrees and archival management and public history programs without ALA accreditation similarly resulted in stalemates, with defenders emerging of both. The relationship between archival track and certificate programs and more general library science coursework was not addressed in-depth.

The University of Pittsburgh includes a bold and divisive requirement that all applicants have obtained prior real-world experience working in an archives environment. The suggestion that incoming archival students be more thoroughly informed of the field prior to enrollment was revisited by another speaker’s discussion of the book Decisive: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work, which presented a case study of a call center’s “preview program.”  By confronting recruits head-on with the challenges and realities of the job, the program’s simulations better informed them of “what they were getting into” and empowered these potential employees to determine whether the position was a suitable application of their skill sets and temperament. Unfortunately this suggestion that there be a movement to develop a more tailored and lucid “chute” into the profession, or even more actively recruiting promising and talented individuals, was not picked up by subsequent speakers.

These issues however begged another more heavily discussed question of which responsibilities lie with archival students, and which with their educators, much of it in regards to “soft skills” not specific to the profession ,such as written and oral communication and resume crafting. Many reasonably argued that outdated curriculum and the high demands of digital environment should be priorities for current educators. While the necessity and validity of the ACA exam continues to be debated, it was encouraged that its recommended texts and core competency requirements served as a useful foundation for program design. A professional who was involved in the ALA accreditation process also decried any myths that the organization does not encourage archivists to participate in review committees, in light of the reminder SAA had previously considered their own accreditation initiatives but deemed them financially infeasible.

More constructive conversation veered towards the development of standards for archival education, as there has been a notable failure to determine definitions of “quality” and, more importantly, “quality indicators.”  It was suggested that there be stronger movements to establish what we want to happen in archival graduate programs, and how to concretely measure its achievement. One speaker suggested that concerned parties prioritize data collection in this journey; another referenced ALA’s national survey of librarian salaries that resulted in the establishment of a recommended minimum wage, and ultimately improved employment conditions throughout the field.

Despite some attempts to incorporate diversity issues into the conversation (its own forum inconveniently taking place several doors down), the forum concluded more broadly with assertions that archivists had gotten very good at advocating for archives but not – and  sometimes to their detriment – for themselves as archivists, bookended by an impassioned plug for involvement in the newly created SAA committee for Public Awareness.

The evolution of the discussion into generalities about the profession as a whole revealed how little the student and new professional voice had registered in the forum. While it was encouraging to see so many established practitioners concerned about these issues, justified reticence to speak candidly about one’s professional development and supervisors when attempting to enter the ominous job market continues to be a hindrance to the vital input of emerging archivists. It is clear SAA needs to conceptualize a “safe place” for these discussions; the anonymity of surveys could perhaps facilitate this while also providing the desired hard data on program successes, shortcomings, and production of hirable professionals. Despite my Twitter prompting, it also went undiscussed how increasing waves of academics and technology specialists are flooding the field, placing even more pressure on archival education to deliver competitive core training.  It was admitted that the archival field was still dominated by a mentorship-based “culture of personality,” which evoked the other conference discussions on constructive internships and project job experiences, but this again shifted attention away from educational responsibility and focus on what has been done and can be done in classrooms.

The forum acknowledged that in the current climate higher education institutions are big business; they will continue to accept tuition-paying students regardless of their suitability for the profession, and in many cases will uphold minimal accountability for the students’ return on investment. As a recent graduate of a public school currently under conditional ALA accreditation (and with no other representation in the forum), I would like to see focus concentrated on improving more affordable and flexible (i.e. iSchool) programs that accommodate career changers, people unable to relocate their lives and families, and other students working to both pay the bills and gain hands-on experience through internships and other opportunities (more of which, as we all know, must be paid). Cheaper programs have less resources and are often more susceptible to “behind the times” curriculum, and it seems to me that efforts to improve these conditions is the best possible means for producing diverse professionals equipped for archival management in the 21st-century and who can prove the value and vast application of our expertise. At this stage we cannot control the quantity of degree-holders oversaturating the job market, but we can aim to control the quality and its greater availability. This will ultimately produce greater awareness, more jobs, better salaries, and a wealth of mentors and educators for the students of the future.

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