SAA11: A Retrospective

Continuing in the tradition of the ALA11 retrospective post and to promote more archives posts on HackLibSchool, I decided to create a collaborative post of session summaries from the Society of American Archivists (SAA to all you non-archives students) 2011 Annual Meeting, which was held in Chicago this past week.  Many thanks to all of the contributors!

Rose (of HackLibSchool):

Session – Oral History Section Meeting: I’m taking an oral history class this semester and was excited to attend this year’s oral history section meeting because I really enjoyed last year’s presentations.  This year, two teachers from the Catherine Cook School (David Harris and Justin Sheehan) along with four of their former students discussed an oral history project conducted during the students’ 8th grade year.

The oral history project comprised of preparing for and interviewing Vietnam War veterans, which is a heavy subject for people of all ages — let alone middle-schoolers.  The students also edited the video footage into a documentary.  Clips from the documentary were shown, and I was incredibly impressed by the students’ skills in both editing and oration.  The students were incredibly articulate about what they learned from the project and really demonstrated how powerful oral histories are.  All of the students expressed interest in conducting oral histories of their family members at some point.

This project was a great example of how to incorporate oral history into secondary education curriculum, and I think archivists can really learn a lot from examples like this.  Showing people at a young age about primary sources is necessary to the survival of archives.

Eira Tansey is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She lives in New Orleans, where she works as a Library Associate at Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection.

Session 702 – Return on Investment: Metadata, Metrics and Management: Like most libraries, archives are under increasing pressure to measure the effectiveness of their activities versus the resources expended on them. This session looked at a variety of metrics, including metadata enhancements, the comparative value of finding aid content fields, and processing rates.

Joyce Chapman from North Carolina State University spoke about two research efforts undertaken at NCSU. The first was on the value of manually enhancing metadata for images. They found that when images had manually enhanced metadata (usually of personal names), page views increased significantly ( The second research project Chapman spoke about was measuring the value of various components of an archival finding aid. She found that researchers valued inventories highly but found less value in a biographical/historical note. Partly this was because researchers could not cite a finding aid in their research, but also because the biographical note did not contain citations or references.

Emily Novak Gustainis from Harvard Medical School spoke about measuring processing rates of all processing staff at the Harvard Medical School archives. In spring 2009, the Harvard Medical School’s Center for the History of Medicine developed a metrics tracking database to gather information about processing rates of collections and how staff time was used. This included measuring both grant-funded and permanent processing staff. In order to compile these rates, time spent on almost every staff processing or other work activity was measured in 15 minute increments. More information on the metrics can be found here.

Adrian Turner from the California Digital Library (CDL) spoke about processing metrics gathered from CDL member libraries participating in a CLIR grant. According to the project’s wiki, “Nine California special collections and archival repositories, in collaboration with the California Digital Library, will uncover 41 hidden collections related to the state’s environment and environmental history.” Turner shared the various processing rates and other measures related to the processing of these collections. Finding aids for the collection are available through the Online Archive of California.

Jennifer Randles recently graduated with an MSIS from the University of Tennessee. Her interests include audiovisual archives, digital collections, participatory archives, and media preservation. She is currently looking for a job where she can work with a variety of materials in an archival or preservation environment. Her ePortfolio is available on her website and she tweets at jlarrrchive.

Session 105 – Pay It Forward: Interns, Volunteers, and the Development of New Archivists and the Archives Profession: This was my second SAA, and I went to the conference mainly for networking and job-hunting. Therefore, I didn’t attend as many full sessions as I intended, but I still made it to Session 105.

Taffey Hall of the Southern Baptist Historical Library & Archives mentioned the importance of creating a “nurturing, sensitive environment” to help student interns feel comfortable in the archives, as people generally do better work when they’re comfortable. I thought that focus on comfort, caring, and support for students was refreshing, as it is true that students can easily feel overwhelmed and confused in a new environment where they are expected to take on tasks that they have never done before. She also mentioned that religious archivists sometimes see their work as a calling, which comes with a commitment to their work and ensuring that others in the archives are nurtured as the church should nurture them. Speaking as a recent graduate who has heard of internships that were not supportive, I enjoyed her perspective and focus on the emotional components of internships. So if you are a student or looking to volunteer, you might want to try a local religious archive.

Laura Starratt from the Atlanta History Center stressed that there are three components to getting an archival job: Education, Experience, and Networking. She also told her story of going from graduation to full-time employment that happened through volunteering, education like the Georgia Archives Institute, and networking at conferences. It definitely matters who you know, as many jobs will come from connections. So being involved at the regional or national level of associations will do you good.

Linda Sellars from North Carolina State University spoke from her perspective as a student internship supervisor at NCSU. They have a level of graduate employment called the library associate, which is a two-year, twenty hour a week paid position. These are professional-level appointments, and publishing is encouraged. She also showed her method for more efficiently using student work with group processing (allowing groups of students to process large collections together, with excellent results). When assigning processing tasks, she matches prioritized collections with students’ time allowances and experience ensures that student associates to not feel overwhelmed by what tasks they are taking on and leads to more satisfied students and better results.

Lance Stuchell from The Henry Ford (NewMSI on twitter) presented on the ethics of the archival profession and it dependence upon unpaid labor. This reliance upon the volunteer work of students and recent grads presents challenges to the financial health of professionals and the diversity of the profession. (Students are assumed to be able to be of the class that can volunteer many hours a week, but there are a large number that can’t devote this time because of economic pressures.) Lance asked if the price of admission to the field was too high? He also mentioned the idea of Pay It Forward internships, where either money is given in return for services or the type of work is changed if it is still unpaid. Having an ad such as this isn’t appropriate for unpaid positions, so the work needs to be changed to something more appropriate for a part-time volunteer. He suggested that supervisors change the work from experience needed to interests needed to get students for the job, as it is not ethical to require professionals to work unpaid jobs in order to break into the profession. I loved his presentation, and was so glad to hear this issue voiced at SAA. I think it’s something that many high-level professionals don’t think about, as they didn’t experience the glut of unpaid work when they were starting out. Lance is right; it is time to have a dialogue about this at the national level.

Jesse Johnston is a current MSI student at the University of Michigan School of Information with interests in audiovisual archives, music libraries, digital preservation, and impact of digital media on music in Southeast Asia. He has a background in research and teaching in world music and ethnomusicology. He blogs less than he would like to at cultural organology and is all atwitter @jesseajohnston.

Sessions 501 and 601 – Complex Archives in Novel Contexts: The Grateful Dead and Phish (501) and Rappin’ with a Fiddle: A 360° Perspective of Music Archives (601): Can you imagine a Grateful Dead or Phish concert at 8am? Neither can I, but it was just possible (if you’re an archivist) to wake up enough to hear the archivists of these two bands/organizations speak. Following the jam band model, David Lemieux (Tape Archivist of Grateful Dead Productions) and Kevin Shapiro (Archivist of Phish) freeformed their remarks (it was a relief from  heavily powerpointed presentations). Archives for both groups, it turns out, combine aspects of music archives, corporate archives, and academic archives. Shapiro’s background is in law and he came to Phish as an avid taper and has been the Phish archivist since the band began. His position seems to be as much curator as archivist since part of his duties include auditioning concert audio and video after each performance and bringing the best material to the band’s website. Both archivists also balance fan relations and active, vocal fan communities, which poses a special challenge; in the end, it seems that these presentations may present some complicated new ideas about archival appraisal and the curation of material from vibrant communities. Both archivists were asked what educational and professional development opportunities they were able to offer, and part of the answer was that both the Grateful Dead Archives and the Phish organization have accepted interns in the past!

Session 601 presented complementary perspectives from archivists working in
more “traditional” (for want of a better term) academic environments: Sibyl Schaefer of the Rockefeller Archive Center, Courtney Chartier of the Archives Research Center at the Atlanta University Center, and Adriana Cuervo of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Each talk offered a case study in materials that either consisted of, or had a significant connection with musical materials archives, though only Schaefer’s dealt with sound recordings directly. Schaefer reported on a project undertaken making accessible audio interviews of Helen Hartness Flanders, a New England folklorist, through a web 1 interface. Chartier discussed the collection of Tupac Amaru Shakur papers at the Robert Woodruff Library at Atlanta University Center. Interestingly, the collection is entirely Shakur’s manuscript materials, which include sketchbooks, poetry, designs, and notes. Although the collection is digitized, it is only accessible through on-site computers due to content and security concerns. Cuervo talked about the results of her survey of 15 contemporary composers. She is interested in working to make content creators (composers) more aware of the implications and concerns to preserve their musical works, scores (particularly for materials that do not present what you may imagine as a score or time-based performance works), and other materials. This is particularly challenging when materials are stored in proprietary electronic formats, so Cuervo is encouraging composers to use open-source software if possible in the hopes that electronic files will be more easily accessible. All in all, the panel offered three varied perspectives that illustrate the diversity of projects and skills that really define the nature of “musical” archives as much more than just sounds.

Overall: I’ve attended a number of conferences and SAA was really great in many ways. For example, I got to see Scott Simon’s keynote speech, which was great since I am a regular NPR listener. I also met a few new archivists who are working in the field and heard about cool projects underway (there were more archivists dealing with audiovisual materials, and not as many with exclusively text/document-based interests). In other ways, though, I felt that the conference doesn’t give many chances for graduate students to participate – despite the platitudes that are sometimes offered about the advantages and benefits of encouraging students to study archives (and the possibility of studying archives per se is a much newer option than library school), one doesn’t see this put into action at the conference. Student presenters were relegated to a single session, and graduate student posters were separated from “professional” posters.

Kalmia Strong is a student in the University of Iowa joint graduate program in LIS and book studies and is a fellow in Special Collections & University Archives. She is interested in primary sources, material culture and technology, the book arts, and collaborative arts projects. She tweets, of late, as @kalmiaes.

Session 302 – Practical Approaches to Born-Digital Records: What Works Today: This was my first time at SAA, and I’m definitely an archives newbie. But because my studies and my job focus on special collections, it seemed like a good way to get a sampling of what’s being discussed in the field and hopefully absorb general archives knowledge and history.

The large presentation room was absolutely packed with people standing and sitting on the floor, and it was apparent that people felt an urgent need for this information. The two themes that emerged from the session spoke directly to that need.

1) As Seth Shaw, one of the panelists said, “do something, even if it’s not perfect”.
2) How archivists do their work is changing, but what they’re doing isn’t.

These sentiments were well illustrated by the five panelists and moderator, Chris Prom of UIUC, who has a great e-records resource website. (On a more general note, super-kudos to the panel for gracefully staying within their time limits, resulting in a rich but succinct presentation.) The panelists covered:

  • donor conversations regarding hybrid or purely digital collections (have more conversations, and more detailed—lots of donors are unsure of or don’t think about all of their digital activity that has research value)
  • basic steps to accessioning digital documents for preservation and access
  • arrangement, description, and access to digital archives (transparent documentation is key)
  • a specific case study (the Rushdie papers at Emory – takeaway: a flexible, collection-specific approach is best if possible)

All of the ideas presented were, as promised, practical and work right now, which was refreshing and encouraging. There was also plenty to chew on conceptually. One of the presenters mentioned that digital media items are just containers for documents, not documents themselves, and, while I see his point in the service of providing access to content, as a materialist, I think that format is important too.

Session 610 – Practical Approaches to Electronic Records: What’s Next: After getting a grounding in the admittedly imperfect present of e-records, I was excited to find out about “The Future”. This was centered on the open-source software Archivematica and the results of alpha testing by the City of Vancouver, the IMF, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Really briefly, it is a “pipeline” for creating packages of preservation and access files and metadata from e-records and is meant to be very flexible by using the microservice model. Unsurprisingly, it still has some kinks to work out, but it seems well-designed and is ambitious in the best possible way. It was also interesting to learn more about archives/libraries doing alpha-testing. Talking the talk about embracing new technology is one thing, spending time and resources helping develop cutting edge tools that address major problems in the field instead of sticking to the safe and familiar is another.

So, a great conference session = you want to talk and think about it a lot afterwards + getting practical tips and complex ideas + hearing from people actively trying to improve tools and practices and thinking about the long-term + short but meaty presentations.

Also a plus for students: free back issues of American Archivist in the “bookstore”!

Stacie Williams is an Access and Reference Assistant at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library and is also on the board of directors for the Special Libraries Association-Boston as its archivist.

Session 303 – Archiving the Civil Rights Movement: North and South, Past and Future: Marginalia. I had never officially heard of the term. But undoubtedly, I had seen used books with cursive scrawl printed in the margins, block letters pointing to an epiphany in the text, a point of confusion, a favorite line, etc. This was one of the more interesting case studies explored during the Archiving and the Civil Rights Movement: North and South, Past and Future panel on Friday, August 26 at this year’s SAA conference.

Annie E. Tummino, an archivist at Queens College in New York City, described the importance of a civil rights leader’s library collection as it pertained to his marginalia and why the archives was keeping his entire collection, even though it contained many second and third edition books. The session was particularly notable for me because I think—especially now that I’ve graduated—that it’s easy to fall into a mindset of considering archives the same way. Process, arrange and describe, finding aid. Wash, rinse, repeat. Speaking about marginalia made me remember the reasons why archives are so amazing and multifaceted. You can view a collection from so many different angles and there are so many uses. It’s nice to be reminded of that, even so early on in this new career.

Stephanie Bennett is entering her second year at Simmons GSLIS, where she will get her MS in Library Science and Archives Management in May 2012. She is formerly a corporate researcher and currently a writing tutor slash archives and library assistant for the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

Session 203 – What ARMA Can Teach Beyond Records Management: As I mentioned in my post this summer, “Why Archivists Go to Library School,” I think records management can be a key part of being an effective archivist, especially in corporate environments. So I jumped to attend this session, chaired by past SAA president Elizabeth Adkins, CA, CRM. The two main speakers were Nancy Freeman, the sole Records Manager and Archivist at the National Wildlife Research Center, a government facility based in Colorado with several regional offices; and Dr. Carol E Choksy, PhD, CRM, an author and adjunct lecturer at Indiana University-Bloomington’s School of Library and Information Science. All three are active in ARMA International (which formerly stood for Association of Records Managers and Administrators).

All three women were excellent speakers as well as passionate advocates for ARMA/SAA coexistence. In fact, Nancy said that public speaking was a skill that benefited from her involvement in ARMA. Training and opportunities for speaking occur regularly via ARMA, and these skills benefit meetings with your direct boss as well as more formal events with your bigger or biggest bosses. Overall, in fact, Nancy stressed how business-centric ARMA is – and how that’s a good thing! Archives need to “sell” their contributions to the organization, and a big part of that is effective communication of the business case for archives initiatives. “Business case for archives initiative” is not something found commonly in LIS literature, Nancy said (and as far as I can tell, she’s right!).

My key takeaway from Carol’s portion is that working archivists should pay more attention to the leadership skills and competencies required in their job or in the field and develop those. Leadership is one of these, communication is another, conflict management is a third; Carol emphasized that these skills benefit everyone, from an entry-level archivist up to the boss level. In the Q&A portion, the women encouraged us to attend local ARMA chapter events, which are reasonably priced, if the large price tag of the national meeting is prohibitive. Overall, this was a great session that cemented my interest in developing skills outside those taught in library school classes.

5 replies

  1. This is so informative! We’ve been needing an archives voice on here for so long. I’m so stoked on learning more and seeing how libraries and archives are not so different (but still different).


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