Archival Education: Outcomes and Opportunities [SAA 2014]

Editor’s Note: Anna-Sophia originally wrote this summary of Session 106, Archival Education: Outcomes and Opportunities, from the Society of American Archivists 2014 annual meeting, for the Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable blog. It is re-posted here with kind permission of the SNAP blog editors.

The session Archival Education: Outcomes and Opportunities was highly anticipated by many SNAP members. The round table discussion format – featuring speakers Michelle Light, Cecilia Salvatore, Samantha Winn, and Peter Wosh and moderated by Danielle Plumer – worked well for this complex, engaging, and at times controversial topic.  The panel benefited from participants’ varied roles and perspectives, including that of a recent graduate (SNAP Steering Committee member Winn), program administrators (Salvatore and Wosh), and an experienced archivist often responsible for hiring (Light).

The discussion began with a question about what outcomes are desirable for archival programs and whether students are graduating with the skills that equip them to succeed in their first positions. Plumer asked whether programs should focus on more “traditional” archival practices, tech skills and digital specializations, or something else. The panelists seemed to largely agree with Wosh’s response that the perceived dichotomy between traditional and digital archival skills is a false one. Instead, Wosh argued, students must be able to contextualize new developments within a broader cultural and archival framework. This must include an understanding of current information infrastructure as well as the ability to critically evaluate how theories meet practical information needs. Wosh also questioned whether archival programs are too diverse to identify and assess any core outcomes, although he did identify developing passion and enthusiasm for the field as a top desideratum for educators.

Winn followed up with an important question about the gap in expectations between employers and educators, and who should take on the hard work of training students for job readiness. In the midst of ambiguity about what educators and employers find important, students are often expected to make significant financial and temporal investments in training above and beyond their graduate education, hoping to gain some traction in the job market.

Salvatore responded by speaking to the importance of advocacy to raise awareness about the importance of trained archivists and called on SAA to take a more active role in “convincing” employers to hire archivists. She also spoke to the importance of managing student expectations about the variety of professional environments they may find themselves in and the increasingly blurry boundaries among library and information science fields.

Finally, Light spoke from her perspective as an employer and raised several concerns that may be familiar to readers of LIS hiring blogs, such as the increasing number of applicants for each opening, the prevalence of candidates with online degrees and no experience, and lack of critical thinking and soft skills. Light argued that the key question in hiring is not “What should an archivist know?,” but “How should an archivist think?” Other presenters agreed that these skills are crucial and can be built into archival education through collaborative assignments, opportunities for experience in the field, management coursework, building presentation skills, and more.

Next, the panel discussed the necessity of downsizing programs; Wosh answered without hesitating that programs do have this responsibility, although he acknowledged that his program at NYU was not dependent on increasing tuition flow as many other programs are. The issue of how to limit programs drew a bit more disagreement, as participants struggled to navigate the narratives of diversity and academic rigor that have recently caused so much discussion in LIS blog and social media circles. Winn pointed to Fobazi Ettarh’s post on Hack Library School, “Black OR Queer? Life at the Intersection” as an important read about the ways in which graduate programs can perpetuate dominant structures of power in the field, and she advocated for US archivists’ increased involvement in international archival affairs and awareness of international and indigenous knowledge systems.

Finally, the panel offered potential roles for SAA in improving educational outcomes. Light acknowledged SAA’s long history of involvement with archival education and encouraged audience members to bring ideas and proposals to SAA Council. The other panelists also discussed the role of ALA accreditation and higher education administration; overall panelists agreed that SAA did not have the resources to develop its own accreditation program and that ALA accreditation, though it cannot be all things to all people, could serve archival programs better if archivists took on a greater role in contributing to those standards.

Overall, the panelists seemed to share a vision of archival education as a place to develop the well-rounded, engaged professionals the field increasingly needs. The mechanics of how to accomplish and assess that task, however – not to mention whether archival programs are actually meeting the needs of students, educators, or employers – remain an unanswered question.

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