Changing Tides? Diversity and Inclusion in the Society of American Archivists

We live in interesting times to be an information professional. Among archives and allied professions (cultural heritage institutions, libraries), more professional organizations are recognizing the value of and urgent need for diversity and inclusion initiatives at the organizational levels. Archivists are quickly catching up to our fellow info professionals in addressing these issues. One of the primary issues many have noted about the adoption of “diversity and inclusion” language by LIS organizations is that rarely are we working with a clearly defined or shared understanding of what these terms mean. “Diversity and inclusion” is often used as a shorthand for bringing folks “not like us” into majority-white, majority-cis, majority-heterosexual spaces. This approach flattens the incredible variety of experiences that ethnically and sexually diverse communities can bring to transforming how we think about who archivists are, and how archival practices and collections can reflect the richness of lived experience. while also avoiding the ugly conversations about how majority cis-white spaces actively re-manifest themselves despite the inclusion of a limited number of folks from “underrepresented” backgrounds.

This summer I attended the Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting4 in Atlanta, Georgia in early August. The SAA Annual Meeting is a gathering of primarily North American archival educators, practitioners, and educators. SAA has historically been focused more towards practitioners, with goals and guidelines articulated through the lens of organizational-level changes and practices. As a student entering the fray, I was excited by the ways in which the language on diversity and inclusion is taking on greater nuance within SAA at the organizational level, particularly from SAA leadership.

In his outgoing address, SAA President Dennis Meissner acknowledged the need for more inclusive hiring practices, recognizing that retention of practitioners of color is also integral to transforming the archival workplace. He also acknowledged his own position of privilege, noting that he has “had so many opportunities in my life, that I could afford to squander half of them and still come out okay.” This was particularly important not only coming from the president of the SAA, but also on the heels of an exchange regarding the official SAA response to the horrific Pulse nightclub shootings that claimed 49 lives and wounded 53 others. Meissner’s original statement, like much of the media coverage of the event, completely failed to acknowledge that the shooter specifically targeted queer Latinx communities; this omission was quickly and roundly criticized by SAA members for not upholding the inclusive dialogue asserted in Meissner’s original statement. The erasure of queer voices and voices of color in his original statement was quickly criticized in the comments to the statement and led to a revised statement two days later in which Meissner accepted responsibility for the narrowness of his original statement.

The original statement from Meissner led to a joint statement from the leaders of the Archives and Archivists of Color (AAC), the Latin American and Carribbean Cultural Heritage Archives Roundtable (LACCHA), and the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR) on the “Archivists’ Role in Creating a More Diverse Society.” The statement itself is brief but impactful, asking fellow archivists to “to be aware of how your personal biases and privilege might be reflected in what and how you collect, to accept that, and work to change the ones that hinder the progress and inclusion of others […] you cannot document those who are overlooked and marginalized if you cannot see us, or cannot confront your own biases.”

On the heels of such an intense and public exchange, Meissner’s closing address at SAA in Atlanta was an important recognition of the need for truly transformative efforts within SAA to diversify archives as both profession and practice. This address also built on Meissner’s editorial in the May/June issue of Archival Outlook (the SAA’s bi-monthly newsletter) also acknowledged the role that systematic bias in the forms of hiring practices can contribute to “pushing way people whom we very much would like to welcome” into the archival profession.

Leadership on these issues is important, particularly in initiating and fostering a truly inclusive organizational culture of archivists. The development of initiatives like the Association of Research Libraries’ Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce, the American Library Association’s Spectrum Scholars, or the ARL/SAA Mosaic Fellowship and Scholars programs, are important steps towards expanding the conversation on diversity within archives as profession, collections, and practice. It is also important to note that leadership is responding to a greater number of professional archivists and student organization efforts surrounding inclusivity and anti-oppression work in archives. SAA Leadership is an important factor in institutionalizing these changes, but will not and cannot do the work that individual archivists can in addressing these issue in their environments.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ctj71081 under (CC BY 2.0)

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