Starting Small: My Experience at the New England Archivist

Since beginning graduate school, I’ve had difficulty knowing how to engage with professional associations. Being both a Mosaic Scholar and a Spectrum Scholar, I received a free annual membership to both the Society of American Archivists and the American Library Association, but I would be the first to admit that I did not do my due diligence to take advantage of those memberships. With the responsibilities that I already had—school work, work work, and engaging in student organizations, not to mention maintaining a social life—I struggled to determine how to devote adequate time to SAA and ALA. My main involvement with them ultimately consisted of signing up for too many listservs, getting overwhelmed, and shoving the myriad of messages that I was receiving into an email mailbox, never to be seen or heard from again.

Along the way, I began to hear advice that participation in regional professional associations was more manageable than trying to make one’s way in the vast seas of the more nationally oriented organizations. I did not follow through with that advice until about a month ago, when I joined the New England Archivists (NEA). I started my membership in anticipation of a panel discussion in which I would be participating at the NEA annual meeting, which took place last weekend. The panel that I was on was entitled “Transcending the Narrative of Neutrality,” and the overall theme of the conference was “Rise Up.”

When I first received the invitation to this conference, I had moderate expectations. My thought was that this would be a simple opportunity to gain more presentation experience and new people in my field. I had also predicted that the conference theme would simply pay lip service to the role of archives in social justice, while not making any concrete action in that regard (*cough* *cough* SAA *cough*). I certainly did have the personal professional outcomes that I had anticipated. What’s more, I even got to reconnect with classmates and former coworkers. Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the boldness of the content that was featured throughout the weekend.

First, with the panel in which I participated, I was pleased that my fellow presenters started the conversation with the premise that the concept of neutrality is unachievable at best and a force that upholds patriarchy, white supremacy, and general oppression at worst (for a fuller explanation, see here and here. This framing allowed us to launch immediately into our personal experiences of pushing past this paradigm to find others that serve us better. Second, the business meeting portion of the conference was enlightening. Anna Clutterbuck-Cook of the Massachusetts Historical Society shared the results of a contingent employment study on new professionals and how they were faring at this point in their careers. A key finding of that study, and a sentiment that was echoed throughout the conference, was that NEA should stop advertising unpaid internships in listservs and other forms of communication. At the awards portion of the meeting, Rob Cox, the recipient of the Haas Professional Service Award, stated, “It’s not enough to be non-profit; we must be anti-profit.” Finally, Emily Drabinski’s presence throughout the conference utterly blew me away. She not only held a session called “Organizing for Power,” in which she succinctly explained how to use union organizing tactics to achieve goals, she was also one of the plenary speakers. It was enlightening to hear her honest and raw account of fighting back against a mass firing of library workers and professors at the university where she worked. In my own presentation, I was continually weighing how honest I should be about the frustrations I have encountered in my graduate program and workplaces. I ended up erring on the side of caution. With Drabinski’s words, however, I am reminded that “your silence will not protect you,” and“we have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I had a fairly affirming time that I had at the NEA annual meeting. It was fantastic to encounter a professional organization where participation felt accessible and aligned with my values. As such, I foresee myself being more involved in the future.


Featured image is the logo for this year’s New England Archivist Meeting. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Ayoola White is a history and archives management student in her penultimate semester at Simmons College.

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