Archives and Art: A Story from Detroit

The story of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the accompanying challenges has been in the news regularly for some time. My French-Canadian ancestors came across “détroit” (the straits) in the 1790s and generations of my family have been proud to call that city home—and when asked where I’m from, I still claim Detroit. I was fortunate to pursue my archival education at Wayne State University in the archival studies program led by Dr. Philip P. Mason. One of the great gifts for students at Wayne is the nearness of the Detroit Institute of Art, where we often would head on weekends or between classes to wander through the galleries. So I regularly read the articles about the bankruptcy, which included discussions of potentially selling off some or all of the astonishing collections of the DIA.

What does this have to do with archives? In a recent NY Times article ( a few sentences are tucked in that jump out to an archivist. DIA staff, anxious to prevent the attack on this incomparable art collection, went to their own institutional archives to see if there was any evidence that could help prevent possible sale. And yes, they hit pay dirt. Some of the most important pieces in the collection, such as Tintoretto’s “The Dreams of Men”, included agreements that restricted conditions of sale. At the very least, efforts to “monetize” the collection would have been tied up in the courts for years because of the archival evidence they found. Fortunately, this trump card did not have to be played because an alternative to funding the DIA was found. Nonetheless, the archives of the DIA was and will continue to be, a potent resource to protect and preserve this incredible art collection for the public.

So again, here is an example of why archives matter—but also evidence of how much that role is downplayed. One needs to read the article carefully to even realize the key role of archives in protecting the collection. That leaves me with two “to do” items to suggest to all of us.

First, when reading the news, look for the archival story behind the story—often it is glossed over, barely mentioned. Keep an eye out for the understated archival story, and when you find it, share the reference with me/SAA so we can add it to our growing resource to demonstrate how archives affect lives. Second, whenever you have the chance to speak with journalists about an historical event, a political issue, a person of interest, stress to them the importance of archives in providing the essential evidence. We need to be explicit, focused, and yes, we need to champion the role of archives. Advocacy begins with us.

A Seasonal Toast to Archives: Challenge #3

As we approach the holiday season – replete with wishes of good cheer and year-end toasts, let’s take an opportunity to share the thoughts we all encounter that remind us of the value of archives.

Why do archives matter?  This month’s challenge is simple:  Think about the “quotable” statements you’ve heard or read – perhaps in a professional presentation, an archives class or workshop, a newspaper, magazine, or journal article, a novel or play. The statement may have been made by someone with international recognition, a local “everyday” person, one of your professors, or a friend.  Whatever she or he wrote or said, it made you think, “Yes, that’s why archives are important, that’s why what I do matters….”

Share your quote with us—by tweeting #ArchivesQuotes or via email  We’ll add it to the resources on which we can draw as we move forward in our efforts to raise awareness of and to advocate for archives.  In this season of giving, let’s share with each other some insights about the value of archives.


  • “…records are crucial to hold us accountable…They are a potent bulwark against human rights violations.”
    ‒Bishop Desmond Tutu
  • “Without archives many stories of real people would be lost, and along with those stories, vital clues that allow us to reflect and interpret our lives today.”
    ‒Sara Sheridan
  • “Of all our national assets, Archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”
    ‒Arthur G. Doughty, Dominion Archivist, 1904‒1935
  • “As archivists appraise records, they are doing nothing less than determining what the future will know about its past: who will have continuing voice and who will be silenced.”
    ‒Terry Cook

To view the challenge on the SAA website:

Go ahead – live dangerously for archives and encourage others to do the same!

Speak Up! Action alert on proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act

An important advocacy role for all of us is to let our government know what we want from it—either personally or as members of the archival community. Here is the opportunity to do that by contacting your senators to support an issue for which SAA has a clear position as described in the Advocacy Agenda  and issue briefs developed by the Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy.   Check out the action alert on the SAA website at

and then CONTACT YOUR SENATORS. You can accomplish this in 15 minutes or less—the action alert gives you the background, links you to the SAA Advocacy Agenda, and explains the improvements provided in the Leahy-Cornyn revisions to the FOIA and provides a link to the contact information for your senators.  Do this by December 1, before this Congressional session closes down.

One of the people from whom I learned a lot about federal advocacy is Anne Georges, the legislative director for the recently retired NY Representative Maurice Hinchey. Something she regularly emphasized was:  “Tell your colleagues they need to contact us on issues that matter to them. We work for them, and we want to hear from them.” Well, here is an opportunity for you to do just that—please take the time to contact your senators and let us know when you have (email so we can track the amount of “traffic” in each state. It is important not only on this issue, but to provide a continuing, persistent, authoritative  voice from the archival community.

One of my favorite quotes is from the hockey player, Wayne Gretsky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So please, take a shot—make that call or send  email on behalf of archives.

131,400 Minutes: A Quarterly Update on “The Year of Living Dangerously for Archives”

Archives matter. They are not just interesting facts and stories disconnected from current life. Whether for personal reasons, academic pursuits, educational uses, preserving rights, or ensuring transparency in government, the use of archival records have an impact. Every time a person uses archival records, something happens. Demonstrating the impact, the value, and the importance of archival records and the work of archivists is the focus of “The Year of Living Dangerously for Archives”. Continue reading

#AskAnArchivist Day: A Tweet Success

Peter Gottlieb, Chair, SAA Committee on Public Awareness    Peter_Gottlieb_2008bw (1)

This year, SAA President Kathleen Roe dared SAA members to take on a “Year of Living Dangerously for Archives”—to do something to take action to raise awareness of archives. On October 30, at the tail end of American Archives Month, the Committee on Public Awareness challenged members to do just that: We asked archivists to take to Twitter to respond to questions from the public that included the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. Continue reading

The Upcoming SAA Council meeting, November 9-12

For the past and continuing year while I’ve been involved in SAA leadership and governance, the word “transparency” has been a regular refrain. At the joint annual meeting in Washington D.C., we had a few visitors during the Council meeting, and I hope in the future we will see that become a very regular experience. In between annual meetings, Council meets “live” twice in Chicago. The agenda, reports, and information for those meetings is posted on the SAA website: Continue reading

Thursday Is #AskAnArchivist Day!

Posted by Sami Norling, Archivist, Indianapolis Museum of Art and SAA Committee on Public Awareness


It’s the final week of American Archives Month and archivists and archival repositories around the country are getting ready to take part in SAA’s newest initiative, #AskAnArchivist Day. For 24 hours this Thursday, October 30, archivists representing every type of archives imaginable are encouraged to head to Twitter to answer questions sent with the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. Questions of all kinds are bound to be asked, ranging from the practical—What can I do to be sure that my electronic documents and images will be accessible in the future?—to the fun—How many archivists does it take to screw in a light bulb? But regardless of where on this spectrum a question may fall, each will give us a valuable opportunity to connect directly with the public. Not only will this give archivists another venue in which to promote our collections, but it will also give us a chance to pull back the curtain and talk more about who we are, what being an archivist entails, and the why and how of what we do on a daily basis. Continue reading