Knowing What Shapes Us and Working Toward Equity

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the January/February 2020 issue of Archival Outlook.

As we enter this new year—and new decade!—I want you to know that I hear you. Regardless of the  medium used to communicate your thoughts or concerns, I hear you and the SAA Council hears you. Each day I work on listening, moving beyond my own distressing experiences, and healing. We all have learned biases—conscious or unconscious—that we bring to work, home, and SAA. As I prepared to write this column, I was mindful of how important it is for each of us to be aware of our impact on one another and to give people a safe space to share thoughts and opportunities to heal and right relationships.

Recently I read Chains, a historical fiction novel for tweens that is part of the Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson. I wish this experience could have been me just reading a book, but it wasn’t. Chains follows a young female slave who is denied the promise of freedom upon the death of her owner, becoming the property of a malicious couple in New York. I was forced to address many layers: my son is reading this with his class; slavery was a new concept to more than half the students; he is one of four people of color in his class of 24 students; I identify as female and as a descendant of slaves; I grew up in New York City; I am middle class; I hold degrees in history; I am an archivist. My experiences can cloud my mind and, in this case, refuel upsetting moments in my life—just from reading this book! I share this not for sympathy or to create division, but to encourage us to consider how our experiences shape our interactions in the world.

Recognizing privileges and differences means simply being aware that some people have to work much harder to experience the things you may take for granted (if they can ever experience them at all). SAA has made great strides in fostering diversity (embracing people’s differences) and inclusion (creating environments where people feel heard and supported). Now I encourage us to work toward equity—making efforts to eliminate obstacles that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity requires fairness within our procedures and practices and an understanding of the origins of the disparities within our communities.

Many archivists have written about opening archives and collecting more expansively. F. Gerald Ham, Terry Cook, Thomas Nesmith, Kathleen Roe, Helen Wong Smith, Rebecca Hankins, Ricky Punzalan, Mario Ramirez, and many others have spoken and written about ways in which archival practice can be implemented to accurately reflect the history of our nation and the communities where we live, work, and play. All should be heard, recorded, and remembered. With equity comes balance, and when people are no longer minimized or erased, we will see each other in a new light and function more fully as a community of practice.

I find these discussion prompts from historian Howard Zinn’s address at SAA’s Annual Meeting nearly 50 years ago still worthy of review today:

  • That the existence, preservation, and availability of archives are very much determined by the distribution of wealth and power, and that collection materials are biased in documenting the important and powerful.
  • That one of the ways in which information is controlled and democracy denied is through the government censoring or withholding documents from the public.
  • That collections skew toward individuals versus movements, the written word versus oral history, and preserving what already exists versus recording new data and voices.
  • That archivists emphasize the past over the present, the antiquarian over the contemporary, the non-controversial over the controversial.

Read his full address here and consider what steps you might take toward creating a more equitable profession.

The Ongoing Effort of Creating an Inclusive Profession

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the September/October 2019 issue of Archival Outlook.

What a successful and transformative joint conference we had in Austin in August!

The SAA Council carefully considered the then-pending legislation called the “bathroom bill” when determining to remain in Austin for our 2019 Annual Meeting. Council members value and acknowledge all gender identities, and it was important in this instance to show up in Texas in solidarity with those who identify as transgender, non-binary, and/or genderqueer, and anyone who would have been affected by this legislation.

In addition, the Program Committee wanted to intentionally continue discussions about diversifying the record as well as the profession at this meeting. They wanted to “confront issues—whether new or longstanding—that arise or are systemic in our work and in the relationships that we build.” The 2019 Call for Proposals sought ways to assist members in self care, navigating power dynamics, and preserving and accessing the histories of marginalized communities. By successfully creating an inclusive and safe environment, meaningful conversations were engaged on topics including assessing the impact of multigenerational settings, gender discrimination, racial power dynamics, and low salaries as well as examining efforts to make archival materials and facilities more accessible for those with disabilities.

It was evident that extra thought went into this meeting, as represented by genderneutral bathrooms, ensuring that areas were chemical/fragrance free, sensitivity to weapons, and handouts reminding us of the do’s and don’ts for bystander intervention. I believe that the Program Committee and SAA staff successfully created safe spaces for conversation and deep reflection.

I recognize the elephant in the room as well: The cancellation of the Brown Bag Lunch event to discuss the pre-print of an American Archivist article was done so as not to derail the conference or disrupt the many varying discussions about inclusion we had begun. While vibrant discussion is always welcome, the various responses generated uncertainty, a sense of lack of inclusion, and concern about how the conversation would have been moderated. There were so many sessions trying to help people thrive or survive under stressful, unfair, and inequitable conditions that tabling that conversation for more thoughtful future discussion seemed the most appropriate decision.

SAA cannot protect everyone from hurt, but we can create spaces for conversations to work through the hurt. And while we didn’t get to address everything in Austin, our meeting space was safe and comfortable for most attendees. As we continue to deal with the lingering hurt, I can only hope that we sustain the character of inclusive engagement that defined this past Annual Meeting to our in-person and online communities.

There has been a dramatic shift in our organization. I hope that people will continue to listen to their colleagues and engage constructively with their own fears, insecurities, and anxieties. I hope that we will all be more mindful of what we say and write and better prepared for people’s reactions even when we are misunderstood. I hope that we continue to express ourselves through formal and informal channels from contact with SAA leaders, email lists, and blog posts, as well as with a 33-character tweet.

We are all accountable for our thoughts, words, and actions and we all must learn to actively listen, acknowledge our privilege and bias, and work with a broad range of individuals. There is room for everyone—but working together successfully takes time, discomfort, healing, understanding, humility, forgiveness, awareness, self reflection, and—most of all—effort.

SAA Council Statement on Impact of COVID-19 Health Crisis on Archives Workers

The Society of American Archivists is committed to supporting archivists during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The SAA Council strongly recommends that leaders, boards and trustees, and administrators of archives close public-facing facilities until archives workers are significantly less likely to be exposed or contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. While this decision is made locally, we urge decision-makers to act swiftly and proactively to authorize closures and remote work to protect the health of archives workers.

Archives and their staff members serve a crucial role in preserving and providing access to the nation’s cultural heritage. The recommendation to close American archives is not taken lightly, especially as we see access to and use of archives as one of our professional Core Values. However, many members of SAA support or belong to communities that are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus, including older adults and people with compromised immunity. 

Archivists select, preserve, and make available primary sources that document the activities of institutions, communities, and individuals. This work is essential to our communities and our society. Nevertheless, the valued labor of archivists is not more important than the health of the people doing that work. 

The SAA Council encourages managers and employers to facilitate archives workers at all levels to perform remote work. We recognize that it can be challenging to develop remote work activities that support the material and unique preservation imperatives of archives. However, in this time of crisis, individual health and safety are of utmost importance.This includes the staff of SAA, who have the full endorsement of the SAA Council to work remotely (see this update on testing for preparedness) while continuing to support our members. SAA staff members are closely monitoring the pandemic for potential effects on other in-person activities of our members, including our education offerings and the 2020 Joint Annual Meeting in Chicago.

We have created a resources page on which we will provide links to tools for managerial advocacy, support for displaced archives workers, and other resources to help the archives community navigate this global health crisis. We invite members to submit additional ideas for resources to saahq@archivists.org

Making Room for Everyone

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the March/April 2020 issue of Archival Outlook.

One of my favorite SAA Core Values is Professionalism. I use it as a lens when at work. To me, although some may disagree, Professionalism refers to a competence in a specialized skill, not necessarily a behavior.

Professionalism: Archivists encourage professional development among their coworkers, foster the aspirations of those entering the archives profession, and actively share their knowledge and expertise. (See https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics.)

Our Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics should be applied holistically to the operationalization of our by-laws and governance in general. We should avoid and discourage the bureaucratic politics described by Miles’ Law, which refers to people pursuing policies that benefit the groups they represent rather than collective interests. This can lead to words and actions that cause tensions that do not support the equitable, inclusive, trusting, and safe environment we’re working so hard to create in our organization and within our practice. If we believe in the future of our organization, then we must recognize that our foundation and track record are firm and that change is inevitably part of our growth. It is too restrictive to promote only from within; while legacy and institutional knowledge are valued assets, so, too, are new ideas and new voices. As an organization dependent on volunteer administration, we should welcome and embrace participation at any stage of association involvement or professional development. We should be working to eliminate obstacles that prevent the full participation of our membership. This does not mean that we cannot or should not disagree. Disagreement does not have to divide us. Look at the recent fruit of our differences when we listen and then step out of our traditions and comfort zones to do something for the greater good of our association:

  • An elected Council that represents public, private, academic, and corporate institutions who work together across all four time zones,
  • The addition this year of hundreds of new peer reviewers for American Archivist,
  • A Salary Task Force that grew from a group of archivists, then to a section, and then to a task force, and which is aligned with our Strategic Plan and newly formed Committee on Research, Data, and Assessment,
  • A Tragedy Response Group to aid archivists around the country to sustain evidence of societal history,
  • Additions to the SAA 2020 election slate,
  • A record number of Strategic Growth grants given by the SAA Foundation, and
  • A call to give to the #52Fund on Twitter which donated funding directly to many who haven’t been financially able to be fully engaged in SAA and to SAA showing the value and importance of our organization.

This is not the time to let your membership lapse. This is the time to vote and to step up your engagement. This is the time to talk, heal, mentor, and pass the baton to those who have yet to serve because they have not been given an opportunity to or because they weren’t ready. I ask us all to embrace and encourage each other and to trust those we elect to lead. There are enough barriers and cliques in our lives. How do we minimize or remove the ones in our organization?

Stability doesn’t look the same every year; it anticipates risk, change, and difference. It is okay to step back and wait your turn or simply pass the baton. It doesn’t mean you’re out of the game—you’re just on the bench with other teammates waiting to be put in again or you’re coaching. It may seem risky to put others in the game not knowing the outcome, but how else will they learn? How will you learn? And what happens when the usual players can’t play anymore?

I am confident that, as we grow as an organization and rally around our Core Values, we will learn to respect different opinions, acknowledge all member accomplishments and qualifications, and become open to other ways of doing things.

The Five-Ton Elephant: How Student Loans Are Crushing Our Profession

By Rachel Vagts, SAA Vice President/President Elect

After the Annual Meeting in Austin last summer, a group of archivists put together the SAA19 Archivist Salary Transparency Open Spreadsheet. As a big believer in transparency being the first step to resolving issues of wage equity, I was happy to see folks take up this effort. When I filled out the sheet I was also impressed to see all of the data points they included. But what really caught my eye was the field for the amount of student loan debt that people in our profession are carrying. Of the nearly 500 archivists who contributed to the spreadsheet, the accumulated debt was about $13.7 million. And for everyone who was able to report that their loans were paid off, there was usually someone who still owed more than $100,000.

I’m lucky. I never had a loan debt that high. But after more than 20 years working as a full-time archivist, I’m still paying off my undergrad and graduate school loans. And at about 10 years and six months, I’m also chasing the “dream” of Public Student Loan Forgiveness.

Every couple of months, I close my office door during my lunch and get out my cell phone. I dial the 800 number, punch in the last 4 digits of my account number, and then begin the wait for the menu options. Yep, it’s my regular check-in with my friends at FedLoan to see if they’ve made any more progress on straightening out the approval on the ten years’ worth of student loan payments I’ve made using their automated payment system…which for some reason had me paying ahead about $5 each month.

As the oldest of four kids, my parents helped me with my college tuition, but I was on my own for grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I got a work/study job at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and I took out a federal student loan to cover the rest of my in-state tuition and living expenses. All told, I think I borrowed about $16,000 over the course of those two years. I also paid my rent with a credit card more times than I should have—but that’s a different blog post.

My first job was at the University of Maryland. I was a project archivist on a two-year NEH grant and I made $29,000 annually. At that point I consolidated my undergraduate and graduate student loans ($26,000) for a repayment period of 20 years at 9% interest through my loan servicer, Sallie Mae.

I won’t bore you with all of the intervening years but, needless to say, in 2009—after 12 years of paying my loans—I owed $48,000. There were a couple of years when I took forbearance, but I never missed a payment. And then I heard about Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

I researched the program (which seemed like it might be a scam), read carefully read through the rules, and started to follow them. I consolidated my Sallie Mae loans back to the Federal Direct program, which had an immediate impact: They capped the interest rate at 4.875%, so my rate was basically cut in half. I also began paying on an income-based rate, which lowered my payments from around $400 to somewhere south of $200. I set up the automatic payment and went about my business working at my private non-profit college while the Department of Education figured out how they were going to actually run this program.

Why this long story when I know that more than a few of you have a similar one to tell? (Actually a LOT of us have a similar one to tell.) I’ve heard stories about people who haven’t been able to buy a house, have waited to start a family, don’t feel like they can move for a new job. Student loan debt has limited the choices for many of us.

As noted in the spreadsheet,[1] the average student loan debt of archivists who have been in the field for 10 years or fewer is approximately $34,588. The average goes up to $58,782 when you remove the people who didn’t have loans or have been able to pay them off. Thirty-seven respondents in this category report having $100,000 or more of outstanding debt.

The numbers don’t get much better for those who have been in the field for 11 to 20 years, with an average student loan debt of $45,972. And there were several respondents with 20+ years in the field who were still paying—including me.

So what do we do about this? These days there is a lot of talk about forgiving student loans, and I totally support that. But what if we could also come up with a way to become an archivist without having to take out a loan? We must think about new ways into our profession that don’t saddle our future colleagues with this crippling debt.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers on that one, but it’s a big part of what I want to talk about during my year as SAA president. I’m hoping that this post might start a conversation about what some of those paths might be. What if we found a new path into the profession that didn’t require prospective archivists to borrow and spend tens of thousands of dollars? How can we as a group advocate for the existing loan forgiveness programs to actually forgive loans? How can we make sure those programs are expanded to include others who weren’t able to participate for some reason? Please share any and all ideas–I would love to hear them!

In the meantime, I’m on month 8 of the up-to-12-month manual review of my last 44 payments. In a recent conversation the customer service representative told me that my extra payments would be refunded to me. I told her that was a good thing because I’d already promised everyone in my department that when my loan was forgiven I was taking them all to happy hour and buying the first round for everyone who’s still paying off a loan. I figure I might need two or three of my payments to cover it. Hey, maybe I’ll get that news in July and we can have that party at the Annual Meeting….


[1] This is approximate, as the data do not include responses that omitted years in the field and that were included in more narrative responses.

Tangible Outcomes from SAA’s Strategic Plan

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the July/August 2019 issue of Archival Outlook.

If you have not yet looked at SAA’s Strategic Plan for 2020–2022, you should! The strategic goals provide direction for the work that members request. In the Strategic Plan, the Council has identified tangible outcomes that committees, sections, Council members, and staff will work on to support these goals and objectives. Read the full document at https://www2.archivists.org/governance/strategic-plan/2020-2022.

The tangible outcomes of each of the four goals are new guides, toolkits, and publications; expanded opportunities for mentoring and leadership; and a platform with advanced features that will enable robust, virtual discussion. As we move forward with the Strategic Plan, we will also look internally to see where we can refine and improve our organizational and governance structures.

With an ongoing commitment to advocacy efforts and a culture of inclusion and participation, SAA will continue to encourage mentorship and develop leaders in our organization and profession. Recent tangibles include the first Archives Managers Unconference on August 1 during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 in Austin, featuring lightning talks on a variety of subjects and a “think tank” session to talk about archivists’ needs in this area. And the newly published Leading and Managing Archives and Manuscripts Programs, edited by Peter Gottlieb and David W. Carmicheal—volume 1 in the Archival Fundamentals Series III—uses personal experiences to share plentiful examples of successful leadership practices from the archives field.

Incoming vice president/president-elect Rachel Vagts, the Council, and myself are dedicated to supporting the development of archivists in their day-to-day work, in career and leadership growth, and in advocacy efforts. Through the newly formed Committee on Research, Data, and Assessment (CORDA) and data gathered from the forthcoming A*CENSUS II, we can strengthen SAA to better aid archivists and the profession. We must find ways to expand our reach, to share with the world what we do and why it’s important. We need to find ways to address discrepancies across the profession including representation, professional status, and salaries. We need data that tells us who we are, where we are, and what we are getting paid so that we can clearly articulate our value and better negotiate our roles and remuneration.

Four Goals of SAA’s Strategic Plan

Goal 1: Advocating for Archives
Society values the vital role of archives and archivists.

Goal 2: Enhancing Professional Growth
Archivists have access to the professional community and resources they need to be successful and effective in their careers.

Goal 3: Advancing the Field
Professional knowledge expands to keep pace with an increasingly diverse archival record.

Goal 4: Meeting Members’ Needs
SAA delivers outstanding service, fosters a culture of inclusiveness and participation, and is proactive and responsive to members’ needs.

To continue meeting the Strategic Plan’s goals and objectives, we need to start with open  communication and exchange—not just in a bimonthly president’s column, but through social media, podcasts, newsletters, and blog posts. Review the Strategic Plan and stay up-to-date on actions from the Council’s quarterly meetings. Talk with your group’s Council liaison about ideas or questions you may have, and learn how to take action and get involved. And keep an eye out for more news on tangible outcomes from SAA members Terry Baxter, Lae’l Watkins, Bergis Jules, and Melvin Collier, forthcoming on the Off the Record blog (https://offtherecord.archivists.org).

Regardless of where you are in your career, we have ways for you to get involved.

Council Statement on SAA 2020 Election

SAA’s 2020 election has presented some new and unique challenges for our organization.

SAA is uniquely democratic among professional organizations in that the Nominating Committee, as well as the governing Council and its officers, are elected by the general membership. In many organizations, candidates are slated by the executive committee or the board and/or individuals are elected to the board and officer positions by the board. We are gratified that our election process allows for greater input by the general membership.

The Nominating Committee members, who were elected by the general membership to develop a slate of candidates for this election, did just that. They followed all the guidance provided to them in the Nominating Committee Procedures, Calendar of Duties, and other documents that have been developed and refined over time. The slate was published on December 9, 2019.

A group of SAA members exercised their right to put forth a petition, per the SAA Bylaws (Section 5.C.), to add to the slate a candidate for Vice President/President-Elect. The SAA office received the petition, signed by 52 SAA members, on January 10, 2020. Although this avenue has not been used before, it has been a part of our bylaws since the 1970s. If you have questions about the motivation for the petition, we suggest that you contact those who filed the petition.

We affirm that this election is being conducted legitimately, according to established procedures and without tampering or intervention from elected members or the SAA staff.

We recognize that this situation has caused hurt and created tension among some of our members. It has led us to reflect on the election process, and particularly on the role of petitions in that process. We will be reviewing the bylaws this spring and may bring forward amended language. In addition, we are planning a listening session during the 2020 Joint Annual Meeting as one means of hearing your perspectives. In all our discussions, we will keep in mind SAA’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; our respect for the democratic process; and the growth in our membership since the 1970s.

The SAA Council remains committed to a democratic and transparent election. We thank the Nominating Committee for their work and the candidates for their willingness to stand for election. And we encourage all SAA members to vote!

The SAA Council
February 5, 2020