SAA Community Reflection on Black Lives and Archives

As noted in the Society of American Archivists’ June 2 Statement on Black Lives and Archives, the vitality of American archives depends on the safety of archives workers and an explicit commitment to social responsibility, justice, and anti-racism in the work that we do and the organizations we work within. 

The SAA Council is convening a forum of reflection to move toward healing and understanding. We invite the archives community to participate in a reflection on the continuation of anti-Black violence and an affirmation of the importance of Black lives. This event is open to all.

Community Reflection on Black Lives and Archives

Friday, June 12, 2020
3:00 pm – 4:00 pm ET
 (12:00 pm PT / 1:00 pm MT / 2:00 pm CT)

RSVP required for Zoom security. 

Moderated by Dr. Meredith R. Evans, Director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta and 74th President of the Society of American Archivists

The SAA Code of Conduct governs expectations of appropriate conduct for this and all SAA events.  

The magnitude of support and interest from the archival profession toward the development of tools and resources to dismantle structural racism in our work is inspiring and powerful. We will also be hosting a facilitated planning forum to gather constructive feedback and develop anti-racist goals in July 2020. We look forward to continuing this work with you.


Additional Resources

SAA Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 
https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-statement-on-diversity-equity-and-inclusion

SAA Council Statement on Black Lives and Archives
https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-council-statement-on-black-lives-and-archives

SAA Code of Conduct
https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-code-of-conduct

SAA Education: Cultural Diversity Competency (free course)
https://www.pathlms.com/saa/courses/4839

A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland
https://www.archivingpoliceviolence.org/ 

Archives for Black Lives in Philly (A4BLiP), Statement of Principles
https://github.com/rappel110/A4BLiP 

DocNow: Ethical Considerations for Archiving Social Media Content Generated by Contemporary Social Movements: Challenges, Opportunities, and Recommendations
https://www.docnow.io/docs/docnow-whitepaper-2018.pdf   

National Museum of African American History: LET’S TALK! Dialogues on Race Initiative
https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/educators/lets-talk 

Rhizome: Digital Resources for a Movement Against Police Violence
https://rhizome.org/editorial/2020/jun/03/digital-resources-for-a-movement-against-police-violence/

Sixty Inches from Center: The Blackivists’ Five Tips for Organizers, Protestors, and Anyone Documenting Movements
https://sixtyinchesfromcenter.org/the-blackivists-five-tips-for-organizers-protestors-and-anyone-documenting-movements/ 

WITNESS: Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video
https://archiving.witness.org/archive-guide/ 

WITNESS: Community-Based Approaches to Archives From the Black Lives Matter Movement
https://blog.witness.org/2015/09/community-based-approaches-to-archives-from-the-black-lives-matter-movement/ 

SAA Council Statement on Black Lives and Archives

We, the Council of the Society of American Archivists, unanimously condemn harassment and violence against the Black community. As archivists, we learn from history that this country was founded on genocide and slavery. We continue to witness the legacy of this history with systemic and structural racism that lead to marginalization, disenfranchisement, and death. The murder of George Floyd, and countless others, at the hands of the police manifest the continuing atrocities faced by Black Americans today. As a profession, we stand by our community and acknowledge, unequivocally, that Black Lives Matter. 

During this time of dramatic and traumatic historical significance, the Society of American Archivists remains committed to its core organizational value of social responsibility, including equity and safety for Black archives workers and archives of Black Lives. A truly open, inclusive, and collaborative environment for all members of the Society cannot exist without justice for those affected by anti-Black violence. We acknowledge the trauma Black archives workers face, in particular. The labor of dismantling white supremacy and structural racism in archives, and beyond, does not rest solely upon our Black membership and other people of color. White archivists, who comprise a vast majority of the field, have a responsibility to disavow racism daily in society and in our profession. 

As the Council, we are committed to developing and advocating for solutions that contribute to the public good and affirm the importance of Black Lives.[1] Archives workers should follow current guidance on ethical recordkeeping and archiving of social movements during this time of crisis, with special care taken toward the protection and safety of Black Lives amidst anti-Black violence perpetrated by the police. We particularly center Black-led archival documentation efforts and memory-keeping organizations as we continue our collective effort to repair the legacy of structural racism and acts of state-sanctioned violence. 

We take action in response to our shared outrage and sorrow from continued attacks on the Black community, including archives workers. We are committed to dismantling structural racism in the interest of a legitimately inclusive profession and to positioning SAA as an organization welcoming of, built by, and led by persons of color. As archivists, we are not neutral in matters of social justice and politics.

The vitality of American archives depends on the safety of archives workers and an explicit commitment to social responsibility, justice, and anti-racism in the work that we do and the organizations we work within. We intend to create and convene a space for constructive discussion toward progressive change in the archival profession and true inclusivity of the archival record, in a profound engagement with our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Please be on the lookout for an invitation to join us for a community reflection event in June, followed by an action-oriented forum. 

The SAA Council
June 2, 2020

[1] https://www2.archivists.org/statements/issue-brief-police-mobile-camera-footage-as-a-public-record 


Additional Resources

SAA Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 
https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-statement-on-diversity-equity-and-inclusion 

Archives for Black Lives in Philly (A4BLiP), Statement of Principles
https://github.com/rappel110/A4BLiP 

DocNow: Ethical Considerations for Archiving Social Media Content Generated by Contemporary Social Movements: Challenges, Opportunities, and Recommendations
https://www.docnow.io/docs/docnow-whitepaper-2018.pdf 

WITNESS: Community-Based Approaches to Archives From the Black Lives Matter Movement
https://blog.witness.org/2015/09/community-based-approaches-to-archives-from-the-black-lives-matter-movement/ 

A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland
https://www.archivingpoliceviolence.org/

Zooming

This article originally appeared as the Executive Director’s Message in the May/June 2020 issue of Archival Outlook, available soon.

Zoom is our new and ubiquitous reality. We use it daily—some days, hourly—to connect as a staff, to facilitate the work of SAA groups, and to provide free webcasts. But SAA has been “zooming” in more ways than one since our world and work changed in early March. To wit:

March 10: As COVID-19 interrupted the best-laid plans of SAA’s Committee on Education and staff, the team—and our super-hero instructors—pivoted quickly to convert nine in-person courses to online and craft three free webcasts in response to the pandemic: Suddenly Working at Home: Best Practices for Team Management in Crisis (March 30), Financial Planning in Uncertain Times (May 6), and Managing Your Career in Crisis (June 10). All online courses are available on demand.

March 18: The SAA Council created a “Pandemic Response Resources” page that compiles resources created by SAA groups, external groups, funding agencies, and others on coping with the pandemic. Submit your ideas for resources to saahq@ archivists.org.

April 1: We were delighted to welcome Stacie Williams (University of Chicago) to the position of Publications Editor. Stacie inherits a long list of works in progress, including six titles that are due out this summer. Watch for announcements about Advancing Preservation for Archives and Manuscripts, Reference and Access for Archives and Manuscripts, Engagement in the Digital Era, Making Tools Work For You, and more.

April 1: SAA’s “Go Green” initiative invites you to opt out of the print version of American Archivist and Archival Outlook to help SAA reduce both costs and climate impact. To make the switch, log in to your SAA profile, click “Edit My Profile,” scroll to “Communications and Mailing Preference,” and click “opt out” of the journal and/or magazine. You’ll enjoy the same great content—now a little greener and in the format you prefer.

April 12: We submitted a grant proposal to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for conduct of A*CENSUS II, a comprehensive survey of archivists and archival institutions that will enhance our understanding of the profession’s demographics, work patterns, and practices. Fingers crossed for an award letter in late July!

April 15: The SAA Foundation announced the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, an idea originating with an ad hoc working group led by Jessica Chapel and Lydia Tang that clearly resonated with the archives community. To date, the AWEF Review Committee has awarded 106 applicants a total of $92,300 from the donations of more than 580 individuals and $15,000 in SAAF seed funding. We are blown away by your generosity….  Read more, apply, or donate here.

April 23: The SAA Council’s Archival Compensation Task Force began its daunting two-year assignment under the leadership of SAA member Greta Pittenger (National Public Radio) to identify compensation-related issues, including benefits, salary negotiations, and working conditions; study compensation using existing and new data; survey SAA members; and explore creation of a standing body to advocate on behalf of archivists with O-Net, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and others. (See SAA’s Strategic Plan 2020–2022, Goal 2.1.H.)

April 29: The Dictionary Working Group did it! With hundreds of new items, thousands of citations from more than 600 sources, and a brand-new online platform, the Dictionary of Archives Terminology  premiered. DAT is a work in progress; updates are made weekly as new terms are defined and existing terms are revised. Your feedback and suggestions for new terms will help shape the lexicon.

May 5: Weeks of soul-searching and hotel negotiations ended with our announcement that ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2020: Creating Our Future is going virtual! Program development and logistics for our annual three-ring circus are complicated, but pale in comparison to deconstructing and retooling for a different environment. We’re learning from others’ experiences (via many Zoom meetings) every day. Be assured that we hear your concerns about slashed professional development budgets and furloughs and we’re exploring ways to keep registration fees as low as possible while also providing a great conference experience for you.

May 13: Members of the Committee on Public Awareness researched and drafted “Archivists Rally to Document COVID-19,” a release that we issued nationwide via wire services. Watch for articles in your local media, and use every opportunity to reinforce that archives and archivists are essential!

By June 17: As every spring, we’re working on the budget. The FY21 Budget that the Council discusses will be very different— less detailed—than in past years as we ponder a few broad scenarios for the impact of COVID-19 on virtually all of SAA’s programs. I expect we’ll hope for the best but plan for something less. . . . Like you, SAA faces some challenging financial times ahead.

My apparently unshakeable habit of awakening to NPR reinforces the surreality of these times every morning. And so I look for something to calm me before sleep. My friend Abbi has introduced me to a whole new world of artists, writers, photographers, musicians, and (even) YouTubers via her lovely online weekly “Joy in the Time of Corona.” She reminds me that even though we all seem to be busier and more stressed than ever . . . there is time and space for joy

Be safe, be well, be kind.

We Are Resilient!

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

Nothing connects people more immediately and universally than a shared emotional event. Over the last year we have been through a lot, but nothing like this global pandemic. Our societal, organizational, and individual value systems have been challenged recently, but even more so by COVID-19. This shared situation puts everything in a new light. In some ways it may highlight or exaggerate our differences, but I hope that it will highlight our similarities. I know that we are all experiencing change within due to this pandemic. What are we learning about ourselves and others during this time? I can’t help but wonder how we will treat each other when this is over. 

The differences and divisiveness seen as obstacles months ago may be diminishing and we are moving toward a collective sense of cooperation and understanding. Now, even more so due to the pandemic, we engage with our colleagues and friends differently and hopefully for the good. We are learning to put our differences aside, accept risk, and work together.  I am so proud of our membership for your boldness, passion, and fervent desire to want what’s best and representative of our organization and profession. I am thankful that everyone who wanted to had an opportunity to run for SAA office and am grateful for those of you who exercised your right to vote. This election reflects the growth and strength of our membership and is a testament to faith in our governance and willingness to support equity.

Although this global pandemic has challenged each of us in various ways, I appreciate the underlying sense of understanding, benevolence, and care that many within the archival community are demonstrating to help one another during this catastrophic time. I am especially proud of our SAA leadership and staff for their fortitude and thoughtful recommendations, and, most importantly, for our members’ generous support as we work diligently to ensure the safety and well-being of SAA and the archival community. 

I recognize the uncertainty, anxiety, and concern that our association may never be the same. Let us value the support and connection to our community. Let us value our resilience and know that we can and will overcome. Let us emerge with renewed appreciation, gratitude, determination, and resolve. None of us could have imagined that we would enter a new year and a new decade in a global state of emergency. However, despite the odds, I know that we will lift our voices and rise to the occasion and overcome this test together. We are resilient.

How Do You Measure a Volunteer?

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

As I reflect on the past few months, I’m reminded of Kathleen Roe’s remarks at the 2014 Annual Meeting, in which she opened with the lyrics from “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent:

“525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear.
525,600 minutes—how do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In 525,600 minutes—how do you measure a year in the life?”

My mind raced to zip drives, email, defunct blog posts, tweets, and SnapChat. How do we measure a year in the life? I reflect on what I said and didn’t say about the profession in my interview for An Archivist’s Tale (listen to episode 83 at http://ow.ly/2jIV30pEOvx). I am reminded why I do this work—why I hope we do this work. I believe, as Dennis Meissner so eloquently stated during the Leadership Plenary at SAA’s 2015 Annual Meeting, that “archives provide essential evidence to protect and enhance our rights as citizens, providing fundamental information that supports and shapes our understanding of historical events and cultural heritage. We help people understand the human experience” (https://www2.archivists.org/am2015/leadership-plenary-video#.XZYOCGBKhhG).

In the same plenary, Helen Wong Smith spoke of the active process of cultural relativism, which includes self-reflection, a nonjudgmental attitude, and accepting a holistic approach to change. Along those lines I stand by my words from last year: “We must be willing to listen to one another. Really listen. Not necessarily to agree but to understand, build trust, and work together to effect change, minimize or remove obstacles, and resolve conflict.”

So I ask you to share your expertise, network with colleagues, and enhance your résumé by volunteering with SAA. Our members are busy thinking of inventive ways to engage current audiences with the intent to bring in new ones. As we prepare for the next Annual Meeting, I get giddy thinking of what great work we’ll hear about along with the bumps and bruises from the journey. I think about the growth of our organization and the ways we strive to improve, shift organizational culture, and meet members’ needs. It is challenging to meet everyone’s needs and to hear everyone’s voices, but we’re trying. We are grateful that, despite being busy, you take the time to read SAA’s publications; to support the various sections and committees with your perspectives, funds, and expertise; to schedule and run meetings in person or online; and to create reports, implement surveys, and help other archivists with your resources and talents. Everything you do to support your colleagues around the country and the world makes SAA better and more relevant.

One of the joys of SAA is the variety of perspectives (and objectives) of our members alongside the shared love for what we do. We embrace archival standards and theories and identify new ways to maintain and provide access to content that will inform generations of their histories. We are bold yet quiet; we are advocates advancing the needs of our members to stakeholders and the public through collection development, publications, programming, and outreach. We speak out and we write with allied organizations. We discuss policy and funding and fight to ensure government transparency and accountability. We advocate for the best management of records in any format under any circumstances. So what are you waiting for? Volunteer, get active, stay engaged.

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.