A provocative new guest blogger joins the Off the Record roster today. The SAA Council was discussing last Friday’s tweetfest questioning whether the new SAA/NARA publication Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives inappropriately advocates for the use of unpaid workers, and Terry Baxter leapt into the fray and answered my call for a blog post in response.
He expresses his opinion in typical unfettered Beaver Archivist fashion (matching the level of passion used by last week’s tweeters). The faint of heart may be taken aback just a bit. Gird your loins, read on, and then build the comment thread.
Whew! I was so involved in participating in an archival advocacy panel in Seattle and putting together my fantasy football roster that I almost missed one of the biggest exposés on Twitter. No, it wasn’t that Barack and Michelle love and respect each other. Or that the State of Washington loves pot, gay marriage, and supermarket booze. It’s that this mysterious cabal exists called “Society of American Archivists” and it is secretly unleashing the beast “volunteers” on an unsuspecting archival workforce.
The conversation, and subsequent post and comments on one of my favorite blogs (they’ve even let me author there), purported both to critique the recent SAA/NARA publication Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives and to protest SAA’s support and promotion of it. I say purported because this conversation seems to use volunteers to make a much broader point about SAA.
First of all, volunteers are not the problem. I have certainly seen programs attempt to make the case that they can use a volunteer workforce to substitute for a professional one. But this is extreme and uncommon. Most programs see volunteers as an add-on to stretch the capabilities of existing, often marginally funded, professional programs. In addition, the idea that work should just sit there undone because it might be done by an unpaid worker is also unproductive.
Comments that all unpaid work is theft or that no other profession uses unpaid volunteers next to paid workers (teachers, firefighters, search and rescue, librarians, nurses, therapists, coaches, etc.) are extreme and miss the point. What we should be focusing on is the broad and complex system of exploitative labor practices that faces archivists in particular, but really all workers. It would also require a clear-eyed review of the current system for creating, funding, and employing professional archivists and less just yelling “MOAR HIGH-PAYING JOBS.”
Second, SAA is not the problem either. The most compelling argument from this conversation is that SAA should advocate more strongly (or at all) for archivists’ workplace issues. We have not done nearly enough to insure that archivists have more jobs, better paid jobs, more fulfilling jobs. That has been a major hole in SAA’s advocacy efforts and should be corrected. SAA Council will be addressing the advocacy agenda in January and ideas for how to include this issue are certainly welcome.
There is an undercurrent here, though, that “SAA” is some malignant “them,” not only ignoring the needs of archivists, but actively working against them. Really? Because like any member organization, SAA is about “us.” I’m not opposed to criticism or ideas for making us better. But if you can only see SAA as a problem and as “them,” then set up your own friggin’ organization and WORK to fix the problems. Talk is cheap, kids. The people I know in SAA are working diligently (unpaid, I might add) to make a better world. If all you want to do is talk, join a sewing circle.
If, on the other hand, you are working in SAA to make things better and are frustrated with barriers to participation and the glacial pace at which much change happens, you’ve got my ear. The role of SAA leadership should be, as much as anything else, the removal of barriers to let smart and energetic members get things done. We are always trying to do that, but like with so many other things, we can be better. But we have to all work together, not against each other, to make it happen. So keep pushing, hard if you want to, to make me better. I’ll do the same for you.