Hanging Together

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.

17 responses to “Hanging Together

  1. nb.
    1. I would never link to the urban dictionary. 2. I would never use friggin’.

  2. Thank you, Terry! I thought about posting on my own blog about this issue, but decided against it. I completely agree that we need to work together. The tone of the post last week upset me more than anything related to the Resources Guide.
    I was thinking about the whole volunteers issue and came up with an analogy, that may or may not be accurate. I recently saw a movie called “Food Stamped,” in which a couple tries to eat natural/organic food on a food stamp budget for a week. It reminded me of archives funding, both being from the government. To survive on the limited funds, the couple found ways to supplement, such as cashing in soda cans. In the archives we supplement with volunteers. It isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have.

  3. The author’s note is far and away the best part of this post.

    Anyway. This was going to be a much longer comment before my computer ate it… I agree that this sort of “Us v. Them” mentality to which the aforementioned conversation escalated is not especially helpful, and I, at least, appreciate posts like this that are actively encouraging people to provide feedback and participate in the destiny of their professional organization. At the same time, there was a point that was made in the pre-escalated conversation that SAA didn’t do much in the way of seeking comment before endorsing/promoting this document. Jackie (and I think Kate) indicated that this is generally not SAA Publications Board policy, but I think on a subject as potentially touchy as labor issues, a little deviation from policy might be have saved quite a bit of pixellated ink from being spilled. Insert aphorism about prevention, cures, and the relative exchange rates thereof here.

    (Admittedly, I say this with the benefit of hindsight– I’m not sure that I would have been able to spot the problems with this document on a quick pass– though I will note that the bit in which the document addresses professional concerns about volunteer programs reads as reductive and dismissive of those concerns as many of the examples in this post.)

    @Jennifer, *my* initial take on it was that we shouldn’t accept the situation in which archival institutions have to scrounge for the metaphorical food stamps, nor should we encourage the normalization of that situation. Terry correctly notes that “We have not done nearly enough to insure that archivists have more jobs, better paid jobs, more fulfilling jobs,” which I think is the nub of this whole conversation. I would definitely like to see SAA do more advocacy on this, but I also think resources such as this, which can be read by administrators without an archives background and interpreted as a reason not to renew that project archivist line, move the needle in the wrong direction. I hope that that is not seen as overheated criticism.

  4. No, not overheated criticism. Yes, SAA should advocate more. But – and this is meant as a rhetorical question – where is the money for any of this going to come from? We want SAA to spend more on advocacy, but none of us wants our dues raised. Etc., etc. So, to add more pop culture and borrow a line from a Girl Scouts song, let’s make new friends (friends who offer jobs) and keep the old (friends who label folders).

  5. Terry and Jackie, what would you say to SAA members who think SAA puts the needs of experienced archivists above those of new professionals? I ask this because the archivists who were most upset by Resources were those who, rightly or wrongly, saw it as part of a pattern of SAA failing to consider new archivists in its decision-making.

  6. Wait. Terry. Dude. Are you saying we are not seeing an unexpurgated version of your post here? Whoa. Seriously, I’m glad to see you advocate for talking through these complicated issues. Count me as someone who is drawn to light more so than heat.

    I have deep immersion on the NARA and Fed issues but only superficial knowledge of what goes down in other places (public and private sector). Fedland has particular circumstances that sometimes affect its projects and workforce. (Just one arcane example here, “Volunteer Ventures.”: http://www.archives.gov/publications/record/1998/05/oss-project.html ) I’d like (and need) to learn more about circumstances outside Fedland that affect archival institutions, given that is the only place I’ve worked.

    Would be great to see the reaction to the publication used to have a wide ranging conversation about budgets, fiscal issues, market forces, stakeholders, constituencies, demographics, legislators, etc. Political forces (def in the mix in some cases) trick9er. And to explore the managerial and adminstrative issues in a 360 look at some of this.

    Brad, I understand your concern that some administrators might misinterpret the “message” of the publication. But I just can’t assess the extent to which that might actually happen. No data. It’s hard for me to predict how non-archival administrators would react to this publication because really good managers are savvy and apply executive skills well in areas beyond their own academic discipline. They’re trained in analytics and doing due diligence on issues, to ensure they handle well and hold their own jobs. Others face more challenges..

    That reflects my experience since 1993 in being a direct report to executves outside my academic discipline. 1993 was the last year I reported to anyone trained in historical research and archival issues. That can work any number of ways. Plus I’ve heard about some of the let’s say very varying experiences of people in similar situations to me in Fedland. To the extent people can talk publicly about some of their experiences, from the managerial as well as the subordinates perspectives, tht would be useful, too, at least for me.

    Thanks for giving me so much to think about Terry. Rock on, dude.

  7. Volunteer programs can be advocacy programs if conceived with that purpose in mind and designed to fulfill that mission.

  8. I’m disappointed that this is how the SAA council chooses to deal with dissent. Let people have their opinions. Let them not like your publication. This post (and the firestrom on twitter) was, in my view, an over-reaction to reasonable critiques. In fact, reading Terry’s post, it sounds like most people agree that 1. SAA members would like SAA to do more to advocate for professionals and 2. volunteers are neither a solution to labor problems nor a cause of them. As I see it, the only problem is a manufactured one — some people on SAA council don’t like it that SAA dues-paying members don’t like the publication.

    I’m sympathetic to the position that members tend to be too hard on their unpaid and overworked representatives — I agree, and I’ve definitely been there. But I think that calling Rebecca’s post (and others’ comments) cheap, or likening them to a sewing circle (I wonder about the gendered choice of analogy, btw), is unfair. There is a role for critique, for analyzing how useful our professional organization has been to us. Further, there HAS been extremely important work done by some of the very people making this critique to advocate for the interests of students, new professionals, and others that may reasonably feel that they are unsupported and that SAA isn’t doing enough for them.

  9. This response from SAA (and yes- it’s an official SAA statement) is rather shameful. It fails to addess legitimate issues raised by Ms.Goldman, and it attacks an imaginary perception that she sees SAA as a monolithic entity. The use of “youtube videos” of Godzilla lowers the level of the conversation.

    And as to Terry’s protestations that these are all workplace exploitation issues, well- let’s remember Hyatt in Chicago when no one gave a good goddam. Let’s not pretend.

    If you want a decent discussion on thei issues, go to Rebecca’s post and the comments at :


    The “kids” do it right, Terry.

  10. So far, everyone has been awesome at being provocative and wrongly generalizing the other side, this post included.

    In my view, the most important point Rebecca made in her post was the ethical question of volunteers doing professional level work. I presented on it at SAA in 2011 (http://newarchivist.com/2011/11/17/free-labor/ notice I removed my “MOAR HIGH-PAYING JOBS” slide), and my presentation built upon another great presentation from the 2009 conference. I am using these as examples to show that people have been trying to engage in this discussion for a while. It ain’t working, and, to my great disappointment, this post goes a long way in answering why.

    Just as a note, I really do appreciate the comments made on several venues by folks like Jennifer S and Brad H. Though we are not all of the same opinion, it is a pleasure to discuss these issues with people who bring unique perspectives to the table, and understand that we are all fighting for what we think is right. I look forward to continuing to engage with you and folks willing to have an actual discussion.

  11. “So far, everyone has been awesome at being provocative and wrongly generalizing the other side, this post included.” Isn’t that a generalization, too,k to say everyone has been provocative and wrongly generalizing? Would you write a history of that this way? I wouldn’t.

  12. What is keeping people from asking questions of each other and addressing the points made in various cooments and posts? The same points have been repeated but there is little engagement. Why be afraid of each other? We’re all just people. Stating and re-stating the same instead of being open to new points and what wasn’t known at the start of the conversation would be awesome to see.

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