What About Invisible Labor? by Tanya Zanish-Belcher

Invisible labor has been a hot topic in the archives profession over the last couple of years. The invisible labor of archivists, so often unseen and underappreciated, is a constant theme on Twitter and a source of real angst. It is difficult to do work you believe in when that work remains discounted. The increasing presence of temporary positions—full time, part time, project archivist, and unpaid internship—has resulted in a growing sense of frustration in the profession, as indicated by the recent letter from UCLA Temporary Faculty. I will discuss these issues briefly in my presidential address (Keeping Evidence and Memory: Archives Storytelling in the 21st Century) on Friday morning, August 17, at the Joint Annual Meeting.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described six stereotypes of archivists, none of them flattering. The author later tweeted that her “affectionate” article was simply misunderstood, that the Chronicle loved it, and that archivists were coming after her with “pitchforks.” One of the things I love most about our profession is that, although we may squabble and disagree with each other, when someone comes after our profession and our calling, our deep emotions about what we do kick in and are on full display. As SAA’s letter to the editor of the Chronicle noted, “…here’s something essential to know about archivists: We are passionate stewards of the collections we keep, and we are committed to providing access to the records in our care and assisting researchers in discovering records that are relevant to their projects. We are your allies in the stacks, and all of us—researchers and archivists alike—are on the same side.”

What might have been more relevant and helpful would be for the Chronicle to publish an article focused on an archivist and researcher, who could discuss the actual professional give and take of a collaborative relationship. How might we redirect our passion to make sure this is the kind of story told, as opposed to spending our energies on responding to a snarky and disrespectful one? It would reaffirm our efforts, both as individual archivists and as a professional association, to share more about who we are, what we do, and the impact we have. We need to connect and build alliances with our media partners to ensure that the deep complexity of our work is represented appropriately.

Finally, I also want to make the observation that we have invisible labor right in front of us, too, namely the SAA staff. We have 12 full-time staff. We employ people. They work for us. Our dues pay them and pay for the programs they run for us. They oversee the governance of our appointed groups and sections, develop workshops and organize the instructors to teach them, work with authors to write books. They build alliances with other organizations, plan the Annual Meeting, answer membership questions. Our dues feed back into financial support for the sections, the programming we do, our advocacy efforts, the workshops we teach, the publications we publish, and the support we provide for those who are willing to volunteer and serve. Many of the things that we worry about as archives professionals, such as burnout, life balance, and professional development, also apply to these individuals who work for our professional association.

Although I recognize the budgetary challenges that our small non-profit organization faces, I would be remiss if, at the end of my term, I didn’t share that I believe a lack of staff is holding SAA back in myriad ways. There are so many important chores done by volunteers, with a hardworking staff responding to fire after fire that we are often unable to focus our efforts where they would have the most impact. I would recommend the creation or reorganization of already existing staff to oversee the following (mind, these are only recommendations for consideration by the Executive Director):

First is the hiring of a Development Officer who would oversee grant solicitation and administration as well as fundraising for our Foundation. It’s time for SAA to examine how foundations can help us in our work, and while I do plan to spend some time on this issue next year, there is a distinct need for someone to permanently drive and supervise this work.

Second, given the impetus to conduct research about archives and archivists and the necessity for long-term permanent storage of these data, SAA has a distinct need for a Research and Standards Coordinator. The Coordinator would work directly with the Committee on Research (yet-to-be-created), the Research Forum, the Standards Committee, and others to develop long-term strategies.

Third, we have an Executive Director and a number of positions reporting directly to her. I would add a Deputy Executive Director, whose responsibility it is to respond to member requests and supervise the overall running of the SAA office. This would free the Executive Director’s time to focus on broader issues, including SAA’s mission and vision as well building alliances among our allies, the media, and external organizations.

I understand SAA’s budget does not necessarily support the addition of positions. However, there may come a time when we have no choice.

How do we make the invisible visible? By both documenting the important role of the archivist and the historical record, and demonstrating it constantly, consistently, and strategically. This is time-consuming and labor intensive, to be sure. However, as Tim Ericson points out in his article “Preoccupied with our Own Gardens: Outreach and Archivists” (Archivaria 31 (Winter 1990-1991), pp: 114-122) “Regarding our concern with image, awareness and education, it is important to keep our focus on the records we are preserving and the impact they have ( or may have) on the lives of people who would benefit from using them….As long as we stay in our reading rooms and avoid touching the lives of those whom we would serve, then all of our well-intentioned efforts to improve our image, and all our programs to explain what we do and why it is important will fall on deaf ears. We need to show people, not tell them. “




11 responses to “What About Invisible Labor? by Tanya Zanish-Belcher

  1. Patricia Galloway

    Does anyone have “visible processing” so that people can actually see what we do? I remember the first time I saw visible storage in a museum and how it woke me up.

  2. Live link for the UCLA letter which is still accepting signatures from archival professionals, librarians, and scholars who want to show their support. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1h-P7mWiUn27b2nrkk-1eMbDkqSZtk4Moxis07KcMwhI/edit

  3. Elisabeth Kaplan

    Very much appreciate your calling out the “invisible labor right in front of us” in the SAA staff. SAA is a lean operation supported by a very small group of incredibly talented and dedicated people. I worry about our sustainability and I really worry about burnout.

    • Lisa Mangiafico

      Thanks for the call-out for all members to remember the hard work of the SAA staff. As an association staff member who has been called on to broadly expand beyond my archives wheelhouse, I understand the willingness of our dedicated staff to take on and learn more, but the sustainability and burnout Beth Kaplan mentions is very real. SAA has reached a point where more we need more staff in some of the areas mentioned in order for the organization as a whole to strategically move forward.

  4. I second Elisabeth’s comment and fully support your recommendations for the additions and reorganization of the SAA staff. We are very fortunate to have such a dedicated group of people working with us and supporting our profession and there is so much more that can be done. A development director is absolutely crucial and I agree with the two other suggestions as well.

  5. Kudos to you, Tanya, for calling out the apparently egregious situation at UCLA as an example of invisible labor in our profession. Even more for highlighting the enormous amount of work that we SAA members expect from our professional organization’s tiny, tiny staff, and the all-volunteer hundreds who fill various elected and appointed positions in our organization and do sometimes insanely important work for free. As Beth Kaplan notes, sustainability and burnout among SAA staff who build and sustain the infrastructure we rely on, as well as those elected and appointed colleagues on whom we rely to do the volunteer work that makes SAA as an organization possible, should be a concern of every SAA member.

  6. Pingback: Keeping Evidence & Memory: Archives Storytelling in the 21st Century (Presidential Address, SAA Annual Meeting), August 17, 2018 | Off the Record

  7. Thank you for recognizing the work of SAA staff, Tanya. It was a joy to hear how long several of them have worked in the Chicago office at the annual business meeting, and it’s a testament to their dedication – something we must not take for granted.

    The longer I am active within SAA, the more I realize how much heavy lifting our professional association staff do. And being active in regional organizations, which are even more reliant on volunteer labor than SAA, makes me profoundly grateful for our association staff. I think the Leadership Forum does a good job to highlight this to a certain degree (i.e., “this is who you contact in the office if you need help with XYZ”, but how do we help those outside of leadership connect those dots?

  8. Pingback: Tanya at SAA - ZSR Library

  9. Pingback: Steering Share: Chair, Courtney Dean – Issues & Advocacy

  10. Pingback: “Reference only”: ‘The Librarian’ and Archives in the world of ‘Hilda’ – Wading Through The Cultural Stacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s