A Difficult Decision

by Michelle Light, SAA Vice President / President-Elect

Dear Members of the Society of American Archivists,

Recently I accepted an incredible opportunity to serve as the Director of the Special Collections Directorate at the Library of Congress beginning May 28, 2019. I’ll lead seven organizational units responsible for the Library’s unparalleled collections of unique or rare, unpublished and published items: the Geography and Map Division, Manuscript Division, Music Division, Prints and Photographs Division, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and the American Folklife Center, including the Veterans History Project. The Library’s most recent user-centered strategic plan for 2019-2023 lays out an exciting roadmap for engaging more users, and its digital strategy describes plans for growing its online collections, strengthening its digital stewardship, supporting evolving forms of research, and connecting with more users online. I look forward to helping the Library “throw open the treasure chest.”

To best serve the Library and the Society of American Archivists (SAA), however, I must unfortunately resign from serving as SAA Vice President / President-Elect on May 15. Holding prominent leadership roles at both the Library and SAA could create conflicts of interest and confusion as to the capacity in which I am acting at any given time. I especially would not want people to think that I might be using my position as SAA President to influence Congress. The Library is a legislative agency that includes the Copyright Office and the Congressional Research Service, which provides nonpartisan services to the Congress. As a high-level member of Library management, I could not participate in SAA’s growing advocacy on a variety of public policy or copyright matters. Frequent and high-profile recusals, even if effective, would weaken the role of SAA President.

Advocacy on behalf of archives and archivists is core to SAA’s mission. SAA’s public policy agenda and position statements reveal how SAA takes a stand on a variety of governmental issues. SAA advocates for public policies that ensure that archival records are preserved and made accessible as a foundation for our democracy and cultural heritage. As SAA’s public policy agenda explains, “SAA is committed to supporting policies that will ensure the protection of privacy and individual rights; ensure the transparency and accountability of government at all levels; guarantee the administrative continuity necessary for good governance; make accessible evidence of the diverse and complex elements of the human experience; and preserve historical documentation for future generations.” In the past few years, for example, SAA has advocated for funding for federal grant programs for archives, made statements about improving the transparency of government and strengthening federal records programs, and commented on several aspects of copyright law and the functions of the Copyright Office. I recently participated in the first Archives on the Hill event, co-sponsored by SAA, CoSA, NAGARA, and RAAC, during which we visited members of Congress to advocate for funding for NHPRC, IMLS, and NEH, and to educate them about the importance of electronic records preservation. I am proud of the work of SAA’s Committee on Public Policy and the Intellectual Property Working Group to surface issues of concern for SAA action, and I believe their ongoing efforts are important for the profession.

SAA deserves an engaged president who will lead the organization in accomplishing its mission and goals in all areas, especially in strengthening its role in advocacy for archives and archivists. As a member of the SAA Council, I have served with several federal employees who were very careful to recuse themselves from any action having to do with the federal government. They were models for how to navigate the sometimes muddy waters of conflict of interest. Nonetheless, their positions in their agencies were different than mine, and I am mindful of the weight of authority and responsibility of my new position. For those who know how much I value SAA and all the ways in which it has supported my professional growth and development during the past two decades, you might fathom how painful it is for me to relinquish this incredible honor to serve and lead this organization. I plan to remain active in SAA in other ways in the future; I am co-authoring the next edition of Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts with Margery Sly, and I hope to volunteer again to advance SAA’s research and educational missions.

In order to ensure a smooth transition, the SAA Council has appointed Meredith Evans to complete my full term.

Thank you for your understanding. In my future role at the Library, I will strive to make a transformative impact on the stewardship of our nation’s cultural heritage, an impact that I hope you may someday appreciate. I regret that I had to make this choice, but as archivists it is imperative that we behave ethically and transparently to maintain the public’s trust in our essential services to society. SAA has several initiatives in store for the next three years that will strengthen archivists’ abilities to advocate for their value to their institutions and communities, and I’m confident that through the dedication of SAA leadership, staff, and members, SAA will continue to support your professional needs and aspirations.

Respectfully,

Michelle Light

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