On Grace

The below remarks were delivered by SAA President Courtney Chartier at the annual SAA Membership Business Meeting on August 3, 2021. Chartier was responding to an open letter to NARA published by the American Historical Association. You can read the letter here (scroll down); AHA has since published an apology to NARA available on the same webpage, and SAA has responded.

Thank you everybody for being here today. I actually rewrote my remarks for this afternoon in light of the American Historical Association’s (AHA) open letter to NARA, questioning NARA’s plans for reopening their reading rooms; the letter is available on AHA’s website or, if you’re an active Twitter user, there have been a lot of responses online from our community.

A nice way to characterize the letter is to say it is condescending and was not written with much compassion for the people who staff archival institutions. I actually saw a Tweet from another archivist, Emily Higgs Kopin, who summed it up perfectly, saying, “The effect . . . is not necessarily anger or frustration with being told how to do our jobs, it’s just despair.”

This resonates so strongly with me. I’ve felt so stretched the last 15 months, not just in my capacity to get my work done, but in my capacity to do it while also caring for my family, my friends, and my own physical and mental health. To see immediate criticisms of what I consider to be a practical plan for access from our National Archives is truly an exercise in despair.

I do recognize that this letter does not represent every member of AHA, and that AHA members are not all of our researchers. I’ve interacted with many researchers over the last 15 months who have shown nothing but care for archivists and true joy and appreciation for whatever access we were able to provide to them.

In a word, they showed great grace in their responses to me and to my colleagues and our work.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “grace” and what it actually means. I just started a new job and therefore I have to ask people a lot of questions to get anything done, and I try to remember to thank them especially for their grace in teaching me, in responding to me, and in the care they show in responding to what I need.

If you go to the dictionary, the definition of the word, the one we probably go to first, is about movement, physical grace. But people give me the gift of their behavioral grace, their spiritual grace, their goodwill and their kindness every single day. 

I imagine you are familiar with the word as a verb, too. “To grace” someone or something is to honor it, to be a credit to it. Showing compassion is an act of grace. Those researchers who have been so patient and kind throughout the pandemic are a credit to all of our researchers, and they truly grace us.

A lot of this has come up for me lately because of one person. That person who really got me thinking about grace more than anyone else is Simone Biles. I mean, she’s an incredibly graceful person; I’m a klutz so I’m always astonished by people who seem to know exactly where their bodies are in space at all times. But in the last few weeks she’s also given me a masterclass in that other kind of grace. Grace to her sport, grace to her teammates, and most impressively, grace to herself.

I care about researchers, but I care about my colleagues more. I care about other archivists and the joy of our profession a lot more. And even though the profession does some things poorly, it does some things with great grace. And even though SAA is an institution like any other, while it sometimes does things poorly, it also does some things with incredible grace. 

I do have some specific platform goals for my year as president that I had intended to share with you this afternoon, and I will [share these in a follow-up post on this blog and in forthcoming issues of Archival Outlook]. But in my fairly short time with you today, what I really wanted to say is that we all deserve grace. To be shown it, to show it in turn, and to fully give ourselves the grace we need as people to heal, and to process, and to rediscover the joy that does exist in our colleagues, and in our collections, and in our profession. 

I hope each of you has a wonderful meeting. You deserve grace, and I appreciate you. Thank you.

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