Author Archives: Courtney Chartier

Optimism Is the Only Practical Solution

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the November/December 2021 issue of Archival Outlook.

One of the SAA Council’s responsibilities is to develop and implement a strategic plan. As I write this, the Council is sched­uled to meet in November to refresh the strategic plan.

I’ll admit it: I love strategic planning. This is owed fully to Carolyn Hart, who headed strategic planning at one of my first professional jobs at the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library. Carolyn knew how to make strategic planning fun, but she also knew how to appeal to people like myself: people who enjoy creating, but are tied to the reality of day-to-day work and finite resources. Dreams can be practical.

Although Carolyn’s method had a positive impact on me, I am less impressed by the roots of strategic planning—in the military. “The art of the general” refers to how one deploys their troops and remains a major criticism of the process. Too much strategic planning is done by senior leadership who do not care to understand the jobs/lives/fears/dreams/needs/pain of those at other levels in the hierarchy or the communities they intersect with on a daily basis. That lack of care is how we are crushed by hierarchy.

I’ve been made miserable by both the process and the result of poorly led strategic planning. I have sat through too many sessions where the goal was clearly to tack on new work that took away from day-to-day operations and existing commitments, to elevate shiny ideas still half-baked, and to ignore the truly powerful function of strategic planning: the diagnosis of—and treatment for— structural problems.

Also as I write this, a Council working group is collating and reviewing member feedback (gathered online through comment, via email, and in two online forums) on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Work Plan. The results will be in the revised strategic plan. This is the culmination of a great deal of work, started by a report and recommendations prepared by the Diversity Committee, and informed by the “Black Lives and Archives” listening sessions held in July 2020.

DEIA is not a new strategic direction, but descriptive of one of our fractures. Over the years, many members diagnosed SAA with structural problems that make our organization exclusive rather than inclusive and that privilege the few over the many. The work plan is the Council’s method for addressing those structural problems by taking the recommendations of expert members, requesting wide feedback, and setting goals for ourselves via the new strategic plan. This is leadership addressing one of the dimensions of our problems. It does not excuse individual bad actors.

Addressing structural problems must be the work of senior leadership in any organization. I recently read a commentary by Amy Davidson Sorkin of The New Yorker noting that you can’t address structural problems if you are “trying to restock the pasta.” In my job, I am not paid to do the operational work that moves our programs forward; I am paid to lead and facilitate that work. As president of SAA, I was not elected to do the operational work of SAA staff or our members that move our programs forward. I was elected to lead and facilitate the improvement of our structural problems.

I’m a leader in my job, but I’m also a staff member. I’m a leader in SAA, but I am also a member of the Society. I will never be a part of a strategic plan that isn’t considerate of the work already being done, of our collective concerns, or of our pain. We will make decisions that take into account the resources of SAA, the voices of our members, and the flaws in the structure.

Grace and Futurism

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the September/October 2021 issue of Archival Outlook.

I am looking forward to a good year.

At this point in time, “good” has become a relative term. After eighteen months of great turmoil in our country, I sometimes struggle to articulate hopes and dreams beyond conducting my day-to-day life and work. My anxiety, depression, and impostor syndrome have had too much fodder lately for me to see much of the forest for the trees.

In the past few months, I have changed jobs, moved away from the South for the first time, and taken my seat as the 76th president of the Society of American Archivists. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by change, I feel refreshed. I suspect it’s because I am so desperate to see the forest again, in all of its great and mysterious complexity. I don’t want to move on or go back to “normal,” but I want something that works better and fits better and makes me feel more successful and adjusted.

After the SAA Annual Meeting in August, I had my first meeting with Jackie Price Osafo, SAA’s new executive director, and Terry Baxter, SAA vice president. In a joking moment, Terry said that the theme of my year as president should be “futurism” and Jackie suggested “grace and futurism!” (In this instance, “grace” is a reference to the remarks I offered at the annual SAA Membership Business Meeting on August 3. You can see my remarks on the SAA president’s blog, Off the Record.)

I do believe in a brighter future, but there is a cost to idealism. It requires a great deal of advocacy and critical thinking to believe our world can improve when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. SAA must address the ongoing health, climate, and justice emergencies with an eye to how we build a more safe, sustainable, and equitable future.

I do have specific hopes and dreams for my year in SAA, most of which center continuing work that is already in process: strengthening and implementing the work plan developed by the SAA Council Working Group on DEIA; evaluating the ongoing health of our sections; reconsidering our membership model; and participating in the Foundation Board’s strategic work with a development consultant. I also plan to work with the Council to refocus on SAA’s strategic plan, opening up the planning process to more members and groups within SAA and creating accountability measures for initiatives that we add.

A final concern for me is to ensure that Jackie Price Osafo’s first year as executive director is a resounding success. In just a few short months, Jackie has already proven to be a great asset to our organization and, as president, I want nothing more than to prove to her that SAA is a worthy choice for this step in her career.

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.