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. “