Society of American Archivists Annual Conference Archives and Records 2016: Make the Connection

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From August 3rd through August 6th I attended the annual conference of the Society of American Archivists in Atlanta, Georgia. Although it was hot, it was nice visiting a city I had never been to, and speak with colleagues on topics that impact archives and archivists. When the program of events first came out, I was excited based on the topics that would be discussed at the keynote addresses and also within the various educational sessions and roundtables.

The first day I spent at the Reference, Access and Outreach Section Unconference on teaching with primary sources. The unconference was held at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History. The library was not open yet, but allowed us to use their incredible facility. One of the major themes that came across as everyone was sharing ideas, was the need to add context to digital collections. Many archives scan material and make it available online with little to no explanation as to where the object came from or how it could be used by a researcher or a teacher. The Digital Public Library of America has developed Primary Source Sets to aid students and teachers in developing research topics based on items pulled together from different repositories. This offers a new way to search digital collections by creating artificial digital collections based on theme rather than manuscript collection. I see this as a viable option for us to use at the Winston-Salem State University Archives to pull resources related to popularly research topics, like the civil rights movement. Through other sessions I was left with many more questions and ideas to consider regarding teaching with primary sources. The DPLA presentation also made mention to Education Advisory Boards. This was an idea that I found would benefit the WSSU Archives immensely. A board of this type would allow for experts in creating lesson plans and supplemental educational resources to assist in building related material for digital collections. In giving more though to the idea, I see a potential for collaboration not only with faculty, but also education or history majors in the process. The other great idea I took from the unconference came from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. To teach student how to interpret financial primary sources, they have students create their own to increase understanding. The example used was having high school students create their own unemployment rate report for the school. I have tried something similar to this in the past with student using their own material to better understand primary sources, but this would help them understand how to evaluate primary sources on a much deeper level.

The night of the first day I attended the Research Libraries Roundtable meeting. I attended the roundtable to hear their discussion on “doing more with less”. The discussion was moderated by Thomas Hyry of Harvard University and he admitted that despite what people would assume, even Harvard has issues with doing more with less. Several archivists on the panel described personnel issues related to funding both positives and negatives, but what stuck with me most were projects that were being conducted during times of depleted funding. At one university, the archives enlisted full time library staff volunteers for a description program. The program allowed librarians and other library staff to type inventories for collections that did not need to be processed. It was important to acknowledge that sometimes you need to give something up, but it doesn’t always need to be money. Programs like this often give up format, professionalism or quantity, but retain the quality that is necessary to move the projects forward. The panel also covered the importance of ideas during a times of financial uncertainty. Archivists suggested providing a framework for what is important and that ideas should be generated within that framework. In addition, ideas should be shared from the staff up and that they should not be self-limited. Just because you aren’t able to use and idea at that moment, doesn’t mean it won’t be possible in the future. Everything discussed during the roundtable hinted at the importance of creating a culture of Yes until No.

During both Plenary Sessions, the theme was diversity and inclusion in archive collections and the profession. Plenary 1 welcomed speaker Chris Taylor, Director of Inclusion & Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society. Mr. Taylor described how diversity goes far beyond race and that it is about difference and leveraging those difference to create success in the work place and the profession. This issues are “not about counting heads, but making heads count” and the word diversity should be used as a noun and inclusion as a verb that requires action. Organizations cannot rely on outreach for diversity and inclusion, and no matter what groups you target with outreach efforts, the culture of the organization comes through the work and all efforts need to start from within. Both Chris Taylor and SAA President Dennis Meissner, also of the Minnesota Historical Society mentioned the need of professionals to develop new skills and adopt the mindset of “next practices” which would go beyond “best practices” in order to move to a more diverse and inclusive profession.

Throughout the conference I attended two sessions related to African-American archival collections. The first session was titles: Out of the Shadows: Bringing Black Collections Together through Radical Partners. The presenters offered advice based on projects each one had participated in and from their shared experience I had several key takeaways from the session. The presenters explained how it is important to form partnerships with our communities to shape what we collect and interpret and to reach historically silenced audiences. One thing often overlooked when taking on outreach projects, is the potential digital divide between the community and the institution. Shanee Murrain, Director of Library Services and Archivist at Payne Theological Seminary presented on a digital project that they collaborated on with Princeton University . Ms. Murrain described how it was a great collaboration between institutions with one being collection rich and the other resource rich. All of the presenters agreed that any partnership needed to ensure that all parties involved had a shared vision. The second session I attended was titled, Before and After: Appraisal and Access in African American Communities. Biff Hollingswoth and Chaitra Powell of UNC Chapel Hill described their workflow and outreach efforts with African-American communities. The began by discussing Accountability Value, or the value of a collection toward a mission of social justice and what power collections have toward providing value to issues not fully transitioned from active to archive. The workflow for the projects they mentioned were Community Creator, to Archives, to Scholars and that humanity, generosity and collaboration were the keys to project success. Greg Crawford, Local Records Program Manager at the Library of Virginia used his presentation to describe the project Virginia Untold. Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative is a digital collection of records documenting the lives of African-American in Pre-1965 Virginia. Virginia Untold is an incredible genealogical and historical resource as well as a great example that sometimes the “hidden” collection is within a larger collection.

One of the themes that came up in many of the sessions I attended was the need to provide more than just digital archival collections. This theme started for me at the Teaching with Primary Sources unconference and continued through the majority of the sessions I attended. The best example for an institution looking beyond the digital collections and thinking about the end users came from Matt Herbison, Archivist for Public Services at Drexel University College of Medicine. He was describing a project during a session titled, You Are Not Alone! Navigating the Implementation of New Archival Systems, however, I took more away from the project itself than the technology he was discussing. The project is Doctor or Doctress? Exploring American history through the eyes of women physicians. Mr. Herbison explained how it was digital collection paired with essays and videos to support the material. They provide guided questions and historical thinking standards to aid educators in the use of the digital content in the classroom. He explained how the project sought to provide metadata for the user not the item so that the material was more accessible. This move to support material surrounding digital items is an important one to help users find our collections but also use it once they have it.

I left the conference with a lot of inspiration and many questions to reflect on as I assess the Winston-Salem State University archives and the collections within.

Author: Tom Flynn


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