Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Meanwhile, in the Archives: On the Society of American Archivists

If only life were fair. 
- Jackie Dooley, then-President of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), August 16th, 2013
Let's back up, and add some context.
"In many industries... internships are a normal part of gaining experience that prepares candidates for paying work in the field... In this job market, unpaid internship experience can be what makes the difference between getting interviews and job offers or remaining unemployed.” I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, not everyone can afford to work for free while in school. If only life were fair.
The discussion that followed lead to this comment:
"We have an association for archivists not archives (at least in name)." 
- Name withheld
Contrast that with the American Library Association, which is not a librarian association.

At the time of Dooley's speech, there was a significant amount of push-back, and discussion, on twitter. One could start here, as all tweets from the conference are archived (see what I did there?). The discussion beings about halfway down that page with this tweet.

Life is not fair, but it's more fair for some than for others. I do not think it's fair for a person in a position of power, a position that can affect change, to use "fairness" to "punch down" at graduate students, at new archivists, and at volunteers who may be doing something that is technically illegal (the Department of Labor on internships in for-profit contexts, pdf) in an effort to find paid work.

Via Hiring Librarians
In practice, what the above means is that if you purport to value diversity, you will not use, nor advocate for (see this pdf), unpaid interns. From the SAA Statement on Diversity:
SAA understands diversity to encompass:
  • Socio-cultural factors. These factors relate to individual and community identity, and include the attributes mentioned in SAA’s Equal Opportunity/Nondiscrimination Policy.
  • Professional and geographic factors. Concern about these factors reflects the Society’s desire for broad participation from archivists working in various locations, repository types and sizes, and professional specializations.
Unpaid internships also hurt mobility, that second bullet point.

I understand that funding is tight, and that budgets are cut, but please, pay people for work. Better not a lot, which I am guilty of, than nothing.

The acknowledgement of unfairness is a nice touch, a sort of kinder, gentler, enlightened lifeboating, but it's lifeboating all the same.
Lifeboater manifestos, on the other hand, are people from “on high” who stomp downward, and chastise us plebs for daring to use our outside voices while we’re drowning. (Via the great Rebecca Schuman
It also reminds me of the Old Academe Stanley meme.

As Sam Winn has expertly pointed out, there is a certain amount of professional privilege that comes with being established in a field. The SAA President should have some power here, even if it's symbolic. Rather than stating the obvious about how unfair life is, please do something about it. I am cautiously optimistic that this, including the comments, is a step forward, as is this.* At the most recent SAA Council meeting, employment issues were a topic of discussion.

However, some members of the SAA still don't seem, or want, to understand how much the ground has shifted on issues of employment, mistaking credible, structural critiques for "Millennial whining" or a chance to offer career advice that wasn't asked for. To wit, these discussions. If you don't want to wade through a listserv discussion board, allow Lance over at New Archivist to glibly sum it up.
Person #1: Here is what I think of this nuanced issue
Person #2: Not only are you wrong, but you must have something wrong with you, character-wise, to even hold that view
Person #2: What don’t more people have discussions on this list?
Again, Winn is worth reading here as well, and the article also provides actionable initiatives.

So long as we are talking about using power for good, as well as statements on diversity. the SAA should have a conference code of conduct, just as the American Library Association now has. Recent actions

* Kudos to those places of employment that are examining their practices concerning internships.

** Thanks to an archivist who will remain nameless for bringing some of these issues to my attention, and for their comments on an earlier version of this post. All errors are mine.


  1. This made me think of this cultural phenomenon and it's place in this discussion.

    1. I enjoyed that article when it came out. Thank you for tone policing, unless you're talking about Dooley's speech, in which case, carry on.