ICYMI: Introducing the A4BLiP Anti-Racist Description Resources

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. The following is from Annalise Berdini, Digital Archivist at Princeton University’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library and member of A4BLiP. 

Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia (A4BLiP) is a loose association of archivists, librarians, and allied professionals in the Philadelphia region responding to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. The A4BLiP Anti-Racist Description Resources project began as an initiative formed by various A4BLiP members in fall of 2017, specifically after a presentation they collaborated on at the 2017 SAA Liberated Archive forum with Teressa Raiford. Teressa is a Portland-based activist and founder of the organization Don’t Shoot PDX. Following the presentation, Teressa asked the group for recommendations for how she might approach a catalog audit. She wanted to initiate a project at Oregon State Library after learning about a racist subject catalog card there that a staff member had posted on Twitter. (The card read, “Negroes see also Crime and criminals. Portland.”)  

After some discussion, A4BLiP members realized that this was an area that lacked guidance for those doing archival description; many could recount instances of seeing description applied in ways that were racist, but none of us knew of any specific recommendations for how to address this in a programmatic way. As a way to both provide a framework for our own audits of racist description and to hopefully provide guidance that would be useful to other (white) archivists, we decided to create a set of recommendations collated from existing resources that we gathered for an extensive literature review, and enhanced by some of our own experiences. Additionally, the working group felt strongly that due to the fact that most of us were white women, we needed to ask for help from Black archivists to ensure that our recommendations did not cause harm and that we were, in fact, helping other archivists create more inclusive description. We created a GoFundMe for the project so that we could pay these reviewers for their time and expertise, and successfully funded enough to recruit nine reviewers, who contributed extensive recommendations and additional resources to the project. We are incredibly grateful for their assistance, which created a much stronger and more thoughtful product. 

The A4BLiP Anti-Racist Description Resources are broken up into three sections: a set of metadata recommendations, an annotated bibliography, and an extensive bibliography. The extensive bibliography was gathered first, reviewed in detail by members of the working group, and informed the other two sections.

The metadata recommendations are comprised of practical examples for anti-racist description that we hope can be put into practice across a wide array of institutions. The section is broken up into seven areas of focus, including Voice and Style, Community Collaboration and Expanding Audiences, Auditing Legacy Description and Reparative Processing, Handling Racist Folder Titles and Creator-Supplied Description, Describing Slavery Records, Subjects and Classification, and Transparency. Our recommendations in each of these sections were informed by our literature review as well as examples from our own experiences and the experiences and recommendations of our reviewers. Some recommendations should be fairly easy to apply day-to-day, like removing flowery and valorizing language in biographical notes or using accurate strong language like ‘rape’ or ‘lynching’ when appropriate. Others are more difficult and will require institutional change, like developing and maintaining ongoing relationships with collection creators in order to learn the language they use to describe themselves —  and to use that language in our description of their records. We hope that these recommendations will give others practical places from which to start their own descriptive review processes. They are by no means exhaustive, but include what we thought to be the most helpful and important recommendations.

The annotated bibliography includes a selection of theory-focused articles from the extensive bibliography that we chose to highlight based on their critique of descriptive practice and theory. Some of the articles, blogs, and presentations included do not necessarily focus on Black experiences or collections in the pursuit of highlighting shared strategies for anti-oppressive description. Our review in preparation for developing this resource reinforced our understanding that there is a wealth of research and dozens of important contributions to rectifying archival erasure and white supremacist description. But we recognize that few of us have as much time as we would like to read all of these works, and so we created the annotated bibliography in the hopes that it would help others quickly find resources that would help them rethink archival description.

For those looking to get started on creating more inclusive description, we recommend checking out the metadata recommendations first, particularly the sections on Voice and Style, Auditing Legacy Description, and Handling Racist Folder Titles and Creator-Supplied Description. These are probably the sections that will be most immediately applicable to most archives — how many of us have seen overly flowery and glowing biography notes of ‘great white men’, or passive language used to describe atrocities or distance humanity? How often do slavery records prioritize the enslavers before the enslaved? This is work that we as archivists can address quickly and which (hopefully) does not require overarching institutional change. 

We acknowledge that our recommendations are a starting point that highlights the work that other archivists have already done, but we hope that by gathering some of these practical recommendations, more of us can begin to undo the harm that our description often causes. The recommendations can be found through the A4BLiP site.

Steering Share: Meet Steering Committee Member Holly Croft

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Holly Croft, the digital archivist at Georgia College. 


1) What was your first experience working with archives?

Archiving is a second career for me, and I quit the first without a clear plan with what I wanted to do next. I started volunteering on an indexing project for a nonprofit where I would attach metadata to digital versions of their collection materials. It was extremely calming in a time where I felt that many things were up in the air, and I would spend hours working on the indexes.

Because it was a volunteer position, I didn’t catch on immediately that the indexing project was part of a larger career field, but I eventually researched it and learned the avenues through which one becomes an archivist. The following fall, I applied to graduate school, and I have never looked back!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I am so delighted to be a part of the I&A Steering Committee, and I am looking forward to working with the rest of the committee to assist archivists who need support in a variety of ways. As Joanna mentioned in her Steering Share, this is a small community, so it only makes sense that we’re stronger together.

3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

Recently, this committee has taken a look at labor practices particularly surrounding temporary positions and the precarity they create for those who end up taking them. This is, unfortunately, an ongoing concern.

I also am increasingly uneasy with additional labor dumped on archivists, particularly under the guise of “other duties as assigned” and “doing less with more.” This is a topic that hits labor markets well beyond archives, but I’ll bet the majority of archivists have a story about these phrases biting them in some way at their jobs.

These are only two of a myriad of topics affecting archivists today, and I am looking forward to being able to assist where possible.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I have become the crazy cat lady people warn you about becoming in library school! Two months ago, I had two cats. I took in a stray that looked a little rotund at the beginning of October, and mid-October, I suddenly had six cats.

Just kidding – I could tell there were kittens coming when I took in the third. So, I’m spending a lot of time socializing these little ones and getting them ready for their forever homes.

Additionally, I love cooking and preserving food, gardening, and reading.

ICYMI: I&A’s Temp Labor Survey

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. The following is from Courtney Dean,  Head of the Center for Primary Research and Training in UCLA Library Special Collections. 

Some of you may remember that I&A launched a survey earlier this year to gather preliminary data about the state of temporary labor in archives. (A PDF of the questions can be found via our public facing survey documentation: https://tinyurl.com/TempArchives. We intended for this data to gird conversations about archival labor and to serve as one piece of a series of ongoing labor advocacy efforts across LAM professions. 

A subteam of the I&A Steering Committee- Sara DeCaro, Steve Duckworth, Rachel Mandell, and me, along with I&A member Angel Diaz, took a DIY approach to both developing and analyzing the survey. (Many thanks to Lana Munip, Analysis and Planning Consultant, Pennsylvania State University, for her assistance.) Major themes and takeaways were shared out at the joint I&A/SNAP section meeting at SAA’s Annual Meeting in Austin. Since two of us are from California, and one of us was getting married, Steve Duckworth kindly presented on the results, on his birthday. (Thanks again, Steve!) Those slides are available here: I-A-Survey-presentation

Not surprisingly, many of the results supported current assumptions- archivists in precarious positions are for the most part anxious, stressed, and actively looking for work, even while temporarily employed. Academic libraries create the most temp positions, and interestingly, funding for temp positions, over half of the time, comes from the institution itself, not grant funding. What this means is that that the widespread perception of temp labor being caused by overreliance on grant funding is patently false. (For the raw quantitative survey data see the full spreadsheet: https://tinyurl.com/TempArchives)

Angel Diaz and I also shared out the results of I&A’s survey during a panel on the state of temporary labor at the DLF Forum in Tampa, FL last month. I&A’s findings are congruent with the results of the Collective Responsibility project’s survey and white paper which focus on the experiences of grant-funded digital LAM workers. In other words, we’re all in this together. 

Many of us have been thinking a lot about how to move forward from data and information gathering into future advocacy phases. How do we leverage what we now know? 

In the immediate future, we can inspire and support others to do more in-depth research and amplify these conversations. Sheridan Sayles, a new member of the I&A Steering Committee, has been working with colleagues at the University of Delaware and NYU on a research project into the status of term-limited (project) archivists to help define the scope of project positions.

We can also collaborate. A lot of labor issues overlap. For example, some of us from I&A have joined recent salary advocacy efforts around SAA job board policies and salary transparency. You may have also seen the archives salary spreadsheet floating around. And recently several folks from the leadership of AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) have plugged into these conversations. I’ll also mention that the Society of California Archivists (SCA) formed a labor issues task-force, and the next Western Archives Meeting (WAM), a joint meeting with several of the western regional archival orgs, has central theme of Labor, Power, and Privilege. In short, these conversations are happening in increasingly more places. Let’s not reinvent the wheel go at it alone. Check out some of the resources below, and let us know who else out there is engaging in similar work. 


Steering Share: Meet Committee Member Sheridan Leigh Sayles

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Sheridan Leigh Sayles, technical services archivist at Seton Hall University.

1) What was your first experience working with archives

SpringShare profile picI grew up in a town rooted in history—Richmond, VA—and always had a love and fascination with old things. When I went to undergrad, I started working in the Library and that inspired me to look into all aspects of heritage work. I enrolled in the Museum Studies minor and learned about exhibit design, preservation, and got the opportunity to intersperse practical work with my studies. I fell in love with the practice of handling the objects—I remember one day getting to see the preservation housing for an outfit worn by President James Monroe in Paris, and I knew I’d found the right career!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

This is my first year on the Steering Committee, so I am still learning about what the committee does and how we affect SAA policy and all that good stuff, but I feel like we are in a good position to connect archivists with resources that can help them in their careers and with their interests. Through our blog and other resources, we can connect archivists at all stages of their careers with material to help them do their jobs better, or advocate for themselves and the practices they’d like to uphold. And I’m thrilled to be working with the I&A veterans and learning from them on how to affect change.

3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

I’m really invested in archival labor and supporting early career professionals! I’m currently working with colleagues at University of Delaware and NYU on a research project into the status of term-limited (project) archivists and I’m hoping that our data can help define the scope of project positions. I think a big part of this question starts with ethical internships and making sure that the work they are doing will ultimately translate into success on the job market. Beyond that, I’ve been following the research on archivists and climate change and seeing recommendations on that.
4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I was a competitive figure skater in a past life, so you can often find me in an ice rink jumping, spinning, and all that good stuff, or coaching youngsters. It’s so rewarding taking my students to their first competitions, not only to see how much they’ve grown as skaters, but also to show them how hard work can pay off.

Steering Sharing: Meet I&A Committee Member Samantha Brown

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of committee member Samantha Brown, Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

IMG_20180510_195725578_2My first experience working in an archive was in graduate school. During my second semester, I had taken a processing class where you split your time between the classroom and a field site. While at the field site, I had a friendly relationship with the archivists and assisted them with a project. A few months after the class ended, out of the blue, I received an email from the supervisory archivist at the field site asking if I was interested in a job. Being a grad student, and constantly in need of money, I excitedly jumped at the chance to gain more experience in my chosen profession while also gaining a bit of money to help pay my mounting bills. 

The job itself gave me a wide range of experiences. The focus of the job was on processing but I also gained experience providing reference services in a university setting and digitizing a wide range of documents. Getting to work in a professional setting during grad school was incredibly help. I was able to learn what the job was like on a day to day basis and learn about what parts of the profession fit me and my skills best. 

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

During my first year on the committee, I feel like I was just trying to get a hold on what the expectations for me were. While I had previously served on the committee as an intern, being a full committee member is a different experience and comes with a new set of rules. Now that I’m in my second year, I want to work on building connections between archivists. Many of us seem to be struggling with our jobs for one reason or another and it would be great if we could find a way to support each other, to help others out during times of strife. 

3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

As a profession, I feel like there are many issues that were facing. One problem that I was confronted with recently is legitimizing our profession to people that don’t use our services. Of course historians, social scientists, and genealogists will see the value of archives and archivists but how do you get scientists or engineers to care about what your doing. Historical records aren’t things they need to deal with on a daily basis and, because of this, many people in those fields see our work as something unimportant.If we want to continue our work and receive the funding that we so desperately need then we need to find a way to reach people who don’t use archives and teach them about the inherent value of historical records. We can’t spend all of our time educating people, of course, but if people keep thinking of history as an unknowable and unreachable thing then they won’t value what we can provide them.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Outside of work, I’m a bit of a nerd. I enjoy playing Dungeons Dragons, reading scifi and fantasy novels, and playing video games. Nothing beats getting together with a group of friends and fighting off a dragon. 

Steering Share: Meet I&A’s New Chair Joanna Black

JoJoBlackMy name is Joanna Black, and I am the 2019-2020 chair of SAA’s Issues & Advocacy section. What an honor it is to be part of such an impactful and meaningful section, and it’s an equal honor to be working alongside very talented professionals in the section’s Steering Committee.

This is the first Steering Share blog post of the season, so please let me take a moment with the rest of my colleagues to tell you a little bit more about myself.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

My first experience working with archives was in 2008 as an undergraduate student at San Francisco State University. I was looking for an internship and came across a listing for an “Archives Intern” at the University’s Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives. I didn’t know anything about archives, but it sounded mysterious enough for me to take a chance. Upon working with my first “archival object” – a 60 year old recording of an on-campus poetry reading from Allen Ginsberg – I knew immediately that there was something special about working with archival materials. I was hooked, and off to an MLIS program I went!

2) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

Actively participating in the I&A Steering Committee is such a privilege, and I hope to learn from my colleagues and fellow section members more about the issues that are most impactful to our profession. Additionally, I hope to learn some of the creative ways in which those issues are being tackled both inside and outside of SAA. Being part of a small profession places extra importance on building strong professional communities, and I aim to build this with fellow section members as well as with SAA members more broadly. By the end of my tenure as chair, I hope to know many more SAA members on a first name basis and learn more about their experiences working in the archives profession.

3) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

Advocating for the importance of the archival profession is a really important issue to me. Our jobs are made so much more difficult when, on top of our impossible workloads, we are tasked with advocating for our positions – even within our own organizations! Each of us entered the archival profession because the work means something significant to us, and communicating that passion to others is an important way to strengthen public awareness around the significance of our work. As much as I like being a secret superhero of cultural heritage, broader awareness of the archives profession would help ensure job and funding stability, public engagement with cultural and historical resources, and a possible societal shift in how we think about our past, present, and future heritage.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

When I’m not thinking about memory, metadata, or manuscripts, I enjoy the simpler things in domestic life: writing, reading, gardening, listening to music, playing with my two cats, and taking walks through the gorgeous California redwoods surrounding my home in Oakland, California. I also really love sleeping. 

Archivists on the Issues: Where are all the California Archivists?

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.

It started with a discriminatory “bathroom bill” and ended with the absence of almost an entire state’s worth of SAA members. For this upcoming SAA 2019 annual conference in Austin, TX, there will be a considerable gap in representation from California-based archivists, most of whom are employed by the State of California.

Many of us recall in 2017 when the issue was first brought to the attention of SAA members. After the SAA Council narrowly voted to move forward with holding the 2019 annual conference in Texas – a state where legislators tried passing “bathroom bill” SB6[1] and, when that failed, passed HB 3859[2] which allows child welfare providers to refuse adoptions to LGBTQ individuals based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” – the SAA Council acknowledged[3] that Californians will be subject to California State Assembly Bill 1887,[4] which bans California State employees from traveling on business to Texas. This ban extends to the SAA 2019 annual conference.

Putting aside the appalling nature of HB 3859 and how social justice intersects with the archival profession (which the SAA AGM Program Committee Co-chairs acknowledge here), little attention has been given by SAA leadership on the impact of California archivists’ absence from this year’s conference. Beyond loose commitments to implement “live-streaming and/or other virtual conferencing options”[5] for those who cannot travel, and with limited evidence[6] two weeks before the annual conference that this commitment will be adequately honored, the exclusion of most California SAA members should be of concern to all members who value diverse perspectives and inclusion within the organization.

Each SAA annual conference is a chance to share professional values, build partnerships, and exchange ideas. It is one of the most prominent opportunities of the year for members to introduce themselves to greater diversity within the profession. The SAA Archives Records 2019 program website states:[7]

By attending the Joint Annual Meeting, you can:

  • Bring back fresh ideas and new knowledge to benefit all of your colleagues;
  • Discover cutting-edge tools and resources in the Exhibit Hall;
  • Enhance your professional development by attending a pre-conference course;
  • Become a better advocate for the archives, records, and information profession;
  • Network with colleagues, who may share new ideas you can implement at your institution or in your classroom; and
  • Promote your institution’s profile in the archives community!

But without the attendance of most California archivists – one of the most diverse blocks of archivists in the world – SAA members should consider how this absence limits perspectives within the conference itself and hinders the exchange of information within the profession as a whole. California is home to some of the most forward-thinking archivists in SAA, but how will their knowledge reach other members? How do California archivists build partnerships with other institutions when most are excluded from this year’s primary networking event? As one archivist from the University of California library system told me last month, “As archivists, we like to discuss inclusivity, but I do not find anything inclusive about holding our national meeting in a place where the majority of the archivists from our largest and most diverse state are unable to attend.”

As a California-based archivist, I am one of the lucky few who will be attending the conference this year (I am not a California State employee). I will be representing my institution as well as all my California colleagues who can not attend. As I prepare to be “on the front line”[8] of activism in Texas, I reflect on SAA’s Statement on Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity, it reads, encompasses not just “socio-cultural factors” but “professional and geographic factors” that reflect SAA’s “desire for broad participation from archivists working in various locations, repository types and sizes, and professional specializations.”[9] With little support offered to those California-based archivists excluded from the conference this year, SAA is falling short of its own commitment to “promote diversity and inclusion in all of [SAA’s] professional activities with an eye to ensuring effective representation of our members.”[10]

The SAA 2019 annual conference promises to address the intersection of social and political issues with the work of archives and archivists.[11] This also extends to the ways SAA members are able to show up, participate, and grow within the organization and its events. All SAA members should be cognizant of our colleagues, whether from California or elsewhere, who cannot attend the 2019 annual conference. When conference goers come together in Austin next month, let us support not only those whose lives are negatively impacted by the bigotry steeped in bills like HB 3859 but our archivist colleagues as well who, by extension of discriminatory legislation, have been excluded from this year’s gathering.


[1] Alexa Ura and Ryan Murphy, “Here’s what the Texas bathroom bill means in plain English,” https://apps.texastribune.org/texas-bathroom-bill-annotated/, (July 13, 2019).

[2] Legislature Of The State Of Texas, Chapter 45. Protection Of Rights Of Conscience For Child Welfare

Services Providers, https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/85R/billtext/pdf/HB03859I.pdf – navpanes=0, (July 13, 2019).

[3] Tanya Zanish-Belcher, “An Open Letter to SAA Members Regarding the Location of the 2019 Annual Meeting,” https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting, (July 13, 2019).

[4] State Of California Department Of Justice Office Of The Attorney General, Prohibition on State-Funded and State-Sponsored Travel to States with Discriminatory Laws, Xavier Becerra. Assembly Bill No. 1887.  https://oag.ca.gov/ab1887 (July 13, 2019).

[5] Zanish-Belcher, https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting.

[6] There is no mention on the program website that any virtual conferencing options will be available to members. However, after reaching out to Carlos R. Salgado, Manager of SAA’s Service Center, regarding the virtual conferencing option, I was told that SAA “will be introducing live streaming this year and will be posting information to the conference website this week” (email received Jul 15, 2019).

[7] “‘Making Your Case’ to Attend,”https://www2.archivists.org/am2019/resources/making-your-case (July 13, 2019).

[8] Zanish-Belcher, https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting.

[9]  SAA Council, “SAA Statement on Diversity and Inclusion,” https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-statement-on-diversity-and-inclusion (July 13, 2019).

[10] ibid.

[11] Zanish-Belcher, https://www2.archivists.org/news/2017/an-open-letter-to-saa-members-regarding-the-location-of-the-2019-annual-meeting.

Steering Share: Stability Matters

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of I&A committee member, Sara DeCaro, University Archivist and Old Castle Museum Director at Baker University Library.

This blog post was prompted by a conversation I had with another archivist. It also addresses the use of temporary labor.

If you are reading this, you are almost certainly a regular reader of the Issues and Advocacy blog. That means you are likely aware of the survey studying temporary labor that our section recently created. You may have even taken the survey, or held one, or multiple, temporary jobs within the archival profession, and are probably very familiar with the frustrations of working in a temporary position. You might be surprised to learn, then, that at least one employer believes that archivists prefer temporary positions.

The archivist I was chatting with had recently learned about the temporary labor survey. They were unaware of it when we initially requested respondents, but were happy to hear that our section had started the project. They agreed with me that the survey was a useful and important undertaking. One of their reasons for this, however, was news to me.

“My boss thinks younger archivists prefer temporary positions,” said the other archivist. “She thinks they don’t want to be tied down, and want to have freedom to move around.”

I was aghast.

Yes, there are some archivists who like the flexibility of temporary positions. I don’t mean to disparage them. Some archivists can afford to have that freedom, due to a breadwinning spouse or another means of income. If you are one of these people, that’s great. Our survey indicates, however, that this is by far the exception rather than the rule.

A theme that ran consistently through the survey responses was one of instability, and the frustrations it creates. “I’m ready to start having children, but I don’t know if I’ll have a job in a year” or “My partner and I would like to buy a house, but we might have to move for my job” were” were some responses that stood out to me. Several people mentioned delaying one major life decision or another and cited the uncertainty of their position as the reason why.

Another thing I noticed was the use of the word “anxiety.” It was everywhere. Many respondents used it. Would their job be renewed for another year? Would they be able to find another job if it wasn’t? Would they have to move again? What about all the time they would have to devote to the application process itself? Anxiety seems like a very appropriate word to describe these responses, and one that just begins to scratch the surface.

Responses like the ones above far outweighed the responses that expressed a preference for temporary jobs. There were several hundred responses, too, which is an amount that seems to be a decent sample of archivists in general. Based on that information alone, I believe it’s fair to say that a desire for a stable, permanent position is definitely the norm.

I don’t know that other archivist’s supervisor, or how widespread their assumption is that there is a preference for temporary positions among archivists. I do, however, feel like I should dispel that notion immediately. The ubiquity of temporary jobs in the archives profession is taking a toll on us, mentally and financially. We need to have many more conversations about how we can address this.

Archivists on the Issues: The Values First Approach

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Emily Gibson, a processing archivist at Hoover Institution Library & Archives on the campus of Stanford University. She has also worked as an archivist in the U.K. at Roehampton University, and in Miami Florida at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the University of Miami, and the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc. 

Whenever I see Elsevier in the headlines I think back to a symposium I attended a few years ago on the publishing house’s namesake, Elzevir. Presentations by book historians from St. Andrews and Oxford, among other well-known British universities, were given in a combination of English, Latin and French. I had hoped to brush up on my knowledge of the history of the book, but what I took away from the experience was how esoteric the study of the history of the book is.

Fast forward to December 2018 and Elsevier was in the headlines as universities across Europe ended their contracts with the notorious science publishing house. I gathered that the two Elseviers had more in common than their name – that the history of the subscription model of distributing primary source research may end up a sub-branch of the study of the history of the book.

In September of 2019, the European Commission and the European Research Council initiated a project to put in place systems that would make all publicly funded research freely accessible at the point of publication by 2020, called “Plan S.” The “S” stands for “science” and includes the humanities as well as hard sciences. It’s slogan is, “Making full and immediate open access a reality,” and their goal is to eliminate the publication paywalls associated with subscription-based publishing models in order to promote “universality,” which is a fundamental scientific principle that declares that “only results that can be discussed, challenged, and, where appropriate, tested and reproduced by others qualify as scientific.”

Driven by this initiative, around 300 European universities and institutions were ending their contracts with Elsevier. Germany’s Max Planck Society said upon ending their contract that, “The system of scholarly publishing today is a relic of the print era […] We want to activate a real paradigm shift in order to finally utilise the opportunities of the digital age.”

In the United States a similar shift is taking place. In April 2018, Florida State University announced that it would be ending its comprehensive subscription to Elsevier journals. And in March 2019, the University of California announced that they too were ending their contract. The University of California publishes nearly 10% of US research papers and 18% of them are in Elsevier journals. Both universities cited excessive subscription fees as the reason for ending their contracts.

“Within scholarly communications, Elsevier has perhaps the single worst reputation,” according to an article published by the Guardian in June of 2018. “With profit margins around 37%, larger than Apple and big oil companies, Elsevier dominate the publishing landscape by selling research back to the same institutes that carried out the work.”

It’s all hands on deck at the archive where I work, where a “Digital First” initiative is slowly transforming the landscape. Space, equipment, staff, workflows and the terminology we use to talk about them are evolving to meet the needs of a community of users seeking the paradigm shift the Max Planck Society articulated so well: a system of radically expanded access to primary source documents that utilizes the opportunities of the digital age. Scrawled somewhere in the middle of a page of notes that I took during a meeting on “Systems Infrastructure/Conceptual Design,” are the words “access is our ultimate goal.” As I wrote them, I remember thinking, “Hasn’t access always been our goal?”

To answer my question, I consulted the Theodore Calvin Pease Award-winning article by Judith Panitch, “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” Pantich explains that the term “archives,” as it was used from the 10th through the 15th century, described the titles or charters upon which rested the entire legal, political, and economic legitimacy of the monarchy and nobility, and that these documents were maintained in secrecy. “State archives were understood to constitute the personal documentation of the sovereign and to remain at his personal disposition,” Pantich explained.

In the United States, the National Archives formulated a “forceful enunciation of a theory of access to records” in the 1960s, according to Trudy Huskamp Peterson. In “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984,” Peterson explains that the theory had two major premises: researchers have a right to know what records exist, and researchers have a right to know which extant records are available for research use and which are restricted for some period of time. According to Peterson, “These premises culminated in the assertion that records are available on terms of equal access for all users […] and a philosophic commitment to the free exchange of information and ideas as the underpinning of society.”

As a method of distributing knowledge, American archives have been practicing a doctrine of equal access that resembles Plan S for many decades. A co-leader of the task force to implement Plan S described its goal as “making publicly funded research a global public good that can be utilized by anyone.” Today, the SAA’s statement on access and use described in its “Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics” reflects the values formulated in the 1960s and also asks us to be cognizant of the goal of access and use – to provide a public good: “Even individuals who do not directly use archival materials benefit indirectly from research, public programs, and other forms of archival use, including the symbolic value of knowing that such records exist and can be accessed when needed.”

In an online world of post-truth, alternative facts, disinformation and personalized click-bait, archival values are more important than ever. I often hear colleagues say that we’re behind the game, that the technology we employ to create access to our collections is not as good as the technology employed by other sectors, but I would argue that we’re ahead of the game, that values like equal access ensure that our work contributes to the public good as we grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, so that primary source information can continue to be discussed, challenged, and tested no matter how esoteric the subject matter.

Resources Consulted:

Akst, Jef. “Open-Access Program Plan S Relaxes Rules.” The Scientist, May 31, 2019. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/open-access-program-plan-s-relaxes-rules-65955

Buranyi, Stephen. “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” The Guardian, Jun 27, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

Kwon, Diana. “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls.” The Scientist, Dec 19, 2019. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/plan-s–the-ambitious-initiative-to-end-the-reign-of-paywalls-65231

Lippard, Kelsey Lovewell. “Open Archives.” UARK Libraries, Oct 26, 2017. https://librariesblog.uark.edu/open-archives/

Panitch, Judith. “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” The American Archivist 59, no. 1 (1996): 30-47. https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.59.1.an67076131u104kj

Peterson, Trudy. “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984.” The American Archivist 49, no. 2 (1986): 125-33. https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.49.2.kp004u5716652n40

Schlitz, Marc. “Why Plan S: Open Access is Foundational to the Scientific Enterprise.” Coalition S, Sept 4, 2018. https://www.coalition-s.org/why-plan-s/

Taylor, Ashley P. “Max Planck Society Ends Elsevier Subscription.” The Scientist, Dec 20, 2018. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/max-planck-society-ends-elsevier-subscription-65258

Archivists on the Issues: Building a Community of Loners

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Joanna Black, the Digital Archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.

When graduating with my MLIS about nine years ago — deep in the trenches of the economic recession — I had a very difficult time breaking into the professional archives world. Applications went out, nothing came back. I felt disheartened, inadequate, unprepared, and increasingly isolated. Amidst these difficult feelings, I recalled the guidance of the wise whose voices rang out in my ear, “Network! Connect! Participate!” 3b48729vSo I did what my introverted self was so hesitant to do: I reached out. I joined the SAA mentoring program and the Society of California Archivists Publications Committee. I started an archives-focused blog (very outdated now) to discuss issues in the field. I set up informational interviews at collecting institutions. I helped friends and family tackle their own archives. I did anything I could to get my foot in the door and move my career forward.

I eventually snagged a job. And a few year later, another, and another. As my professional experiences expanded, so too did my instincts for archival practice. So when I was thrown into a lone arranger position without notice, I wasn’t entirely unprepared. “You’ve got good instincts,” my colleague and friend Marjorie Bryer once told me, “you’ll make the right decisions.” But being a lone arranger can be difficult and, well, lonely. YOU make the decisions. YOU endure the consequences. YOU advocate for yourself. And although our professional organizations do provide some support, it is hard to resist falling victim to imposter syndrome from time to time.


At the Society of California Archivists (SCA) annual general meeting this last April, I attended a wonderful session called “Solution Room: Archivist at Work / as Workers.” As pexels-photo-935870part of the session, participants identified one of five key topics listed on the screen and broke into groups to discuss the one that resonated with them most. Topics ranged from wages and working conditions to supporting a more diverse profession. Although all the topics were significant, I was personally drawn to Group 1: Communities of Support which asked, “How can we create communities of support, and find common cause? How can SCA support archivists working in isolation?” Our small group burst with ideas for creating more communities of support within our profession, such as establishing an SCA mentoring program, providing a “helpline” for lone arrangers to call if a question comes up, and coordinating virtual and in-person meet ups for lone arrangers to support one another. As the session ended, I felt grateful knowing I was not alone and professional organizations want to do more to support lone arranger archivists. I felt grateful knowing that there is a larger dialog taking place about the need for community building in the archival profession. The implications of networking go so much farther than just snagging a job; they also ensure that once we have a job we’re able to sustain it.

Cultivating relationships with other archivists outside our institutions can be a form of survival for lone arrangers. When we have a problem, we can ask someone who has solved it before. When we are pushed to the brink of what we can accomplish on a shoestring budget, we can lean on our colleagues for support. When we feel like frauds, 3b50247rour archivist colleagues dispel that falesy and remind us of our worth. Especially for lone arrangers, being part of a “community of loners” can provide camaraderie and shared experience within an otherwise isolated environment.

When I pushed my shy, naive self to network with colleagues after graduating all those years ago, I thought the point was to gain employment. I didn’t realize I was also cultivating friendships that I would one day rely on for professional growth and support. I didn’t realize that by engaging with other professionals, I was laying the groundwork for my future membership in a community of lone arrangers.

For archivists, jobs can be few and far between. We may not choose to be lone arrangers but nonetheless find ourselves in that position at some point in our career. As if advocating for our work is not hard enough, doing so alone can feel near impossible. But having a professional community to lean on helps alleviate some of these challenges and provides a sense of connectedness. Belonging to a community is such an essential element of life outside of work, why not do more to establish them within our careers? If we can be advocates for our colleagues, those outside of the profession will begin to know our value too.