Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post is from Steering Committee member Laurel Bowen.
How did you get involved in archives?
In graduate school (history) I regularly passed by a door in the library. One day I got curious and walked in. The man in charge of archives, rare, and manuscript collections took me on a lengthy behind-the-scenes tour, explaining what they did and why. Wow! Why talk about history described in books when you can touch, feel, and experience it in documents, images, and objects real people leave as evidence of their lives? My first archives job was working with a large, newly discovered collection documenting a major U.S. social movement. Professors at the local university pestered us constantly, trying to get hints about what we were discovering.
Why did you get involved with the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable?
I’ve always been inspired by SAA’s goal to increase public awareness of the value of archives and archivists, so I was involved early with the I&A Roundtable. How public awareness might occur, though, was unclear to me until several property owners in my extensive neighborhood tried to change the residential land use and zoning on their property to sell it to big businesses. Looking for ways to counter those owners resulted in an eye-opening experience in the practical but powerful ways archives can be used. As community advocates, archivists can find and use records to persuade government officials to support residents dealing with important quality of life issues. Citizens appreciate the power of documents and images when that evidence proves a lawyer is presenting only half the story. And the public values skills in locating and interpreting records when that makes a concrete difference in their lives.
What is an archives issue that means a lot to you?
I’m troubled about the increasingly creative ways public officials find to avoid transparency and accountability as they govern in our name. The distance some officials will go to camouflage their actions demonstrates awareness of their responsibilities, but often a sense of power and an “I know best” attitude lure them to the dark side where they become easy prey for people with money and influence. Officials who serve in the public interest can be careless in creating public records, deny citizens timely access to them, or even misplace or destroy records they are required to maintain and produce. Citizens also seem distracted and less attentive to their rights … until it’s too late. Records define rights and responsibilities. Archivists know records. Archivists can make a difference!
How would you define advocacy?
Advocacy is being passionate and “vocal,” but it is also being well-prepared and persuasive to those with the power to decide an issue. Along the way, there may be a need to learn how to read the documents, learn the concepts, and talk the language of other professions well enough to communicate citizens’ viewpoints in a compelling way. Being able to translate technical issues and government procedures into ordinary language that motivates supporters to stay with the cause–and convinces others to join–is also essential. And finally, an overall strategy that weaves all of this together improves the likelihood of success. Sometimes, being called “a thorn in the side” by the powerful is a grudging token of respect for your cause.