Great Advocates: Dr. Rand Jimerson

Back in March, we asked you to nominate “Great Advocates”–SAA members who inspire you with their advocacy efforts. Thanks to your nominations, we have a fantastic slate of Great Advocates.

You are cordially invited to join I&A’s gathering at SAA in Atlanta on Friday, August 5 from 7:30-9:00 am (it’s early, but there will be donuts and coffee!) for an engaging Q&A with leaders of advocacy efforts from SAA’s recent history, reflecting on their work and the future of advocacy within SAA.

To get everyone in the advocacy spirit in these weeks leading up to SAA, we’re publishing Q&As with each of our Great Advocates (including some who won’t be able to join us on August 5th).

To submit questions for the in-person session and follow the event, please tweet at @archivesissues using #GreatAdvocates or email archivesissues [at] gmail [dot] com.

Once they’ve all been posted, you’ll find all of the Q&As in the series here.

Great_Advocates_4Great Advocates Q&A with Dr. Rand Jimerson, Western Washington University

How would you define advocacy?

SAA’s “Core Values of Archivists” defines advocacy by stating what archivists do as advocates: “Archivists promote the use and understanding of the historical record. They serve as advocates for their own archival programs and institutional needs. They also advocate for the application of archival values in a variety of settings including, to the extent consistent with their institutional responsibilities, the political arena. Archivists seek to contribute to the formation of public policy related to archival and recordkeeping concerns and to ensure that their expertise is used in the public interest.”

For me, advocacy means any effort made to connect the work of archivists and the documentary evidence we select and preserve with the needs, concerns, and interests of our institutions, users of archives, and the society we serve.

What was the very first lesson you learned about advocacy–either how to do it or why it’s important?

Sometimes we learn the hard way. Early in my career, as the first archivist ever employed by a public state university, I developed and directed a two-year grant project to conduct a survey of all university records being produced in offices and to establish a records management program. This would be necessary in order to determine what functions of the university needed to be documented and what records should be selected for the archives. I thought that showing the administrative benefits of good recordkeeping practices, such as cost savings and efficiency, would provide the best argument to fund and expand a combined archives and records management program.

Unfortunately, I had not identified correctly the internal power systems of the university. The Vice President for Finance and Administration recognized the benefits of improved recordkeeping and endorsed our request for two full-time staff members. However, the Vice President for Academic Affairs (to whom I reported via the University Library) did not see the academic or research value of such a program. This was the more senior VP. Thus, we did not receive funding and I remained as the “lone arranger” in the University Archives.

Moral of the story: Know who has the authority and power to make decisions that affect the support needed for archival programs. Explain the benefits of good archival practices and programs in ways that this person (or persons) will appreciate.

Describe your most memorable experiences with advocating for archivists and archives.

My most memorable advocacy moment was speaking with Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy about the importance of the National Archives and Records Administration. I was President of SAA in 2004-2005. The George W. Bush administration had just forced Archivist of the United States John Carlin out of office, despite legal provisions that prohibited politically-motivated appointments for this position.

Late one evening I was waiting in Boston’s Logan Airport for my flight home from a library/archives conference. In a nearly empty lobby I looked up to see Senator Kennedy speaking with someone. When the other person left, I took a deep breath and approached the Senator. I introduced myself and stated that SAA was concerned about the dismissal of Carlin and about the proposed nomination of historian Allen Weinstein to be the next Archivist of the US. Kennedy asked about Carlin and SAA’s concerns and then gave me the phone number of his chief assistant on such matters. “Call her on Tuesday when you get home,” Kennedy told me.

As Weinstein’s nomination moved forward, SAA developed, in collaboration with NAGARA and the Council of State Archivists, a list of questions for the Senate committee reviewing Weinstein’s nomination to ask the nominee. Weinstein invited me to have lunch with him at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, during one of my visits there. My brief meeting with Senator Kennedy and SAA’s involvement in reviewing the nomination did not make a direct difference—SAA Council determined that we would neither support nor oppose the nomination, but instead issued a statement critical of the partisan nature of Carlin’s improper dismissal—but at least we were consulted as the Weinstein nomination proceeded.

The lesson I took away from this was that it is always good to be prepared and to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to speak up on behalf of archival concerns. Being part of the conversation is essential, even when there is little chance to change the outcome of events. Advocacy requires preparation—knowing what one needs to convey (perhaps as an “elevator speech”)—and then taking advantage of any opportunity that might arise.

If you could encourage archivists to do just one thing to help advocate for the archival profession, what would that one thing be?

I think every archivist should be proud of the title “archivist.” I always wear hats, so it is natural for me to wear an SAA baseball cap with the word “ARCHIVIST” boldly on the front. One of my earlier SAA caps carries the term “100% ARCHIVIST.” When I introduce myself to people I say, “I am an archivist—and also an historian,” putting my primary professional commitment first. (Many archivists might say, “I am an archivist—and also a librarian,” or whatever is appropriate.)

Any encounter can become a “teachable moment.” It’s always good to have in mind an “elevator speech”: what can you say in 30-60 seconds that will explain the importance of being an archivist? For example, I might say, “I am an archivist. Archivists contribute to society by determining what information from the past and present will be needed in the future. Archival documentation contributes to social memory, holds public officials and leaders accountable to their constituents, enables us to apply knowledge of the past to future decisions, provides a basis for social and group identity, and can assist in promoting social justice and the public good.” (Or I might use a shorter version of this, as appropriate.)

What strategies and skills would you recommend archivists use when they are advocating for something in their local context (for example, for additional funding or personnel, policy changes, etc.)?

It is important to remember that there is no single answer for the best strategy for advocacy. Each situation will require special insights into the ways archivists can promote their repository’s needs or the good of the profession or of society. For ideas, I recommend reading about other archivists’ experiences and ideas. A good starting point is Many Happy Returns: Advocacy and the Development of Archives (SAA, 2011), edited by Larry J. Hackman. It contains more than a dozen case studies and reports of advocacy efforts in a wide variety of institutional settings (academic, government, business, artistic organizations, etc.).

One key to effective advocacy is identifying the important decision-makers in your organization. Find out their priorities, interests, and goals, and try to show how the archival program can contribute to the good of the institutions. Each person may have a different perspective, and it is important to identify and respond to their concerns.

Another thing to remember is that advocacy is a continual process, not a one-time “event” or activity. It needs to be built into everything an archivist does. Since few people know much about archives, this will be an educational process. Learn how to communicate the benefits of archives for your institution, rather than focusing first on the needs of the archives. If those who control funding (resource allocators)  recognize the contributions that the archives makes or could make, they will be more likely to provide the necessary funds than if you simply complain about your lack of resources. How can you make their jobs easier or more effective?

In promoting the ways that the archival program enriches or benefits the larger institution, find opportunities to communicate effectively throughout the institution and beyond. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) can provide a platform on which to build an effective advocacy and public awareness program for the archives. So can old-fashioned “word of mouth” and print media.

What is an archives issue that means a lot to you and requires advocacy?

Ever since my teenage years in the early 1960s, when my father worked for civil rights in Alabama, I have been committed to social justice, equality, and the dignity of all people in society. Archives contribute to these purposes in numerous ways: by holding public leaders accountable to the people, by documenting human rights infringements, by providing one means to redress grievances and abuses, and by helping to ensure that the past will not be forgotten. These are issues that require continual advocacy.

Not all archivists would agree with the goal or function of advocacy for such “political” issues, but as a profession I believe that archivists need to take an activist role. The American Library Association, for example, speaks out actively in defense of freedom of information and other social causes. I think it is especially important for archivists, who select and preserve primary source documentation—which often does not exist in multiple copies or locations—to recognize that all of our actions inevitably take place in a political environment. If we do nothing to redress or prevent social wrongs, we support the status quo and forces of oppression. In order to promote a balanced and fair approach to documenting society, we should encourage and support affirmative action (what I call “affirmative archives”) on behalf of those who otherwise might not have a voice in public affairs or a recognition in historical documentation.

What motivates you to continue when the going gets rough?

The importance of archives to the life of society and the protection of individuals’ rights provide motivation for my commitment to the archival enterprise. In our day to day work it sometimes seems difficult to remember the ultimate purposes we serve. But in the words of the civil rights era song, we need to keep our “eyes on the prize.” Especially when the going becomes difficult we need to commit ourselves to the people we serve by providing authentic and reliable documentation of the past and present for future generations.

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3 thoughts on “Great Advocates: Dr. Rand Jimerson

  1. Pingback: Adaptive advocacy | The Changing Archives Sky

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