Steering Share: What Archivists Can Learn From Public Libraries

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.


    The other day I was having lunch with some colleagues when the conversation inevitably turned to our experiences in graduate school. As per usual, we discussed the classes that were useful, the classes that were useless, and the changes needed to modernize MLIS programs. Most of my colleagues complained that the programs are out of date. The comment that struck me the most was the person who mentioned that their graduate program made them take a class on public libraries that they felt was unnecessary. To them, there was nothing they could possibly learn from that class that would apply to their career in archives. At the time, I wanted to stand against this person but everyone agreed with him and the topic quickly changed.

    I would love to say this was the first time that I’ve heard similar comments but it was not. Even on interviews, people have questioned me about why I would even consider working in archives or special collections when I’ve worked in public libraries for so long. Despite both being information agencies, people see archives and public libraries as disparate entities that can’t possibly have anything in common or benefit each other in any way. Having worked in public libraries for at least seven years before finding work as a professional archivist, I can clearly see how the two could  benefit and learn from each other.

    One of the biggest lessons that public libraries can teach archives is about outreach. In many of the archives I’ve worked in, both in graduate school and now professionally, they treat outreach as something passive. An archive might put out a blog, create an exhibit, or host a talk but most of the outreach depends on the public finding the information themselves. In public libraries, outreach is handled completely differently. A library may have blogs, exhibits, and talks but they don’t depend on people stumbling across these things themselves. The staff goes out into the community around them to try and bring people into their institution. For example, when I worked as a library assistant, a large part of my day consisted of reaching out to community groups and local schools to try and work with them to create library programs and to teach them about how the library can serve their needs. Although archives serve a different role, reaching out to the communities around them creates a beneficial resource to that community. By building relationships outside of your normal circles of interaction, a community outreach program brings in new users and helps people understand the value of the many collections archives house.

          While there may be a number issues facing the library world, division within the ranks shouldn’t be one of them. Archives and public libraries have different functions and serve communities differently, but we need to support each other and learn from  each other so that we can all gain the benefits of sharing information with others outside our normal circles of interaction. If we can see the value in the work others are doing then we can come together and fight against other more pressing issues in the world.


Steering Share: Thoughts on the Idea of Professionalism

Steering Shares  provide an opportunity to learn more about the I&A Steering Committee and the issues that the committee members care about. This post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

I want to talk about professionalism, or more specifically, the idea of professionalism and how it can (and often is) used to make people conform and can be a tool that hinders diversity and creativity. I’ve wanted to talk about this for a while – partly due to personal experiences – and then “the incident” with April Hathcock took place at ALA Midwinter. I knew it wasn’t just me and felt this post could take one of her many salient points and focus on a large set of the archival profession.

I, like many of you, work in academia. And even many of you who don’t work in academia are likely impacted by the practices of it. I often find myself rubbing up against some of these norms. The ones that work slowly and through long conversations in multiple committees and working groups. The ones that use policies to explain choices, but break those policies when they really want something. The ones where people like to complain about people, but not to people. And yes, these are gross generalizations, but they are also sometimes just gross.

Our profession also talks all the time about how homogenous we are and struggles to find ways to change it, ways to diversify the profession or our collections or our outreach. But I’m not sure if the desire for more diversity is stronger than the desire to maintain this air of academic … politeness.

I say this because I see many of our attempts at diversity as a form of tokenism, with the most frequent offering being something like a two-year “diversity” position for people fresh out of their Master’s program. While it’s helpful, it doesn’t change our culture. It looks at this “diverse” person and says, ‘We’re going to teach you how to be one of us’ or ‘We’re going to hire you to solve all of our diversity problems,’ but we’re not going to commit to you. It doesn’t look at our practices and offer ‘Perhaps we should be more accepting of different styles of interaction’ or ‘Let’s listen to some new ideas and actually try them out.’ It doesn’t change us, it just looks good on paper and makes us feel like we’re helping.

We invite people for day-long (sometimes 2!) interviews and see it as a test of their endurance or stamina, but we don’t make the effort to inform the candidates about this practice they may never have been through. We continue to ask surprise questions in interviews, and then judge people who are likely nervous (and quite possibly introverted) if they can’t come up with perfect answers on the spot. Our MLIS programs overwhelmingly do not to teach any aspect of the job searching and interviewing process. They teach the theory, sometimes the practice, and send you out without even a functional résumé or any clue about just how many jobs you may apply for before even getting an interview.

What we need is more compassion and more care about the people we say we want as our colleagues. As someone in a position to hire a new librarian, recall your own job search and look for new ways to make the interview process more inviting. Be more open-minded about professional backgrounds and embrace ideas that may be unfamiliar to you. When someone directly speaks to an offense against them, investigate it; if they offer an opposing viewpoint, consider it before dismissing it. If you are witness to bigotry, speak up. All of these things can be done respectfully if we respect each other. But respect comes in many forms, and that, too, should be respected.

Steering Share: Conversations on Labor Practices in Archives

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes from I&A Chair Courtney Dean, Head of the Center for Primary Research and Training in UCLA Library Special Collections.

Despite the continuing prevalence of institutions relying on temporary labor and unpaid internships, and individuals leaving the profession (including I&A’s own Vice-Chair Summer Espinoza) because it simply isn’t a sustainable way to make a living, I am heartened that conversations around labor practices in archives are happening with increased frequency and volume. I expressed a similar sentiment back in October, when I presented as part of a panel entitled “Building Community & Solidarity: Disrupting Exploitative Labor Practices in Libraries and Archives” at the DLF Forum in Las Vegas. The panel briefly explored a number of issues including unpaid internships; the proliferation of temporary, contract, and grant-funded labor; ad hoc and siloed conversations around these issues; the lack of POC in leadership positions; and the problematic expectations of “diversity work.” While current labor practices in GLAM professions disproportionately affect students, new career workers, and POC, it is these same populations who are leading the resistance to traditional white cis hetero patriarchal ableist LIS systems and enacting community building. (Here I’d like to shout out We Here, DERAIL, and the Los Angeles Archivists Collective.)

Building Community & Solidarity: Disrupting Exploitative Labor Practices in Libraries and Archives Panel at DLF in Las Vegas 2018

As Joyce Gabiola mentioned during the panel, the success of this type of organizing has a lot to do with community driven efforts, rather than trickle down initiatives. However, it should not have to be the responsibility of those most affected by a broken system to fix it. To this end, as I’ve mentioned before and will continue to advocate for, we can and should be leveraging our professional organizations to provide a platform, make space, and take a stand on labor issues. The DLF has been an exemplar in this regard, both with their conference programming (last year’s forum also included sessions on “Valuing Labor When You’re ‘The Man’”; student labor; and organizing for change) and through their Working Group on Labor. The latter, has been nothing short of an inspirational and I’d recommend that anyone interested in these issues to refer to their Research Agenda: Valuing Labor in Digital Libraries as well as the draft Guidelines for Developing and Supporting Grant-Funded Positions in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums. The Labor Working Group’s Ruth Kitchin Tillman and Sandy Rodriguez also received an IMLS grant for “Collective Responsibility: National Forum on Labor Practices for Grant-Funded Digital Positions” which will host two meetings in the coming months.

I am also thrilled that my state archival org, the Society of California Archivists (SCA), is in the beginning stages of forming their own group to address labor issues. (California archivists should look out for a meetup at the SCA AGM in Long Beach!) Early conversations point towards a project to develop a best practices document for the use of temporary employees in archives. This comes in conjunction with the SCA board’s statement in support of temporary archivists at UCLA in their grievance to the university and current SCA President, Teresa Mora’s President’s Message.

I’ve mentioned several of SAA’s efforts before and I’ll just add that Council’s decision to prohibit the posting of unpaid internships on SAA’s Job Board is a great move. To bring it back to I&A, the Steering Committee is (finally!) planning to launch our survey on temp labor in late winter/early spring to obtain some baseline data, and we are continually exploring ways in which we can advocate for ourselves as professional archivists in our capacity as section leaders. We’re aware there are so many other labor issues in our profession that need addressing: salaries; under-classified positions; a turn to using “paraprofessionals” for archival processing; a lack of a national union- the list goes on. We invite guest blog posts, Twitter chats, and any other type of dialogue to highlight and resist exploitative labor practices. You know where to find us.

Further reading and resources:

Steering Share from Ruth Slagle

Steering Sharesare an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of I&A committee member Ruth Slagle, the Instruction and Outreach Librarian at the Baptist College of Florida.


What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

The variety! Well I might have a plan for the week, but it always changes. Currently, I do not work in an archive, but I emphasize with lone arrangers because I am solo librarian. The past 6 months has been a whirlwind of change for me since becoming a solo librarian and a natural disaster misplacing the library into another building. In my current position, I am multiple departments rolled into one, perks of working at a small school. I have enjoyed consulting with the archives on campus and giving advice on standards. For the future, I look forward to working with students and connecting with others.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

As a member of the committee, I would like to take away useful strategies and methods for further advocating the presence of archives in our society and local influences. As a newer member and professional, I want to connect with other archivists in this section and gain a ready knowledge of best practices.

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

Education. In light of the recent Hurricane Michael, which affected the library where I work, it has become more obvious to me the importance of advocacy. Salvaging our collection and workflow has only happened because of myself advocating for the library and its employees. This past fall, I taught an Archives Management course for undergraduates. My teaching experience, taught me the importance of educating non-archival users. By opening their eyes to the archival world. I would love to teach again because the diversity the archival profession opens so many doors to users. As an archivist and librarian, I am my own advocate working with students and faculty. Without archivists, advocating our field, how will the world know our value?

Archivists on the News: The Archivist in an Accountable World

Archivists on the News is a new series featuring perspectives on current news. Our first post comes from Joel Horowitz, Special Collections Librarian at the Alexandria Library, Local History/Special Collections Branch. You can follow him on Twitter @PurpleArchivist.

“It is your duty to make sure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.” So concludes the introductory video of Canary Mission, which seeks to document students and faculty expressing what it classifies as extremist views on college campuses. Users who have chosen to “defend freedom” are invited to submit video and social media evidence and open source records to their site because otherwise “a few years later these individuals are applying for jobs within your company.” Decades-old information has long been sought about political candidates, but preventive collection from college students with the stated goal of creating a blacklist or inspiring retractions is a significant step in that direction, and might face enormous challenges in proving authenticity in the face of politically motivated skepticism (Canary Mission would not comment on the length of time it plans to preserve information).

Header image from Canary Mission’s website

In a previous era, personal papers were exactly that, personal. In fact, they were often purged (or “organized”) to remove embarrassing material before becoming available to the public through a professional organization. Today, more and more of our personal records are available in real time, and our lives examined as we live them to be treated as public records by those who choose. SAA advocacy guidelines have long focused on the privacy of information in government hands and letting “public leaders,” “public officials,” and “agencies” be held accountable by citizens. But we must also consider the accountability of citizens by citizens according to their own subjective values through the collection of our records to be preserved for our lifetimes, if not beyond, in public view.

Moving in the opposite direction, some states have banned the practice of demanding access to the social media accounts of job applicants or even taking off-duty political activities into consideration. More notably, groups like Ban the Box have sought to limit the consideration of even criminal records in hiring.

But are there costs to a highly private society? Recent years have seen a rise in the practice of “doxing,” in which an ordinary individual is exposed to public retaliation for acts they performed anonymously or in private. It’s typically associated with outing people from Unite the Right rallies or otherwise deemed racists, but a similar approach has been used for other things like being a gamer or, in an earlier era, being gay. Obviously, the level of stigma attached to the many behaviors and characteristics people are reluctant to admit publicly vary, which can obscure how common they are. A less private “accountability society” could make some stigmas disappear (as gay pride has helped to do), while making others more impactful (as Canary’s slogan hopes). In this way, privacy can be a question of trust in social norms.

Historians of privacy remind us that it is in many ways a relatively new thing, a creation of the 19th and 20th centuries that earlier ancestors had limited knowledge or experience with as we understand it. Privacy as a right in the United States has its origins in an 1890 law review article. Balloting became secret in America only gradually over the second half of the 19th century, but is now covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet political parties and their allies have massive databases of public and corporate information that they will probably keep on us forever, eroding the privacy of our political opinions. In a lengthy 2015 piece, Greg Ferenstein argues that privacy was once rare because it was difficult and inconvenient to maintain and is likely to be abandoned if those conditions return, as he expects to result from advances in medicine and other personalization technologies.

Such an outcome is not inevitable, and Europe is at the forefront of cementing the current order through its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The European “right to be forgotten” is essentially a right to erase the history of one’s life, even when lived in public, so long as it is not yet vitally important to that public. Through the GDPR, Europeans are once again able to purge the modern version of their “papers” and present a curated, up-to-date, image of themselves, unless they fall under one of its exceptions.

China appears to be taking the opposite path from Europe. A place where social norms and social cohesion are highly prized, China is promising to restore “trust” in society by assigning a Social Credit Score to every citizen based on an analysis of available data. While a uniform government score based on our histories might prove tyrannical (and China’s isn’t yet), one could theoretically allow a variety of groups, interests, and communities to offer their own methods of scoring data, and each individual to choose the system whose opinion they value or need, which is not far from how we are privately evaluated today for things like credit, jobs, insurance, and dating. American society, too, is still grappling with the basic question of what, if anything, we should know about each other and when.

While a recent article by Ashlyn Velte on activist social media archives does point to emerging ethical debates and standards for donated materials, it may prove difficult for the profession to try to impose these standards on politically motivated collecting organizations pursuing goals many archivists support. Is it unethical for an archivist to participate in an accountability project or a public service for them to do so? Does it depend on the goals? The methods? Is it even our right to shape society so fundamentally by boycotting organizations that operate outside our guidelines, but within our laws? It isn’t clear the profession has official answers to these questions. But if these privately managed public digital archives might end up being assembled for long-term preservation by archival tools, archival methods, and ultimately digital archivists trained for the purpose, how can it not?

Editor’s note: I&A posted about the Right to Be Forgotten in 2016 in this research post.

Steering Share from Rachel Mandell

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of I&A committee past-chair, Rachel Mandell, Metadata Librarian at the USC Digital Library.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

Currently, my favorite aspect of my job is being able to train and hopefully mentor new librarians/archivists. From chairing the search committee to training, to answering daily questions, I have been given the opportunity to reexamine my own practices and gain a fresh perspective on the field from someone who graduated from library school recently. Before accepting my current position, I worked a series of temporary jobs. During those project positions, I was never given the chance to train and supervise a new librarian. This has been an extremely rewarding experience and I am looking forward to taking on more leadership roles in the future.

Enjoying the desert sun!

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I first joined the I&A Steering Committee 3 years ago as the I&A intern. I had never served on an SAA Section and figured it would be a good opportunity to get a sense of what that would be like without too much commitment. At the time, I was working as a contract employee and had very little institutional support for any sort of professional development or any activities outside of my clearly defined job duties. That first year, I worked on a survey to figure out how to improve the Toolkit. By the time the election cycle for the next year came around, I had found myself in a permanent position, which encouraged library faculty to seek opportunities to serve on national committees. I spent the next two years serving as Vice-Chair and then Chair of Issues and Advocacy. It’s a great section, with broad interest and capabilities. As the current Past Chair, I am excited to see where the Steering Committee decides to focus its efforts.

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

In echoing the sentiments of many of my fellow steering committee members—the issue of relaying on contract employment and exploitative labor practices is one of the most pressing issues facing our profession. While we have a long road ahead in terms of shifting our own practices and beliefs regarding this situation, I feel reinvigorated by the statement issued by the Society of California Archivists for support of the open letter distributed by the temporary archivists from the UCLA special collections.


Steering share from Sara DeCaro

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.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

There are some great things about being a “lone arranger” at a small private college. I have a lot of control over what we collect and projects we choose to take on. I also have a good idea of where the gaps are in representation, and I can actively take steps to fill in those gaps. I noticed, for example, that we don’t have a lot of records from student organizations on campus. These can be a very rich source of information because student organizations often form to meet the needs of historically marginalized groups; that was definitely the case when our African-American student group formed here in the 1970s. I’ve had conversations with them and our fairly new LGTBQIA group about future donations, and the response has been positive.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

Archives and archivists, generally speaking, seem to be chronically underfunded and viewed as somehow lesser, or not essential. I’m really tired of that, and I want to do something about it. I know that’s a broad statement, but even if this is just a small thing I can do to enact change, it’s important to me.

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

Diversity and inclusion, in both our collections and employment practices. I think one of the most basic things we can do as a society to correct years of injustice towards marginalized people is to make sure their legacies are preserved. Labor issues are also very important to me; I often feel that wages for archivists don’t reflect the level of training and education we have.

Intern Share from Kristin Hare

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of I&A Intern Kristin Hare.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

My favorite thing about the archives profession is archivists! I’ve reached out to total strangers through Twitter, listservs, and professional organizations for career advice, graduate school assignments, or with processing questions and I’ve never encountered anything but encouragement and a genuine willingness to offer any help they can. The archival profession is full of hardworking, kind professionals that will go out of their way to assist the new kids.

I also love the chaos of introducing yourself to an institutional archive for the first time. I interned with the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina and my first encounter with their institutional archive was a rollercoaster of confusion, excitement, and feelings of rage towards scotch tape and paperclips.

What made you want to join the I&A steering committee?

I have a strong interest in the role of archivists as advocates for marginalized people, their histories, and records. The shift towards equitable access rather than equal access within the field is a movement that I firmly believe in and I’ve really enjoyed watching archives professionals advocate for change. I also feel a responsibility to consider how my own identity and values impact my work within the field. I think most would agree that neutrality as an archivist is nearly impossible. Getting involved with the I&A steering committee seemed like a great way to continue to learn about the diverse issues within archives and challenge myself professionally.

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

The inclusion and preservation of LGBT materials within archives is an issue that means a lot to me. During my graduate program, I researched the unique challenges archivists face when working with LGBT materials, including ethical concerns, cataloging and copyright issues, and privacy. I designed a research study to explore the information seeking behavior of transgender, intersex, and non-binary persons within South Carolina and I currently serve as a member of the South Carolina Library Association’s GLBT roundtable. I’m interested in the lack of representation and safe access to information within archives and libraries faced by LGBT persons and the steps professionals can take to bridge those gaps and improve services and programs for the public.

Steering Share from 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.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

One of my favorite things about working in archives is that you get to be a bit like Sherlock Holmes. It’s the archivist job to go through everything and piece together the clues about who the creator of the collection was and how that creator used and organized the collection. Every item you look at contributes a new detail that you can use to solve your mystery. While solving that mystery, you get to learn about a topic you may never have known about before. An even if the collection deals with topics you’re familiar with, it may come at it from a completely different angle which will show you a new way to contextualize history. The fact that working in archives forces me to constantly learn and explore new ideas is something I love about the job.


What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

After working as an intern for the committee, I knew that I wanted to join as a full member. My experience getting to work with everyone was so fulfilling that I didn’t want it to end after just one year. Working with the committee has allowed me to connect with other archivists and deal with issues that our profession is facing. Not only do we discuss the issues but we try to come up with concrete ways to solve the problems. While trying to get people who are scattered across the country to work together can be a struggle since we all have differing time zones and responsibilities, we all put in an effort to contribute something.

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

An issue that I have been thinking a lot about lately is the value of archival labor. It seems like a regular thing at this point to hear a story about how a researcher or historian visited an archive and discovered a lost piece of history. What so many of these stories neglect to say is who enabled that person to find that item. Even if a story acknowledges that the researcher used a finding aid or consulted with an archivist, there never seems to be any acknowledgment of the work that archivists do to make the materials available and accessible. This, to me, shows an inherent problem that archivists face. People may know we exist but they don’t know what we do or why it’s important. If the public at large doesn’t understand our work then they can’t value it. While they may think that the materials we work with are treasures, they fail to understand that those treasures can’t be preserved and accessed unless someone does some kind of work.  This lack of understanding can also contribute to the anger people feel when they can’t access something they want. Without understanding what we do, people can’t understand the framework we work within and how that can restrict use of a collection or material. By helping people understand what we do as archivists, we can help them gain a greater understanding of what archives are and why our work is so valuable.

Steering Share: Steve Duckworth’s second year with I&A

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. his post comes courtesy of committee member Steve Duckworth, University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University.

Hello again. This is my second year on the I&A Steering Committee and I’m excited to be back and helping continue the work of this group. This year, I’ll continue to oversee our news monitoring efforts, but we’re going to turn away from the monthly list of news reports and have a few people blog on news items of interest to them. This, I hope, will result in a more focused look at a few topics rather than a really shallow overview of a ton of topics.

For my first Steering Share this year, I’ll attempt to avoid repeating my answers from last year, even though my thoughts haven’t really changed much.

Steve having fun with mold.

What is your favorite thing about your job or the archives profession?

I still really enjoy mentoring students and new professionals, and hope to do more of that as my career continues to grow. But another thing I really enjoy about this profession is the archival community. For the most part, I’ve met amazing people with great ideas and a drive to do something about them. I’ve been lucky enough to have great mentors of my own and am constantly meeting people that I want to collaborate with on some project or another. I am learning to limit those projects to what I can actually handle in a given time period, but the ideas are still great and that positive energy helps keep me going.

What made you want to join the I&A Steering Committee?

I’ve been involved with I&A for a few years and, again, the people have been great to work with and really keep me wanting to stay involved. This committee is involved in a lot of issues that I feel are important not just to archives, but also to humanity – climate change, labor practices, open records, and truth in information exchange. It’s a great way for me to work within the profession, but know that the work I’m doing has some further reach.

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

Last year, I wrote about labor issues here. This is an area that I’ve continued to focus even more on in the past year – and I think some of these issues are becoming bigger and more widely spoken about. In the past year, the UCLA Project Archivists have spoken out loudly about the structure of that institution’s labor practices. I’ve continued to advocate for better labor practices for student employees. And I even advocated for myself when I felt I was not being fairly paid by my own institution. I think advocating for ourselves may be even harder than advocating for others – people don’t want to come off as needy or pushy or selfish. But I think we need a bit more push in this profession. What we do is important and we need to push others to understand the value of that work and stop accepting the status quo.