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,”, (July 13, 2019).

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

Services Providers, – navpanes=0, (July 13, 2019).

[3] Tanya Zanish-Belcher, “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. (July 13, 2019).

[5] Zanish-Belcher,

[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,” (July 13, 2019).

[8] Zanish-Belcher,

[9]  SAA Council, “SAA Statement on Diversity and Inclusion,” (July 13, 2019).

[10] ibid.

[11] Zanish-Belcher,

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.

Buranyi, Stephen. “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” The Guardian, Jun 27, 2017.

Kwon, Diana. “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls.” The Scientist, Dec 19, 2019.–the-ambitious-initiative-to-end-the-reign-of-paywalls-65231

Lippard, Kelsey Lovewell. “Open Archives.” UARK Libraries, Oct 26, 2017.

Panitch, Judith. “Liberty, Equality, Posterity?: Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution.” The American Archivist 59, no. 1 (1996): 30-47.

Peterson, Trudy. “The National Archives and the Archival Theorist Revisited, 1954-1984.” The American Archivist 49, no. 2 (1986): 125-33.

Schlitz, Marc. “Why Plan S: Open Access is Foundational to the Scientific Enterprise.” Coalition S, Sept 4, 2018.

Taylor, Ashley P. “Max Planck Society Ends Elsevier Subscription.” The Scientist, Dec 20, 2018.

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.


Archivists on the Issues: Rare & Ephemeral: a snapshot of full-time New England archives jobs, 2018-2019

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Genna Duplisea, the Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Salve Regina University. Genna would like to send special thanks to Caitlin Birch, Jaimie Fritz, and Olivia Mandica-Hart for reading and commenting on this piece, and to Suzy Morgan and everyone else who gave feedback during the initial data collection phase.


At the university where I currently work, there is a small but enthusiastic contingent of undergraduate students in the cultural and historic preservation and history majors interested in pursuing library school. As I am asked to give a picture of the archives profession to newly-declared majors every year, I think of the inadequate job market and question whether I am advising them well. This spring, feeling disheartened by what seemed like very few job postings and a rash of term positions, I found myself wondering if the data supported my perception that there weren’t enough opportunities for all the archivists in the region.


I compiled information on full-time archives positions in the six New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont) posted between April 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019. My sources were the Simmons University Jobline (, ArchivesGig (, and the New England Archivists and Society of American Archivists listservs.

Compiling this data required making decisions about what constituted an archives job. I included any position shared through archivist professional venues, even if it was unclear whether most archival training would be appropriate to the position. I included museum positions that related to collections care, digital collections, or other skill sets that overlap with archives training (but not positions unrelated to archives work, such as development). I included corporate positions as well as public, academic, government, or non-profit positions. A position needed to dedicate at least half of its time to archival work to be included. Temporary positions were included if those postings were full-time, as were positions that did not require a Master’s degree.

Because I began this project after many job postings had expired, some information is missing. In some cases I had to make assumptions about whether a salary grade was posted, after reviewing the institution’s general practices in job postings. (For example, I knew several larger institutions (such as Harvard and Yale Universities) always post salary grades; conversely, if a review of an institution’s current positions generally did not include salary information, then I assumed that there had not been any in the post I was researching.) Future research would be more effective if job posting information were to be downloaded and recorded as it is posted, so that original postings can serve as reference points and more information can be gathered before the removal of inactive positions from job boards.

This study is a snapshot of a year in the New England archives profession, allowing for some broad conclusions rather than a statistically significant analysis. Undoubtedly, I have still missed a few, but positions I hope to draw useful conclusions from the data. The full table is available here:

The survey found 115 full-time archives jobs at institutions within the six New England states posted between April 1, 2018 and April 1, 2019.

Salary information

Most of the job postings did not include any salary information at all, whether a flat number, a grade, or a range. Of the 115 total positions, posting information was insufficient in 30 of them and it was impossible to tell whether salary information had originally been present. Of the remaining 85 positions, 47 (55.3%) included salary information, and 38 (44.7%) did not.

If we exclude Harvard and Yale, the two largest employers in this survey, then the salary information becomes paltry — only 17 positions at other institutions included salary information. There was not enough information on salary amounts to conclude anything substantial.


Of the 115 positions, 30 of them (26%) were at Harvard or Yale Universities, meaning that over a quarter of all archives jobs posted in New England last year were at one of those institutions. The state with the highest number of postings was Massachusetts with 73 (63.4%). Connecticut had 25 (21.7%) postings, and Rhode Island had nine (8%). Vermont and Maine each had three postings (2.6% each) for the entire year, and New Hampshire had two (1.7%).

Temporary & Contingent Positions

The permanency of 11 positions was unclear. Of the remaining 104 positions, 72 (69.2%) were permanent. The rest were temporary positions, with terms ranging from two months to five years but mostly appointments lasting less than two years.

The value of the MS or MSLIS

Of the 115 positions, it was unclear in 25 of them whether a Master’s degree was required. Of the remaining 90, 61 (67.7%) required a Master’s or higher (one position required a Ph. D). Twenty-nine positions (27.7%) did not require it, and of those, 12 positions did not require a Master’s but preferred it.

Archives grads

For context, I was interested in finding out how many new archivists there were every year. The only archives management degree in an ALA-accredited LIS program in the New England region is at Simmons University in Boston. The Simmons University Office of Institutional Research provided information regarding the number of graduates with the archives management concentration. This includes graduates who earned the concentration in-person or online, and also includes graduates who pursued the dual-Master’s MS/MA program in Archives Management and History. (I myself am a graduate of this program.) Of course, not all archivists have Master’s degrees; not all Simmons University graduates stay in the region; not all archives graduates seek jobs in the archives field; and not all archivists in New England went to Simmons. The University of Rhode Island also has a library school (though not an archives-focused degree), and there are several public history Master’s programs in the region; all of these, as well as online programs, also train area professionals who work in archives, but the number of archivist graduates would be more difficult to track. Still, Simmons’s data provides an idea of how many new archivists enter the job market in the region annually.

Graph created by the author using data from the Simmons University Office of Institutional Research.

For the past ten years, the annual number of Simmons archives graduates has more than doubled, from 56 in 2008 to 121 in 2017. (The latest figure for archives degrees awarded in academic year 2018-2019 is 38, but this does not include the 2019 spring semester.) The increase has not been steady, with a drop between 2012 and 2014, but the program has consistently grown since then. The online program began awarding degrees in 2014, and represents a substantial minority of those degrees. All told, 872 professionals have graduated with archives degrees from Simmons in the past decade.


It does not seem that the job market in New England is supporting the influx of new graduates, or emerging and seasoned professionals. The exponential annual increase of digital information alone means, in my view, that society needs more archivists. A separate but related conversation with current archivists would surely conclude that people in this profession are overworked and understaffed, with job responsibilities ranging from processing to digitization to records management to teaching to digital preservation.

The Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA) has demonstrated concern for a dearth of salary information and low pay. SSA President Mark Lambert has published a series on the failure of national organizations and top archives directors are failing the profession ( Lack of transparency about archivist salaries allows institutions to avoid providing competitive compensation, and can generate huge wastes of time for candidates and hiring committees when applicants do not know whether a position will compensate them adequately. Last fall, SSA began collecting regional salary data ( At its spring 2019 meeting, the Society of Southwest Archivists voted to stop posting or sharing job advertisements that did not include salary information ( As of this writing, a group of archivists is collecting information for a proposal to SAA Council to require the organization to require salaries in job postings (, and New England Archivists is considering a similar change. More regional and national organizations, not to mention library schools, could make similar statements and take action to support its communities of learners and professionals.

It has been a decade and a half since the Society of American Archivists conducted A*CENSUS (Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States), which revealed trends about the archival profession and archival education. The SAA annual meeting this year includes a task force on A*CENSUS II. Pre-planning for the survey will be complete by early 2020, with the Committee on Research, Data, and Assessment (CoRDA) implementing it thereafter. (

The frequency of temporary and project postings demonstrates how dependent the archives profession is on external or limited funding. It is alarming that nearly a third of the archives positions posted last year were term-limited. I focused on full-time positions because I wanted to get a grasp on the types of positions people graduating from archives programs ideally want — secure, full-time, in a relevant field. Yet even this set of supposedly ideal positions show that job insecurity prevails. Professional organizations have a role to play in supporting the creation of stable, benefited, appropriately-compensated positions for its members. New England Archivists supported a study on contingent employment, released in January 2017 ( In response to the UCLA Special Collections Librarians open letter on contingent employment published in June 2018, NEA released a statement later that year (

A trend of precarious stewardship threatens archival collections, to say nothing of the impact on individuals struggling for economic stability. Eira Tansey’s recent May Day blog post pointed out that the best way to protect collections is to secure stable, ongoing support for staff ( Yet the inadequate number of new positions, combined with the trends of salary secrecy and contingent positions, seem to demonstrate that archives are not valued as core functions necessitating ongoing operational funding within an organization. If the collections that archivists steward have enduring value to their institutions, then the staff should experience similar value and respect for their work.



Archivists on the Issues: I’m sorry, can you repeat that? Navigating Archives while Hard-of-Hearing

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Michelle Ganz, the Archives Director at McDonough Innovation,

Hard of Hearing (HoH) covers everything from not being able to hear certain vocal ranges or pitches to only being able to hear with the help of hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Every HoH person’s condition, and therefore experience, is different. Everyone has different coping techniques and strategies to navigate the world we live in and the environments we move through. I’d like to share my experience and how that has informed how I have navigated my professional life as a lone arranger.

I was born deaf in my left ear and have slightly diminished hearing in my right ear, especially in the higher tonal ranges. Until a few years ago I managed without a hearing aid but as I have gotten older the efforts to hear became exhausting and I decided it was time to get help. Before the hearing aid I spent a lot of time completely panicked that I was missing critical information at school, at work, and anywhere that wasn’t home. After the hearing aid everything is louder, but that doesn’t translate to easier to hear. If a room has a lot of white noise, electronics, or cross-talk all I hear is a cloud of indistinguishable sound. When I was first transitioning to the hearing aid I would often have to flee from group situations to sit in a dark room until I could calm down from the overstimulation coupled with even less understanding. Those moments have passed, but I still have problems every day with basic vocal interactions; even in seemingly quiet spaces. Having an invisible disability can make an already challenging situation feel insurmountable.

The type of active listening and hyper-awareness of my surroundings that I have to engage in every day is exhausting, stressful, and isolating.  Some days are better than others, but what really adds to the load is the constant reminders to others: of my disability, of the best ways to communicate with me, or the concessions that need to be made for me. At best this sets me apart from the rest of the team, and at worst I’m seen as a disruption to the normal flow of work. People require regular assertions that I am not making things up to take advantage of perceived ‘perks.’ I feel like I constantly have to apologize for being a ‘burden’ for requesting special accommodations or basic courtesies. This means that I don’t always tell people that I can’t understand them.  It means I spend a lot of time wondering if I misunderstood something or completely missed something I should have heard. It means when I ask people to repeat things sometimes I have to ask so many times they just give up and walk away. It means I’ve sat in meetings and wondered what the heck was going on because everyone mumbled and the pace was too fast for me to ask for everything to be repeated.

Wearing a hearing aid has helped tremendously, but it doesn’t fix all my problems. It is paired with my cell phone (which is awesome) so phone calls stream directly to my ear, but conventional phones are nearly impossible for me to use. Listening to webinars on my computer, participating in conference calls, and other routine uses of technology can be difficult or outright impossible. Regular interactions with my colleagues in our kitchen are always a struggle, especially when the coffee machine is doing its very loud fresh-grind thing. People get uncomfortable with being asked to repeat an offhand anecdote or comment so it’s just easier for me to smile and nod rather than try to figure out what they said. Meetings can be totally derailed by requests to repeat something, or even worse, having to have someone else repeat what was said.  My boss is quiet and often mumbles, and does not like to repeat himself. I have spent hours trying to figure out what I missed from one of our meetings. When I used to do teaching sessions questions from students were the most difficult part of the class. At my last archive I had to conduct a lot of reference interviews over the phone with researchers who were often elderly or had difficult-to-distinguish local accents. This was frustrating for the patrons, who just wanted quick answers, and frustrating for me since it often derailed outreach efforts.

I understand that the vast majority of people will go their whole lives without knowingly interacting with someone who is HoH. But hearing loss affects millions of people (many of whom don’t even realize they have issues) and hearing issues are going to become a more prevalent issue in archival spaces and in everyday life. Our world is filled with white noise; even reading rooms have a lot of ‘noise’ not noticeable to most people. If I deeply engrossed in my work and there’s a fan on I will not hear you unless you get my attention first.

I also understand that people can’t grow and change if they a) don’t realize they are doing something wrong and b) if they don’t know where to start. To that end here are some of the things that I would like everyone to know.

The recommendations I’m laying out here are ones that I believe you should adopt with everyone. I believe that if you use the same sort of approach with everyone you will move the onus of service back onto yourself. Take a look at the resources I’ve listed below like the diversity work group page as well as the access statement on disabilities currently being updated. But mostly, use common sense. None of the things I lay out here are complicated, costly, or even time consuming. They just take practice to become part of how you approach every interaction.

Make eye contact

It’s easier for me to know you are talking to me and not someone else in the room if you make eye contact before you start to speak. It’s also an important way for you to tell that I’m actually listening.

Don’t cover your mouth / Make it easy for your mouth to be seen

Lip reading doesn’t work like in the movies. You can only catch about 40% of what someone is saying and it’s really hard to figure out since your mouth makes the same motions for a lot of different words. BUT we do use lip reading to confirm that what we are hearing is matching what your mouth is doing.

Speak clearly / use a microphone

If you speak clearly and enunciate your words it will be much easier for me to understand you. If there is a microphone in the room please use it. See the great blog post by Jessie Ramey (link below) on this very topic. She addresses the issue of people who don’t use microphones.

Have an alternative method of communication via digital or physical notepad

There is nothing more frustrating than a communication barrier. Have an alternative method like the notepad on your phone or a piece of paper. For many hard of hearing people the higher registers and tones of a woman’s voice can be difficult to understand; don’t be insulted if we ask to speak with someone with a lower voice (and yes, this often means a male voice). And don’t assume that I know sign language. Most hard of hearing people do not.

Be understanding of involuntary noise or levels of loudness.

Hard of hearing people are loud. We usually don’t realize that we are making a ruckus or causing a disruption. I have no idea how loud I am, especially in a quiet room or if I’ve been intently working on something. I use outside stimuli to determine my own levels of noise; often I have grossly misjudged but don’t know until people around me react like a bomb went off. Be polite and we’ll do our best to keep it down.

Don’t assume, ask

I would rather you ask me a hundred times what I’d like you to do than you assume and get it wrong. Assumptions (or even worse, asking the person with me) are infantilizing and marginalizing.

I’ve spent my whole life dealing with being HoH, I spent my childhood hiding it, my college years learning how to advocate for myself, and my adult life working so that today’s and tomorrow’s kids don’t have to hide. But at the end of the day none of my efforts mean anything if able-bodied people don’t acknowledge invisible disabilities and take steps to ensure that they are treating everyone with respect.



Working Group on Accessibility resources

The group has completed its task but the microsite has a ton of great resources and links to additional information.

Guidelines for Access Archives for People with Disabilities

The Approved guidelines for access. This is great resource to help you develop policies and to provide support with administration.

A Note From Your Colleagues With Hearing Loss: Just Use a Microphone Already

A fantastic blog post about the importance of things like microphones to HoH people.


There are a number of deaf and hard of hearing people on YouTube who have a ton of really great videos about their experiences. They explain a lot of things that HoH people deal with and review things like assistive technologies. I’m a big fan of Jessica Kellgren-Fozard and Rikki Poynter.

Archivists on the Issues: Archivists: The Superheroes of Time Travel

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.


Woman Data entry clerk entering data for legitimate online jobs. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

I am incredibly honored to release my first blog post as a contributor to the SAA Issues and Advocacy Section Archivists on the Issues Blog Series. In joining a distinguished pool of past writers, I hope to build on existing perspectives and suggest topics that reflect some of the broader issues archivists confront within an incredibly diverse profession. Whether one is a cataloger, digital asset specialist, processing archivist, or somewhere in between, it is imperative that archival professionals align the job with their own core values. As I reflect on the ways the archival profession creates positive change in the world and how many other livelihoods simply don’t — specifically those that utilize cheating, harming, or killing to advance a “bottom-line” — I can’t help but ask, “How do I hold my values in one hand and perform hours of data entry with the other, without losing sight of the greater goal?


It is early afternoon toward the end of a long work week. A spreadsheet stretches wide across two oversized computer monitors. I am dizzy from scanning rows, columns, and boxes, inputting endless metadata. I pause, close my eyes to reset my vision, and gaze back at my sheet. Though at times I crave a good spreadsheet, I can only sit with one for so long until I think, “What am I doing with my life?” I have to step back and remind myself that although the spreadsheet may sometimes be a challenging part of my job, it has great significance. In preserving the “stuff” of the past — context, provenance, metadata, the nitty, gritty details that breathe life into collections — I can draw a direct connection between the duties of my nine-to-five job and the values that drive my life.


Time Travel by Randall Munroe

Without knowing it, time travel is what led me to a career in archives. While pursuing a creative writing degree at San Francisco State University and interning at the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, I became enthralled with archives and the notion ofaccessibility. In working with my first archival object — a 1967 recording of Allen Ginsberg chanting the “Wichita Vortex Sutra” — it became immediately clear to me that people need to know these materials from the past exist; otherwise, what’s the point of preserving them? At that moment, I knew working with archival materials had some kind of intrinsic positive power to connect people across time. By recognizing archivists’ ability to time travel through memory, my drive to correct the wrongs of the past by amplifying experiences of the historically silenced took on new momentum.


LGBT families for immigration reform, by Christopher Edwards

As an archivist today, I’ve built upon my roots in creative writing and pursue work that supports positive social and environmental justice reform. For three years, I served as the head archivist at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, an LGBTQ non-profit that “collects, preserves, exhibits and makes accessible to the public materials and knowledge to support and promote understanding of LGBTQ history, culture and arts in all their diversity.” Since summer 2018, I have been serving as the first staff archivist at the Sierra Club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library, a special collections library documenting the club’s 127 year history in environmental justice. In both positions, I have been able to merge my personal and professional passions to build a more equitable, inclusive, and just world by protecting and disseminating truth through the archival record. Whereas creative writing was an early mode for these intentions to manifest, archival work serves my passions even more broadly. Archivists, much like poets, are truth tellers; we share not just the loud truths, but the quiet truths whispered by those whom history often erases.


Photos taken at the 2017 DC Climate March on April 29, 2017, by Mark Dixon

At a Sierra Club staff meeting last month, the Executive Director of the organization spoke about some of the club’s most recent victories. At the conclusion of his speech he said, “Our job is to change what people think is possible.” For archivists — the superheroes of time travel, the truth tellers of the past — it is especially relevant. Our individual pasts, stories, and experiences have enriched an increasingly diverse profession strengthened by differences in perspective. And with these differences, we each come to the profession out of a personal desire to make the world a more equitable, honest place. When archivists uncover truths, they stitch a small thread into a massive cultural and historic fabric, changing the pattern of that fabric for centuries to come.


Any time the spreadsheet doldrums get me down, I take a moment to remind myself of why I got into the archives profession all those years ago. Being an archivist is more than just a job; it is a means of traveling through collective memory and defending truths. Knowing that the ramifications of archival work stretch across space and time, archival professionals can be secure in knowing that we are true time travelers fueled by a passion to spread truth and promote greater justice. This is our professional foundation. The spreadsheet is simply a brick.

Archivists on the Issues: An Update on UCLA temporary librarians

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from current and former UCLA Temporary Librarians. While all the contributors to this post currently hold or held archivist positions at UCLA, the term “librarian” is used since that is way the institution classifies these positions.  At UCLA, the term librarian is used to refer to a variety of academic staff. All staff under this umbrella term are afforded the same protections. For these reasons, the terms archivist and librarian are used interchangeably throughout the text.


Since writing an open letter to UCLA Library administration in June 2018, we have received support from colleagues from all over the country. Thank you. Our situation at UCLA, and the grievance filed on our behalf by our union UC-AFT, are still unresolved and we wanted to post a brief update.

The Situation

2013 MTV Movie Awards - Red Carpet

As archivists who are classified as temporary librarians, we are well acquainted with the many reasons why the practice of hiring on temporary contracts is problematic. Over the past five years, and maybe more, our department Library Special Collections (LSC) has had more temporary archivists than permanent. This undermines the professionalism, expertise, and worth of archivists, it damages our personal lives, it diminishes institutional knowledge, it inhibits long-term decision making, and it disrespects our donors, users, and collections. These reasons and more are detailed further in the temporary archivists’ open letter to UCLA Library administrators.

LSC is continuing to capitalize on promises of “processing, preserving, and making [collections] accessible” to attract funding during UCLA’s Centennial Campaign. LSC’s funding and staffing priorities, however, tell a different story: one in which curatorial and collection development positions are given the lion’s share of endowments and funding, while archival work is addressed only once, through the creation of a relatively paltry general “fund to support the processing of high-priority collections.” (And let’s call that what it is: funding for more temporary hires to deal with processing that administration has promised to high-priority donors without regard for our staffing constraints and existing priorities.) The UCLA Library continues to respond to core and ongoing departmental needs by systematically under-staffing the Collection Management unit of LSC, which manages the work of archivists and catalogers, with precarious temporary positions, while ignoring and denying the effects of such a practice.

LSC continues to create and fill curatorial positions while its Collection Management staffing reaches critically low levels, as archivists’ contracts continue to expire. Administration has attempted to obscure this by blurring archival responsibilities in the department’s recent positions, in this way undermining professional boundaries and devaluing the work of processing archivists, as well as creating an undue burden for these positions and providing no roadmap for processing work in the long term. The concentrated effect of these decisions and hiring practices is to deprofessionalize our jobs as archivists- and, given UCLA’s size and status, is bound to have far-reaching effects on our profession as a whole.

Grievance process

Our union UC-AFT filed a grievance on our behalf in May 2018. The grievance alleges that UCLA Library is in violation of Article 18 of our contract, which details specific conditions for the hiring of temporary librarians. We have exhausted Steps 1-3 of the grievance process, as well as a preliminary “informal” meeting that occurs prior to Step 1. At each step of this process, we have reiterated the ongoing and permanent nature of our work and cited the widespread professional support that our case has garnered. At each step, Library Human Resources (LHR), UC Labor Relations, and, most recently, the UC Office of the President (UCOP) have denied our requests, citing a variety of ever-changing justifications. As of earlier this month, UC-AFT has voted to bring our grievance to arbitration.  

To date, we have not received any direct response or acknowledgment from library administration. This lack of response has been particularly disappointing.

UC-AFT includes abuse of temporary appointments in bargaining

UC-AFT Unit 17 Librarians have been engaged in bargaining with the University of California since April 2018. At its fourth bargaining session in July, UC-AFT proposed changes to Article 18 of our MOU, regarding Temporary Librarian appointments. Drawing on our experience, the Temporary Librarians helped draft the language changes and gave testimony on the necessity of the proposed changes.

The current contract language on Temporary Appointees addresses the issue by attempting to limit the scenarios in which temporary appointees are appropriate. However, UCLA continues to abuse and misapply this article by exploiting various loopholes, which we felt were necessary to close. The suggested changes include limiting the situations in which hiring temporary appointments are appropriate to three scenarios: filling in for a librarian on leave, filling in for a temporarily assigned librarian, and time-limited projects fully funded by extramural funding (i.e., grant funding) or external funding (e.g., donor-funded). They also seek to require UC to inform temporary appointees whether they will be re-appointed within a specific timeframe, as well as give more notice if they will be released early — the latter coming with the right for the employee to have an informal hearing before the release. We felt it was important for the UCOP team to hear firsthand from temporary librarians about the deleterious effects of exploiting the temporary provision and hope that the UCOP team values hearing directly from affected staff.

Future updates

If you would like to continue to get updates on the UCLA temporary archivists, please sign up here:

Links to additional information/coverage

Daily Bruin articles:

Professional support:

Leadership of the DLF Working Group on Labor’s Statement on UCLA Archivists

SCA Statement in Support of Temporary Archivists at UCLA:


Archivists on the Issues: Restrictions and the Case of the University of Michigan

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Steering Committee member Samantha Brown, an Assistant Archivist at the New-York Historical Society.

As archivists, we are constantly weighing the rights of record creators and donors against the needs of researchers. Sometimes balancing these differing needs can lead to a struggle that puts archives and libraries in the middle. We can find an example of this in a recent news story involving the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

The Bentley Historical Library’s story begins with the John Tanton Papers. The finding aid for the collection describes Dr. Tanton as an environmental, population control, and immigration reform advocate who has held leadership positions with the Sierra Club, Michigan Natural Areas Council, Wilderness and Natural Areas Advisory Board, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Advisory Commission, Little Traverse Conservancy, and the Environmental Fund [1]. What makes him a controversial figure was his work with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA. While working with these organization, Dr. Tanton worked to reduce both legal and illegal immigration and opposed bilingualism in public schools and government agencies [2,3]. In addition to this work, Dr. Tanton also created a publishing company called The Social Contract Press which notably published The Turner Diaries which was a race war fantasy novel that is seen as a key work for members of the American white supremacist movement [2].  

Part of what makes this collection newsworthy is the fact that half of the collection is sealed. While boxes 1 through 14 are open to researchers without any special restrictions, boxes 15 through 25 are sealed until April 6, 2035 [3]. This presents a problem for Hassan Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration attorney, who is trying to gain access to the whole collection. Mr. Ahmed believes that the collection could contain materials that show the relationship between anti-immigration groups and white nationalists as well as the influence that some of groups that Dr. Tanton has worked with are having on the White House [4]. The link between Dr. Tanton and the White House may very well exist. President Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, transition aid Lou Barletta, policy adviser Julie Kirchner, and immigration advisor Kris Kobach all have ties to FAIR, an organization that Dr. Tanton founded and was a chairman of [1,4].

Believing that the sealed parts of the collection could hold important information and should be part of the public debate, Mr. Ahmed filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the University of Michigan in December 2016 but the request was denied as was the request to appeal the decision [3,5]. Both the original request and the appeal were denied on the basis of Dr. Tanton’s donor agreement with the library [3]. After being denied his FOIA request, Mr. Ahmed sued the University of Michigan to gain access to the restricted parts of the collection [3]. When the case was brought before a judge, the University of Michigan filed for a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on the fact that parts of the collection were sealed due to the collection’s donor agreement [5]. While information about the donor agreement was disclosed in court, information about the donor agreement was not included in the collections finding aid [1,5]. The judge, Stephen Borello, ruled that since the collection was a private donation and not being used for a public purpose, the University of Michigan could not be compelled to open the collection [3]. Mr. Ahmed proceeded to appeal this ruling as well and is arguing that the university can’t use donor agreements to keep documents sealed. As of right now, he is scheduled to appear in court again in late September or early October when a ruling on his appeal will be made [3].

If Mr. Ahmed wins his appeal, the results could have a massive impact on archives and researchers. Without the ability to guarantee that parts of a collection can remain restricted, archivists may not be able to persuade people to donate or house their collections in an archive which will make it harder for the materials to be preserved and accessed. Access doesn’t just mean that someone can use the materials for their research but also that they can find the materials. A private person may have a collection that is helpful to someone’s research but a person looking for those materials may never be able to find it if an archive can’t create a way for those materials to be found. The work of archivists to arrange and describe collections plays a crucial role in a collection’s findability. If donors are too worried about giving their materials to archives because archivists can’t provide the donors with any guarantees then researchers lose out as well.

While this case holds risks for archives and archivists, it also teaches us something as well. Finding Aids need to be more than just a list of items and folder titles, they need to give researchers a preview of what the collection holds. One of the reasons that Mr. Ahmed wants to access the restricted materials is because he doesn’t know what is there. The finding aid’s description for the restricted materials only includes series and subseries titles with very little other information. If there was a way to know what could be found in the unrestricted  parts of the collection as compared to the restricted parts and what differentiated those parts of the collection then maybe there could be a way to work with Mr. Ahmed so that he could find what he is looking for in a different way. Other members of the organizations that Mr. Ahmed is interested in may have unrestricted collections at other institutions. Otis L. Graham Jr., another founding member of FAIR, for example, has some his collections housed at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The best result for both the researcher and archive, in my opinion, would be to find a way to help the researcher with their request without breaking the donor agreement. If this isn’t possible then I wonder why a box and folder list is even provided for the restricted materials. Why tell people that you have something if you’re unwilling to tell them about it? Without more information in the finding aid or speaking to the staff at the Bentley Historical Library and investigating their policies around arrangement and description, it’s difficult to know why the collection has been handled in this particular way. For now, we, as archivists, can look at this situation and use it to change how we both deal with collections and researchers.


Works Cited

  1. John Tanton Papers Finding Aid. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library, 14 Jun 2013,
  2. “John Tanton” Southern Poverty Law Center,
  3. Peet, Lisa. “Attorney Sues for Access to Tanton Papers in Closed Archive.” Library Journal, 18 Sept. 2018,
  4. Frazen, Rachel. “Why Is the University of Michigan Fighting to Keep an Anti-Immigration Leader’s Papers Secret?” The Daily Beast, 3 Sept. 2018,
  5. Warikoo, Niraj. “University of Michigan Oct.  Blocks Release of Hot-Button Records of Anti-Immigrant Leader.” Detroit Free Press, 28 Oct. 2017,


Archivists on the Issues: Intellectual Access to Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer for I&A’s blog, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

In my final post on access and accessibility in archives, I am examining intellectual access. By this, I mean the language, theory, practices, and other non-physical barriers that exist in archives. Once a patron has navigated the obstacles of digital access and physical access that I discussed in my previous posts, they finally make it to our reading rooms either in person or virtually and want to use our collections. What gets in the way of this process?

Description can often get in the way, sometimes through its absence and sometimes through its presence. When description is non-existent or not online or not accessible or too minimal to be useful, it is detrimental to access. This is not news to anyone. But sometimes seemingly great description can also be a barrier to access. Say you have an important, highly used collection and you decide to write a DACs-compliant EAD finding aid at the item level, post it online with excellent SEO and cross list it in all appropriate union catalogs. It is a thing of beauty. It has extensive notes, a detailed inventory, and follows archival standards. It is easy to find. If you know where to look.

But then you have an ESL patron who speaks limited English and cannot read it all. Or a seventh grader working on a History Day project who has a middle school reading level and does not understand some of the terminology. Or a patron who is completely unfamiliar with archival description and does not understand the complicated series structure or how to use the detailed information you have painstakingly input. Based on my experience in various reading rooms, these kinds of casual patrons make up a significant portion of our users.

There’s something to be said for gaining familiarity with the systems in place, but for the patron who only wants to make one visit to see something for personal reasons or the student using it for one class, or the patron who is frustrated by a first visit and never comes back, our systems are exclusionary. We cannot write description for everyone, but it is important to recognize that language, reading level, structure, jargon, and many other factors can hinder access for some users.

Many of these issues can be mitigated with good reference help, but this leads to another question I think about often: how do we determine an appropriate balance of labor between patrons and archivists? How much do we require them to do and how much are we willing to do for them? What is policy mandated and what is grey area? What can we change to improve the patron experience? Obviously, patrons need to take the first step to make contact. They need to provide information about the subject of their interest or the items they’d like to request. They need to adhere to any established policies regarding registration information, payment for reproduction, collection handling, etc. Archivists have to respond to requests, pull requested materials, and explain necessary paperwork and policies.

But between this is a whole world of negotiation, personal preference, and available resources. How much time do (can) we spend with a single patron? Where do we draw the line? I like to think that we should be willing to take more on ourselves as the gatekeepers to make things easier and more pleasant for our patrons, but that is not fair when so many of us are already overloaded with work. On the other hand, it is not fair to put all of the work on our users, especially when it is our policies that are creating extra work for everyone.

Many archives have policies regarding remote research time, but what about patrons who require additional assistance with finding aids or computers or microfilm readers or handling fragile collections or the photocopier? How do we ensure smooth hand offs to other archivists when schedules require that multiple staff members be involved? How do we enforce policies that require official ID cards when we are trying to reach out to user groups that may not possess them? How do we respond to concerns about patron confidentiality when we are storing information about patrons and their research topics? How do we reassure patrons who feel targeted by security policies that require surveillance?

How might we rethink our policies and procedures to make things easier for everyone involved? While it is not a magic bullet or a possibility for everyone, there is something to be said for tapping into aspects of industry or libraries that are already familiar to our patrons. Along these lines, there are some technological solutions to help streamline the reading room experience. The biggest and best known in Aeon, which is a great product, but prohibitively expensive for most of us. Other archives have come up with in-house solutions using existing free products, like Trello or Google Forms.

At my institution, we have been working with our web developer, access services department, and catalogers to come up with a solution that allows us to treat special collections materials like ordinary library materials. Briefly, our web developer came up with a button that is enabled in our catalog on materials that have the Lib[rary] Use Only status that allows users to request items for future use. It generates a form that collects name and contact information as well as the date they would like to use the item(s) that is emailed to the appropriate collection. Patrons can also request items on site without scheduling them ahead of time. We use the emails as pull slips and place the items on our hold shelf. When the patrons arrive, we set up a courtesy card in our ILS (Integrated Library System- we use Sierra) that allows them to use only special collections materials (a proper courtesy card with ordinary borrowing privileges has an associated fee but a special collections card is free). We then check the materials out to their account while they’re using it on site and check it back in once they’ve finished. We explain at the time of checkout that they are not allowed to leave our floor with the items and we have not had any issues with this. The one drawback is that we do not yet have all of our special collections in the catalog, which is where our fabulous catalogers come in to create records. We are also in the process of implementing ArchivesSpace and are hoping that our developer will be able to create a similar request feature for use there. All special collections will eventually be represented in both places.

Obviously, a solution like this is only available to archives with access to an ILS and some developer time. If you are interested, our web developer has made the request button code available on GitHub. But if you think outside the box, you may be able to come up with your won solution with the resources available to you. Libraries have been using similar systems for decades to track use and it is past time for archives to do the same.

My posts here have been much more question-based than answer-filled, but these are important issues with lots of room for discussion. I look forward to continuing that discussion with any of you who are interested and hope you will take the opportunity to use some of these questions to help examine your own work.

Archivists on the Issues: Archives as Art, Part 2

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from a regular writer for I&A’s blog, Cate Peebles. Cate is the NDSR Art fellow at the Yale Center for British Art, where she works with permanent-collection-related born-digital records. This is the second half of a 2-part essay.

Art critic Hal Foster puts a fine point on the “archival impulse at work internationally in contemporary art” in his much-cited 2004 essay, “An Archival Impulse,” published in the journal October, a publication established by Rosalind Krauss in the early 1980s as a forum to discuss post-structuralism and politically conscious art. In this essay, Foster highlights the work of three international artists: Tacita Dean, Sam Durant, and Thomas Hirchhorn.

Stating at the beginning of his discussion “the examples [of the archival impulse in art] could be multiplied many times,”[6] Foster’s discussion of these artists’ work outlines a shift in the archival mode in art within the last fifteen years and a resurgence of its popularity among artists. He says, “Archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end they elaborate on the found image, object and text, and favor the installation format.”[7] He emphasizes the face-to-face nature of these artworks, as opposed to using electronic means of connection such as the Internet. He also differentiates archival art from the institutional critique, which focuses on the museum, such as Broodthaers’ work. These artists use collected materials to create quasi-archives, such as Hirschhorn’s altars and kiosks and Dean’s collected photographs of “sound mirrors” built in Kent between 1928-30 to act as warning systems in case of air attacks, which were soon replaced by more reliable radar systems. Dean’s photography collects images of outmoded objects and gives them a place in the present moment, in effect removing them from time and place and including them in a catalog of “failed futuristic visions” that can only be recovered via the archive.

Foster asserts that the archival impulse in these artists’ work attempts to “probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs” and the purpose of their work is to give presence to historical objects in a positive way that “turn[s] excavation sites into construction sites…it suggests a shift away from melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than traumatic.”[8] Foster’s view of the archival trend in contemporary art may not strictly adhere to a traditional definition of “archive” but it expresses the archive’s role of importance as a physical and symbolic entity that is inseparable from our understanding of and interactions with time.

There are many more examples of archival influences in contemporary art, and the complex relationship between artists and archives will continue to serve as muses to one another in new and unexpected ways. Archives are never a single thing; they can be aesthetic, political, personal, fictional, historic, and eternally present. For this reason, they will continue to inspire artistic and cultural works.


Further Reading on Archives in/ as Artistic Media
  • Breakell, Sue, “Perspective: Negotiating the Archives,” Tate Papers, Spring 2008:
  • Enwezor, Okwui,  Archive Fever—Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York: International Center of Photography, 2008)
  • Holzer, Jenny. War Paitnings, (WALTHER KöNIG, KöLN, 2015)
  • Merewether, Charles, ed.. The Archive (Boston: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2006)
  • Raad, Walid, The Atlas Group Archive (website), accessed
  • Raad, Walid, and Eva Respini (ed.), Walid Raad, (New York: MoMA, 2015)
  • Spieker, Sven. The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008)
  • Thompson, Michael,  “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as Medium in Contemporary American Art,” Bibliographical Society of America, The University of Chicago Press (2015), especially pages 175-181

[6] Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse,” October, MIT Press, 2004, 3-22

For more international examples see also:  De Jong, Ferdinand and Elizabeth Harney. “Art From the Archive,” African Arts (Summer 2015), vol. 48, no. 2, 1-2; and Jolly, Martyn. “Big Archives and Small Collections: Remarks on the Archival Mode in Contemporary Australian Art,” Public History Review, vol. 21, 2014, 60-85.

[7] Ibid., 4