Thursday, August 28, 2008

SAA: LAGAR meeting

Today was a work day. I spent the morning doing some stuff that I didn't have the chance to finish before leaving for San Francisco and the afternoon helping to run the annual meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR) of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

As usual, we met away from the conference hotel and at a local LGBT Archives. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, which is located a few blocks away from the conference hotel, was an incredibly gracious host, and we all appreciated being able to see its exhibits on the Folsom Street Fair and GLBT people who served in the military from World War II to the Iraq War.

The meeting followed its usual format, which meant that we had a little time to socialize, then introduced ourselves, and got down to the business of electing a new male co-chair. Congrats go to (newlywed!) Jim Cartwright, who was just elected, and profound thanks go to Steve Novak, who just stepped down.

We then listened to reports concerning LAGAR's newsletter, Web site, online manual for community-based archivists who lack library/archives/information science backgrounds and revised our bylaws so that they conform to recent changes in SAA regulations concerning roundtable leadership; SAA now mandates that roundtable chairs serve no more than two consecutive years.

In addition, we got an update from Ben Primer, who just finished his term as SAA Council liaison and let us know that Council is planning on phasing out every roundtable that has less than fifty official members (i.e., dues-paying SAA members who indicate on their membership renewal forms that wish to be a member of the roundtable). To make matters worse, SAA now allows each member to join only two roundtables; at one point, one could join as many roundtables as one wanted.

LAGAR currently has fewer than fifty official members, but our bylaws allow non-SAA members to join our roundtable: we try very hard to bridge the gap between archivists who have academic credentials and professional positions and the community-based practitioners who began preserving LGBT archival materials long before research repositories took an interest in LGBT history. We also have some SAA dues-paying members who haven't indicated on their renewal forms that they wish to be official LAGAR members.

What a mess. I understand that roundtables consume a certain amount of SAA's resources and that there are a few roundtables that are not particularly well-run, but this policy is a disaster in the making. SAA has gotten so big during the past few years, and it's hard for newbies to get to know one another. Roundtables, which tend to be small, allow people to get to know one another and to take on their first SAA leadership roles.

Moreover, SAA is currently trying to promote diversity within the profession. Its new roundtable policy, which will likely have a negative impact not only upon LAGAR but also upon the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable, the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Roundtable, and other roundtables that seek to make this profession more inclusive, isn't going to do much to make SAA more diverse.

No one at the meeting was happy about this new policy. In the coming weeks, LAGAR's Steering Committee is going to have to figure out how to respond to Council's directive. We discussed a few ideas at the meeting, but we need to flesh them out.

LAGAR was founded in 1988, and in honor of our anniversary, we then moved on to an informal panel discussion on LGBT archives. Ron Grantz of the Lavender Library, Archives and Cultural Exchange of Sacramento, Karen Sundheim of the San Francisco Public Library's Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, and Greg Williams of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives talked about their repositories' history and holdings.

I wish we had had more time (I always wish that), but I'm glad for the time that we did have. Everyone had lots of great stories about their holdings (Ron Grantz's story about the papers of Jerry Sloan, a gay ex-minister who won a legal battle against Jerry Falwell, was particularly delightful), and it's apparent, at least to me, that those of us seeking to document LGBT history face some challenges that didn't exist twenty years ago:
  • As Greg Williams so aptly put it, a lot of community-based LGBT archives (i.e., archives that were started by LGBT activists and are not affiliated with academic institutions or other research entities) have gotten too big to manage properly or to die a peaceful death. What's going to happen to these archives when the current generation of community-based archivists passes from the scene? Will they simply be absorbed by research institutions? If so, what will it mean for LGBT people?
  • Staffing, funding, and space are real concerns for everyone. However, as Steve Novak noted, these are concerns that all kinds of community-based archives (i.e., local historical societies) face. The fact that we've encountered them is in some ways a sign that we've joined the archival mainstream.
  • Lots of people at the meeting expressed a need for a national network of LGBT archives and archivists. LAGAR has a guide to repositories holding LGBT materials on its Web site and encourages non-SAA members to join, but it's plain that the need is greater. Just how much LAGAR, an all-volunteer organization, can do to build such a network isn't clear, but the Steering Committee needs to do some brainstorming.
Thanks to Ron, Karen, and Greg for being such great panelists!

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