Friday, December 19, 2008

SAA and its roundtables

Earlier this week, Russell over at Records Junkie put up a couple of posts concerning SAA roundtables and archival identity. I've been meaning to respond to these posts, but until now haven't really had the time needed to allow my own thoughts to take shape. I'm still trying to get everything to meld, so what follows might be a bit rough in spots . . . .

Russell's first post concerns, in part, the ways in which specific types of "identity" -- race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation -- act as an organizing principle for some roundtables. (FWIW, I happen to think all roundtables, sections, and SAA itself are all "identity" organizations -- joining SAA is a declaration of one's professional identity, and joining a section or roundtable is a way of declaring one's specific professional concerns and allegiances as well) It also highlights the lack of roundtables addressing other aspects of identity, most notably religion.

I understand Russell's point and will return to it in a bit, but I feel compelled to point out that the main goal of the "identity" roundtables is not to enable people who identify as X, Y, or Z to socialize/network for a couple of hours but to carry out some sort of professional activity. For example, the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR), which I currently co-chair, works to promote the preservation and use of archival records documenting the lives and work of LGBT people and organizations. It also serves as a liaison between the archival profession and the many small, often volunteer-run LGBT archives established before the big research repositories began collecting LGBT materials. We've produced -- and periodically update -- a guide to LGBT records in North American repositories, and we're also in the final stages of creating a manual for small LGBT archives outlining the basics of identifying, preserving, describing, and providing access to LGBT records of enduring value. If LAGAR weren't doing this sort of documentary and outreach/educational work, I don't think that I would be nearly as committed to it.

I realize that the balance between socializing/networking and the sort of professional activity outlined above varies from roundtable to roundtable, and I'm inclined to allow newer roundtables a little time to find their footing; LAGAR celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, so we've had time to gel as a group and to get some work done. I also think that roundtables can contribute to SAA and the profession in any number of ways ways. For example, the Women Archivists Roundtable doesn't produce any guides to collections, but it does, among other things, coordinate the Navigator Program -- which is a substantial service to SAA.

Getting back to Russell's point about the lack of roundtables focusing upon religion, I suspect that the chief cause of this state of affairs is the existence of the Archivists of Religious Collections Section (ARCS). A lot of SAA members who work with such collections or who are otherwise interested in identifying, preserving, describing, or providing access to records documenting the role of religion in the lives of individuals or the history of religious institutions are most likely ARCS members. However, if other SAA members want to establish roundtables focusing on specific faiths or denominations and can articulate the distinctive contributions such roundtables would make to the organization or the profession, I would be more than happy to welcome them into the ranks.

Russell's second post concerns Council's recent decision to establish a 50-member minimum for roundtable membership and to abolish roundtables that fail to meet this minimum. Russell supports Council's decision, and rightly notes that it costs money to furnish meeting space for the roundtables. He also questions how effective a very small roundtable can be, and he has a point. However, I think there should be a place within SAA for roundtables that have less than 50 members provided that they actively meet the responsibilities outlined in the Council Handbook. Moreover, the 50-member limit threatens to obliterate the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Archives Roundtable, which is less than a year old and serves a community traditionally underrepresented in SAA. How would dissolving this roundtable square with SAA's commitment to increasing diversity within the profession? It also looms over the Security Roundtable, which typically attracts archivists who are suddenly confronted by security issues. Do we want to abolish an organization that helps colleagues dealing with unexpected and often profoundly stressful professional challenges?

As far as the feasibility of allocating meeting space to very small groups is concerned, people can and often do attend meetings of roundtables to which they don't belong because they're curious about the group or interested in the meeting program. I check out various roundtables on occasion, and I know plenty of other SAA members who do the same. I also don't think that size is necessarily related to quality. Some of the best meetings -- and sessions -- I've ever attended have attracted a relatively small number of people, and I've sat through large meetings that just weren't worth my time. If SAA is concerned about the cost of meeting space, perhaps it should encourage roundtables to find alternate meeting space if feasible. For example, LAGAR met at the Gerber/Hart Library in 2007 and at the GLBT Historical Society in 2008, thus freeing up meeting space for other roundtables; however, we might need to meet at the conference hotel in 2009.

I suppose that what I find most troubling about the new roundtable membership requirement is that it suggests that SAA's recent membership increase -- a good thing -- might not be managed in ways that facilitate integration of new members into the organization or cultivate future leaders. Roundtables and sections are both charged with enabling new members actively to participate in SAA, but many section meetings are so big and thus so regimented that they can't do so effectively. I've been around for a while and am involved in a couple of multi-state grant projects, so I see lots of familiar faces when I walk into Electronic Records Section or Government Records Section meetings. However, if I were new to SAA, I would have little opportunity to get to know other members of these sections. Just about all of the time allotted for the ERS and GRS meetings is, by necessity, devoted to formal business meetings and programs, and the meetings attract so many people that we don't even have time to go around the room and introduce ourselves at the start of the meeting.

Roundtables, on the other hand, are generally small enough and informal enough to bring new members into the fold. For example, LAGAR meetings typically attract 30-40 people, and we always enable people to chat informally for 10-15 minutes before the meeting starts. The co-chairs and steering committee members consciously seek out first-time attendees and make them feel welcome, and I always make it a point to stop and ask how things are going when I see these new faces in the exhibit hall or session rooms in the days that follow. I want new SAA members to feel that their presence has been noted and appreciated, not simply lost in the crowd.

Roundtables also enable newer members to take on their first official leadership roles within SAA. Serving as a roundtable chair, co-chair, or steering commitee member is good practice for taking on similar roles within a section, and I know several former roundtable chairs who ultimately did so; others have become members of task forces or other SAA bodies. If SAA starts making it more difficult for roundtables to exist, it might ultimately decimate future leadership cohorts -- which isn't good for the organization or the profession at large.

Noting that SAA has publicized the meetings of unofficial groups such as the Progressive Archivists in its meeting programs, Russell advocates that, in addition to sections and roundtables, SAA establish official interest groups (e.g., Conservative Archivists, Catholic Archivists) that would receive a small amount of Web space but no official meeting space. I think that this is a good idea -- but I would personally prefer that the groups have at least some relationship to professional issues. One of the more tongue-in-cheek examples that Russell gives is Archivists Who Are Parents. If the main goal of Archivists Who Are Parents is to enable members to discuss the challenges of and brainstorm strategies for balancing work, involvement in professional associations, and parenting, great. If its chief aim is to allow archivists to exchange information about the best diapers, dealing with the terrible twos/teens, etc., it should, in my view, remain unofficial.

Official interest groups would certainly help to draw new members into the life of SAA and allow archivists who share common interests but do not wish to undertake formal projects to discuss issues of common concern. Moreover, such groups might help to reduce some of the fiscal burden associated with finding meeting space: Russell notes that some of the smaller roundtables might prefer to reconstitute themselves as interest groups, and I suspect that he might be right (of course, some interest groups may ultimately decide to become roundtables, so resource demands might remain unchanged).

I would strongly oppose any effort to convert all roundtables, which have formal reporting requirements and other responsibilities, to interest groups. Again, it's a matter of developing leadership: the experience of completing and filing convener statements and annual reports, complying with SAA's records management policy and transferring records to the SAA Archives as appropriate, putting together annual meeting programs and running roundtable business meetings, and carrying out roundtable-specific projects is good preparation for other leadership roles. Interest groups, even officially sanctioned ones, won't be as closely attuned to SAA's inner workings, and their conveners won't have the same level of experience as roundtable chairs/co-chairs. It's in SAA's long-term interest to cultivate as many potential leaders as possible, and eliminating or starving roundtables will almost certainly reduce the candidate pool or make the learning curve for new section and task force leaders even steeper than it is at present.

I've gone on long enough, upstate New York is enjoying a brief lull between snowstorms, and I have some errands to run. However, before I sign off, a couple of disclaimers:
  • Russell, we've never actually met, and I apologize if you find my use of your given name overly familiar; this "brave new world of digital intimacy" is a bit much at times.
  • My statements are mine alone and do not necessarily represent those of LAGAR's other co-chair, the LAGAR Steering Committee, or the LAGAR membership.

No comments: