Do we need SAA 2.0?

I had a couple of conversations with people yesterday about our professional organization (that’s the Society of American Archivists, for any non-archivist readers). That made me go back and read something that I’d tucked away–yet another post from a library blogger. This one is from Information Wants to Be Free (got to love that name) and was called “What about Library Association 2.0?” As usual, I suggest you read the whole thing (and the comments), but her point (to grossly over-summarize) is that the way in which some professional organizations rely primarily on committees to carry out their work is not conducive to capitalizing on the creativity or energy of individual members who may, for whatever reason, want to work outside the committee structure. (See also her remarks about how ALA started using wikis, in the context of our discussion about a wiki for SAA.)

In a related post, the Librarian in Black (damn! I should have been the Archivist in Black!) wrote:

State associations are really outliving their usefulness. I wonder, though, if our national associations are not doing the same thing. It used to be that the only way to network was through the associations. But that is no longer really true. So much happens online through listservs, blogs, webinars, etc. I personally don’t feel the necessity to belong to any association in order to “network.” So, what do I get for being a part of an association?

Let’s call a spade a spade. These associations lobby on our libraries’ behalf. So, I pay quite a bit of money for membership to a state or national association that returns nearly no substantial benefits to me (a small discount on conference registration and a quarterly [state] or monthly [national] print publication). So what does all that money I give them go to? To lobby on behalf of my employer.

I’m not suggesting that SAA has outlived its usefulness, and I think I’m pretty comfortable with where my dues go, but I do think some discussion of the way SAA conducts some of its/our business would be useful. I have serious concerns about the way the whole business of the listserv archives was handled (leaving aside the actual appraisal decision). In my longest post to date (March 29, I’m sure you read every word), I wrote about the ways in which I think the society must embrace new technologies in order to achieve its goals. I’m afraid that I do sometimes feel, as Richard Cox so eloquently put it in a listserv message requesting the release of the appraisal report:

SAA needs to be an open organization, and my fear is that the damage done to its public image in this recent discussion is severe, supporting what many have criticized as its elitism and disconnection from the archival community.

I guess what I see as common threads in these discussions are contrasting visions of a closed, conservative organization that works via committees to perpetuate the values and methods of the status quo, or of an open, nimble organization that is more welcoming to the contributions of members outside formal committee structures. I’m not suggesting SAA is the former, or can ever be the latter (I don’t think any organization of its kind ever could). But, does anyone else think it’s too close to the former and not close enough to the latter?

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3 thoughts on “Do we need SAA 2.0?”

  1. I have been a member of SAA since 1974, and for nearly my three decade-plus involvement with this association I have heard complaints about its being elitist and disconnected. Having been an elected member of its Council, the editor of its journal, the chair of some committees, and its publications editor, I always defended SAA against such criticism. I always believed SAA to be approachable and easy to work with, but its recent handling of the archives listserv archives suggests that it has, in fact, lost touch with the archival community. I have no explanation for this, and I am surprized and disappointed since SAA does a lot of things very well. However, I do think it needs to rethink its leadership approach. The damage done with the archives listserv could have been easily avoided, and that it was not is testimony to problems with the present SAA leadership. However, one should also take note of how the listserv participants in this discussion, once the remarkably awful appraisal report was posted, also ceased to discuss matters any more. The profession needs a strong leader and advocate, and it appears we do not possess this at all for the moment. It is not SAA, it has not been NARA for a very long time, and its has not been the state archivists for quite some time. I fear for the future of the profession, but all I can do is teach a new generation and write and publish position papers arguing for different kinds of leadership and advocacy.

  2. Caveat 1: I am an archives student coming to the profession from the IT world.
    Caveat 2: I am an optimist.

    I keep thinking that one of the things that needs to happen is that a collaborative space online needs to exist to support a grassroots community of archivists. The listserv does this to a degree – but it does only some things well. I am not sure what the perfect online collaborative space looks like – but probably something in the wiki universe is headed in the right direction. Maybe I have never had a really great leader to follow, but my instinct is to give everyone a chance to participate and contribute. I am looking for that snowballing effect that would happen when you find yourself contributing to an online community that you also use as a regular resource to help support your day to day work. A central place for essays, papers, research, group coordination, links..etc etc.

    I am willing to believe that SAA could lay the groundwork for something like this. I am also willing to believe that SAA might move too slowly and that this community will seed itself and grow outside of the management of SAA.

    I do believe that leaders and advocates are important – but as someone just coming into the profession what I am looking for is where all the best and brightest are sharing their ideas. I guess I am more interested in where the essays “arguing for different kinds of leadership and advocacy” are going to be published such that anyone can read them than I am interested in exactly what they would argue for!

  3. I have been an SAA member for about a dozen years, but I have preferred to focus my attentions more on my regional archival organization because of the fact that I feel SAA is not particularly well in tune with the needs of individual members of the archival community, broadly defined. I understand the nature of the comments of the Librarian in Black, this perception that the work of the national organization should, but often does not, “trickle down” to impact the individual members. I have heard criticism from others about the elitism of SAA’s leadership, and also about its being run by the ivory tower crowd. Fine, so what should we do?

    Within my own employing organization, a change in leadership around 2000 led to a complete reevaluation of leadership structures – types of committees, their membership, their responsibilities, the chains of command, etc. This type of reevaluation had not been done for decades, and was seen as a necessary step to make the organization more nimble, better able to do business in the 21st century. The changes have proven remarkably successful, and the organization is now much stronger and healthier, with greater accountability combined with speedier decision-making. I wonder if SAA needs to do something along these lines as well. How long has the current system of leadership been in place, and when was it last evaluated? Should we elect Council members differently? Should leadership be more representative – maybe by region, by repository type, or otherwise? Should we have more or fewer sections and roundtables? Should they do more or less? Are we taking advantage of the available technologies for communication among these various bodies?

    I think, at the very least, a reevaluation of the current manner in which SAA operates is in order, and I think an independent outside evaluation needs to be a part of the process. Without something of that sort, I imagine that business as usual (as practiced in the mid-twentieth century) will continue to be the rule for SAA.

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