Why I’m having trouble with my own radical re-imagining

Those of you with good memories will recall that a few weeks ago I challenged you to share  your visions of a radically re-imagined SAA. And many of you answered the challenge, although some of your visions were not that radical. So, those of you with long attention spans may be asking, where’s my vision? 

Here’s why this post doesn’t have that bright shiny vision.

1) I can’t follow my own directions. In issuing the challenge, I wrote: “For the purposes of this exercise, let’s say you don’t have to worry about the budget and sources of revenue (which, as we all know, any real-world implementations of these ideas would have to take into account). You have a blank canvas.” I’m too aware of the constraints of budget. I find myself unable to imagine a blank canvas. The real world is interfering with my creative process.

2) I have kicked around a couple of different scenarios and I’m quite sure the one I like best will be least popular.  The starting point of my thinking is that we’ve reached a point when SAA needs to stop trying to be everything to everyone. If there are to be new initiatives or activities, some of the existing ones have to be discontinued. Or dues need to rise dramatically to provide additional staffing and resources. Let me guess which one of those options you like better. So in order to decide which activities to stop providing and which new activities to initiate, key questions need to be addressed, such as what are the organization’s priorities and whom does it most want to serve? There are a wide range of possible answers to those questions, and they would result in very different kinds of radically re-imagined organizations. And answering those questions in a way that would be personally satisfying to me would result in an organization that would probably not be very popular with a lot of the membership.

So, that’s why I’m dragging my feet. But, just to reward you for reading all the way to the end of the post, here are some teasers. These questions should give an indication of my thought process:

  • SAA is our national professional organization. We also have many professional organizations at the regional, state, and local level. What kinds of activities and services are most appropriate for a national organization rather than the smaller ones? What is SAA uniquely positioned to deliver?
  • A lot of people seem to think that SAA should be a welcoming organization in which everyone feels “comfortable.” Some people think it is too cliquey and has an “old boy/girl” feel about it. Is the purpose of SAA to serve a social function or a professional one or both? In an organization of almost 6,000 members, how should people’s needs to make  personal connections best be met? Or is this an unrealistic expectation?
  • Given that SAA’s sections and roundtables are where many members derive much of their satisfaction, feel they are able to make contributions, and make many of their personal connections, I’ve heard it suggested that SAA should shift resources to provide more support for them and generally increase the role they play in the organization. Is the profession becoming so diverse (in many ways) that increasing the prominence of these smaller internal groups makes sense to better serve the membership?
  • Should an organization such as SAA which has a limited budget and resources focus primarily on what it can do best and will meet the needs of most of its members even if this means admitting that some important longer-term  goals need to be shelved?
  • To shift gears and talk about money, for now and for the foreseeable future, it appears to me as if the overwhelming majority of SAA’s revenue comes and will come from archivists and archives (through dues, annual meeting revenue, publications, fees for educational programs, and online job advertising). (See page 7 of the 2011 Annual Report if you’re not familiar with how the budget breaks down.) Given that individual archivists and archives are unlikely to see increases in their budgets in the near future, where does this leave SAA? Think about this in conjunction with some of the issues raised above.

That’s not very satisfying, I know. Believe me, I’m not satisfied with it either. But there you are, an honest rambling post is better than a non-post, I think in this case.

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6 thoughts on “Why I’m having trouble with my own radical re-imagining”

  1. It is interesting that you say SAA needs to stop trying to be everything to everyone. College and universities employ the largest number of archivists so perhaps looking at the makeup of membership is a start? In the recent SAA survey I stated that smaller manuscript repositories like my place of employment feel left out at annual meetings which tend to have programs and sessions exhibiting what larger institutions do with better budgets. And most of those placed and presenters are college and university archivists.

  2. “SAA needs to stop trying to be everything to everyone.” Yes. And amen. Your thought process is on target. Having regrets that your analysis is disquieting does not make it less true. Pull the trigger on your recommendations. They can be a concrete place to start a this debate. Some with investment on “bigger” and “more inclusive” will dismiss, but others who have been cynics may find something to embrace for the first time in a long time. Love to see how you’d flesh out the old bones.

  3. Matt: In some ways that’s an issue with the program committees, which may see the session proposals of larger institutions as more “exciting” than those of smaller places. A possible solution could be providing more meeting time for sections (such as the College & University or Manuscript Section) to provide for meetings of smaller groups within that section–such as self-identified smaller repositories–to gather and share ideas.

    Actually, your point illustrates what I’m saying in way. Since there are so many different kinds of repositories and different kinds of interests within the profession now, I think it’s very challenging for everyone to feel like the content of the annual meeting sessions appeals to them. I’ve heard from all kinds of archivists that there’s little in the program that they find valuable. And yet the program committee tries valiantly to make sure there’s some content for everybody. So instead of trying to build that content into the official program, why not build more time into the schedule for groups with similar interests and get together and share their own content? If there were an option for smaller repositories like yours to have their own listserv and other ways of sharing information, would you use it? Those are the kinds of ideas I’m thinking of when I talk about placing more emphasis on the sections/RT, which could include having smaller subgroups within some of the larger ones. How would that work for you?

  4. Ah, Heavens, looks like you and I are the only ones still interested in this topic. Thinking and writing about SAA for the blog may not be the most effective use of my time these days, so you will probably have to live in suspense. I’m sure I’ll post some kind of follow up once the results the membership survey are available.

  5. I’m not sure that the cynical heavens and the inclusive biggers have to be at odds. You’re analysis is reasonable, Kate. I especially like the discussion of the need to identify roles and understand that it’s necessary for archival organizations to work together (in new ways maybe?) to best serve their respective memberships. While I agree that economics are driving and focusing this conversation, the frame can just as easily be “making things better” (whatever that might mean) as “need to sacrifice”.

    We should all look at what archivists (under a really big tent) need/want and then figure out ways to make the varied levels of organizational and personal networks meet those desires. That might result in a “bigger” professional network but with more specific and less redundant roles and more complex interactions.

    hahaha. More rambling for you, my friend!

  6. Kate,

    I wouldn’t necessarily use a list that is just for small repositories because I find the current list has been useful when I’ve posted in the past. There is enough variety on the listserv that almost always produces responses to inquiries. I like though of more time and focus for roundtables and the like. I suppose the challenge would be for everyone in a particular boat to identify and connect themselves. My institution is difficult to connect because while we are small, we are well staffed and funded with the exception of an in house IT staff. There lies most of our difficulties which prevents us in some ways of participating with things like Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO). But we scan still use Web 2.0 tools like Flickr and the Portal to Texas History to get records online. Most small archives services seem to cater to lone arrangers or places with very small budgets. So maybe its just us!

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