“The SAA Annual Meeting is unwelcoming.” Yes, it can be. Here’s what we can do about it.

For the past few days I’ve been going through the over 1500 comments SAA members submitted when they completed the SAA Member Survey. As you might expect, some familiar themes emerge, and one of them is that SAA as a whole and that the annual meeting in particular isn’t very welcoming of newcomers. I was reading those comments (and these ones) right before I attended the fall MARAC meeting, so I made an effort to try to talk to new people, and I’m glad I did. However, this was a something I actually had to be conscious about because, and I’m being 100% honest with you, I don’t go to meetings with the goal of meeting new people. Sorry, maybe that’s not admirable, but it’s the truth.

Anyone who knows me knows that I know I lot of people and that I seldom get to see any of them in person. For me and I think many others, going to a regional or national meeting is a rare chance to see friends and colleagues and catch up. I treasure my friends, and if I have a choice between spending time with someone I see once a year and talking with someone new, I may be more likely to choose the former than the latter. I don’t think that’s unusual. So, yes, if you go to annual meeting as a newcomer and feel like everyone else is there to see their friends, you’re partly right. Which isn’t to say that I don’t end up meeting new people–I always do, and some of those new people become friends too.

I was lucky. When I attended my first SAA meeting, I was part of group of students who all knew each other and hung out together. But I’ve heard from friends about their first meetings, when they didn’t know anyone and felt lonely and excluded. And that’s not a nice feeling. No one enjoys feeling like that.

So what can we do about it? And by “we” I mean SAA as an organization and “we” as individual people? Well, you can do what the dynamic members of the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable did, and organize something to help. They coordinated a lunchtime meetup for people who wanted to get together–and was there a dinner one too? From what I heard those were a big success. And the Long Arrangers Roundtable does something similar, I think, don’t they? So if you’re already involved in an SAA group, you can think about what you can do to help better integrate and welcome newcomers.

What else? I was chatting with some friends about this on Facebook (no surprise there!)  and it was interesting to see how the conversation went:

You know, though, I can kind of understand. For years (and for some of those I was a lone-arranger), I felt kind of like an outsider at SAA meetings. No one really talked to me. I just wandered from session to session. It was really lonely. (I’m being completely serious)

if you walk into a meeting of 1600 or more and don’t already know someone … It takes a lot of energy to make that first connection – energy that introverts are already using to just walk in the door in the first place. I felt the same way at the conference I went to before joining NARA.

Just to the right of the registration booth there needs to be a “First Timers” booth staffed with SAA member volunteers to welcome the newbies and do a little on the spot mentoring. At the least, yank another SAA member walking by and introduce the newbie to at least one other member at the meeting. Kate Theimer: Let’s make that our project for New Orleans!

I love the idea of some sort of “welcome wagon” for newbies! I may even make it my personal goal to talk to some folks who look like they’re new and just trying to navigate.

[Me:] Are you volunteering to staff that “welcome wagon” booth, [name redacted]? Should have someone from the local area there too, to help with logistical questions. And maybe some swag to give out? Maybe some of the SNAPpers would want to staff it too.

We could make “First Timer” or “SAA Virgin” ribbons!

[Another organization] has done first time attendee ribbons for ever…we ask on the registration form if this is their first convention (so gets tracked in database), and we follow-up with this group with special blast emails, information, what to do, etc,; and special follow-up surveys, etc.

[Me:] I think they already have “new member” ribbons. Not sure about “first timer” ones. And they do have the new member/first time attendee reception, at the end of the first day, I think. But that’s not always a great way to meet people.

And they had that program for awhile – not sure if they still have it – where a “first time” could be partnered with a more seasoned attendee. The seasoned attendee would have coffee with them, help them out with logistics, and whatever. I did it one year but [redacted information about why it didn’t work out so well.]

[Me:]  That’s the “Navigators” program, and yes they still do it. But I’ve heard it has problems.

So there you go. A short brainstorming session on Facebook and my friend, let’s call him Name Redacted, came up with a good idea that I think is something SAA doesn’t already do. Anybody think this would be helpful? Should Name Redacted get working on organizing it? What else can you think of that might help?

p.s. I know there are other problems. Remember, I read through all the comments. I heard about other concerns, and I’ll get around to talking about those soon. Maybe even on the official SAA blog, but for now I just thought I’d focus on one thing and see if maybe we can do something about that.


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16 thoughts on ““The SAA Annual Meeting is unwelcoming.” Yes, it can be. Here’s what we can do about it.”

  1. My experience at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting (i.e., conference) is usually the same–I work in an ethnographic archive, but I am not a folklorist. It seems that the problem lies in trying to get people to divide their time a little, between not only the meetings/events and seeing their friends, but also meeting, greeting, and befriending newcomers. An organization cannot thrive with new people to diversify and give new life to the membership. How to do this: in part, make it part of the meeting reminders that welcoming newcomers is an honorable obligation, not an onerous duty.

  2. Things can be done on a small scale, one-on-one. I am a mid-career professional that attends a couple of conferences regularly. I have my best friends – my kindered spirits – that I can’t wait to see again because, like you, we only get to meet up at these conferences. We go out for drinks, laugh ’til our sides hurt, all of which feeds the soul. I also see this comraderie (sp) with the generation of professionals older than me with their tight group . . . and I want the same for the generation of professionals younger than me. I try to help the ‘newbies’ along by making it MY goal to meet new professionals/new attendees at the conference, especially in the actual formal part of the events, bringing them into my peeps’ conversations, sharing a coffee break, sitting next to a new person at sessions and the like. I make the first move of introduction because I feel that it is part of my responsibility as veteran conference attendee to mingle, and to to introduce new people to each other and make connections. Sometimes all I have to do is introduce them and they are off and going and my job is done! (And know that I am a bit of be mouse in the rest of my social world, but for some reason I find it easy as pie at conferences to strike up a conversation. Maybe it is because I am with ‘my people’ who love the work I love, whether I know them or not?)

    And one last thing . . . I hope this doesn’t come out wrong. Kate, you are internet famous in the archives world. There will be people who want to meet YOU who have never met you before! But it may be intimidating to make the first move. I say this because I have a teeny tiny blog (mostly about museums) and I find it really humbling when a young professional actually recognizes my name from the work I do, and what I write. You may be know this already but it is always good feedback to know you are making an impact in your profession.

  3. Having been one of those extremely lonely people at her first (and only, thus far) SAA meeting, I think having a newbie “Welcome Wagon” or something similar is a really good idea. If it should ever come to fruition, I would love to be involved — maybe that way I’d get to meet some newbies, too!

    My hope is to be in New Orleans this summer, so I definitely look forward to seeing something like this happen.

  4. At a MARAC session on looking back at 40 years of MARAC, the topic of engaging newcomers came up. Someone said that all members have an obligation to reach out to new members at the conference and I would argue SAA members have the same duty.

    There could be a set of roving volunteers who circulate during breaks and the vendor sponsored meal who walk around looking for solo archivists. There could also be a special table reserved at breaks and receptions for archivists who want to meet new people. And what about a speed networking event?

    I find it pretty easy at conferences to find other people who are at the same point in their career as I am, but I’d like more opportunities to network with people more experienced than myself.

  5. For the last couple of years at meetings of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC.org) we have had a Newbies Breakfast in the conference hotel on the first morning of sessions. Our Council are all ‘encouraged’ to attend, we sit at big round tables and chat to folks about what they (and we as a society) do and keep an eye out for good matches for any of our committees that need extra help. We wrap the cost into the conference expenses. Seems to go over well and is very well attended.

  6. Hi Judith,

    Yes, SAA has a similar event for new members and first-time attendees (http://saa.archivists.org/Scripts/4Disapi.dll/4DCGI/events/eventdetail.html?Action=Events_Detail&InvID_W=2430). I believe this used to be a breakfast on the first day but it’s now a reception on the evening before the meeting starts. Council members are also encouraged to attend and food is provided. The times that I’ve gone it’s fairly well attended. As to how effective it is at helping people meet others, I can’t say. I know SAA is always looking for feedback to make it more useful.


  7. Anon, I love how you said this: “… make it part of the meeting reminders that welcoming newcomers is an honorable obligation, not an onerous duty.” I couldn’t agree more! We were all new at some point. We all know it can be difficult to get started developing a social network at any professional gathering, including SAA. Those who are no longer nervous about speaking up and connecting really do have an obligation to help, howsoever briefly–and it’s totally rewarding to do so.

    One of the things I’ve always made a point of doing is to go up to speakers–especially “young” ones who seem likely to be early in their public speaking careers–who have given terrific presentations and tell them how good it was and why. It can be a confidence builder (even for experienced speakers!), and it doesn’t interfere with any socializing.

  8. @Caroline – I’d be interested in knowing more about your “teeny tiny blog” about museums. Would you mind including a link or post? (I apologize of this is out of line here – but I didn’t see contact info for you to contact you offline).

    @Kate and all – Thanks for having this conversation. I have been to several library, archives, and museum conferences over the last two years and I appreciate where the ‘feeling’ is coming from. It can be difficult for some to reach out and meet others. Fortunately for me, I am pretty outgoing and can strike up a conversation with just about anyone or anything.

    However, you also have to be able to deal with ‘shut down’, ‘shut out’ and ‘uncomfortable silences’ which can be soul-crushing at times. I am fairly resilient and recover well, but it’s no fun to be shut down or shut out. I can’t count the number of times I have said ‘hello’ or “oh, I am familiar with that project and would love to hear more” only to have the person look at me in horror as if I had an alien reaching out of my lungs at them. I was once standing in the elevator with a person in a leadership role of the organization – I was so excited to have the chance just to say hello! I am sorry that I did and although I still respect her work, I won’t approach her again.

    Compare that to the incredible evening I sat next to a NARA leader at a dinner table who was gracious, funny, comfortable to speak to and made the most of the motley crew including the outspoken members of the table. (Before I get a rash of replies stating that perhaps the woman was having a ‘bad day’ let me just say that as a past event planner, fund campaign manager, and performance artist: tuck your ‘bad day’ in your pocket when you are in public! Actually, that’s good advice for anyone.)

    I think it works both ways, newbies have to be willing to reach out to others and the others have to meet them halfway. I like the idea of a ‘first timer’ booth next to registration. Perhaps this can somehow be paired with the Navigator program? I also like Susan’s idea of ‘roving volunteers’ like the Denver airport greeters in white hats and vests. Well, SAA rovers probably wouldn’t have to wear the hats, but it couldn’t hurt.

  9. Some great ideas here! SAA’s leaders and staff are continously looking for better ways to engage members–new and otherwise. The Membership Committee and Council have tried several versions of the annual meeting New Member/First Timer Orientation and Forum (from continental breakfasts for the past many years to the Wednesday evening reception in 2012–which included a “speed networking” component); we’ve distributed new member and first timer ribbons for the past 7 years; and the Women Archivists Roundtable and Membership Committee have collaborated on the Navigator Program, which matches conference veterans with first-time attendees. We were delighted in 2012 to publicize these events, as well as SNAP’s Lunch Buddy Program, in the preliminary and onsite programs (see “Attention New Members and First Timers!” in General Information). I’ll be sure to point out this conversation to the Membership Committee and the Council to reinforce the need for creative thinking. Jackie will send a message to the SAA Leader List to urge section and roundtable leaders to foster a welcoming environment. And watch for a call for volunteers to staff the “Welcome Wagon” in NOLA!

  10. It’s not just SAA that can be unwelcoming to newcomers–it really depends who all you know that is also going to the conference. I felt more welcomed at SAA the first time I went than I did the very first professional conference I ever attended (different professional association), largely because I did already know a few other people who were also going.

    Newcomers and old-timers alike also have to find their inner extrovert to bridge that awkward “I don’t know you, but you’re standing next to me staring at this poster too so maybe we should talk” silence.

    That said, I like the idea of a booth for newcomers next to the registration tables – it definitely has to be staffed by energetic, outgoing, friendly SAA members (and I might even tentatively agree to work it for an hour or two!)

  11. Great conversation! Wish I had been more able to participate in the Twitter one but I was grant writing, lucky me. 🙂

    @Berlin – and oops – forgot to put my website with my name. Hi, I am Caroline. I live at http://museumworkmusing.blogspot.ca/ and my last post is about thoughts on a different conference that just concluded. Relevancy to membership is a big thing that is going on right now. A major organization just closed down in Canada . . . http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/story/2012/10/30/canadian-conference-arts.html

  12. Hi there–
    I am the current chair of the Membership Committee and I just wanted to write to let you know that we hear this. We will be discussing it and see what more we can do to address at least some of the issues and work with others to act on some of the issues.

  13. Hi everyone! I just wanted to let y’all know that I’m on the SAA Local Host Committee for the 2013 meeting in New Orleans. I am a longtime reader of Kate’s blog, and will be monitoring this thread, but also future threads, other bloggers, and Twitter/Facebook for suggestions on how the local host committee might be able to assist with any welcome activities. New Orleans is renowned for its friendliness, and I’m confident the local host committee will be willing to hear any suggestions people might have for us.

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