Radical suggestion: SAA should do less, not more

If you’re an SAA member you know that the Council has been reviewing the results of the member survey and will be kicking off the new strategic planning cycle in January. So I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about the direction of the organization. Therefore, in the spirit of this blog, I’ve got another radical suggestion to propose to you as a thought experiment.(Usual disclaimers apply–ideas are presented for discussion purposes only and do not represent anything beyond an idea that I think it would¬† be interesting to hear your views on, etc.)

SAA is a relatively small organization and it has a relatively small budget. My guess would be that that majority of that budget (including staff time) goes to supporting what might be termed core member services, such as publications, education programs, sections/roundtables/committees, the annual meeting, etc. And according to the results of the member survey, most members are generally satisfied with the job SAA is doing. (Again, they’re available online if you want to see for yourself.) As discussed previously, SAA’s budget and resources are currently being strained to capacity to try to keep up with what I would characterize as members wanting SAA to be a bigger organization. What do I mean by a “bigger organization”? There are calls for SAA to be more active in advocacy¬† and lobbying at the national level, to be more aggressive in carrying out what is basically a public relations campaign to promote the importance of archives and archivists, to take on more of an activist role with archival education programs, to be more active in coordinating with other national and regional professional organizations, to support an increased number of member groups, such as roundtables, etc.

At the same time, of course, almost no one wants their dues to go up. So most members are happy with what the organization is doing, some members want it to do more, but almost no one is willing to pay more. (I should say willing or able to pay more. Some members might be willing to, but their own personal budgets are also stretched to capacity. We are not a rich profession.)

So, here’s my radical suggestion, which has two parts: SAA should focus on doing less, but doing it better, and what it should focus on is providing direct, tangible services to members. For example, rather than trying to support public relations and national advocacy efforts, invest those resources in things like strengthening the mentorship program, providing better tools for job seekers, making annual meeting sessions available as free downloads, providing more active support for sections and roundtables, and developing resources to help members be effective advocates for their own archives.

This ideal is radical because it means admitting that because of its limited size and budget, SAA can’t effectively support the kinds of activities that, for example, ALA can. So why not accept that and focus on what the organization can do, and do that exceptionally well, and try to keep costs affordable to as many archivists as possible? It would define a much, more smaller scope, a scope more specifically and tightly focused on serving the membership rather than trying to promote the profession. That’s radical, isn’t it?

But, before Kathleen Roe’s head explodes, here’s the second part of this thought experiment. What if in conjunction with this smaller scope, SAA sets up designated funds to support things like advocacy and public relations? So members for whom these things are priorities can donate directly to support them. And those funds can pay for (new) designated staff and resources to support those efforts? (This could mean something along the lines of the Every Library organization, maybe, if that makes sense.) Who knows, this might also make it easier to get corporate sponsorship for some things–American Archives Month, brought to you Ancestry.com?

So, that’s an idea. I’m not saying I’m 100% behind it myself, but I think it’s something that hasn’t been talked about in any forum I’ve seen. And, look at it this way, if your boss comes to you and says you need to keep doing everything you’re doing now, plus do all this other stuff with no additional resources, what would you say? I feel like this is throwing a juicy steak into a tank of piranhas. Have at it. What do you say to SAA doing less, not more?

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4 thoughts on “Radical suggestion: SAA should do less, not more”

  1. Would it make sense, in the long term, for SAA to focus on advocacy for archives rather than services to members? I think it may work better for local and regional archival groups to handle the mentoring/job search help/etc. side of things, thus leaving the national advocacy effort to SAA. In this way, SAA would be out advocating for more exposure, more funding, better jobs, better internships, which would benefit us all more in the end than trying to cater to individuals needs. There’s a lot of downsides to this idea, of course, but from a big picture standpoint could it be a viable direction to go in?

  2. Frankly, the idea that individual members would decide each year via their contributions above dues whether and to what degree their professional organization is involved in basic things like ensuring archivists make a living wage, keeping graduate education on target, and raising the profile of archivists in society is depressing. If my regular dues didn’t support these types of things, why would I even bother to be an SAA member? (I can get access to the publications some other way, pay $30 extra for the workshops I take each year, and pay a little more the years I decide to go to the annual meeting. The monetary difference would be negligible.) Focusing on a limited portfolio of narrowly defined “member services” to the exclusion of anything else seems self-defeating.

  3. Here’s a radical idea: instead of whining about how small SAA is and can’t do anything because of that perhaps it’s time to consider merging with ALA or ARMA or both and forming a new professional organization that reflects the changes in the profession. I think if the archival profession is to survive at all we will have to acknowledge the fact that we are not as unique as we would like to believe we are. How many archivists do you know that also function as the organization’s librarian or records manager or both? It makes no sense at all why people in these positions should live double lives, splitting scarce time and resources between different professional organizations that overlap more than 50% of the time. I have to agree with Christine Di Bella, if SAA can’t provide the kind of essential services that justify its existence then why bother existing?

  4. Not radical. Some have been saying this for years, particularly since 2000. Consider the intent of the founders embodied in the name. Society rather than Association. Archivists rather than Archives. The stress comes from trying to be all things to an ever increasing group of people. Smaller, more exclusive, more expensive per member, and more focused on archivists rather than repositories. In most cases regional associations can do many of these things “better, faster, and cheaper.” SAA would be better served if more people presented and served in their regional prior to doing so in SAA. A tension for the regionals is that of trying to capture new members as they enter the profession, as many cannot know where they will be and the majority will not settle for a decade. SAA is cornering the “new” market with its national scope, which I think is actually not the best order of operations for archivists or the organization in the long run.
    As for merger, this is an excellent way to lose professional identity. I am positive on convergence but that means give as well as take. If SAA were to go into ALA it would likely be with RBMS as RBMAS, a very diminished role. Those who want greater advocacy would be very uncomfortable in ARMA with its corporate culture and vendor driven meetings. One plus would be to enhance the role of the ACA (Certified not Canadian) as a jumping off point for those would rather not be engulfed and devoured.

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