Responses and Retrospectives: Geof Huth on What We Do and What We Mean: Regarding a Petition to Add a Candidate to the SAA Ballot

IMG_3260

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives? Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

Geof Huth is the Chief Records Officer and Chief Law Librarian at New York State Unified Court System. He’s a co-host of An Archivists’s Tale, a poet, the editor of the nanopress dbqp, and an honored member and former Council member of the Society of American Archivists.

Rachael Woody, a member of SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness reached out to Geof Huth and invited him to write this post. She did so because (at the time of the invitation) Huth was the only publicly known person to have signed the SAA 2020 election petition to add a third Vice President/President candidate to the ballot and also contribute to the #52Fund—a fund created in direct response to the petition. Through this post COPA hopes to offer membership insight into this issue via a member who has experienced a portion of it. For complete transparency, Woody is identifying herself. She provided some content suggestions and editorial challenges, some of which Huth accepted to incorporate. As this is a longer post she provided suggestion of headers to indicate intent of the sections and she chose to bold some of the sentences throughout.

Woody extended an invitation to Nominating Committee Chair Lae’l Hughes-Watkins who later published a post via the SAA Leaders List and SAA’s Off the Record blog. Additionally, an invitation was sent to Samantha Winn, creator of the #52Fund. Her post can be found here. For related reading, please see Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s post from January 16 (soon after the petition was released) that helps to contextualize some of the reaction to the petition. Membership and related organizations have also published posts including: VP candidate Courtney Chartier, SAA Fellow Terry Baxter, and the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia blog. On February 5, 2020 SAA Council released their statement on the petition.

Opening

I have been walking the earth long enough to realize that we humans never fully understand each other, that we think we agree (or disagree) only to discover the opposite is true. To be sure, we don’t even understand our own motivations as well as we must.

That prolog will guide my explanation of why I signed on to the petition to add another candidate to the SAA 2020 slate of candidates. Please note that I do not assume any of the other signers agree with anything I am writing here, and note that I will not allow anyone to read or comment on my words here before I send this off to SAA. I write this sprawling and personal essay because I was asked to and because I believe in dialog. I believe in addressing disagreements directly and respectfully. I do not expect or even hope to change minds. I am not asking anyone to reverse their decision about the petition, though I will (eventually) be asking us all to consider ways to improve how we disagree. I may unintentionally anger people during this discussion, but my goal here is to be honest and respectful.

First, a few words about where my thinking comes from—words that will seem weirdly personal, and that is because it is the individual who thinks and feels inside their head, and I will reflect the individual I am.

I come from a violent family, one that was often filled with eruptions of anger wrought upon the small children that we were. (I have written about my childhood before, so this will not be news to many.) Because of that, I try to quell anger in myself, though I am less and less able to do that on the streets of New York these days—something I’m working on. I am flawed, and I make new mistakes every day.

The Fireworks

A friend of mine asked me why I had signed this petition and asked about the request for signers, so I sent them a copy of the note I had received.[1] As I have said to a few people, I did not consider that email privileged information, and I’ve been a government archivist and records manager most of my life, so I always default to access. I explained to my friend, though only vaguely, why I signed the petition. I also noted that I did not understand, at the time, why this was a controversial act. My thoughts on this are complex (at least to me), and they have changed, to a degree, with the addition of new information.

I also told that friend of mine I could handle the fireworks, but I turned out to be wrong. The fireworks came, and they were often in the form of anger, a human response I can understand and accept. But my childhood has made me feel anger too hard, meaning I felt the drawdown of depression dull my senses, which has been my only (and unsuccessful) protective response to anger since childhood. I did not expect to feel this soporific pull, this partial shutdown, but I did, and I feel it again now as I write about it (as I have every time I reread this paragraph).

I hate hate. Hate is a poor replacement for humanity, but it is one we employ quite often. If someone thinks differently from us, or acts differently, or is in any way different, we often lean into hate. And the sibling of hate is anger. I can accept righteous anger as a valuable currency in human relations, but anger can also blind us to the humanity of the people we disagree with.

Some of the responses to the petition were built on anger, which surprised me, partly because I did not understand the context of their thoughts, because I had thought too shallowly about this. For reasons I’ve noted, I could not read much of the commentary, but I identified three reasons people used to explain the decision of the petitioners: racism, elderliness, and privilege. I would claim I’m guilty of all of those, but this requires some clarification.

Racism

As I’ve often noted to friends of mine of diverse backgrounds, I believe everyone is racist or biased in some way, every one of us of every race, of every background. This is not to say I believe everyone practices the kind of institutional racism that has plagued the United States since before its founding. It means that, in some ways, often unconsciously, we all will have at least the slightest notion that a person different in any way from us is somehow not as good as one more like us. I realize this point of view of mine is an outlier opinion, but I believe it’s true, even as I personally try to treat everyone fairly and equally in my human interactions.

As an example of how we can all struggle with biases: I spent a few weeks once trying to convince a close friend that it was irrational for them to think that a transgender female friend of ours was somehow strange, that there was something weird in not always identifying as cis. This friend was gay and shared a community with our transgender friend. Even in the face of the prejudices and disbelief my gay friend had faced from people they knew, they fell into the same trap of thinking as society had long taught us to think. I don’t consider myself a person who works hard to make people more accepting of others, but I do work at it.

I recently experienced an example where I had to evaluate whether unconscious racism was in play: In responding to this second friend who had asked me about my decision to sign on to the petition, I wrote the following paragraph. At the time, I was working in one of my literally filthy archives, one filled with dust, dirt, and trash, and I wrote this on my phone:

My staff is extremely diverse: black, white, Asian, Hispanic. It does not look anything like the extremely white SAA. When this controversy erupted (which eruption I was not smart enough to foresee), I was literally working on proposal to upgrade staff in my records center, where from the manager on down everyone is Hispanic, black, or Asian. My goal was to raise the grade and the pay of our two lowest graded staff so they’d be paid commensurate with their work. Yesterday, I responded to notes from HR questioning the grade I’d chosen, and I noted it was commensurate with other staff doing similar work in our main facility, that the grade was merely fair. I wondered for a second if race was an issue in their question, but I realized there was also a mix of races in the other group. I think the bias was against the idea that someone working in a records center could be of high enough status for such a grade. Another kind of bias. But I also decided all I can do is argue the point to convince HR to grade these people for their work. So I have to understand their thinking. I have to ask them what they think.

Given this story of mine, I will note that I understand how some archivists concluded the petition had racist underpinnings. Even if totally unconscious, such racism is something we should fight against, and so people did. However, just as I considered unconscious racism as a possible motive but dispensed with that idea after some consideration, I believe racism is not the source of this disagreement among us.

Elderliness

I will admit I am at least approaching being old. I’ll turn 60 this year. I am technically a baby boomer, but I came at the tail end of that generation and I have almost no connection to their lives and the cultural touchstones therein. I was a child during the Vietnam War, for instance, so I had no chance of being conscripted. I will push back on our tendency to define people by their age and generation, however, because that is an ism we do not seem to want to shake. My children are Millennials, and I’m constantly arguing with people near my age about the characteristics they assign to that generation, noting that my children do not act almost in any of the ways the caricature of Millennials suggests. And I would claim that caricatures of my generation, or sub-generation, are no better. I don’t believe people are merely automatons created within a single monolithic “generation,” trapped entirely by their random year of birth. Certainly, the petitioners (not all of whom I know) appear to be around my age, so people reacted to that fact, but at the same time they did not consider those of that same age group who certainly must have declined to sign the petition. We are not our generation. We are individuals.

Privilege

Finally, I will admit I am a person of a great privilege. Even though my childhood was sometimes chaotic, I grew up the son of a diplomat. I have lived on most continents on earth, I have had the benefit of a good education, and I am well paid. Being white didn’t hurt—I realize I had an unfair advantage over many people since we live in a society that continues to be inhabited by racism. Yet in my early adulthood, married with one child, I was extremely poor for four years. Those years were hard, but they gave me perspective. When people speaking to me denigrate the poor, claiming they just need to run their lives differently to succeed, I explain to them what being poor is like, how actions people believe are easy to implement are often impossible for a person living on the edge.

Privilege, however, can be used for good, for evil, for the mundane, and for the important. There are good people with privilege and bad people without it. The signers, it appears, have some level of privilege, yet that may have nothing to do with their personal decisions, although the whole of our experiences and personalities always affects our decisions.

Why I Signed

So why did I sign on to the petition? Note that I can give my reasons, but I cannot and am not giving the reasons the other petitioners signed. I assume their reasons varied.

First, I signed because I’m always in favor of more choices, so I saw the petition as a way to allow for more options. I’m generally in favor of competition. Second, I almost never think anyone is ready to lead SAA, not because they aren’t great people or great archivists, but because leading the Society is a huge challenge that must be operated over the course of a brief amount of time. To be a great president of SAA, you need to know the Society deeply (more so than I do) and you must be a manager of time, people, and work who is also extremely skilled at making a difference in the space of a single year. And you must have the time available for the job. It is a rare individual who will have those skills (though I can think of a couple who have). This is not to say that the two candidates chosen for this position were lacking; it’s just that I did not have information demonstrating they did.

Argument Against Signing

Eventually, while thinking about the petition, two notions came into my head. The first is that the #52 (to use that hashtag used by others to refer to the petitioners) had decided the slate should be amended in regard to the most important choice on the ballot, and they implemented a change legal in the rules that govern our association. But, more importantly, I also realized that I had not considered the human element of such a change: I never considered the slap in the face even one modification to the ballot would represent to the committee. Even worse, I did not consider the pain this would cause the candidates. I did not consider the human pain, something I try to address in my personal interactions but one I often fail to meet given my propensity for constant humor and occasional cluelessness. By overlooking human feeling, I forgot about people’s humanity, I forgot the heart they bear in their chests, I dehumanized them by not considering this most basic fact of all of us. Despite this point, I will argue here both for and against the petition.

Civil Disagreement

Defining a set of candidates as inadequate to the jobs they were selected for, without considering how they would experience that decision, is a dehumanizing act. I say this even though it is too late to make a difference—I do not believe in penance. But assuming the reasons why people signed the petition, as others have done, is not much better. We cannot know what guides another. In this case, maybe all three of the reasons (racism, elderliness, and privilege) explained above are true, in each one of us signers, to some extent, but that is a broad conclusion to base on supposition alone.

I will note, however, that when friends of mine came to these conclusions and made public statements to that effect, I was not aggrieved by their opinions. Instead, I was pleased they forthrightly stated their convictions. Maybe they even knew I would not mind they disagreed with me. I see disagreement as a positive (unless the disagreement is constant and unbending). Different points of view help us see the world more clearly, as responses to the petition by my friends and others have helped me see better what I should have seen without help.

Friends of mine also served on this Nominating Committee. I had dinner with one of them soon after the submission of the petition, and I briefly explained myself (after first confirming they were indeed on the committee). When making the decision to sign the petition, I had forgotten who was on the committee, so I could not have made the decision based on the makeup of the committee, and I would not have decided differently if I’d known their makeup. We don’t really know what others know, but we often assume they know what we know, even when we don’t think they think as we think. I did not see adding an additional white woman to the ballot as a sign of racism, so I couldn’t understand, at first, why a friend of mine told me people would see this petition as a racist act because the chair was African American. I see it now, but I also doubt racism affected any petitioners’ decision in the first place. I have served on the SAA Nominating Committee as a Council member, as well as on nominating committees for other organizations, so I know decisions are almost always made by the body as a whole, no one person being responsible for any decision and everyone supporting each candidates though possibly to varying degrees.

The Role of Petitions in SAA

When I wrote back to the second friend who reached out to ask me to explain my motives as a petitioner, I wrote saying essentially what I have written here, but I also said that the petition resembled many actions SAA has seen over the years. When I served on SAA Council, members submitted quasi-petitions to us. People asked SAA to diversify the venues for our conferences, to respond to controversies in the archival world (sometimes in cases where the issue was more political than archival), and to develop a code of conduct for SAA events. Individual members also speak at our annual business meetings to ask for change. The most important instance of these, from my point of view, was when a member noted that the cost of the lowest paid membership tier represented slightly more than the percentage for the highest tier, which led to a rejiggering of our tiers and the addition of an additional highest one. While on Council, I argued incessantly in favor of adding that higher tier (in favor, I’ll note, of an increase in my own dues), but I was told it would be impossible to implement. Yet this one member convinced Council after talking for five minutes, and that made my day. I told that person they were my hero. Because of these situations, I see petitions as a way of possibly improving things. Note, however, the “possibly.”

Certainly, these other ways of petitioning SAA differ from the petition in question, but these show that petitioning, in various forms, is something we do. Some members, likely a majority, see the petition changing the ballot as something that is wrong or bad, because it is something they oppose. But other members have also opposed various other petitions, including most of those above. And the petition process we employed in the case before us is codified in our rules. That formal process, however, includes a very big difference: the petitioners alone, without the intercession of Council or anyone else in SAA, can absolutely ensure the change is made. However, most petitions SAA members make do end up succeeding even in the absence that guarantee.

Many have argued that the petitioners did not accept the decision of the Nominating Committee, which is true, and they also argue that the petitioners should have accepted the full decision of the committee. I don’t see these as strong arguments since we have a long tradition of members disagreeing with SAA Council decisions, even though SAA Council is also elected to make decisions for us. In my view, we (as members, as individuals, and simple human beings living on the same planet) always have a right to question. Just as we have a right to be wrong.

Amending the Petition Signature Threshold

I cannot verify the motives of the others who signed the petition, but I believe the petitioners came to their personal conclusions absent any assertion of white privilege, unconscious or otherwise, which I say even as I realize that we often make decisions on the basis of unconscious biases. Part of the petition process, as codified, did worry me, and that was that we needed merely 50 members to sign on to make this change. I’ll note that associations often have rather low thresholds to reach to add a candidate to a ballot, but 50 is terribly low for an association of our size. Although I signed the petition, we must reconsider this part of our by-laws, and at the very least the numbers needed to file such a petition must be changed to a significant percentage of the membership. That change will ensure the number of signers always represents a certain portion of the total membership. The current low threshold is anti-democratic, because it allows too low an unelected portion of the membership to change the slate for the whole.

Arguments Posited about the Petitioners

People have argued that the petitioners should not have used the option of petition because doing so undermined the Nominating Committee’s judgment. I understand this point, but there are a couple of reasons I don’t agree with this. First, the petition does not undermine the original decision; it modifies it by adding to it, just as we individually can add in a write-in candidate. The difference here is that this option gives members a third choice to check off on the ballot and gives the added person a chance of winning (unlike a write-in candidate). Despite the petition, the two candidates nominated by the committee remain on the ballot and, I believe, will be the candidates most likely to succeed.

Another argument against this petition is that it nullifies the will of members to have the committee they voted for make the decisions. This argument assumes the petitioners did not also vote for the members on the committee. For instance, I know (after reviewing the membership of the committee) that I voted for three of its members. It is important to remember that the right to petition remains in the bylaws, and members also voted for that provision.

I did not sign the petition because I was opposed to the members on the committee or because I considered them incompetent. I just had a desire for more choices. At this point, this certainly sounds like a strangely small reason to have made that decision, but that’s merely the reality of it.

I am always in favor of dialog, so the idea of setting up a conversation to discuss the slate might have appealed to me. It’s possible someone would have made a point during such a discussion that would have dissuaded me from my decision. But I never imagined dialog as an option. Since we had a slate before us, I reacted to that reality. I still don’t know if we have enough candidates to ensure at least one will have the skills I think a person needs to be successful in such a position. But we only rarely have enough information about candidates to know how good they will be at leading SAA. Even when I think I do, I find out later I was wrong, that I’d based a decision on faulty information or assumptions.

Seeking Out the Humanity in Others

During my career, I have tried to find ways to make SAA more diverse and more inclusive. I am certain I have failed on both counts. I fear diversity overall is probably degrading in our profession. We are beginning to attract more people of color to our ranks, but at a slow rate. At the same time, the male population has declined steeply since I joined SAA. If we look at diversity holistically, as I do, both these tendencies are holding us back. I think we are better at inclusivity, because we believe in it. But we are still human, so we unintentionally act in ways that make people feel unwelcome. We know we need to do better.

I am white, but I’ve lived in majority non-white parts of the world much of my life and in multi-racial neighborhoods most of my life. I’ve lived in Africa (east, west, and north), the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. I expect people to look different than I do. I can’t say that this life has made me more accepting of others, but I hope it has.

As a high school senior, I had a choice of taking a class in Christology or working with handicapped children, some severely so. I chose the latter, which gave me the opportunity to help children via occupational therapy. I would teach them how to move a peg from one hole to another, how to learn to conduct repetitive tasks that could find them a small job sometimes in the future. It was a difficult position to hold, but not because it was difficult working with the children. I loved working with them, and they loved me back—because I was kind, I paid attention to them, I cared for them. They would smile when we worked together, because I always reflected back to them their humanity, their physical and emotional reality, their value. I remember one little girl’s smile from that time, how alive she was before me. It was a hard semester because so many of them were so physically unwell they would not live long, and some would never think or know or see in the full way that most of us do. Yet I was sorry to leave them, to abandon them.

None of this is meant to exonerate me for what I failed to consider in my decision. I present this information because I hope it represents the core of myself, a core that might not always be apparent, but also evidence of something worth considering about others. It is also a note to remind myself how I am not now always as good as I should be about avoiding the provision of hurt against another human soul. I write these words to remind us how we never know enough about a person—and that includes all the Nominating Committee members, the candidates, and even the petitioners. We can try and we can fail, and it is always in the trying that we allow ourselves the possibility to be redeemed.

To Amend and Heal

I am not even vaguely conservative, but I have a few close conservative friends, and I’m always willing to talk to them about politics and to disagree with them gracefully. After years of careful conversation, one of these people became a liberal, but we also found bases for agreement over the course of that time, those long conversations. We discovered how we were alike and forgot how were different. Dialog is always better. Kindness is preferred. Compassion is mandatory. I’ll try to reach these goals myself.

Even though I believe in the inherent racism of everyone, I also believe in our ability to fight that tendency, to talk to each other, to accept the humanity of others, and to strive towards a kindness that brings us together even when we face stark disagreement. I remain hopeful for humanity, even if tentatively so. Still, I do feel a little defensive at the suggestion that I am possibly intentionally racist, a defensiveness built on the fact that I had no intent to hurt anyone—I merely succeeded and continue to succeed in doing so.

All I’m doing here is telling you what I think, noting how I did not try at all hard enough to understand how others thought, and suggesting that the other petitioners have other complex reasons for their own decisions. If you know any of them, reach out and explain your concern, your disagreement, your pain. Regardless, please do not hold against them anything I have said here. Hold it against me.

The #52 Fund

Once our petition became a controversy, people banded together to create a positive out of this rupture in the profession. A call went out asking people to donate to a fund supporting Society of American Archivists’ travel costs and membership fees for LGBT people and people of color. I donated to the fund as soon as I found out about it. I did so for a few reasons, one being that I always donate substantially to archival associations and causes. Another was merely to show support to members of SAA who have interpreted this act of mine as an indirect attack on them. It was not a way to ask for forgiveness. As I’ve noted, I do not believe in penance.

Humanity and Civility

I do not write this to change minds, and I write this even though I’m sure there is a good chance these many words might divide us even further. But I feel a responsibility to write and to say this:

We archivists sometimes argue angrily and quickly, without allowing time for reflection to reveal the complexities of the issue before us. I also believe we exaggerate the importance of some disagreements, we see divisions as greater than they are, but we also help to make that gulf between us wider. So I’m asking us to be better than I have been, to think about the human on the other side of a thought, to talk to each other before we talk about each other, to allow disagreement to exist as a way to find agreement.

This request requires something else of us, something we are less likely to embrace in our partisan present. We need to allow people with points of view differing from ours, whether personal or political, the right to air their views civilly and to receive civil responses. We need to see the flowering of humanity stuck between our differing beliefs. Societies that function well—and we are a society—have this level of respect and don’t require everyone to believe as one.

I say this without hope for success, but I light, or try to light, a small candle in the darkness so we can see where we are and can travel faster to our destination.

This post was written by Geof Huth. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

[1] Here is the text of that email:

Dear SAA colleagues,

Sorry for the impersonal email blast, but I’m trying to be as efficient as I can about distributing this.

I am unsatisfied with the lack of a choice of two candidates with significant (from my perspective) organizational experience posed by the slate recently put forward for the office of SAA Vice President/President-Elect by the Nominating Committee for the 2020 election (https://www2.archivists.org/news/2019/update-2020-saa-election). I feel strongly that SAA members need a choice of candidates for Vice President/President-Elect who have deep, varied experience working for our profession within our national organization, and multi-faceted connections to the concerns of SAA’s membership. As such, I have worked with a small group of SAA colleagues to draft Kris Kiesling, a long-time SAA member and professional educator, to be a candidate for this office in the 2020 SAA election under SAA Bylaw 5C, which states the following:

“An eligible member may also be placed on the ballot by submission of a petition signed by fifty (50) individual members. Such petitions must be received in the executive office by February 10.”

(https://www2.archivists.org/governance/handbook/section1/bylaws)

I am emailing you to solicit your signature on the this petition before the end of January 2020.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/K6L527R

To be clear, this petition, if successful, will simply add a third candidate to the 2020 election ballot for the office of Vice President/President-Elect. The successful candidate will be determined by the results of the 2020 election to be held in March.

If you aren’t familiar with Kris, she recently completed a three-year term (2015-2018) as a member of SAA’s Council, and you’ll find additional information about her professional and SAA background in her SAA Continuing Education faculty profile (https://www2.archivists.org/prof-education/faculty/kris-kiesling).

Responses and Retrospectives: Samantha Winn on Mutual Aid in Response to Electoral Frustrations and the Creation of the #52Fund

blogphoto-e1407431979462This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

Samantha Winn is an archives worker based in southern Appalachia with an interest in comparative archival practices, information ethics, and facilitating dialogue across different communities. An SAA member since 2012, she currently serves as the appointed Vice-Chair/Chair-Elect for SAA’s Committee on Public Policy. Former service includes chair of SAA’S SNAP section (2015-2016) and co-chair of the Design Records Section (2016-2018). She is passionate about community organizing and mutual aid as a means of effecting social change.

On 15 January 2020, the Society of American Archivists announced an unprecedented change to the 2020 SAA Election ballot. 52 SAA members submitted a petition, in accordance with SAA bylaws, to add SAA Fellow Kris Kiesling to the Vice President/President-Elect ballot. Many  current and former SAA members have covered the precipitating events at length, including VP candidate Courtney Chartier, Ruth Kitchin Tillman, and SAA Fellow Terry Baxter. The Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia blog drafted an especially comprehensive summary of the events leading up to and surrounding this petition. In late January, COPA leadership invited me to write about a fundraising effort I launched in solidarity with the 2019/2020 SAA Nominating Committee and the original election slate.

On 16 January, I announced a peer-to-peer fundraiser called #52Fund to support the participation  of QTBIPOC, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, and multi-marginalized archives workers in professional engagement. Initially, I challenged 52 people to help me cover membership fees, conference registration and travel costs, LIS program tuition, medical expenses, and other financial barriers to professional participation for groups historically marginalized from SAA leadership. My goal of 52 donors and the hashtag #52Fund referenced the 52 signers of the election petition. I wanted this campaign to demonstrate that at least 52 people were committed to Lae’l Hughes-Watkins’ call to nominate and elect leaders who “have a strong portfolio of success in making room for historically underrepresented identities in leadership positions, who advocate for success of these communities and are willing to call out and address discriminatory practices within the profession and in spaces supposedly designed to nurture and support emerging leaders and change agents.” I also liked the idea of countering the petition with a community fundraiser, to reflect the plurality of tactics available for effecting institutional change.

Following the recommendations of Courtney Chartier and Harrison Inefuku, I originally imagined this as a targeted effort to raise funds for the Brenda S. Banks Travel Award in memory of SAA’s first Black president, Brenda Banks. Established in 2017 by the Archivists and Archives of Color Section, the Banks Travel Award funds registration, membership, and travel expenses for one archivist of color each year. This proved to be a logistical challenge, however, as the SAA Foundation administers the Banks award from a broader funding pool. The SAA Foundation was unable to direct allocations to Banks award recipients or facilitate the sponsoring of a second award for SAA 2020.

Since this fundraiser was driven by a desire to explicitly benefit members historically marginalized from SAA leadership, it did not feel appropriate to direct funds towards a general SAA Foundation pool. Instead, I offered potential donors two options for giving which I hoped would reflect the spirit of the Banks Travel Award. First, prospective donors could give directly to SAA Foundation’s Mosaic Scholarship Fund, Harold T. Pinkett Student of Color Award, and/or the Brenda S. Banks Travel Award and report their giving as part of the fundraiser. Donors could also contribute directly to a mutual aid fund, which I would distribute upon request to individual QTBIPOC and other multi-marginalized archives workers.

My initial goal of 52 unique donations was met in about 36 hours. We passed our first stretch goal of $5,200 in the first 4 days. We reached the second stretch goal of $10,400 in about 2 weeks of fundraising. As of 11 February, we have collectively raised nearly $14,000. Of this amount, we have distributed about $11,100 in direct mutual aid to approximately 25 colleagues. Roughly $2,600 has gone to SAA funds which benefit archivists of color; this only includes amounts that people reported in a Google form, so the total for SAA Foundation contributions may be higher. My hope is to find 8 new funders by 1 March to help us reach the final stretch goal of 208 unique donors (representing four sets of 52). Many funders gave in response to electoral frustrations and perceptions of gatekeeping by long-tenured and well-established SAA members. However, donations have also come from Kiesling petition signers and individuals with no prior knowledge of the fund’s origins or SAA election controversies.

Mutual aid may be a new concept for some SAA members, but it is well-established among organizers and activists in LGBTQ, BIPOC, disabled, and rural communities. This campaign reflects the legacy of many different social justice movements with which I have been affiliated. Where we have succeeded, I am deeply indebted to the wisdom and leadership of Erricka Bailey (who can be hired for strategic planning, trainings, and consultations at https://www.liberationsolutions.com/), Hannah Morris of Pineywoods Voice, Itza Carbajal, and Dr. Brandy S. Faulkner. Among many other things, Bailey and Morris taught me how to run a successful direct aid campaign and redistribute financial resources to historically marginalized groups. Carbajal taught me how to harness discontent for positive change and have a great time doing so. Dr. Faulkner taught me to identify, understand, and harness political power. I have also been profoundly influenced by the work of Montgomery County’s Dialogue on Race group and its affiliated giving circles.

For more information about #52Fund, please visit http://tiny.cc/52Fund.

This post was written by Samantha Winn, an archives worker in southern Appalachia and the founder of the #52Fund. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

 

Responses and Retrospectives: Jeremy Brett of the Concerned Archivists Alliance on the Altered Photo for NARA’s Exhibit “Rightfully Hers,” and the Subsequent NARA Apologies

CAA Logo

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

My name is Jeremy Brett. I am an archivist/librarian, as well as one of the founders of the Concerned Archivists Alliance (CAA) and incidentally, a former employee of the National Archives and Records Administration.  The CAA is a group of information professionals, paraprofessionals, and information science students, committed to freedom of information, the protection of privacy rights, and to holding public officials accountable for their actions. We believe that a democratic society cannot thrive in an atmosphere of secrecy and oppression. Our group came into being as a response to the troubling 2016 election of Donald Trump and its implications for both the future of the American documentary record and the likely use (and misuse) of records under this administration to do harm to Americans.[1]

I’m writing this Responses & Retrospectives post in response to questions from some people about our group’s response to the recent scandal that took place with regard to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). On January 18th, the CAA published online an open letter to David Ferriero, the U.S. National Archivist, expressing our deep concern with the revelation that NARA had made multiple alterations to an image of the 2017 Women’s March, featured in its exhibit “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote”. These alterations included the blurring of certain words on posters that referred to parts of the female anatomy, as well as that of the name of Donald Trump. Our original letter is found here. We invited our colleagues in the archival and other information professions to sign the letter in protest of this action. Gratifyingly, we have received more than 200 signatures to date.

As we noted in the letter, “Your explanation for this action, given by Archives’ spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman, is that ‘as a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy … Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.’ This reasoning is offensive to the intellectual honesty and professional acumen of librarians and archivists across the country who collect, preserve, and make accessible to the public similarly sensitive material on a daily basis and without alteration or censorship.”

We of CAA stand behind that contention. Archivists owe an ethical and professional duty to the truth and to history, duties that NARA, with permission given at the highest levels of its administration, violated. We exist in a new and troubling political climate, where high government officials and media personalities alike feel free to shade the truth, to hide facts, and to lie outright to us, even in the face of evidence that proves the opposite. Therefore, it is more important than ever for archivists and archival institutions to nail their colors to the mast of truth and ensure that the materials they curate – as well as those materials’ public expression – are accurate, whole, and unaltered. Our letter pointed out that in altering the image, NARA had violated the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists, which states “Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” Although the Code is not legally binding, nor is NARA as an institution required to adhere to it, that Code serves as the ethical bedrock of the archival profession in the United States. We would have hoped that as the preeminent public archives in this nation, NARA might find itself inclined to align itself ethically with the rest of the American archival community. We are saddened to find out that apparently it disagrees. Instead, NARA chooses to stand by its self-definition as a “non-partisan, non-political federal agency”, even as it removes the name of Donald Trump from an historical image “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” This is not ethics and it is not professionalism. We believe, instead, that it is an instance of cowardice in the face of power at worst, incompetent thinking that fails to draw obvious conclusions at best.[2]

The same day that we published the letter, NARA announced in a public apology that the altered image would be removed. The apology (which can be read here) gave no explanation for NARA’s motives in altering the image in the first place, though it was careful to try and elude blame by noting that the image was not a NARA-held record but an image licensed for exhibit use. (As if, frankly, that made any ethical or moral difference.) The apology was, in our opinion, wholly inadequate and failed to address any of the reasons why the original action produced so much outrage in the archival and library communities.[3]

People have asked why we continued to offer our letter for signatures in light of NARA’s “apology”. We discussed whether to remove our letter from our site or at least whether to stop accepting signatories in the aftermath of NARA’s statement. We decided that it was important to stand by our original complaint. As archivists and information professionals, we believe that this was no mere mistake. We believe that the image alterations constituted an act of anticipatory obedience by NARA staff and administration, rendering invisible certain kinds of political speech in service to NARA’s political masters.[4] As one of CAA’s founders noted in a tweet[5]:

Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 3.07.11 PM

Apologies are not magic shields that protect one from one’s original error, nor are they erasers that instantly wipe away mistakes. We say that there is little that is more threatening to the future of our democracy than public servants who abandon our collective founding principles and their professional duties in order to curry favor or to head off possible criticism. That is what we believe happened with NARA in this case.

We have received some online pushback – some thoughtful, some less so – for both our original letter and our decision not to withdraw it after NARA’s “apology”. Without responding to any specific critic, we offer this explanation generally for our actions because we love our profession. We believe wholeheartedly in its vital importance to the nation in which we live. We believe passionately in our duty to ensure that voices are not silenced, that principles are not overturned in the name of either obedience to power or partisan politics, and that the people and communities we serve deserve a history that has not been altered.  We will not surrender those values.

On January 22nd, Ferriero issued a more substantive apology, in which he stressed that “this decision was made without any external direction whatsoever” and that “[w]e also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.” Although this new apology certainly offers a fuller explanation, it still raises troublesome questions with which NARA and the archival community must grapple with going forward.

  1. We also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.”

We believe this motive was short-sighted and, in fact, both an act of cowardice and a misunderstanding of NARA’s own mission. It’s hardly “partisanship” to show that a protest against an important political figure contained signage bearing that figure’s name. In fact, what IS partisanship, what IS taking sides, is to blur out that name, because to do so neutralizes a historical situation that was anything but neutral and downplays the public hostility against that figure. To do so only benefits Donald Trump himself. Ferriero later in the apology notes, “as a Federal agency serving the American public, we must incorporate non-partisanship into everything we do.” We would argue that NARA’s actual job as a servant of the American public is to present historical truth, regardless of how that truth makes particular politicians or parties appear.

Avoiding in advance “accusations of partisanship” is troubling in its own right. We worry that NARA was overly concerned about right-wing pushback – something that high government officials have weaponized in recent years – and was intimidated in advance into silencing women’s voices and rendering the image nonsensical by blurring out the name of the protest’s subject. If true, this is disquieting, and it is sad.

As for “inappropriate language”, one might argue whether references to female anatomy are profanities or offensive terms, rather than simple terminology. However, it alters the meaning and context of the protest being depicted by leaving those terms out; those terms were integral parts of the rhetoric being passionately expressed that day (as I can testify, having attended the Women’s March in Austin) and to blur them out removes that rhetoric. Personally, I would argue that NARA does families with children no favors by presenting them with a sanitized, “clean” version of history, rather than giving children the opportunity to ask questions – however troublesome – about what they see and read.

  1. However, we wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration. Our action made it appear as if we did not understand the importance of our unique charge: as an archives, we must present materials – whether they are ours or not – without alteration…”

We agree that, yes, this decision certainly made it appear so. Because that is, in fact, what it actually did. Ferriero eludes the issue by claiming “our action made it appear as if we did not understand”, as if that wasn’t what actually happened.  In truth, NARA clearly did not understand its crucial charge, else it would not have made the decision to present an altered image. We find it worrisome that NARA administration seemed to have forgotten its ethical duty during this process.

At the same time, we do appreciate this expanded apology and explanation, and are gratified that NARA recognizes the need to thoroughly review its processes. It is our earnest hope that NARA going forward will live out the true meaning of its mission. NARA and its preservation of the archival record are crucial to ensuring a healthy, functioning democracy and an informed citizenry, and as archivists we want to support NARA in that all-important calling.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1967 essay Truth and Politics that “[t]he chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories—even the most wildly speculative ones—produced by the human mind; they occur in the field of the ever-changing affairs of men, in whose flux there is nothing more permanent than the admittedly relative permanence of the human mind’s structure. Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.” It is this we fear the most, and it is this that NARA risked with its alterations of the image on display. Let us all strive in our professional lives as archivists, all of us, to do better.

This post was written by Jeremy Brett, a founding member of the Concerned Archivists Alliance. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

 

Citations:

[1] In CAA matters, including this post, we all represent ourselves as individual archivists and our views are not necessarily those of our respective employing institutions.

[2] For a useful look at the implications of NARA’s action, Masha Gessen’s January 19th in The New Yorker is instructive: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-erasure-of-political-history-at-the-national-archives-womens-march.

[3] For examples of this concern, note the January 19th statement issued by the Society of American Archivists (https://www2.archivists.org/news/2020/saa-statement-nara-exhibit-on-2017-womens-march-in-washington-dc) and the January 21st statement from the American Library Association (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/01/ala-responds-national-archive-efforts-alter-materials).

[4] We note the incredible irony in NARA choosing to obscure the protest language and outrage of women, in an exhibit devoted to and celebrating the struggle of women to secure the right to vote.

[5] https://twitter.com/feministlib/status/1220030484035579905

There’s An Archivist for That! Interview with Krü Maekdo, founder of the Black Lesbian Archives

Krü Maekdo wearing t-shirt that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots Tour 20[??]"

Photo of Krü Maekdo (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Krü Maekdo, the founder of the Black Lesbian Archives.

Krü Maekdo has been an innovator in community organizing, gracing stages around the world sharing, her charm, wit, and presence, while contributing to the exciting LGBTQ+ renaissance in many of our communities. CEO of Maekdo Productions, a multi-media and event planning company for women in the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Founder of Queer Black Creatives and Black Lesbian Archives. She works to diplomatically build and connect the world in creative ways. A Creative Director specializing in, Multi-Media, Event Planning, Kosmic Rootwork and Astrology.

For info, visit: krumaekdo.wixsite.com/info/about

How did you get your gig?

I created the Black Lesbian Archives June 2017 after realizing that the stories of our lives were not being documented online, in our local libraries, institutions, collection departments, etc. I felt it would be a great way not only to bring awareness, but to build our communities through experimental storytelling. As well as educating ourselves through our own generational linkages and experiences.

Tell us about your organization.

The Black Lesbian Archives idea started after spending some time in Williamsburg, VA then moving to Chicago, IL. The first exhibit was created after attending an exhibit about Lesbian herstory in Chicago of the 60s, 70s & 80s. I noticed there was a lack of Black Lesbians in the exhibit and everything truly sparked from there. The first exhibit was held at Affinity Community Services in June of 2018 through July and the rest is herstory!

Table top sign that says "Black Lesbian Archives. These archives are on loan. Please feel free to look through, but leave them here! Thank you! With Affinity and logo on the right.

(photo by Law91Media)

Describe your collections.

The Black Lesbian Archives collections I would describe them as having a whole lot of personality! So raw, so honest. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Mostly physical but eventually transferring into digital so we can make them available globally in a way that’s more accessible to all.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

One of the challenges is figuring out an innovative way to preserve archives without having the largest set of funds/backing and to keep it going. The more I learn about archival preservation, the more I understand there’s so much you wouldn’t expect that goes into the backend of archival preservation. We gonna make it work for us though.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of this project is the collaborative effort. Hearing and learning the ways in which we archive. Also the storytelling aspect of archiving which is my favorite! We have created a whole community about how we are growing and preserving the stories of the past, present and future interweaves our destines.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With the new year comes a new opportunity to participate in the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 tour. The Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 was created to bring awareness, educate, preserve and bridge generational gaps within our communities so in turn, we can understand ourselves and the communities beyond us.

Krü Maekdo sitting on steps with tee that says "Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour"

Photo o Krü Maekdo. Promo for the Black Lesbian Archives Grassroots 2020 Tour (courtesy of Krü Maekdo).

For more information check out blacklesbianarchives.wixsite.com/info/grassroots-tour and email: blacklesbianarchives@gmail.com or call 469-430-8568. Leave a voicemail and we’ll get back.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

Asserting the Archivist, no. 4

Margot Note--2This post was authored by guest contributor Margot Note, CA, CRM, IGP, PMP. Note is the principal and founder of Margot Note Consulting, LLC, an archives and records management consulting business in New York. She’s a professor in the graduate Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Science program at St. John’s University. She’s the author of five books, including her newest Creating Family Archives: A Step‐by‐Step Guide for Saving Your Memories for Future Generations published by the Society of American Archivists.

This is the fourth post in our “Asserting the Archivist” series on the importance of highlighting archivists and archival work in outreach efforts, rather than just focusing on the collections themselves. SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) chose a Q&A style for this post to highlight Note’s work and, specifically, her writing as an outreach mechanism that helps to assert the archivist.

Q. We know your origin story into consulting from the Off the Record guest spot and the Archives in Context podcast. So, I’d like to focus in on your writing for this starter question as you’ve written several books over the course of your career thus far. How did you get into professional writing and what was the impetus for you to write your first book?

I started with book reviews. I’d be reading these books anyway, so I figured that I should receive them for free! A publisher contacted me while I was in graduate school studying the topic of my first book, so I turned my papers into chapters and expanded the manuscript.

My books stem from obsessive curiosity. I write about a topic to understand it. What I discover can help people in similar circumstances.

Q. Your most recent book Creating Family Archives was published by the Society of American Archivists, but you’ve also published with Lucidea Press, and have self-published. Can you speak to what those experiences were like, what you enjoyed, and what was challenging?

Each book experience is unique, especially the level of interventions by publishers, editors, and advisory teams. I enjoy the writing flow and the progress of a manuscript.

The most challenging part of writing is getting feedback. Constructive criticism is an opportunity to communicate better with my readers, and I can fix misunderstandings or errors before the final draft.

Q. What have you found are the benefits of writing books for professional literature?

Beyond learning, a big bonus is status. People who don’t understand archives remember me as “the writer.” Authoring a book makes you an expert in the eyes of many. It’s helped me get hired.

I’m touched by the notes that I’ve received from people who’ve said that my books helped them. I also love to see myself cited!

Q. What is your advice for getting over writer’s block?

Use the Pomodoro Method. Set a timer for 25 minutes and write, then rest for 5 minutes. After four Pomodoros, take a 20-minute break. I promise myself that I can stop after one Pomodoro, but I always want to continue.

For low-energy days, I reduce my time to 15 minutes. I focus on any effort towards a goal without judging the quality.

Done is better than perfect.

I believe in mindset. If you think a writing project will be hard, it will be. I seduce myself into the writing process with tea, candles, incense, lighting, and music.

Drinking 5 Hour Energy helps too!

Q. What advice would you like to share with archivists who are aspiring to write their own books?

To quote the anarcho-punk band Crass, “You alone can do it. There is no authority but yourself.”

Forget gatekeepers or mentors. Make your own opportunities, like self-publishing. My book with SAA grew from an earlier self-published edition. No one deemed me an expert—I did it myself.

The universe rewards action.

Archivists note the lack of diversity in our collections and the profession, but I also want our professional literature to better represent our field through the voices of archivists working in non-traditional ways too.

Q. Are there tips or writing resources you would recommend for those who wish to write about professional topics?

Here’s a blog post with my tips: https://www.margotnote.com/blog/2018/2/5/writing-for-career-success

Find the most enjoyable part of writing. I revise zealously.

I create a list of changes needed to be made in a spreadsheet. For instance, I translate feedback on a peer-reviewed article into action steps. I then tackle the tasks, completing items from the easiest to the hardest. Approaching writing this way takes the emotion out of it.

Q. In the Archives in Context podcast you speak to how you’ve found you needed a different vernacular to convey both archival concepts and the value of archives. This is also demonstrated in Creating Family Archives where you introduce archival concepts and best practices in an approachable manner. What tips would you give an archivist who needs to communicate archival concepts to non-archivists?

I talk about storytelling, memories, or legacy. For people with technical or project management backgrounds, I’ll talk about lessons learned. For executives, I mention institutional knowledge or business insights.

I emphasize enduring over historical or archival value, because people think of archives as being old. They might not realize that archival records can be born-digital in the present.

I show my students that archives are welcoming, that archivists can help them, and that primary sources reveal wonders. I explain just enough about archival principles so that they understand why collections are the way that they are.

I also talk about archives in relation to personal or family items.

Someone may never visit a repository, but they have collections of love letters, emails, or photos that they treasure.

Q. Focusing on conveying the value of archives — a universal struggle — how have you found being a consultant has helped you hone that message, especially as you’re not just selling yourself, but you’re also selling the value of archives?

Selling is helping someone solve a problem. Clients reach out because their problem is painful enough to seek advice. When they talk to an expert who has solved similar issues, they become at ease.

I’m proud of my business. I have a killer work ethic and an iron will. My self-confidence was forged by discovering how strong I am in challenging situations. When you project positivity, clients notice.

Q. What’s next for you? Is there another book in the making or another project you’re looking forward to?

Another book, I’m sure. My focus is on creating a business that supports the life I want to lead and finding a balance between work and play.

Do you have a favorite example of archival repositories or organizations/businesses that “assert the archivist” in their outreach efforts? Or would you like to share your experience incorporating archival work into your outreach? Please share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be a guest contributor to ArchivesAWARE!

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody Reflects on 2019 Issues

RachaelWoody

Rachael Woody (photograph courtesy of Rachael Woody).

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

As the end of the year approaches we begin to take stock and reflect. The ArchivesAWARE! Responses & Retrospectives (R&R) series began December 19, 2018 and what could be more fitting than a retrospective piece on what the R&R series held for us this year? This post will provide a reflective summary on the response piece issues we covered.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on the Decline of History Majors and Its Impact on Archives, December 19, 2019. We started the R&R series with the not-so-small topic dominating headlines from Thanksgiving to New Year: the history major is dying. While not all archivists are history majors, seeing the history major in decline held obvious implications for archives and archivists. This post covers the issues precipitating history majors in decline and ties the perceived lack of value for history majors to archives and archivists. This would be the first of several posts written on the value of archives and archivists.

Responses & Retrospectives: Alexandra Bisio on “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” Konmari, and Archival Appraisal, January 30, 2019. Bisio wrote a post on the still trending topic of “Tidying Up.” On January 1, 2019, Netflix released a short series featuring the “Tidying Up” creator Marie Kondo. In the series (and her book) Kondo teaches us how to sort through and discard our items that no longer bring us joy. While “bringing joy” is not an official appraisal method for archivists, it does have appraisal features. Then, about half-way through the mini-series Kondo makes the recommendation we keep no more than 30 books and people had some feelings about it. This conversation included librarians and archivists on both sides of the issue. The uproar reached such a crescendo that Kondo had to release a clarification two-weeks after the Netflix series release saying it was OK if people kept more than 30 books. Bisio covers the deaccession issue and describes how the Konmari method relates to archival appraisal.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on Myspace and the Precarity of User Content on Social Media Platforms, July 11, 2019. On March 18, 2019, Myspace lost millions of songs, photographs, and videos published to the platform prior to 2016. Though the platform is not as popular as other social media tools it did still raise significant concerns on where we place our digital items and how easily they can disappear. This post reviews the limited ability for users to receive a backup of their content from popular social platforms and offers some guidance on how to safeguard digital content.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody’s Annual Conference Coverage on the Value of Archival Labor Sessions, September 6, 2019. The SAA Annual conference held several session opportunities specific to the value of archival labor. This post summarizes the salary forum and panel sessions with additional facts, critiques, questions, and suggestions. The forum and sessions revealed that there are many who care about how archival labor is valued and are experiencing direct, negative repercussions in a field that is literally being devalued. How do we know this? The SAA A*Census report published in 2006 (initiated in 2003) stated an average salary of: $49,329 – that’s $68,507.86 in 2019 dollars. The Archivist Transparency Survey that came out of a grassroots effort from the annual conference shows an average salary of $62,775. That’s a deficit of $5,733. Since the conference an adhoc SAA salary group has been formed to explore actions to alleviate this issue, but a volunteer group can only do so much so quickly. Without active organization support from SAA, many archivists are already too overworked and have little time or energy to dedicate to this issue – keeping in mind the other professional services (free labor) they are involved in.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on October is American Archives Month, October 1, 2019. This retrospective piece offers a summary of activities and links to resources for American Archives Month. Initiated in 2006, American Archives Month just celebrated its 13th anniversary.

Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody on Resources for How to Convey the Value of Archives, October 15, 2019. With 2019 centering around value this American Archives Month post focused on how to create the archives value proposition and provided a summary of resources from both SAA and peer organizations.

Responses & Retrospectives: “Maybe She Just Has to Sing for the Sake of the Song” Rosemary K.J. Davis on Student Loan Debt and Its Impact on the Archival Profession, November 12, 2019. This response piece was adapted from Davis’ SAA annual conference presentation. Student loan debt is a national crisis with many new to mid-career professionals impacted. Early statistics indicate that student debt laden professionals are postponing home ownership and some are even foregoing having children. This issue is so pervasive that it’s part of several Democratic presidential candidate platforms. And bonus: A recent study shows that student loan forgiveness would boost the economy. Given that student loan debt adds to the archivist devaluation crisis, it will be interesting to see where this issue lands closer to the 2020 election.

Responses & Retrospectives: Not Just Your Problem: Metadata Shame, Imposter Syndrome, and Archivists by Jodi Allison-Bunnell, December 3, 2019. Imposter syndrome featured as a popular panel session during the SAA annual conference. In this post Allison-Bunnell dives into an area where she sees a lot of shame: metadata. As archivists we know that we’re working on a never-ending backlog of items to catalog and legacy data to clean up – and limited resources. And yet, the shame we feel is there. Allison-Bunnell ties shame to a larger issue: imposter syndrome and offers compassionate advice for how we can get through it to the other, shame-free side.

Conclusion: The predominant focus on value and especially the value of ourselves as archivists, contrasted with our conflicting sense of imposter syndrome marks this year as one filled with dissonance. As current events, political and economic issues, and social justice movements continue their march through 2020, I forecast that we will continue to feel these reverberations within the profession as we grapple with systemic problems and institutions that are slow (resistant?) to change. While no one wants to hear that we will continue to struggle in 2020, I find hope in the volume of voices that are speaking out. There is communion found when we pitch in to help raise each other up. And if there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s the unequivocal value of archivists.

This post was written by Rachael Cristine Woody, a member of The Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Christine “LadyBee” Kristen, Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator and Photo Gallery Editor

Photo of Christine "LadyBeen" Kristen standing outside on asphalt with tall grass in the background.

Christine “LadyBee” Kristen.

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  COPA member Rachel Seale, Outreach Archivist at Iowa State University, brings you an interview with Christine “LadyBee” Kristen, Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator, and Photo Gallery Editor.

Christine Kristen (a.k.a LadyBee) is Burning Man’s Archivist, Art Collection Curator and Photo Gallery editor. She was Burning Man’s art curator from 1999 to 2008, where she dealt with all things visual and aesthetic, including managing the art and the art grant program, photo-editing the Image Gallery, writing art content for the Burning Man website, working with the ARTery, managing the archives, and lecturing and writing about the art of Burning Man. She is the co-author of “The Jewelry of Burning Man,” with Karen Christians and George Post, and the curator of the exhibition “PlayaMade: Jewelry of Burning Man,” which debuted at the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston in 2017. It opens at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle in January 2020. She has an MFA in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago.

How did you get your gig?

I was an art-world dropout who left New York City in the early 90s, disgusted with the art world I experienced there; I stumbled upon Burning Man in 1995 and was instantly at home, attracted to the intelligent, creative outsiders who were doing radical creative acts in the Black Rock Desert. As I had an art background (MFA Sculpture, School of the Art Institute of Chicago) I was hired by Larry Harvey in 1999 to run the new art grant program; for ten years I did that as well as several archival tasks, like starting our Material Culture archives and our (at the time) physical archive of press articles, books, and magazines.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m not trained as an archivist; I developed my skills by doing, in an environment that encouraged outside-the-box thinking. I left in 2008 to work for an arts startup which ran out of funding, and did some independent curating but realized that I only wanted to work for Burning Man, so I returned in 2012 as the art collection curator and archivist.

Tell us about your organization.

That’s a BIG task; Burning Man is complex and layered; basically it’s a temporary community in the Black Rock Desert that lasts for eight days each year — a city of 80,000 people characterized by art, creativity, generosity, gifting, and radical inclusion. This year we had over 400 art installations, scattered across a flat, barren desert. We have an airport, medical services, a DMV (our Department of Mutant Vehicles), several radio stations, two newspapers, a center cafe and performance space, ice sales, and lots of portable toilets. We do not have stages, hire bands, or put on entertainment; our community brings its hundreds of interactive theme camps, costumes, performance, and art. As Larry Harvey, our founder, said, “We create the hive, the participants bring the honey.” But it doesn’t end there; we are actively engaged in bringing art from the desert to cities; in addition to our art grant program for work on the playa, the prehistoric lake bed where Burning Man takes place, we fund temporary interactive art all over the world via our Global Arts Grants. We now have Regional groups in 35 countries all over the world who put on their own versions of Burning Man, with our guidance; there are over 100 such events annually. Within the Burning Man Project are two groups that do good in the world year round: Burners Without Borders, a disaster relief organization that helps out wherever they’re needed, and began when Hurricane Katrina struck during Burning Man 2005; and Black Rock Labs, which originally gave free or low-cost solar panels to schools within the desert event site area.

 

Burning Man is guided by our Ten Principles:

  • Radical Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical Self-Reliance
  • Communal Effort
  • Civic Responsibility
  • Leave No Trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception. We are a global community of creative souls, doers, makers, gifters, artists and free thinkers.

Describe your collections.

I manage five archives; our press archive is now created digitally via the Meltwater Feed, a service to which we subscribe. Each week I archive domestic and international press, YouTube videos and TV and radio spots; all of these files are stored digitally. We also archive a few hard copies of magazines when it’s beneficial to do so. The second archive I manage is our library; Burning Man has allowed me to release my inner librarian! There are now 175 books in our library; these are books entirely about Burning Man, or with significant content about us. Our library also contains many magazines which have featured us, including National Geographic, Raw Vision, Wired, Leonardo Journal, Time, Architectural Review, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Forbes and Art Forum.

Shelves, that look like cubbies, with books.

Burning Man Library.

The third archive is our Internal Print Production collection, which I started in 1999; it includes the materials we hand out to participants on arrival in Black Rock City —  a city map, our What Where When, a guide to all playa events; an art map, and some logistical information. Also in this archive are the dozen stickers we produce each year, based on a design contest that participants enter; postcards/posters for our local events; tickets; programs from our annual fundraising events; and years of annual journals which are no longer produced.

 

The fourth archive is our collection of photographs and videos; we have flat files full of photographic prints back to our first year, 1986, and a large collection of digital files. Our Documentation Team is given assignments and covers all aspects of the event and related events; these are submitted digitally. We have VHS tapes from the earlier years, which have been digitized, and many DVDs of more recent videos; all of these have been digitized and archived.

The fifth archive is our Regional Archive, which contains printed materials from the 100+ events that occur worldwide including Afrika Burn in South Africa, Mid-Burn in Israel, KiwiBurn in New Zealand, Tropical Burn in Brazil, and the original regional burn, Burning Flipside, in Austin, Texas. They produce an event map and guide, like Burning Man, and also stickers, buttons, t-shirts and other memorabilia.

A wall of images from the 1990s, depicting history of Burning Man. Includes magazine covers and photographs.

The History Wall – images from the 1990s.

Large painting by JennyBIrd Alcantara , small painting, center, by Josh Coffy, organ and sheet music from the Church Trap by Rebekkah Waites, 2013

Large painting (left) by JennyBIrd Alcantara , small painting (center), by Josh Coffy, organ and sheet music from the Church Trap by Rebekkah Waites (art installation to the right), 2013.

What are some challenges unique to your collections?

Much of Burning Man is ephemeral and experiential, living on in participants’ memories, and in videos and photographs. Some of the art installations are burned at the event, never to be seen again. We are fortunate in that the Nevada Museum of Art maintains an archive donated by one of our founders; they created a historical exhibit that was included in the Smithsonian’s wildly successful show, No Spectators, which traveled to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, where it broke all previous attendance records, and is now at the Oakland Museum of California. Artists were asked to create work for the exhibit, which also features films, photographs, jewelry, costumes and an outdoor Temple.

What is the favorite part of your job?

My favorite task is curating and producing art for our World Headquarters (HQ) in San Francisco. Each year, post-event, I identify the best photos of the most interesting art, and a local burner and muralist prints and mounts them for us. I also seek artifacts from art installations, posters and items from our theme camps, and gift items from the event. I design the displays at HQ, and hang the art. I co-wrote the book, Jewelry of Burning Man, and I have a travelling exhibit, Playa Made: Jewelry of Burning Man, which I guest curated for the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston, and which will open at the Bellevue Art Museum near Seattle, this January. Each year I create a display at HQ of the jewelry I collect on playa; I have a maker group of over 90 people, and we meet each year at the event. My jewelry collection goes back to 1995. My style of display is far from minimal; I like to cover every available space with the art and objects from our madly creative community.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photographs in this post courtesy of LadyBee.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!