Responses & Retrospectives: Cecelia “Cece” Otto on Reimagining Living History Performances in the COVID-era

CeceOttoSuffrageChair01_hr-819x1024This 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 with your ideas!

In this installation of Responses & Retrospectives (COPA) member Rachael Woody of Rachael Cristine Consulting LLC interviews Cecelia “Cece” Otto, a classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian who has performed in venues all over the world both as a soloist and in ensemble. In 2013, she completed her cross-country musical journey An American Songline, performing 30 concerts of historic vintage music on venues along the Lincoln Highway. Cece then went on to create other historical programs such as The Songs of World War I, and is currently performing a program about the women’s suffrage movement and developing a concert program about Prohibition. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has written books and recorded albums based on her research.

When we last heard from Cece Otto she was about to embark on a year-long tour of her women’s suffrage movement program and provided an interview for our Archives + Audiences series. Then COVID-19 hit, cancelling many of her performances that had been months–if not years–in the making. Over the last six months, Cece has reimagined her living history program and agreed to share with us her ideas, tips, and lessons-learned so that all archives, museums, and cultural heritage organizations can find the inspiration and know-how to pivot their own programming.

RW: How has your work shifted with the COVID-19 cancellation of events?

CO: It has shifted in a dramatic way. Prior to COVID-19, all of my appearances and concerts were in-person and 95% of my merchandise was bought at these events. When everything shifted in mid-March and events nationwide started to be cancelled or postponed, I had to hit pause and really think about how I could and should connect with audiences and venues. I wanted to continue to provide something of quality, but I had to think if my type of historic performing would translate well virtually. I pride myself on giving everyone an authentic experience, and performing virtually felt inauthentic in those early stages of quarantine. 

My calendar was booked solid and I had dates and speaking engagements all over the US. Everyone wanted to hear the Women’s Suffrage program, and I was on track to have my most profitable year in seven years. (I know things were similar financially for many sites and institutions too.) Each organization responded differently — some cancelled my shows right away, some waited until the last minute. Each state had their own COVID policies and I was trying to stay on top of it all. Some concerts in the last half of March were rescheduled to August to commemorate the ratification of the 19th amendment, but even then most of those events were postponed yet again because of various factors.  

That being said, there were some bright moments in all of this. I did my very first livestream performance with an organization that had booked me in 2018 because they had the funds and flexibility to make it happen. They were willing to pivot to keep their patrons engaged. When some venues mentioned above rebooked me, they told me I was the first person they thought of. Some places even noted that people had contacted them asking when I was going to be rescheduled. Because it’s an election year, people so badly want hear the songs and stories of the women who fought for the right to vote for over 70 years. 

RW: [Oh yes!] You recently performed live via YouTube premiere. What was that like?

CO: I have to admit, I was nervous about performing via a YouTube livestream. I didn’t know what to expect. Would people turn up? Would people comment on the songs and/or watch the whole concert? There were so many unknowns. But that being said, it was a fun experience. People did turn up! I had people from 15 states in all US time zones as well as people in Canada and Australia tune in to watch, which to this day still blows me away. All in all, I was able to reach regular fans and new fans who had never heard me before.

It was a little weird to not see people. I had to imagine applause at the end of each song, and I ended up saying “thank you” after every song, just like it was in a real show. The chat on YouTube was pretty active, but I couldn’t see it because I was on camera the entire time. Luckily, I had two people moderating comments, so when we did the Q&A at the end of the program the questions were all ready to go. 

That being said, it is a much more intense experience to perform for a camera and no physical audience. People are communal by nature, and we communicate verbally and non-verbally with each other even in a concert setting. The energy in the room that performers and audience members create is unique every time, and while the songs can remain the same each show is different because of people’s reactions. When you have no one there to perform to, that energy is gone and it can be hard to figure out how to introduce songs and talk about the topic at hand. Some songs I think played better in virtual setting because I could emote more and be more passionate on stage, others felt the same virtually as they did in-person, others may be better as live songs only. Because of these shifts, I was exhausted the next day after the show. But overall I was extremely pleased with how it all turned out.

RW: What were the technical, logistical, and theatrical considerations for delivering a virtual performance?

CO: Anyone can go live and be virtual these days, and I didn’t want this to be every single thing that’s appeared since we all went into lockdown in March. I had pressure from fans and organizations to “just get something up there”; many famous musicians were giving free concerts in their living rooms and they felt I can and should just do it like these top musicians did. While I appreciate that they put me in the same category, I financially am not in the same place as an independent musician and historian. The piano player has to get paid too, right? And taking virtual tip jar donations wasn’t going to cut it. This is music from a century ago, and I wanted to give it the proper treatment it deserves. 

My first obstacle was location, and it’s a big one. Theatrically, I had to think about what suited the music best. I live in a home that’s not a vintage home, and my pianist here in the Pacific Northwest has a period home, but a bad wifi connection for streaming a concert. The summer had vintage locations still very much in lockdown here in Oregon, and knowing I had to find a venue for the YouTube concert mentioned above, I put out a call to several places. One venue that I’d performed at a few times before immediately said “yes”, knowing that there would be less than five people in the building when the concert was happening so they would stay within COVID guidelines. They had a lovely parlor in the building that dated to the 1920s, the piano was in decent shape, and the wifi was excellent, so I knew that this space would be perfect. I will say that when thinking about filming, take into consideration the weather, lighting, and if the building has air-conditioning. When I did the test run it was earlier in the day and it was nice and cool outside. The day of the concert, it was 87 degrees outside, the parlor faced west and had no air-conditioning, so by the time the evening concert happened, it was warm and we had no fans to cool things down. It all turned out fine, but you want to be as comfortable as possible when you film.  

Next up was the additional equipment and software I needed to be able to stream properly. I had decided to use YouTube because its sound was better than most platforms, and all people needed was a link — no one had to download anything or needed a password to get in. I purchased one of those ring lights you’re seeing everywhere these days that had the capability to attach a webcam, and I used a USB microphone sat on the floor in front of me off camera. Everything hooked into my laptop and was streamed through YouTube and OBS, which is a free software that people can use for video broadcasting and live-streaming. Last but not least, we brought cleaning products so we could clean all of the surfaces before we left for the night. All in all, we found quality equipment that was less than $150, so any person or organization can and should invest a little if you’re thinking of doing more online content. It will make all the difference in the long run. 

RW: What challenges and opportunities do you see for performing virtually?

CO: The biggest challenge as a performer is that people will forgive bad video, but they NEVER forgive bad audio. If you have distorted audio or silence they will stop listening and watching almost immediately. My mouth didn’t match what I was singing sometimes and it’s a known YouTube issue, but people forgave it because the audio was crystal clear during the entire livestream. As a performer there were three things I had to keep in mind: 1) I had to find a platform that is inexpensive and easy for me to use 2) People know how to find and easily use the platform and last but not least, 3) It again has excellent audio quality. As much as Zoom and Facebook Live have their perks, the audio quality is inconsistent and the sound for music is terrible (talking is fine, music not so much). Many of these platforms are working on rolling out better audio for events in the future, but in the interim I chose YouTube because of its track record. 

Another challenge I again see is people arguing that my fees for my programs and services should be lower because I’m not traveling anywhere and not standing in front of them, which is extremely frustrating. Years of research and rehearsal need to be taken into it all, and I again think wearing period clothing is essential to the art and message of the music, which means I’m taking close to an hour to be camera-ready for a virtual performance. Add in the time and production costs for the filming and editing to create some virtual, and you can understand why rates need to stay where they are.  

But on the flip side, the opportunities to reach new audiences are and have been amazing. It would have taken months of touring to reach fifteen states and two countries, and I’m grateful that organization honored their 2-year commitment to me to make the livestream happen. I also have seen a hunger for people to learn more about me and how I do what I do, and that goes beyond just the professionals and academics in the field. While we’ve all been at home these past several months, we’ve been more curious and thinking about all the things we normally don’t think about. As a performer for many years, I didn’t think people wanted to see “what’s behind the curtain”, but what I’ve found out is that they do. Our world and society is looking back at historic events in ways they never have been before, and the public at large wants to know more. They frankly are yearning to know more. 

RW: What other opportunities do you see for innovating upon your work during this COVID-19 era?

CO: There’s more than I originally imagined! I’m so glad I hit pause and took the time to really think through what I could do and what would serve audiences and historical sites the best. I am grateful I took this time, I truly feel I’m able to provide something virtual that is a good substitute for an in-person show. There are real-time concerts and events of course, but there’s so much that can be done with repurposing what content I do have so more people have access to it. I’ve already taken the first livestream concert and given it to my Patrons on Patreon as a “thank you” for their support, and I was even able to use it to get more members (more on that later). 

I know budgets will be tight for many organizations in the next few years, so until live performances come back fully, I’ve set up three different virtual options that can give something new to members and patrons.

1) Concert only: This is an unlisted online link to one of my concerts that you could use and share with your patrons. They would have access to it for 30 days to view as many times as they like. I would absorb all production costs for this license; all you have to do is give them the link and you’re set!

2) Concert link with live Q&A at the end of the concert: You’d get the link as noted above, and then I would come on at a specific date and time of your choosing to talk with people and answer questions about the songs and my research. Q&A sessions can last anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on how we get going!

3) Full exclusive livestream concert with Q&A: This option would be me in full costume performing the full program, with the Q&A session at the end of the program. The link would also be made available after the livestream for a set amount of time so if anyone misses it they can see it. Given people’s bandwidth these days, the concert would be 45-50 minutes long with 10-15 minutes of Q&A to keep screen fatigue to a minimum. 

RW: How can people support you and your work during this time?

CO: Until live events return, there are several ways that people can help. Booking virtual events, talks, and purchasing licenses to previous concerts are one way to support my work of course. My Patreon page is a great place for individuals and institutions to continually support what I’m doing as well, and there are various tiers. I’m building an online community there that’s not dependent on algorithms, and I talk behind the scenes about what I’m finding in my research. Patrons will get first access to music, videos, livestreams, and more. I’m even doing AMA (Ask Me Anything) chats. As more members join, I’ll be able to financially do more livestreams concerts that only they will have access to. 

I’ve also got books, concert program booklets, CDs and flash drives of music that people can buy from me directly. If people want to buy items in bulk, I offer discounts as well. Here’s a link to my Amazon Author page, and you can also find my songs distributed on iTunes, CD Baby and more. If finances are tight, something as simple as subscribing to my YouTube channel or leaving a review on Amazon or Facebook make a huge difference in my overall visibility. 

RW. When things are safe to return to in-person performance, how can people contact you about booking a show and is there anything they need to know?

CO: While the centennial of the 19th amendment occurred this year, many people have asked for this concert to be performed in 2021 and potentially beyond 2021 depending on when things get back to “normal”. And rightfully so! These songs and stories need to be heard, and as long as voting rights continue to be challenged, I welcome the opportunity to continue performing this program. 

I’m excited to report that I’ve also been researching and putting together a new program of Prohibition songs that will be ready next year! Not just the good time “fun” songs of the 1920s, but there are songs from the Temperance movement too and earlier. I’ve done programs of several important moments in American history, and I have been thinking about doing “artist in residence”-style performing where I could be in one location for a week performing a different concert every day. I love the idea of also doing talks and workshops with people in the community as well. This music is such a powerful learning tool, and I believe it’s a great way for us to open up and discuss sensitive topics. I feel the need to share that I’m very aware that venues and audiences will be different when we all come back together again, and I’m taking that into account. We’ve collectively been going through so much, and while we’ll all appreciate live entertainment more after this, I also know that we’ll all be processing this time in the months and years to come so the songs need to reflect that as well.  

I heartily recommend that if anyone is interested in working with me, they contact me sooner rather than later so they can ensure they have the date(s) they want. Once things get moving again, I have the feeling my calendar will fill up quickly! They can contact me personally at:, via the American Songline website, or through any of the social media platforms below. 

RW: Where can people find you?

CO: There are many places they can find me online! My website is a great place to go first to learn more, and that link is My YouTube channel is the next best stop—you’ll get to see excerpts of performances and hear testimonials from people who have attended the show. That link is: Of course, I’m on all of the major social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and I often post fun vintage, retro photos as well as concert and travel updates. Thanks again for the opportunity to share my experiences six months on, I really appreciate it!

This post was written by Rachael Woody based on an interview conducted with Cece Otto. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the interviewee’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: Sarah Meidl on The Colorado State University Archives & Special Collections Covid-19 Archive

Sarah MeidlThis 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 with your ideas!

MLIS candidate at the University of Washington and SAA student chapter member Sarah Meidl brings you an interview with Mark Shelstad, Coordinator for Digital and Archives Services at Colorado State University.


Mark Shelstad manages the Covid-19 Archive at Colorado State University, a new project that seeks to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the community of students, faculty, and staff at CSU.

Please see the Society of American Archivists’ press release (drafted by COPA) for more information on organizations documenting COVID-19 in their communities.

Q. When did the Covid-19 Archive project start and what gave you the idea for the project?

A. Our official start date for working at home was March 23rd. And like many colleges and universities out there we were anticipating how the virus might affect the university community. In doing so, we surveyed what other institutions’ documentation efforts, and we took to heart the option for digital acquisitions through web harvesting, and a digital submission form to document the virus’ impact on the University’s community. Submitters can also fill out a questionnaire to share their personal stories about the virus’ impact on their studies, work, and other challenges.

Q. What types of submissions have you received so far?

A. So far, it’s been a little bit on the low side. We’ve received a couple of student video projects which have been great talking about their experiences. One is really well done with two students sharing their experience prior to being sent home interspaced with text messages that they were receiving from the University emergency response team and the county health office. We’ve had a couple submissions of folks who were sent home, the impact of doing remote work and remote learning, and then a lot of images from around campus, and where people self-quarantining.

Q. Are you open to all kinds of digital formats?

A. We wanted to set a low bar for submissions So far they have been the standard JPEGs, PDFs and MP4s. But we’ll do our best to accept the formats as they come in and convert them as needed.

Q. Are you actively processing things or are you waiting until things go back to normal to start the processing project?

A. We will begin making the items available in our digital repository, Mountain Scholar. When a corpus of material has been submitted, a Story map or another online exhibit platform will interpret the materials.

Q. How many people are working on the project right now?

A. Four members of Digital and Archive Services have been involved over the course of the project in developing the digital submission form, metadata creation, and web harvesting.

Q. Are the users creating any metadata for what they are uploading?

A. Yes, users are providing information about themselves, creation of the items, location, and topics. People have been very willing to share this information and self-document. s.

Q. And is this project just for the Colorado State University community or is it open to anyone?

A. As the University Archives, our project is focused on the CSU community. We have talked collecting scope with other archives in the area, and the University Museum of Design and Merchandising, which is collecting masks and clothing. The campus GIS center, the Geospatial Centroid, is running a survey on people’s locations after the semester moved online. We’ve managed to identify portions of this documentation project in a collaborative way.

Q. Will you experience any challenges when you start processing materials? Do you have access to needed software?

A. Submitted items are captured in the cloud, and our digital repository platform is DSpace, so we’ve been able to work in this new environment without many challenges.

Q. Have you had any challenges working from home?

A. Personally speaking, the main challenge has been getting bumped off the VPN depending upon user volume, and making the transition to Microsoft Teams for communication and collaboration.

Q. In addition to this project, are you also working on your regular projects?

A. Yes, we have other projects developed for remote work since we aren’t able to work on physical collections. Namely they involve metadata creation and cleanup, updating finding aids and Wikipedia entries. We also have two crowdsourcing projects underway, one for CSU President Charles Lory, and for interstate water compact attorney Delph Carpenter

Q. Have you managed a similar project in the past where you’re trying to have members of the community upload materials, or is this new ground for the Archives?

A. This is the first round for us, and I’m interested to see what kind of response we get over time. We’re planning to keep the project open, well after the return to work order has been lifted so folks can keep contributing. My sense is that individuals will have an opportunity down the road to reflect on their experiences.

Q. You mentioned having a collection in your digital repository. What is your plan on arranging materials in the repository?

A. We will load them into a Covid-19 collection within our University Archives Community in the repository, with Dublin core metadata supporting their discovery.

Q. Do you see this project as fulfilling the mission of Archives and Special Collections for CSU?

A. Absolutely. These are unprecedented times, and we need to document our individual and shared experiences, ranging from safety protocols, faculty moving their instruction online, staff working remotely, and students who had to leave campus on short notice and transition to online learning. At CSU, it harkens back to a devastating flood in 1997, and I would want to draw upon the oral histories with our emergency response team for comparison.

Q. Do you have any advice for other cultural heritage institutions that may be working on similar projects? Or, lessons learned from your experience so far?

A. I would say jump in. It’s an opportunity for setting collecting priorities and methods, and outreach with potential donors and users. Publicity is also very important, and this project’s selling point is the organic submissions, and getting to tell your story.

Q. How have you been publicizing the event so far?

A. We have used various outlets, such as our campus newsletter and social media outlets, and directly with targeted constituents. A schedule has been developed as periodic reminders for the fall semester.

Q. What do you see as the impact of this Covid-19 pandemic on the profession and on archival institutions?

A. I think there’s a great opportunity for a profession-wide case study to see what efforts were successful, what kind of materials have been acquired, how access and interpretation are being provided, and the impact this documentation efforts has with public policymakers.

Q. Anything to add?

A. In the fall we’d really like to do that oral history with our senior leadership to capture the lessons learned from the pandemic. For students, to have a story-both project for them to drop in and share their experiences, and a digital acquisitions day when they return. We would want to engage with them in physical and digital spaces.

This post was written by Sarah Meidl based on an interview conducted with Mark Shelstad. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the interviewee’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: But I thought I was an Archivist?


Photo provided by Rachel Thomas.

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 with your ideas!

Rachel Thomas, MA, is the University Archivist at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. She is passionate about the archival profession and opening the field to new professionals from all walks. Thomas is a member of Society of American Archivists and Northwest Archivists and recently served on the inaugural Northwest Archivists Archivist-in-Residence committee which is dedicated to working on the problem of unpaid internships in the archival profession. Linkedin profile:

Six year ago I walked into my first professional gathering of archivists. As a lone arranger, I was excited to meet some of my colleagues. It was an unconference, inviting members of our profession to gather and discuss some of the issues surrounding our work. As the evening began, talk quickly turned to archives certification and qualifications. What makes an archivist and archivist? We gathered into groups to discuss this. I was excited to share my background and how I came to the field and hear how others entered this field I love.

However, as soon as we sat down, one of the members of my group said, “If you don’t have an MLIS, you are not an archivist. We have to have some standards!”

I was floored. I didn’t have an MLIS. I had just been hired by a university I respected, I had completed a MA in Early American and United States History, I had apprenticed in a large, well known, respected archive under a leader in the profession, I had worked for four years as an archive assistant at another university. I knew DACS, processing, other archival ethics and standards. I was a member of SAA and my regional association. I didn’t have my MLIS, but I was an archivist, wasn’t I?

As the discussion continued I found my voice. I expressed that I believed that being an archivist is about following the ethics and practices of the profession, not based on a certain set of letters behind a name. I shared examples of devoted archivists who had come to the field with no professional training. Some agreed with me, others held the position that the MLIS should always be required. The original speaker did not back down, she told me that she was sorry, but I didn’t belong in the field. According to her there were too many “non-professionals” calling themselves archivists and taking jobs from real archivists.

Eventually the night moved onto other topics. I learned a lot from colleagues in the room. I was able to network and build some contacts, learn about opportunities to serve in my regional professional organization. It was a successful evening by all accounts, however, I left doubting myself, hit hard with imposter syndrome.

A few years later and a few years wiser, I know that I am an archivist. I know I belong to the profession, and I know I bring value to my work. I have learned to appreciate my ability to think outside of the box, and largely credit it to the alternate route I took into the field. However, I still generally advise interns and students desiring to enter the field to pursue an MLIS. I know that it will prepare them well for the workplace, and I know that it has become a requirement for most positions in the field. I want them to be able to find work.


Photograph provided by Rachel Thomas.

At the same time, I want to challenge our profession to broaden their understanding of how one can become an archivist. I think we need to lean into the value of divergent perspectives brought by alternate education and career paths. We need to come to an understanding that the MLIS is not the only way to enter into our field. Other education and career paths can help us approach problems differently, they can help us develop new solutions, creative ideas, and the ability to diversify our collections and practices to fit a broader cross section of society. Employers must reconsider whether or not requiring the MLIS is unnecessarily limiting their applicant panel, disqualifying candidates who could bring new strengths and experience to the position. Archivists must check their assumptions about their colleagues. We must seek to be inclusive, not only in our collections, but among our colleagues.

This story does have a happy ending. At a recent conference I had a chance to have a heart to heart with one of the archival leaders in our region. He had been working as an archivist for decades and had received recognition at regional and national levels for his contributions. Everyone knew his name. I mentioned that sometimes I thought we were too focused on degrees in our field. That much of the work could be learned in other ways. That I had struggles with imposter syndrome because of my MA. He laughed, and said, “Guess I don’t belong in the field then! I only have a bachelor’s degree!”

This post was written by Rachel Thomas, MA. 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 & Retrospectives: Toward Collective Change, A Response to Precarious Labor Practices and a Roadmap to Creating Ethical Grant-Funded Positions

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 with your ideas!

Sandy Rodriguez is an archives administrator with a background in audiovisual archives, digital repositories, and digital preservation. Her experiences as a contingent worker of color have shaped her views on labor ethics, identity, and power. She imagines a world where we can each show up as our full selves to build connections and shape perspectives that work toward collective justice.

Ruth Kitchin Tillman writes, quilts, and spends her workdays stitching together technical systems. Her research and service agendas focus on improving the working experiences of new professionals, from her EADiva website to technical onboarding to labor conditions. She envisions a world where human flourishing always comes before the bottom line.

If you started working in archives or libraries in the last 10 years (or even before that) you know the drill:

  • See a promising job post come by on a listserv;
  • Notice that it’s term-limited and possibly grant-funded;
  • Wonder about the salary, which is almost never posted, and whether it has health insurance;
  • Perform a mental cost-benefit analysis based on location, how badly you need work, and whether you can pull off a move with no reimbursement;
  • Choose whether or not to apply;
  • Repeat.

Some of us have taken the jobs. At times it’s a great stepping stone toward secure work. More often, it leads to years of moving and churn, forcing. For others, family responsibilities and stable employment elsewhere have delayed or even ended our preferred careers because we simply can’t afford the risk.

We want to change these norms and expectations. By publishing “Do Better” -Love(,) Us:  Guidelines for Developing and Supporting Grant-Funded Positions in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums, we provide principles, guidelines, and conversation that we hope will guide that shift.

Ask for What You Need

Our group came together in early 2017, inspired by Stacie Williams’ DLF Forum 2016 keynote “All Labor is Local” and our own experiences as workers, as grant reviewers, and as people who wanted the best for our peers. We identified grants as an early focus, not because they’re the only source of precarious labor, but because funders set requirements which applicants and recipients must follow.

We guided our work by the principle “ask for what you need.” Is it better for a funder to support 5 jobs which create poor working conditions or 3 which ensure workers have equitable salaries and critical benefits such as health insurance? Instead of encouraging a climate of lowballing in an attempt to get funded and destructive positions for more workers, we want funders and institutions to focus on what’s actually necessary to make a good position.

Treat Colleagues with Respect

It’s not just about the money/benefits. Within the profession, we all have responsibilities to each other. Building on the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, we made sure to address ways in which these positions should treat the workers in them as our colleagues in creating the outcome of the grant. These range from crediting workers to ensuring that they receive orientation about institutional knowledge on the project’s history and adequate supplies.

Respecting colleagues also looks like treating each other as people with a past and future. The excellent open letter from the UCLA archivists spells out ways in which precarious working conditions affect the whole life of the worker, as well as the ways in which it harms the operations of the institution. Although the letter came out well after our initial draft and first revision, we took inspiration from it in our final revisions.

Our Process

The principle “ask for what you need,” shaped the group’s process as well. We would determine what the next step should be, figure out how to make it manageable, and ask everyone to share in the process. For example, we first knew we needed to track down all the existing best practices for labor in LAM and adjacent fields. Even if they were dated, we might find inspiration on what to do… or what not to do. Next, everyone in the group committed to read one (most were 2-5 pages) and report on highlights at the next call. The momentum moved us forward quickly, so that our first draft was done in about 6 months.

The work was somewhat interrupted as we first sought feedback at the 2017 DLF Forum and determined that an IMLS National Forum grant could be an opportunity to get comments on this work but expand it much further. The draft provided a starting point for our Collective Responsibility Labor Forum. After the second meeting of the forum, which has separate outcomes, we regrouped with the original writers and sought feedback from the forum participants: how have our perspectives changed? What new voices have we heard?

What Comes Next?

Releasing a document doesn’t make the change happen. Endorsing a document doesn’t put it into practice. The situation won’t change unless all of us are willing to work together on it. We want this to be a roadmap. We want it to be something you can point to when defending a choice. We want funders to take these factors into consideration.

Change starts with normalizing conversations and challenges about labor. Let’s talk about the things we tacitly accept at work and their impact on workers. Let’s put ourselves on the path to a more equitable future by building connections we’ll need for the collective pressure that’ll get us there.

This post was written by Sandy Rodriguez and Ruth Kitchin Tillman. 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: Geof Huth on What We Do and What We Mean: Regarding a Petition to Add a Candidate to the SAA Ballot


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 ( 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.”


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

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 (

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 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, 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

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

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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 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.



[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:

[3] For examples of this concern, note the January 19th statement issued by the Society of American Archivists ( and the January 21st statement from the American Library Association (

[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.


Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody Reflects on 2019 Issues


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 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.

Responses & Retrospectives: Not Just Your Problem: Metadata Shame, Imposter Syndrome, and Archivists by Jodi Allison-Bunnell,

Photo of Jodi Allison-Bunnell. Color.

Jodi Allison-Bunnell (courtesy of Jodi Allison-Bunnell).

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 with your ideas!

It usually happens during the tour of the stacks: As we stand among the grey boxes, in a dark corner, a colleague will lean toward me and confess, sotto voce, that their metadata—accession records, finding aids, donor records, or digital collections—is really a mess. Their eyes are downcast with shame at the gap between the standards that they know and what they actually have. They are certain that they are the only individual or institution with this problem.

But what I know—and am always truly delighted to tell them—is that they are not at all alone. Twenty-three years of work in large and small institutions, a regional consortium, and as a consultant has shown me that everyone has ugly metadata. Everyone carries shame about it. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

Last spring, at the annual meeting of Northwest Archivists in Bozeman, Montana, I co-presented a panel with fellow consultants Rachael Woody and Maija Andersen to predict the future of archives in 2020 ( During that panel, we discussed a number of important themes, including salaries in the archival profession (Rachael’s passion!) and the continued certainty of constrained resources. I used the framework of “The good, the bad, and the ugly” to predict that a year from now, your metadata will still be ugly. And there’s no shame in that.

Metadata shame is part of a larger phenomenon: imposter syndrome. First identified in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, it’s when an individual believes they have insufficient skills, intellect, and experience for a given task or environment, usually professional, despite objective evidence to the contrary. (Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247).  Although Clance and Imes’ initial paper was focused on high-achieving women, the term has since been applied to all genders of highly intelligent, qualified, and achieving people who suffer this crushing self-doubt.

The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale, a non-diagnostic self-assessment, asks a respondent to indicate degree of agreement or disagreement with statements that include: “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am,” “I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am,” “I rarely do a project or task as well as I’d like to do it,” and “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.” (, accessed 2019 Oct 11. From The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22), by P.R. Clance, 1985, Toronto: Bantam Books. Copyright 1985 by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., ABPP.)

Clearly, there are many archivists who would agree with many of those statements. At the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists last August, Session 701, “My Comeback Story: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in the Archives Profession” drew hundreds of attendees that overfilled the largest room in the conference facility. The presenters shared their stories of struggling with imposter syndrome and how they have transformed that experience into positive outcomes. Some of their experiences were related to race, education, or the specific dynamics of their institution. But Drew Davis of the College of American Pathologists gave examples that are universal: We have so much to do and so much to know, and one response to that reality is shame. We compare ourself to other professionals and are certain that they are more successful. Davis ultimately found that he is naturally competitive. Instead of fighting that tendency, he turns his comparison with others into an opportunity to be inspired, motivated—and successful

His response is the map for all of us: rather than letting shame overcome us, we can put that energy toward action. When I was building a Digital Public Library of America hub at the Orbis Cascade Alliance, we confronted the challenge of half a million digital object records that had been created before the consortium had Dublin Core best practices. A few core fields needed remediation before the content could be aggregated efficiently at the regional and national level. As part of a series of workshops I developed with consultant Anneliese Dehner and Julia Simic (Assistant Head, Digital Scholarship Services, University of Oregon), we inserted humor and cultivated the concert of the “metadata shame-free zone.” We wanted to create an atmosphere that inspired action, bolstered skills, and created clear priorities for metadata cleanup. And we delivered the results we needed: 100,000 digital objects cleaned up, aggregated, and ready for DPLA.

So let’s come out of that dark corner of the stacks, openly reveal our challenges to colleagues, and support one another in developing solutions. Let’s share our comeback stories to make the profession better for all of us. No more metadata shame. And no more imposters.

This post was written by Jodi Allison-Bunnell. Jodi Allison-Bunnell has twenty-three years of experience leading and participating in collaborations to increase access to unique content in archives, libraries, and museums by using shared systems and standards. She is the owner and principal consultant at AB Consulting ( She was the program manager for Unique and Local Content at the Orbis Cascade Alliance until 2018; prior positions include project manager for Northwest Digital Archives and archivist at the University of Montana. She holds an MA and an MLS from University of Maryland at College Park and a BA summa cum laude from Whitman College.

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 & 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

black-and-white head shot of Rosemary K.J. Davis.

Rosemary K.J. Davis (courtesy of Rosemary K.J. Davis).

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 with your ideas!

This text has been lightly adapted from its original form, which was presented at the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in Austin, TX on August 14, 2019.

maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song

I owe almost $160,000 in student loans. This number is terrifying to me. I hate to say it out loud or even see all those digits lined up on the page. The very fact of it, the way it feels so inevitable yet so completely avoidable. And it’s both. Truly. 

There is little comfort in knowing that I am not alone in having this complex, conflicted element in my life. It’s an undercurrent for so many of us, a constant little…catch that is triggered by looking at your bank account, by searching for a new job, for paying some bills but not others, by taking on extra work, by not doing things like: having kids, buying a house, traveling, having adequate health insurance. 

Low pay and the notion of a thriving wage are vital topics of conversation within the archives field, certainly, but for me, and maybe for many others, compensation cannot be discussed without an open acknowledgement of debt, of the financial and emotional weights carried as we try to make space for ourselves in this profession.  

I took out my first student loan when I was eighteen because my divorced mom made just enough money that Northwestern University’s financial aid office assumed she magically had thousands and thousands of dollars in reserve to pay for my tuition and housing. The university assumed that those imaginary funds, along with non-existent child support from my dad, would certainly be enough to keep me afloat and pay the bills–I can assure you this was not the case.  

I took out student loans every semester because the choice between staying in Chicago and going back to East Texas didn’t feel like a choice at that point in my life. 

I had to make my first student loan payment six months after I dropped out of Northwestern halfway through my third year. There have been deferments and tearful calls to loan servicers begging for adjustments, but always, eventually, payments. Relentless. I know I am not alone in feeling the fear of this weird emotional and financial low-hanging cloud that dulls joy and takes away possibilities.

When I decided to go to library school, the fatalism of already being six figures deep in unrepayable debt was almost liberating. Because, you know, at that point: fuck it

I worked full-time and took classes at Pratt during the evening. At one point, I did a practicum at the Fales Library at NYU and while the experience I gained there was invaluable both practically and in the form of a resume line, it was also unpaid. Well, I wasn’t paid. But I did use student loan money to pay for tuition in order to get credit for my unpaid internship. 

That’s certainly a song that many of us know how to sing. Hello, to the choir of my colleagues. I can hear you.

I don’t really have a concrete number for how much debt I took on in order to get through my MSLIS degree, but it was most likely about $36,000, which is essentially the entire bill for grad school. Salary from my full-time office job paid for my rent, for my food. I’m aware of the immense amount of privilege it takes in order to just…decide I’m taking on this additional debt. The way that I just got to assume “I’ll figure it out somehow”–it’s particular brand of carelessness that so many people cannot emotionally, professionally, or financially afford to exercise. But when you are sunken so deep into the unreality of a number this big, a few more thousand can feel like pocket change. It can feel like both a salvation and like a curse you cast upon yourself.  

And obviously, the cost of dealing with this debt isn’t just financial. It’s depression. Guilt. Fear. Disenfranchisement. These are not uncommon states of being for many people in our profession. A recent contingent employment survey done by the New England Archivists  shows that a majority of us are taking on significant amounts of debt in order to finance a career in a profession that is chronically underfunded across the board and is, in many cases, still under the impression that unpaid internships that provide “good experience” are good enough, that job postings without salary information are just “an institutional prerogative” instead of an antiquated, bullshit form of gatekeeping that keeps applicant pools remarkably undiverse. 

The Issues and Advocacy Section of SAA recently completed a temporary labor survey that reveals some pretty unsurprising information: precarious, underpaid, unsupported labor not only actively drives people away from this profession, but it also creates a cross-section of archivists who are constantly searching for work, endlessly balancing multiple jobs in order to stay afloat, and who feel like they’ve taken on a mountain of debt for a shot at doing work they care about in conditions that deny them stability, progress, and joy.

After five years of jobs with expiration dates and less than stellar salaries, I am now paid well and in a permanent position. I’m thankful for that, certainly, but also: about 14% of the money I make every year goes directly to student loan payments. I am now almost two decades into making payments on my student loans and the principal amount has absolutely never decreased once. I doubt it ever will. Every year, my monthly payment amount goes up, instead of down–it’s pegged to my income (and to the income of my partner, who has zero debt but has become responsible for mine because we are in love and legally bound). I got word a couple of days ago that my promotion portfolio was accepted. Salary increases, like the one I will get with this promotion, are lovely, but usually feel a bit more grayscale than technicolor. I know that the increased amount siphoned away toward loan payments will absorb most of the small gains I make. 

I am so lucky right now. I can pay my bills. I have financial and emotional support from a wonderful partner. I don’t have dependents who require assistance. I did, finally, buy a house. I have debt beyond my student loans, but I can usually handle it. 


Uncertainty and anxiety don’t slip away so easily. They become hardwired in a way that can feel impossible to dismantle. And when you’re surrounded by waves of professionals doing awesome work but who are struggling with a heaviness I can so well recognize, who are coming up against the same walls over and over again, who are facing limitations I can’t begin to imagine shouldering, you have to realize that reaching back to give a hand up is good but it’s certainly not enough. 

There has to be a systemic examination of how our profession values the labor being done. This examination must necessarily be linked to an acknowledgement of the full spectrum of experiences carried by the individuals who perform it. That includes debt, family obligations, health, and a raft of other needs that shape who we are and how we work.

None of this is news, but it is maybe my own little personal call to action. My nudge to examine your working conditions and those of the people supported by the work you do. My request that we make our labor more valued through visibility. My hope that together we can lift the tide a bit for all.

Let’s find some new songs to sing together. 

This post was written by Rosemary K. J. Davis. Davis is the Accessioning Archivist for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. She received her MSLIS + Archives certificate from Pratt Institute. Currently, she serves as Vice-chair for SAA’s Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct, as a member of the Steering Committee for SAA’s Women Archivists Section, as Co-chair for the New England Archivists’ Inclusion and Diversity Committee, and as Managing Editor for the Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies.

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.