At the close of an amazing and often surprising year as I prepared this Address, I considered what I bring to the table for SAA at this moment in time. We just passed eighty years for SAA and are looking ahead twenty to our centennial. This is an ideal moment to look back on our accomplishments and on lessons learned, to reflect on where we are now, and to look ahead to where we would like to go. We should push ourselves to play to our strengths. For me—I have a passion for archives and digital preservation; a love of history that informs my understanding of the present and future; a deep and abiding interest in the implications for us of technology and technological change; a long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion—diverse diversity and inclusion of all—and extensive experience with helping organizations of all kinds to build their capacity in new, evolving, and challenging areas.1
I wanted to take some time to talk with you about approaches I believe will be helpful to SAA based on the kinds of issues and challenges that have come up during my term as president of SAA. I am focusing on SAA as an organization and on digital practice as a programmatic priority for SAA that intersects with many other priorities. In this context, I am using digital practice as a broader term that includes everything to do with good practice for digital archives, digital preservation, and managing digital content. My focus is on digital practice, though the organizational principles apply to any challenge an organization tackles. Each of us needs to bring our best selves to the table to work together to address SAA's mission.
Context for Discussion
I would like to introduce the following topics as context for this discussion.
The first topic is technology and the implications of technological change. Many of SAA's priorities are driven, enabled, and/or informed by technology and the need to respond to technological change. It is important to acknowledge that technology is more than the software we may produce or use and that technology is not limited to computers, though we now often assume it does because computing technology is so pervasive. SAA has had a long and productive relationship, since our earliest days, with new and emerging technologies as evidenced in our literature, archives, and history.
We have building blocks in place to help us expand our programs that are influenced by technological change, for example, our Digital Archives Specialist training program, our ongoing technical reviews, our venue for innovation at the Research Forum, and the cumulative guidance and tools provided by SAA's groups, to name a few, with more to come.2
By engaging with the full meaning of technology, we broaden our opportunities (see Figure 1).
There are many definitions of technology. Technology includes scientific study. As technologies emerge and advance, the expertise needed to use these technologies increases too. Beyond very useful technology outcomes—our most common current examples being hardware and software—the knowledge, skills, expertise, and wherewithal needed to develop and apply technologies are equally valuable to us, and they provide the means for technological advancement. Working with and around technology demonstrates that the people part—technology as a sociotechnical system—is the hardest part of technology.
I often hear people talk about technological change as if they are expecting technology to stop changing or even hoping that it will. The problem-solving part of technology is the motivation for continuing to develop and evolve our current capabilities; each new technological development leads to more innovations and ideas, and each may have unexpected as well as intended consequences. Archivists tend to focus more on how to protect our digital content against technological change than on the opportunities that new technologies offer in advancing our practice in new and sometimes unexpected ways.10
The second topic that adds to this discussion context is history. This year, as part of my role as SAA president, it was my pleasure to visit our National Archives, an institution where I worked for a decade gaining invaluable experience working with electronic records. The electronics records program at the U.S. National Archives has been going for fifty years and counting. I visited to meet with David Ferriero, archivist of the United States and a featured presenter this year as at previous SAA Annual Meetings. He and I discussed current priorities and favorite examples of past events that shaped and continue to inform our priorities. My visit provided a timely reminder of the necessity of and enjoyment in studying our past challenges and accomplishments. As the iconic statues that greet researchers at the National Archives remind us, “What is past is prologue; study the past” (see Figure 2).
Every domain has its own way of going barefoot like the fabled shoemaker's children. Archivists often fail to benefit from our own archives' histories and stories. By studying our earliest efforts to develop our digital practice, we deepen our understanding of our practice now, enabling us to extend and adapt our practice more quickly as our needs evolve—something we have always done as a profession. We can observe people reinvent wheels all the time, partly because it is a human trait to preference invention and partly through a gap in awareness about existing approaches, tools, and other resources. History helps us to understand where specific technologies came from so we can better understand how to use and evolve them; to understand the evolution of our archival principles and practice; and to know ourselves.
The third contextual topic for this discussion is archives and archivists—the heart of SAA. Since 1938, The American Archivist, the major publication of SAA, has provided a significant portion of the record of our practice, a core piece of archival literature, and a snapshot of our professional history. In 2011, Paul Conway described The American Archivist as the “oldest continuously published journal in archival theory and practice in the world.” These excerpts from the editorial policy of The American Archivist substantiate the role of our journal in considering our practice and provide an indicator of our professional growth.
1938: “to be as useful as possible to the members of the profession”
1979: “. . . reflect the thinking of archivists about trends and major issues in archival philosophy and theory and about the evolution of the archival profession in North America . . .”
1990: revised and added “cultural, social, legal, and technological developments that affect the nature of recorded information and the need to create and maintain it”
Reflected in the versions of the editorial policy over time, we see the purpose of our journal evolve from “be as useful as possible,” to reflecting our philosophy and theory, and most recently, to specifically calling out technological developments as one category for attention.
In applied fields like archives, literature is not a real-time view of current practice, but a combination of theory and practice that provides an over-time landscape of our core principles, evolving priorities, and significant shifts in our practice. The benefits of online full-text searching across eighty years of our literature as captured in The American Archivist cannot be overestimated. There is a treasure trove waiting for us to delve into our rich history! However, the best outcomes are achieved when the strengths of both humans and technology can be leveraged together—the human-technology partnership. Here, I am focusing on The American Archivist. Another rich source of our history to explore is SAA's Archives. Few issues that emerge for us now lack prologue in our past, which continues to inform us.11
Technology and Archives
From the earliest volumes of The American Archivist, there are references to technology emerging, being applied in new ways, and helping and hindering us. Authors reference technologies of all kinds in the context of any aspect of archives that might be affected or aided by technology. SAA members have demonstrated a commitment and ability to be responsive to technology—sometimes more quickly and creatively than at other times, but always game. As reflected in the articles and other content of The American Archivist, responding to technology often takes the wise approach of first understanding, then figuring out how to act.
It is true that we sometimes engaged in what could be described as free-floating anxiety and expressed more concern than action in anticipating the potential impacts of technology, but for the most part we have been valiant. Examples of the kinds of technologies referred to include microfilming, the manufacture of paper, technologies for buildings containing archives, storage technologies, rapid copying, facsimile transmission (also known as fax), and automation. An early increase in references to automated indexing and retrieval was often paired with references to punch cards. In their 1967 article, “Automation, Information, and the Administration of Archives and Manuscript Collections: Bibliographic Review,”12 Barbara Fisher and Frank Evans indicate that relevant work was building for some time before their publication appeared.
A fun part of exploring the history of technology for me is bumping into gems like these quotes:
Technological improvements have developed at a thrilling rate during the past few years, so that mechanical ingenuity is solving many of these problems for the archivist. The only oversight has been a machine to determine what shall be saved.13
Even in 1948 we were wishing for automated appraisal.
The following quote from Vannevar Bush, a hero at MIT and elsewhere, is as relevant today as it was when it was quoted in that same 1948 article:
Although this pioneer attempt to utilize machines in the field of scholarship failed, . . . Dr. Vannevar Bush, declared that . . . “instruments are at hand which . . . will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages” and the “growing mountain of research.”14
Another quote from 1949 notes that “the day to day function of record making and record keeping has undergone a technological revolution resulting in a mass production of records.”15 This refers to advances at that time in duplication methods, though statements like it could be found in discussions today. For more than thirty years, I have heard people note how new and different things to do with technology and digital records are. There is so much to be learned from the past—our past.
The first appearance in our literature of terms and concepts can help us understand the terminology we use now. Here are some interesting examples of the first uses of relevant terms in The American Archivist:
Machine readable, was first mentioned in 1963 by Ernst Posner.16 Soon after, a 1967 symposium, the “National Symposium on the Impact of Automation on Documentation,” provided an opportunity “to present to archivists, librarians, and researchers, various aspects of the use of machine-readable records as research source.”17 If we inserted “digital records,” we might queue up to attend this symposium today.
Electronic record, was first mentioned in 1984 by Tom Brown, an amazing appraisal archivist now retired from the National Archives.18 We continue to use the term “electronic records.”
Digital records was first mentioned in 1982 in a discussion about the paperless office, an objective that was announced by the federal government in 1976.19 The next occurrence of the term “digital records” did not appear until 1996.20
Digital preservation was first mentioned in 1992.21 I was pleased to see that the citation was to a report on the future of digital preservation by Anne Kenney, codeveloper of our Digital Preservation Management (DPM) workshop program.22
Born digital was first mentioned in 2002 by Michelle Cloonan and Shelby Sanett.23
A 1978 article in The American Archivist, “Archivists, Archives, and Computers: A Starting Point,” references the Committee on Automated Records and Techniques (CART), an early effort by SAA to grapple with technology and its impact on our work and the records we manage.24
Another familiar-sounding quote comes from a 1973 report that Meyer Fishbein, a pioneering SAA member in digital practice whom we recently lost, edited:
There is no consensus reached between those who believe that the advent of the computer, the increasing compression of records, and the difficulty of predicting research interests indicate a need for much more generous selection—the “keep everything” view—and those who regard the expense and difficulty of adequate documentation as reasons for limiting the files selected for permanent preservation.25
These are issues that we struggle with today.
Defining and Building Community
These three topics—archives, history, and technology—set the stage to discuss SAA's efforts to increase its organizational capacity in addressing digital practice. As organizations like SAA grow, it is possible to use an organizational maturity model26 to identify next steps and to measure and communicate about progress. The common stages of organizational maturity are
Acknowledge: understanding that this is a local concern
Act: initiating projects
Consolidate: segueing from projects to programs
Institutionalize: incorporating larger environment; rationalizing programs
Externalize: embracing inter-institutional collaboration and dependency
Overall, SAA is moving from consolidate (Stage 3) to institutionalize (Stage 4). Indicators that an organization is approaching Stage 4 of development include demonstrated ability to build and evolve programs that parallel specified priorities; to weigh options and determine when to say no; and to use projects to strategically develop programs that address new and evolving areas and issues. Digital practice is an example of programmatic development by SAA that is indicative of reaching Stage 4. Organizational growth involves community building. For priorities to become an integral and measurable part of what an organization does, a critical mass of the members of the community around that organization need to be productively engaged in addressing a priority.
Community is a key concept that can be defined in different ways in different contexts. This year as part of the program for our Annual Meeting we have The Liberated Archive: A Forum for Envisioning and Implementing a Community-Based Approach to Archives. Community in the context of the liberated archive forum means bringing “together archivists from around the country and members of communities in the Portland metro area and beyond to envision how archivists might partner with the public to repurpose the archive as a site of social transformation and radical inclusion.” We all participate in a range of communities in our professional work and personal settings, and overlapping membership and objectives often blur the lines between communities. Examples of my communities include the archival, digital preservation, and LGBTQ communities—or, for SAA, the newly renamed Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section (DSGS). In the context of community building for organizational development as discussed here, I use this definition of community: “a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”27
Community members play a huge role in organizational development by joining, contributing, leading, mentoring, training, and supporting. The roles defined for technology adoption adapt well to community roles for organizational development roles because the roles reflect the accumulation by members of the skills, expertise, knowledge, and perspective needed for any new area (see Figure 3).28
Individual members may play different roles in different contexts based on need, interest, timing, and other factors. For example, someone might be an early adopter as an organization develops its capacity to make progress in being more diverse and inclusive; be a follower when it comes to developing expertise in digital practice; or be a pioneer on one kind of technology in digital practice and be a conservative on adopting another technology. Communities and roles within them evolve organically. These roles are essential to community building and for organizations like SAA making progress on Society-wide challenges like digital practice and diversity and inclusion.
I define “digital practice” as continually working to bring content and lessons from the past to benefit the present on behalf of the future. Digital practice is a comprehensive term encompassing standards and practice for digital archives, digital preservation, metadata management, and related activities for managing digital records and the requisite organizational and technological knowledge, skills, and abilities to do so. I see that SAA is moving from project-based (Stage 2) to program-based (Stage 3) digital practice based on these indicators:
We have many projects underway, but it is not easy to connect them across SAA or to maintain momentum.
There is rising interest across SAA in digital practice and a wide variety of activities.
Our automatic response to new possibilities is not always “yes” as it often is at Stage 2; we are able to weigh implications and decide.
Some examples of SAA's activities and resources in digital practice include:
Digital Archives Specialist Program—this program is thriving.
SAA Groups—many groups focus on one or more aspects of digital practice.29
Research Forum—digital practice is a core theme, increasingly combined with other topics.
Reviews Portal—this continues SAA's practice of reviewing and sharing information about developments.
Cumulatively, these are indicators that digital practice is a priority for SAA.
Diversity and Inclusion for Digital Practice
Earlier, I discussed community roles because two of SAA's priority areas, digital practice and diversity and inclusion, are shifting from Act (project-based Stage 2) to Consolidate (program-based Stage 3). It is important to delve a little bit deeper into roles at this point because both digital practice and diversity/inclusion are shifting from Stage 2 to Stage 3. The shift from project to program can be complicated by the need for members to play their roles and allow the community to grow (see Figure 4).
During this transition, for example, early adopters are ready to shift from planning to doing and from talking to action—you will have heard examples of these in our recent discussions at this Annual Meeting. At the same time, popularizers are working on raising awareness in other community-broadening efforts to encourage new and less expert community members to engage. There is a particular challenge for community development when the community's goal is to increase diversity and inclusion. At Stage 2, communities typically provide a welcoming atmosphere to acclimate new members as they explore and learn about unfamiliar concepts and principles, an approach that fosters and grows the community. This effort to make new members comfortable, which is essential for community building generally, is at odds with the starting point for addressing diversity and inclusion inequities, especially pertaining to race. In that context, members of privileged populations—often referred to within diversity and inclusion discussions as white—are meant to experience discomfort in the process of becoming more deeply aware of the realities and challenges of racial discrimination, imbalance, and injustice. Perhaps there is a way to both provide this necessary step in the process of becoming a more diverse and inclusive community—discomfort—and to make it possible for more people to join in the process—welcome new members to grow the community. There are distinct and important roles at this point in community development, early adopters to continually inform and push the development of the community, and popularizers to engage and encourage new members.
Organizations need to do everything they can to ease this transition from project to program—from Stage 2 to Stage 3. To develop a strong and growing community, early adopters need to continue to advance our expertise and capacity, while popularizers need to expand the base of members who are engaged. For an organization the size of SAA, being at Stage 2 typically means that dozens, possibly hundreds, of members are involved; to achieve the critical mass required to shift to Stage 3, thousands of numbers need to be engaged—more than half of our 6,000 members working on this transition for both digital practice and diversity and inclusion. SAA has reiterated and demonstrated our commitment to these priorities.31
There is a great deal of work to do to address a lack of inclusion and who has digital practice roles, who is developing tools for use and which institutions are active in digital practice. So far, digital practice has been largely based at institutions that are not very diverse and that often do not have any or many staff members from underrepresented communities. In diversity and inclusion discussions, these would be identified as white or privileged institutions. Similarly, for the most part, the practitioners who are engaged in digital practice have not been broadly diverse, there are race and gender balance issues to address as well as technical inclusion challenges in the availability of training, opportunities, and resources to members of marginalized communities. We have a lot of work to do. SAA is engaged in a number of efforts to change where we are with diversity and inclusion, and we need to ramp up and collaborate with other professional associations to make much needed change happen sooner. Here I am referring to technical inclusion because if access to technology is not inclusive, there is no way for digital practice to be. “TechKnowledge: Creating Equity Through Technology,” a virtual conference presented by Library Journal and School Library Journal held October 18, 2017, is an example of an event that illustrates why it is so important for SAA to reach out to other professional associations and domains to address our shared priorities.32
Collaborating across Professions
As we build our capacity in digital practice and in diversity and inclusion, collaboration across domains and professions is an additional aspect to consider. Figure 5 shows a bird's-eye view of a roundtable populated by possible professions with whom to partner and collaborate.33
These are examples of domains and the strengths that each might bring to the table for collaborative efforts. The domains and strengths listed here are not exhaustive, only suggestive of the possibilities. One indicator that an organization is looking toward Stage 5—externalize—is an increasing interest and capacity to collaborate. At early stages of development, working with organizations is more like coordination—nice, but not necessary. Our invitations this year to professional associations to attend our annual meeting and the positive response we had indicate that SAA is ready to move toward a more collaborative future. Professional diversity/inclusion will continue to be a deep interest of mine.
After peering back at our first eighty years, what about our next twenty? How do we characterize the future we hope for and intend to create? This is what I see looking into the future:
We are included: SAA, archives, and archivists are part of a collaborative future with affiliated domains and professions.
We are inclusive: our members, policies, practice, collections, repositories are inclusive.
We have diverse diversity: no exclusionaryism is okay in our community.
We are technologically integrated: seamless workflows, tools, and technologies with archival outcomes are integrated from idea to creation to discovery and use.
We are ready and able to detect and be responsive to change: social, cultural, legal, and technological.
We advance by pushing ourselves, playing to our strengths, and working together.
Consider these statements that proved to be very effective as a way to identify next steps at a recent conference I attended:
“I will . . .”
“We should . . . ”
“Don't forget . . . ”
These are some of my examples:
I will—engage in any discussion however challenging that SAA needs or wants to have.
I will—continue to contribute my expertise to help meet SAA's objectives.
We should—seek ways to collaborate with domains that share our goals and interests.
We should—work to build a critical mass of members who are actively engaged in our priority areas.
Don't forget—that our practice is only limited by our own decisions in establishing policies and our familiarity with the development of practice, our own creativity and adaptability.
What would your responses be? Remember that “if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.”34
SAA is working hard to increase our organizational capacity, expand our community, and build toward a future we envision. Born and raised in Massachusetts, I have been a lifelong Kennedy fan, however complicated that has turned out to be. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “ . . . we must think and act not only for the moment but for our time.”35
This recent tweet captures my view very well: “in an age of amnesia and rewritten history one of the most radical acts of political defiance is to remember, and to archive.”36
We've got this. Thank you for an amazing year.
1 “Diverse diversity” refers to the need to ensure that diversity discussions address all forms of potential exclusion. SAA is expanding into the broad range of diversity issues.
2 For more information about these examples, see Society of American Archivists, “Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) Curriculum and Certificate Program, ” https://www2.archivists.org/prof-education/das; the American Archivist Reviews Portal, https://reviews.americanarchivist.org/; and Society of American Archivists, “Research Forum,” https://www2.archivists.org/publications/research-forum.
3 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, s.v. “technology,” http://dictionary.oed.com.
4 John Bilton, “Technological Questions and Issues,” UK Technology Education Centre, http://web.archive.org/web/20140218204528/http://atschool.eduweb.co.uk:80/trinity/watistec.html.
5 Bilton, “Technological Questions and Issues.”
6 Bilton, “Technological Questions and Issues.”
7 Bilton, “Technological Questions and Issues.”
8 Bilton, “Technological Questions and Issues.”
9 Nancy Yvonne McGovern, Technology Responsiveness for Digital Preservation: A Model (PhD diss., University College London, 2009), 77.
10 The topic of responding to technological change was the focus of my PhD research. These issues have informed my research and practice interests since.
11 As a caveat, please note that the set of examples I drew from The American Archivist to examine the emergence of our digital practice and present in the following section does not represent an exhaustive analysis; it only highlights the value and necessity of continuing to value and learn from our past.
12 Barbara Fisher and Frank Evans, “Automation, Information, and the Administration of Archives and Manuscript Collections: Bibliographic Review,” The American Archivist 30, no. 2 (1967): 333–348, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.30.2.w6tq055431l72736.
13 Murray Lawson, “The Machine Age in Historical Research,” The American Archivist 11, no. 2 (1948): 141–49, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.11.2.k10wv0736708370q.
14 Lawson, “The Machine Age,” 141.
15 Emmett Leahy, “Modern Records Management,” The American Archivist 12, no. 3 (1949): 231–42, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.12.3.52344260u1064020.
16 Ernst Posner, “The Study of State Archival Programs,” The American Archivist 26, no. 3 (1963): 305–436, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.26.3.l45266048364x26m.
17 Walter W. Stender, review of A Pioneer Presentation of a National Symposium on the Impact of Automation on Documentation, Proceedings (1967), The American Archivist 32, no. 1 (1969): 39, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.32.1.g040164302k25617.
18 Thomas Brown, “The Society of American Archivists Confronts the Computer,” The American Archivist 47, no. 4 (1984): 366–82, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.47.4.av79522842886567.
19 David Herschler and William Slany, “‘The ‘Paperless Office’: A Case Study of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Information System,” The American Archivist 45, no. 2 (1982): 142–54, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.45.2.g37063265p175584.
20 William Mitchell, “Architectural Archives in the Digital Era,” The American Archivist 59, no. 2 (1996): 200–204, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.59.2.506h724783065016.
21 Reference to Anne R. Kenney and Lynne K. Personius, “The Future of Digital Preservation,” Advances in Preservation and Access, vol. 1, in Avra Michelson and Jeff Rothenberg, “Scholarly Communication and Information Technology: Exploring the Impact of Changes in the Research Process on Archives,” The American Archivist 55, no. 2 (1992): 236–315, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.55.2.52274215u65j75pg.
22 The DPM team that it is my pleasure to lead has offered the workshop almost sixty times since 2003. See the DPM website at http://dpworkshop.org/.
23 Michèle Cloonan and Shelby Sanett, “Preservation Strategies for Electronic Records: Where We Are Now—Obliquity and Squint?” The American Archivist 65, no. 1 (2002): 70–106, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.65.1.ak0537t86l2715wv.
24 Charles Dollar and Carolyn Geda, guest eds., “Archivists, Archives, and Computers: A Starting Point,” The American Archivist 42, no. 2 (1979): 149–51, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.42.2.w1v66kuv213723p1.
25 Lionel Bell, review of The National Archives and Statistical Research, by Meyer H. Fishbein, The American Archivist 38, no. 1 (1975): 47–49, americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.38.1.p5815081kx07h6w7.
26 Anne R. Kenney and Nancy Y. McGovern, “The Five Organizational Stages of Digital Preservation,” in Digital Libraries: A Vision for the Twenty-first Century: A Festschrift to Honor Wendy Lougee, University of Michigan Scholarly Monograph Series (2003), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=spobooks;idno=bbv9812.0001.001;rgn=div1;view=text;cc=spobooks;node=bbv9812.0001.001%3A11.
27 Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, s.v. “community,” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/community.
28 For my PhD research, I adopted the technology adoption roles developed by Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed. (New York: Free Press, 1995), and I have adapted them for use in working on community building.
29 Mark Matienzo, an SAA member who has held a variety of roles, completed a digital records and metadata issues review in fall 2017 that considered overlaps and gaps within relevant groups in SAA as well as external examples that might be adopted or adapted by SAA.
30 I developed this diagram for this discussion as an extension to our DPM model.
31 SAA's Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Web page, https://www2.archivists.org/advocacy/diversity-and-inclusion-initiatives, demonstrates SAA's commitment to making measurable progress toward becoming more diverse and inclusive.
32 “TechKnowledge: Creating Equity Through Technology” was a public one-day virtual event that “focused attention on how the nation's libraries and library staff can and do support equity and inclusion within and among our libraries' diverse communities,” see https://lj.libraryjournal.com/techknowledge-2017/.
33 I developed this sample cross-domain roundtable as part of the curriculum for the DPM workshop, building on iterative exercises we have done on building teams and collaborating. It is useful in this portion of the discussion. McGovern, DPM Workshop, 2017.
34 Quotation by Scott Trahan, Portland, Oregon. See explanation of the quote at https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,,-1859,00.html.
35 John F. Kennedy, address in Berkeley at the University of California, March 23, 1962, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8566.
36 Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa), Twitter, June 29, 2017, https://twitter.com/meakoopa/status/880568864517607424.