History of the RAO

Reference Access and Outreach Section
Administrative History

1969-1973 Reference Access and Photo-Duplication Policies Committee
1973-1978 Reference and Access Policies Committee
1979-1983 Reference Access and Outreach Professional Affinity Group
1983-C Reference Access and Outreach Section

SAA Committee System, 1936-1969

Upon its founding in 1936, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) mandated twelve committees to address the following areas: international archival affairs, maps and charts, membership, public relations, reduction of archival material, and terminology. Over the years, the amount "of committees was more than the active membership could sustain," and many were "inactive for a number of years or eventually allowed to lapse." As SAA’s membership grew in the 1950s and 1960s, committees played an increasingly important role in the organization but were plagued by inefficiency and other problems.1 President Gerald Ham's report on the committee system in 1968-69 indicated that many of these groups had vaguely defined areas of responsibility, communication problems, or did not meet the needs of the membership.2

In an attempt to remedy the situation, SAA Council approved a revised structure of standing and ad hoc committees at its December 1969 meeting.3 This "reorganization did not solve the problem of how to get committees to work, but it did make the structure more responsible to the new interests of the members."4

Reference, Access and Photo-duplication Committee, 1969-73
Reference and Access Policies Committee, 1973-78

The Reference Access and Outreach (RAO) Section traces its beginnings to this 1969 reorganization process. As part of the reorganization, several new committees were created to address new membership interests and needs, including the Committee on Reference, Access and Photo-duplication Policies (RAPP).5 RAPP focused on producing studies and reports, establishing standards, and advising Council on access and copyright issues.6 In its November 2, 1972 report, RAPP listed following as its statement of objectives:

It is the purpose of this committee to develop standards concerning access to research materials, the performance of reference service on them, and the furnishing of reproductions therefrom, and to present these standards for consideration and adoption by the Society to serve as guidelines for institutions and individual members. In addition the committee will examine various techniques of reference service and reproduction and consider publishing information about them for the guidance of Society members.7

The committee's 1972 activities included consideration of access standards published in The American Archivist; preparation of a tape and transcript of a copyright and common law literary rights discussion; consideration of a draft statement of standards for photo- duplication; preparation of a resolution regarding declassification for adoption by the Society; preparation of a status report for early publication in The American Archivist concerning copyright developments; and development of a program session for next year.8

In spring 1972, SAA's Committee on the Seventies reported on the organizational and program needs of SAA for the coming decade.9 As a result of this investigation, RAPP took on the new name, Reference and Access Policies Committee. Its basic function was:

to offer advice and assistance to archival institutions and individuals in methods of providing access to research materials and of providing reference service and reproduction service on these materials. The means by which this can be best accomplished is by the development of standards to be presented for consideration and adoption by the Society to serve as guidelines for institutions and individual members. The committee should also serve as a clearinghouse for the dissemination of information on techniques of reference service and reproduction, and consider publishing information about them for the guidance of Society members.10

Reference Access and Outreach Professional Affinity Group, 1979-83

In October 1978, Council "made another effort to remedy the problem of inefficient and inactive committees. Acting on the recommendation of the Committee on Committees, it adopted a three-part organization of committees, task forces, and professional affinity groups (PAGs)" established on the basis of institutional affiliation and or functional responsibility, [to provide] members with an opportunity to meet and work with others of similar backgrounds and professional interests.11

Convening for the first time at SAA’s 1979 meeting, the Reference Access and Outreach PAG was an outgrowth of two committees: the Reference and Access Committee and the Adhoc Committee on the Wider Use of Archives.12 In addition to the chair and vice chair, the RAO "steering committee" included three members, each of whom directed projects in RAO’s three focus areas: reference, access, and outreach.

RAO structured its activities heavily around research projects and studies during this period. In 1981, for example, reference steering committee member Aurora Davis created a bibliography entitled "Archivists and Copyright Law" and access steering committee member Alexia Helsley reported on a survey on state legislation concerning access to restricted records. Helsley also suggested other issues of possible PAG concern such as "employee burnout and the necessity of calculating the cost of reference services especially in terms of budgetary retrenchment." The RAO PAG proposed the creation of a task force on clinet files. In response to Council’s interest, RAO established a study committee on the subject.13

The following year, RAO's discussion focused on identifying archives users. PAG members were concerned whether "finding aids and reference services should be altered to better serve the needs of genealogical and business patrons. Bibliographies on staff burn-out and problem patrons were distributed." The members discussed the results of an outreach questionnaire which assessed the impact of budgetary constraints on outreach programs. Distributed by the RAO leadership to a randomly drawn sample of the membership (with a response rate of 63 per cent), the survey indicated that 37 per cent of respondents' archives had no formal outreach program. The institutions having outreach programs reported the following activities, ranked in order from most used to least: exhibits, publications, lectures, classes, slide presentations, tours, and consultation services. 14

Another RAO PAG activity involved program session development. In 1983, RAO, under the direction of steering committee member Edward Oetting, developed a questionnaire on archival users and archival perceptions which it asked members to complete. The results were featured at SAA's 1983 meeting in Minneapolis on a program session on archival myths and perceptions.15

Reference Access and Outreach Section, 1983-Present

At the conclusion of SAA's annual business meeting in 1983, all PAGs became Sections.16 The early years of the RAO Section's existence centered on research projects and on establishing a section focus and by-laws.

RAO initiated a few annual events as well. George Bain, chair of the Section's outreach group, organized an "outreach fair" which showcased examples of different types of outreach activities for the 1984 SAA meeting in Washington. Examples included video tape programs, exhibit techniques, and computer assisted activities. In addition, the Section sponsored an open house at the 1984 meeting to initiate a "clearing house service" for questions and answers on reference, access, and outreach issues.17 The outreach fair continued through the 1990s. RAO continues to hold "office hours" at the annual meeting, an outgrowth of the open house event.

The mid 1980's were pivotal years in the RAO Section's development. Over the course of 1985-86, RAO established a newsletter to foster communication throughout the year. In 1986, it also authored a goals statement and by-laws, at a time when SAA's Committee on Goals and Priorities (CGAP) was doing the same type of work for the larger organization.18 RAO revised these by-laws in 1988 to: increase the size of the steering committee from 3 to 6; provide for staggering committee terms; establish the vice chair position as "chair elect"; and create a formal bylaws amendment process. Revisions also established that the nominating committee would include the outgoing steering committee members and formalized the voting process, including adding an absentee ballot option.19

Other major RAO activities in the 1980s included: a project to develop citation guidelines for archival and manuscript material in conjunction with the Midwest Archives Conference Task Force on Archives and Society and the SAA Description Section (1985-1986); a cooperative venture with the International Archival Affairs Committee to initiate a buddy system for international visitors to the 1986 and 1987 annual meetings; and collaboration with the Adhoc Committee of the American Library Association's Rare Books and Manuscripts Section to amend and update the Joint ALA/SAA 1977 Guidelines on Manuscripts and Archives (1987-88).

In 1987, SAA's Task Force on Archives and Society, an initiative launched by SAA President David B. Gracy II in 1983, reported on a number of coordinated efforts to study archival image, perception and public relations needs -- issues at the core of RAO interests. A major report entitled "The Image of Archivists: Resource Allocators' Perceptions" was completed in 1984 as well as the production of a 1986 outreach brochure entitled "Who is the 'I' in Archives."20

Working with the Task Force, CGAP produced a report entitled, "Planning for the Archival Profession." Its follow-up report, "An Action Agenda for the Archival Profession" had implications for the RAO Section. In 1988-89, CGAP challenged RAO to be involved in several projects to address priorities outlined in this report. Of particular note for RAO were recommended activities addressing the assumptions and attitudes of archivists concerning outreach. CGAP suggested that the Section "should compile a report on major past and current archival outreach projects and programs; RAO might monitor research projects on users and use and suggest projects to its own members"; Section members should work with SAA Awards Committee and the Committee on Regional Archival Activity to compile and publish information on existing awards for outreach and public service; and RAO should acquire and publicize position descriptions with outreach components and meet with the Management Roundtable to discuss the development of sample position descriptions."21

RAO in the 1990’s

At CGAP’s suggestion, RAO and other sections, committees and roundtables also developed 3 year plans rather than annual reports.22 Over the course of 1989-1990, RAO created working groups to address priorities for the 3 year plan discussed at 1989 Section meeting. A working group was established to review the role of RAO within SAA and another to compile, publish, and promote user studies and their results related to objectives of the CGAP report. A working group also developed a RAO reference workshop proposal for the SAA Program Committee.23

The following year, RAO cooperated with the College and University Archives Section to produce an Academic Outreach booklet which would include examples of ideas that have been used on campuses to promote the wider use of archives. (Unfortunately, this project didn’t come to fruition.) It also hoped to complete another long standing project to publish a "Citations for Archives and Manuscript Materials" for students, academics, and general users.24 In 1991-92, ALA sent the Rare Book and Manuscript guidelines to SAA for review and possible endorsement. RAO, the College and University Archives Section, and the Preservation Section "will look at them."25

In fall 1995, RAO Chair Jim Cross stressed the need for RAO to become more involved in SAA and develop projects in the Section's areas of concern in order to advance the interests of the Section and profession, especially in light of some of the preliminary recommendations of the study of SAA's organizational structure that was currently under way.26 The Section revised its by-laws in 1996, in part to address the need for transferring Section records to the SAA Archives.

At the 1998 meeting, RAO members proposed the development of a symbol or set of symbols for the archival community in accordance with the style of the International Standards Organization (ISO). Through a resolution to Council, RAO asked that SAA adopt this symbol (or symbols) for the organization and the archival community in North America, and that it submit the symbol(s) to the International Council on Archives for its adoption as an international standard in a broader global setting.27 Although the resolution received Section approval, Council either did not receive it or did not act upon it as no discussion appears in Council minutes.

RAO enters the New Millennium

Concerned about the purpose and focus of the RAO Section, incoming chair Shari Christy distributed a membership survey to attendees at the 1999 meeting. The survey was intended to gain feedback from members to assist the chair and steering committee in developing the RAO section meeting for next year. It also would assist in directing the future of the Section.28

At the 2000 meeting in Denver, Colorado, the Section discussed the survey results, which had been reported in the May 2000 issue of the RAO newsletter.29 Survey responses indicated that members wanted to be more focused in their activities. The majority felt RAO should definitely continue as a section. Members at the 2000 meeting suggested: having break-out sessions; inviting speakers on topics evolving from the meeting discussions; producing resources on available reference tools and how to search them; thinking about research projects for the Section; and using email to communicate more between members. Additional suggestions included creating an annotated bibliography of web sites and updating it periodically; including a column in the newsletter that featured sources; and being more pro-active with SAA by developing a basic user survey.30 Unfortunately,for the most part, these projects and ideas did not materialize as members struggled with competing responsibilities and commitments.

In 2003-2004, RAO collaborated with the Manuscript Repositories Section and the Privacy and Confidentiality Roundtable to draft a resolution on the USA Patriot Act. Council reviewed the document, and in summer 2004 authored a statement expressing concern about provisions of the Act. RAO leadership also established endorsement guidelines to assist groups seeking RAO endorsement of session proposals for the SAA program.

In the first years of the new century, technological advances have enhanced RAO’s communication capabilities. In 2000, the Section instituted a web page, hosted by the SAA website, which included leader lists, newsletter issues, and other information. In 2004, SAA also provided sections with their own "announcement listserv" which allowed RAO leaders to post information to the entire Section. That same year, SAA began electronic publication of section and roundtable newsletters. These communication outlets have and will continue to bolster the Section’s ability to connect with and foster collaboration among RAO members.

Written by Ellen Swain, 2005


1SAA Archives online administrative history: www.uwm.edu/Library/ [return to text]

2Gerald Ham, Report on SAA committee system, 1968-69 [return to text]

3SAA Archives online administrative history [return to text]

4J. Frank Cook. "The Blessings of Providence on an Association of Archivists" American Archivist 46 (Fall 1983): 396. [return to text]

5SAA Council Minutes, December 30, 1969 in American Archivist 33 (April 1970): 229. [return to text]

6Committee on RAPP Report, March 1970 in SAA Archives, Golda Meir Library, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. [return to text]

7RAPP Report, 1972 in SAA Archives [return to text]

8Ibid. [return to text]

9See Philip P. Mason, "The Society of American Archivists in the Seventies, Report of the Committee for the 1970s," American Archivist 35 (April 1972): 193-203 [return to text]

10Committee report, 1973-74 in the SAA Archives [return to text]

11SAA Archives online administrative history [return to text]

12RAO PAG report, 1979 [return to text]

13Ibid, 1981 [return to text]

14Ibid, 1982 [return to text]

15SAA Newsletter, July 1983 [return to text]

16SAA Archives online administrative history [return to text]

17SAA Newsletter, July 1984 [return to text]

18RAO Newsletter, July 1986 [return to text]

19Ibid, March 1989 [return to text]

20SAA Newsletter, May 1987 [return to text]

21RAO Newsletter, March 1989 [return to text]

22Ibid [return to text]

23RAO Report, February 1990; RAO Report, Summer 1990 [return to text]

24RAO Newsletter, Fall 1990 [return to text]

25Ibid, 1991-1992 [return to text]

26Ibid, Fall 1995 [return to text]

27Ibid, April 1999 [return to text]

28RAO Section Report, 1999 [return to text]

29For entire report, see RAO Newsletter, May 2000, online at: www.archivists.org/saagroups/rao/index.asp [return to text]

30RAO Newsletter, Fall 2000 [return to text]



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