2013 SAA Presidential Address by Jackie Dooley

August 17, 2013

Feeding Our Young

SAA Presidential Address
Jackie Dooley
New Orleans, 16 August 2013

Note: This transcript matches the version delivered verbally in New Orleans with the exception of a few grammatical errors and other infelicities. Nothing has changed materially. I will add footnotes to the published version (scheduled for the spring/summer 2014 issue of The American Archivist). In general, the sources I’ve cited will be discoverable without benefit of a formal footnote.

 “If we’re interested in being well-regarded in our larger institutions and in society, we have to do our best to nurture young professionals.” This is from an April 2010 blog post by SAA member Maureen Callahan, on which more later.

Following on her statement, here is my question: are we in SAA doing all that we can, and should, to welcome our students and other new members, and to nurture their entry into the archival profession? To ease their way into having this Annual Meeting be a satisfying pleasure rather than a prospect that’s faced with trepidation? To let them know that when we say, “You are the future of our profession,” it’s more than a platitude?

First, terminology: I’ll be repeatedly using the term “new archivists” to subsume students and new professionals, the demographic to which our 18-month-old SNAP Roundtable is targeted. I’ll also say “we” a lot—and by this I’ll generally mean both SAA’s leadership and those members who are too experienced to consider themselves “new.” I rejected using “old” to describe my own cohort.

Second, the scope of my remarks: I’ll be describing …

  • What brought me to this topic
  • The excitement that many new archivists feel about the existence of SNAP (the Students and New Professionals Roundtable);
  • “Lessons learned” from my forays into social media;
  • Some ways in which I believe we can help new archivists, and vice versa; and
  • Jobs.

Third, an early preview of the points I suggest as your takeaways, otherwise known as “this is what will be on the test”:

  • We in SAA need to have a serious dialogue about the difficult employment market that new archival professionals face. Earlier this year the Council identified employment as a “meta-issue” that the Society must somehow address.
  • We need more professional job openings that are truly entry-level, and which provide both a living wage and benefits.
  • If we are to understand the needs of new archivists, we must be sufficiently tuned into the communication channels that they are innately attracted to; it’s where they are present, and we should be too.
  • In that vein, we need to stop dismissing social media as a fad or unnecessary time waster. As SAA member Jeremy Floyd said on Twitter recently, “Twitter is an echo chamber.”
  • We need to agree on the value of civil professional discourse as a means of fostering effective communication across generations.

Why should we care about our “new archivists”? We have data: Of our current 6,100 members, 25% are students; 25% have been in the archival profession for five years or fewer; and 25% pay dues in the “under $20,000/year salary” category.  (Presumably there is overlap in the latter two categories.) In other words, half of our members are either graduate students, recent entrants to our profession, or earning something less than a living wage. We do not have data about what percentage of members is unemployed, underemployed (such as in paraprofessional positions), or employed part time.

Nor for some audience participation: please raise your hand if you’re currently a grad student. Now if you’re been in the profession for five years or less. I won’t poll the audience about the “under $20,000” part.

Needless to say, archivists are not the only people in this nation who face these challenges—but we are archivists, and I’m here to talk about us. It’s useful to consider some of the issues in the context of our broader society—in other words, the nation’s economic situation isn’t a conspiracy against the archival profession per se—but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question whether we can identify ways to improve the situation of our newer colleagues.

Why did I select this as my topic before I ride off into the sunset as the latest SAA past president? I didn’t go into my presidential year with a formal “theme” in mind. I was advised by some of my predecessors that I shouldn’t see this year as being “all about me,” but rather as a collaboration with my fellow Council members, the rest of SAA’s leaders, and the members in general. And a corollary: it would be unwise to declare an “agenda” that is more grand or ambitious than can be readily accomplished in one year’s time. That’s all a president has. And the Council had plenty on our plates already without me adding to it.

And so, I decided to focus on listening--to lots of different voices. To be an effective leader, one must know whom she is leading and listen carefully to their needs and concerns. And as the years of my own career have gotten longer, and longer, one of my absolute top sources of personal reward has been the ability to help newer colleagues. When I walk through the halls at an SAA meeting and run into the many “alumni” (as I like to consider them) of the special collections and archives program that I directed for 14 years at the University of California, Irvine, I feel like a proud mother hen. Not that I can take credit for their successes! But I do know that I did everything I consciously could to help them learn the business, have expansive opportunities, and launch their careers well.

A bit of an aside: At UCI we developed a powerful track record in our fairly small Department of Special Collections and Archives in hiring both true entry-level archivists, as well as paraprofessionals headed to or already enrolled in an archival graduate program, who have gone on to become influential members of SAA and the profession in general. I’ll publicly embarrass a few of them: Lynette Stoudt is President of the Society of Georgia Archivists and Director of the Georgia Historical Society. Julia Stringfellow is President of the Council of Inter-Mountain Archivists. Adrian Turner has played a central role in building, sustaining, and incrementally improving the Online Archive of California.  Cyndi Shein is a star archivist at the Getty Trust. Laura Clark Brown manages the monumental “long civil rights moment” digitization project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I could go on, but will stop there.

Well, I’ll almost stop. I probably shouldn’t even mention Bill Landis and Michelle Light, both of whom currently serve on the SAA Council, since they already knew what they were doing before they came to UCI—and probably taught me more than I could possibly teach them. But I did practice what I preach by giving them wide-ranging opportunities to broaden their portfolios, not to mention many degrees of freedom in their pursuit of excellence, both on the job and in their professional development. And can you imagine how amazing it has felt to be at the Council table with two of my own?

Most of you who have years in the profession have your own list, many of them far longer than mine. But I get to stand up here today and heap praise on my alumni, so how could I pass up such a luscious opportunity?

The SNAP-o-sphere, the Twittersphere, and the blogosphere

My little adventure in listening caused me to back into what turned out to be a time-intensive foray into the social media sphere—which, inevitably meant lots of listening to and conversing (140 characters at a time) with some recent arrivals to the archival profession who are active there. I tuned in through three principal channels: I was a devoted reader of the SNAP listserv, I followed some influential voices on Twitter, and I established the SAA leadership blog Off the Record.

First, the SNAP listserv. I subscribed as soon as it was launched in January 2012, and for a few weeks I kept a list of the reasons that participants expressed for being excited about the launch of an SAA group focused on students and new professionals. A summary:

  • Network with archivists in a similar phase of their career.
  • Participate in an SAA forum without any fear of intimidation.
  • Get to know each other and offer mutual support.
  • Reduce the isolation felt by those in distance learning programs.
  • Bridge the gap between those with experience and those without.
  • Find out about the mentorship program.
  • Find out about the ACA certification process.
  • Learn about the field in general.
  • Help bring new ideas to SAA and the profession and counteract “this is how it’s always been done” syndrome.
  • Learn about the Annual Meeting and coordinate with others ahead of time.
  • Discuss internships.
  • Communicate with and get advice from others who are suffering through the job search.
  • Finally, a supervisor was in search of ideas for opportunities she can provide to students and new archivists on her staff. (How cool is that?!)

In other words, I saw three central themes: learn to network, learn about SAA and our field, and get a job. Is it fair to say that, across the rather vast landscape of SAA section, roundtable, committee, and other listservs, discussion of these issues is pretty much unique to SNAP? For new archivists seeking a comfort zone, SNAP’s leaders and members have done a brilliant job of building an energetic community in a very short time. The emergence of SNAP has given this cohort a powerful new way to connect and participate and, perhaps most importantly, feel welcomed.

SNAP also has an active blog featuring posts on topics to its cohort. One example: all 2013 candidates for SAA elected office were invited to answer a few questions. As is so often true when I read something by our incoming Vice President/President-Elect, the amazing Ms. Kathleen Roe, I felt she hit the nail on the head in her typical articulate, direct style: “The Roundtable gives people an immediate virtual network of others with a similar context, colleagues who are likely to have common experiences, concerns, and a desire to communicate. It can provide the environment for exploring ideas or needs, and particularly at this time when there are real challenges for students in the job market and for new professionals, talking to others is incredibly important and helpful.”

SNAP also does periodic Twitter chat fests scheduled at 8pm Eastern time. Sometimes a topic in announced in advance, sometimes any topic is fair game. In the run-up to New Orleans, one such chat centered around new archivists asking questions about the Annual Meeting and more experienced ones responding. Suffice it to say that the most common word spoken may have been “thank you.”

And so a HUGE thank you and congratulations to Rebecca Goldman, the intrepid force behind the creation of SNAP, and its founding chair, for having made all this happen. And to her supporting actor, Council liaison Kate Theimer, for lending enthusiastic support and facilitating preparation of an excellent proposal that ripped right through the Council approval process.

My final word on SNAP: the true test of its success will be to successfully launch its members as confident and productive participants in SAA, and the profession, at large. I look forward to watching as each of today’s students and new archivists takes to the podium and the leadership roster, enriching us all with their energy and new ideas.

Let’s move on to everybody’s favorite social media scapegoat: Twitter. More audience interaction: raise your hand if you’re an active Tweeter or lurker.

Here’s a quick tutorial for those who have stayed as far away as possible from this much-ridiculed networking medium. Twitter’s model for making connections is this: you search for the names of people or organizations of interest and choose to “follow” them; you can then see all their postings and the conversations that ensue. They may or may not notice that you’ve done this: they don’t have to approve you, though apparently they can ban you in some way if they choose (no one ever banned me, as far as I know, so perhaps this feature is seldom used?). This model means that you can enter a conversation silently, and if you don’t speak up, no one knows you’re there. Surprising things may ensue.

Before beginning my Twitter trolling in pursuit of my SAA listening objectives, I was connected mostly in circles related to my day job (make that my fabulous day job) in OCLC Research. I tweeted from conferences, forwarded links to interesting stuff related to issues in the archives and research library sectors, and followed “thought leaders” who are important to my work. I was now about to expand my horizons. I found myself reading threads involving archivists who are mostly far younger than my particular demographic, some of whom are made cranky by a completely different set of issues than those that make me cranky.

So what did I experience?

  • I was a complete outsider. I didn’t know the conventions and wasn’t part of groups of people who know each other, even if they were acquainted only via Twitter.
  • I felt like an intruder: many conversations seemed to carry an implicit assumption that no one was listening who might have a different perspective.
  • I felt a need to speak up in order to become a known presence rather than an invisible lurker. If I didn’t engage, how would I learn anything of value?
  • More often than not, I got very frustrated when trying to ask what I felt were fair questions, seeking to have a balanced conversation, but encountering what seemed like inflexible black-and-white attitudes. (This is where the truism about the impossibility of conducting nuanced dialogue in messages of 140 characters or fewer comes into play.)
  • Increasingly, I wondered whether some of the profoundly negative, even nasty, stuff I was hearing was skewing my sense of who our younger members are. Happily, visits to SAA student chapters and other interactions counteracted that.

Conflict and misunderstanding across generations is nothing new, but in today’s world, it’s so much easier than ever to speak “publicly” to disseminate one’s ideas and attitudes. Formerly private conversations are now easily available to many readers for whom the words weren’t expressly intended. We’ve all known this for years in the context of email listservs (“Oops, didn’t mean to ‘reply all’ to that one.”). The ease is that much greater in, above all, the Twitter environment, but also in the context of other social media.

I recently received the following comment from an SAA member who is active in the leadership of one of our component groups. She expressed the nature of my fretting better than I had been able to voice it for myself: "I am concerned about the generation gap between established archival professionals and new archival professionals.  I am solidly in Generation X, and I have ten years of archival experience under my belt. I am troubled by the bursts of rage that erupt on social media from time to time about the archival profession.  It sometimes seems as though young professionals are so frustrated with the profession and their situations that they would gladly rip apart SAA if they could. I don’t have any answers, but I think that bleak futures for some of the young professionals and the concomitant anger at SAA merit careful thought and action."

I agree with every word of that.

The job market really is a problem

Some of my most potent takeaways from my adventures in Twitter relate to employment:

  • How frustrated some new archivists are by the dismal job market.
  • How virulently angry some are about management practices they’ve encountered in the workplace.
  • How unfettered they can be in expressing their anger and disgust, albeit sometimes anonymously.
  • How controversial the topic of internships can be.

As you know, the title of this talk is “Feeding our young.” Here’s where you find out the source of that title. Some of you will have figured it out without my telling you.

On one otherwise sunny day last fall, I followed a link in a tweet that led me to a blog titled “You ought to be ashamed.” Its URL is eatingouryoung.wordpress.com. The blog’s tag line is “You were unemployed once too, man,” and its statement of purpose is this: “Beware, employers. If you post an offensive and ridiculous job ad for a wage-slave masquerading as a professional position, you may be featured here. And mocked. Mercilessly.” Perhaps a couple dozen articles were posted between 2010 and November 2012, at which point the blog fell silent.

“Eatingouryoung” posted the kind of stories that, in my day, we would have told in smoky bars while putting away a great deal of beer or too many tequila shots while being extremely loud and obnoxious, not caring who heard us, but with a much narrower audience than Twitter affords. Definitely would have spurned the kind of bar visited by the boss types though.

The blog’s founder is SAA member Maureen Callahan, whom I quoted in my opening as having blogged that “If we’re interested in being well-regarded in our larger institutions and in society, we have to do our best to nurture young professionals.”  That statement is from her very first post, as is this one: “This is a forum to list TERRIBLE job ads (with commentary!), job horror stories, and more encouragingly, stories of excellent employers and strategies for positive professional development that help us all. We’re much more interested in structural injustices than had-a-bad-day stories.” Perhaps predictably, the horror stories were more numerous than the positive ones—but that’s to be expected. A sense of social justice in the workplace is clearly what brought together the sixteen bloggers registered as contributors. Is there a blog out there that addresses the positive employers and strategies part? One that could serve to feed our young instead of focusing principally all the absurd job postings out there that require a graduate degree for a part-time, temporary position that offers no benefits and barely pays a living wage? Don’t get me wrong: I too am appalled by some of those job ads; their very existence does harm to our profession, not to mention to the effective preservation and delivery of those archival records.

Of course new and aspiring archivists aren’t the only ones affected by our “challenging economy,” to borrow a euphemistic phrase. The popular press addresses the issue with great regularity. A spring 2013 article in the New York Times titled “Frayed prospects” pointed to a lost generation: “If you’re a 2011 or a 2012 grad, the competition just got fierce — even more fierce — with the let-out of the 2013 class.”

The article drew more than 200 comments, one of which picked up the “eating and feeding” theme in a mince-no-words fashion that may warm the hearts of some members of Gens X and Y: “America [is] under the leadership of the selfish and narcissistic baby boom generation [that] is now eating its young.” Another commenter noted that “… employers are just saying they are not interested in 2009 grads who have spent the last 4 years feeling sorry for themselves, sitting around and not developing their job skills.” In other words, it’s critical to maintain your professional commitment and zeal during those depressing months, or years, of searching in vain for meaningful employment.

I also discovered a library blog of which I’ve become quite fond: the Library Loon. In a 2011 post, the Loon (as she self-refers) noted that “Academic librarianship is starting to feel some of the same pressures that have ravaged tenured academia: labor casualization and deprofessionalization particularly, but also the evolution of a much-heralded retirement wave into a wave of position reductions.” So yes, it really can be ugly out there for new archivists trying to break into the profession. Let’s recognize that and identify tangible ways in which we can help. SAA can’t create jobs, but we’ve declared a commitment to
developing modes of advocacy that heighten the image and value of archives—and I’m certain that the bright minds gathered here can find ways to do more.

A particular hobbyhorse of mine is the severe lack of true entry-level jobs. I define “entry-level” as a position that requires no previous professional experience. Every hard-won professional opening is precious, and every employer wants to bring in the best possible person who can hit the ground running. But guess what? Many new archivists whose only archival experience consists of internships, volunteering, or a student assistantship also can hit the ground running. Yes, they’ll need more training, but what prouder investment can a supervisor make than to launch a brilliant career? I freely admit that I could never imagine filling a professional position with someone who had zero on-the-ground experience, no matter how stellar their academic record and references. I need at least one reference that says “I can attest that this amazing person has an affinity for this type of work, has a strong work ethic, and will be an asset to your environment in human terms.” One of my most amazing hires was Ryan Hildebrand, a newly minted UCLA graduate whose only experience was a three-month unpaid internship in rare book cataloging at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library. He quickly became one of the most productive and extraordinary rare book catalogers you’ll ever find and moved to the University of Texas’s Humanities Research Center as head of rare book cataloging after less than four years of professional experience.

So, please, think carefully about what you absolutely must require in those job postings. Define experience as including paraprofessional, intern, fellow, student, or part-time. Your candidate pools will be more exciting, and you’ll be helping to grow our profession’s future.

The New York Times weighed in on this earlier this year in an article that declared “The notion of the traditional entry-level job is disappearing” … Internships have replaced them, he said, “but also fellowships and nebulous titles that sound prestigious and pay a stipend.”

Internships and volunteerism

Which brings us to a terrible conundrum. What’s the greater disservice to aspiring archivists: eliminating opportunities to gain those invaluable first experiences, or using “slave labor,” that ugly term that one sees applied to unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities?  The mainstream press has been addressing this issue as well, notably in the context of a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight. And the issue is ever-present in my corner of the Tweet-o-sphere as a result of a free e-publication issued jointly by SAA and NARA last fall on the use of volunteers in archives. Some tweeters declared that this publication demonstrates that SAA doesn’t care about new archivists; their position seemed to be that publishing case studies on how best to use volunteers encourages archives to use volunteers in lieu of paid employees. Is there actually any such employer out there? All employers would prefer to pay interns if they could, but it can be absolutely impossible to get funding; that is one of the harsh realities of managing archives and libraries in today’s economy from the employer’s perspective.

Could interns or volunteers possibly replace a professional position? Do they do the same work? Sure, they may be assisting with processing collections, but they’re not setting policy, planning projects, doing training, or being supervisors. There’s a huge difference between leading and doing. Lord help us if the mere act of straightforward archival processing under close supervision is considered professional-level work.

“Ask a manager” is another blog with which I’ve become acquainted. A recent post declared that “In many industries … internships are a normal part of gaining experience that prepares candidates for paying work in the field … In this job market, unpaid internship experience can be what makes the difference between getting interviews and job offers or remaining unemployed.” I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, not everyone can afford to work for free while in school. If only life were fair.

The Atlantic Wire reported this year on Federal law regarding unpaid internships: “The law states that unpaid internships must benefit the worker, not the employer, and should be a part of a formal training program, without replacing a paid employee's job.” This is not new law, but awareness of it has been heightened by a recent Supreme Court decision. This may well mean far fewer opportunities, but those sites willing to host an unpaid intern who will truly benefit will have to consider consciously how to give the student a meaningful professional-level experience.

What role does archival education play?

I’ve frequently seen the sentiment expressed that the true culprit behind the unemployment problem for new archivists is simply that archival graduate programs turn out too many graduates. How can we determine whether that’s true? We’re in a profession that has very soft edges, intersecting heavily with librarianship, records management, digital libraries and repositories, information technology, discovery system design, and so much more. Does taking a job outside an archives per se mean that you’ve “left the field”? It’s my belief that your education defines you as much as your job does. That “Frayed prospects” article in the New York Times also said this: “You don’t have a "field". You must be open to all industries, regardless of your major.” In our archival context, I would suggest that our opportunities are vast across these interrelated sectors, and that we can still identify as “archivists” regardless of the sector in which we find employment.

A few other questions on my mind related to archival education programs:

  • What will grad programs that require internships do if the available opportunities start to dry up?
  • Are graduate programs doing a sufficient job of helping students realize how many other types of work truly take advantage of archivists’ skills?
  • Are they teaching the subjects that make a student competitive in the job market?  (One word: digital.)

In a recent discussion on the SAA Council listserv, our wise colleague Terry Baxter said this: “As we put together career resources, at least a chunk of those could be letting people know where their skills and education might fit into non-archival jobs. We don't want to end up with a bunch of … adjunct archivists living in their cars.” 

How can SAA and experienced archivists help new archivists, and vice versa?

Gaining professional experience—and, dare I say, stature—brings with it some good things that help balance out the cognitive and physical effects of getting older. It’s been a huge source of satisfaction and joy to me to be in a position to help new archivists and special collections librarians move forward in their careers. Some of my favorite ways:

    • Situational mentoring, including by actively dishing out deserved compliments
    • On-the-job support of employees by providing flexibility, enabling them to do what really interests them, and supporting professional development opportunities
    • Fostering an understanding of how the workplace (writ large) works--no small thing to master
    • Believing in the importance and effectiveness of entry-level jobs

Last year during my term as SAA’s Vice President/President-Elect, I had a fabulous additional opportunity that comes only once in a lifetime: appointing dozens of students and new archivists to committees and task forces. May they all thrive.

So how specifically can we help the new? Three of the possibilities:

  • Offer praise and credit wherever you see it due. March right up to that kid (um, new archivist) who just gave an amazing talk and say “Wow!” You’ll make her day, especially if she recognizes your name.
  • Listen without correcting: they have legitimate complaints about our profession, SAA, what have you.
  • Learn: they know things we don’t. We know how things have always worked, or not. They know what’s possible.

The Library Loon has things to say on this topic as well. She says things like “a new hire without a budget, a staff, a supportive reporting chain, and other resources necessary for success will not succeed in creating change.” (I call upon those who are hiring digital archivists to design and launch a new program to pay particular heed to those words.) The Loon also talks about “helping people follow their interests and expand their professional skillsets and awareness beyond the confines of their on-paper position description.”

And how can the new help the older?

  • Trust us: we’re actually pretty friendly and generous, though possibly inclined to be as hesitant about talking to strangers as you are
  • Teach us: you have the fresh education and know a lot that we don’t.
  • Don’t stereotype us: We’re as different from each other as you are from the members of your cohort

In conclusion

Let’s briefly recap those issues that will be on the exam (those takeaways I mentioned when I began):

  • The limited job market for new archivists is a very serious problem, and we should think deeply about how we might better understand and address it.
  • More job postings could be designed as true entry-level positions.
  • We’ll all understand each other better if we engage each other using shared communication channels.
  • Social media is here to stay; it should connect generations, not separate them.
  • Civil public discourse plays an essential role in a mutually supportive professional environment.

Every one of us has an individual responsibility as an archival professional to feed our new and our young. SAA has a collective responsibility to do the same. Let’s all get to work.

It has been a genuine pleasure, and an irreplaceable experience, to serve as your President. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.

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