Incoming Presidential Remarks: The Year of Living Dangerously for Archives

August 16, 2014

2014 SAA Annual Membership Meeting

Washington, D.C.

Remarks of Incoming SAA President Kathleen Roe

525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear.

525,600 minutes – how do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.

In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.

In 525,600 minutes - how do you measure a year in the life?

Seasons of Love from the musical Rent


Recently I’ve been reflecting on the coming year, my own 525,600 minutes as president of SAA, and one of the things that I’ve puzzled over most is precisely the question posed by this  thematic song from the Broadway musical Rent:   “how do you measure a year?”   I’m quite confident I can track the number of cups of coffee, but that’s not the reason I agreed to stand for election.  In truth, after more than 30 years in this profession, I hope that perhaps together with you, my colleagues and friends, we might find a way to measurably move our profession forward--at least a few inches, if not maybe even a mile or two in some key, critical area—and the area I want to focus on is awareness of and advocacy for archives.  

 I care deeply about this profession, and I firmly believe we make essential, critical contributions to this democracy, to its people, its communities, and its cultural heritage.   Yet as a profession, we’ve been respectfully reticent about drawing attention to ourselves, to the foundational work we do, and to the incomparable contribution that archives and archivists make to our society and government.   Archives change lives…sometimes in breath-taking ways, sometimes in quiet but essential ways.   Nonetheless, every encounter that a user has with archives results in some increase or change in knowledge, some adjustment to a direction, some altered perspective….some affecting of the human experience.

For example… As a young unmarried woman in the 1960s, Carol King Eckersley had given birth to a son she gave up for adoption --and although she knew his adoptive name, Kenneth Bissett, in deference to the man she later married, she never sought him out.   After her husband’s death, she googled his name—finding him immediately on the website of Syracuse University, but then devastatingly, as one of the 35 student victims listed on the University Archives’ Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Disaster Archives site.   Among the information about the collections the University maintains , she noted the upcoming anniversary memorial event, and decided to attend.  When she revealed her connection to Archives staff, they brought out the photo album donated by his family that chronicled Ken’s life from birth to death, and she sat there for hours finally able to connect to her biological son’s life.  Ken’s family members arrived later that day, were introduced by Archives staff,  and immediately adopted Carol into their family as well, had her attend the services with them and began a connection that continues to this day.   More than one life was changed that day—and it was because of archives and archivists. 

Not all of the ways we as archivists change lives are as heart-rending, yet every time we introduce or connect archives with a user, something happens.  

  • We provided the evidence in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill litigation that led to that corporation being held responsible to provide funding for the clean-up; 
  • We proved the rights of a veteran in Virginia to receive much-needed military benefits;  
  • We provided Doris Kearns Goodwin with the evidence to introduce Abraham Lincoln to a wide audience as the consummate political manager who guided our nation through the Civil War by bringing out the best in a “Team of Rivals”.    We as a profession, we as a professional community, made those things possible—but so few know that.

As archivists, we are most often comfortable and engaged with talking about archival practice, about “the way we do the things we do”—and we absolutely need well-considered and thoughtfully developed professional competencies and best practices.  We have had good success in this yet all the wonderful techniques, tools and approaches are just the first step—if we are going to get beyond the point where archives and archival records are used in modest amounts, for a modest number of purposes by a modest range of users, then we also have to raise awareness of their value and importance.   Further, if resource allocators, stakeholders, our managers, our funders,  and the public don’t understand the value of archives, how can we effectively affect archival employment, archival education, government transparency, funding for archives and how can we ensure the use of and respect for the incomparable resources in archives—and ultimately for archivists.

We know raising awareness and advocacy need to be done, and there has been increasing attention particularly in the last five years to their importance.   It’s the first goal in the SAA strategic plan.  We now have several groups specifically charged with identifying issues and awareness needs and helping to move action forward: a Committee on Advocacy and Public Policy, a Committee on Public Awareness, the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable, and many others that have taken on this need, including the Congressional Papers Roundtable, the Lone Arrangers Roundtable, the Diversity Committee and many others.    And they all have a range of efforts underway—in particular, I hope you stopped by the Committee on Public Awareness’s table and contributed your answer to their “what is an archivist” question, or will do so later via social media and will keep an eye on their work in the coming year.

But as much as we know advocacy and awareness need to be done, it is not something we all learned in our graduate programs, and more often, it is not something we know how to or are comfortable doing.   For many of us, it is “an unnatural act.”  And I absolutely understand that, but nonetheless, it is something we really, really, really need to do—and if we do not, who will?   We need to find ways for all of us to commit our own individual, institutional, and professional acts of advocacy and awareness. 

The time has come for us to step forward and to draw much over-due attention and awareness to, as Rand Jimerson so aptly terms it, “the power of archives.”    So I want to issue a challenge for the coming year to all of you here today as well as to our colleagues who are not present.  That challenge is quickly summarized in one of my favorite movie titles.   Some of you may remember the 1980s Sigourney Weaver/Mel Gibson movie taking place during the turmoil in Indonesia in 1965 resulting in the overthrow of President Sukharno.   Aside from the Oscar winning portrayal by Linda Hunt of photographer Billy Kwan, the only other really memorable part of the movie is its title:   The Year of Living Dangerously.  

I invite you, I urge you, I even implore you, to join me and our colleagues and “live dangerously” in the coming year by committing some act of advocacy or awareness.   What might those things be?  What might those actions look like?  In September when we’ve all recovered from the annual meeting, based on work by and advice from CoPA, CAPP and from all of you, we will introduce a framework for how you can be part of “The Year of Living Dangerously”.    And we won’t just talk about it—I will be asking you to commit some act, then report back on what you’ve done, the “dangers” you’ve encountered, and the successes and failures.  We’ll track it on the SAA website, we’ll talk about it on Twitter, in the blogosphere, Facebook, and at the Annual meeting next year.   There may even be prizes for those of you who demonstrate the capacity to be real advocacy/awareness daredevils.   And we’ll see just what we can accomplish by working together for a year

If you’re willing to make the commitment right now to “living dangerously for archives”, come see me or stop and get a pledge card at the door.   Let’s see what together, we can make happen—perhaps our own very quiet, but effective revolution that brings attention to the importance and value of archives.   So the year of living dangerously begins now.   Let’s get back together in 525,600 minutes and see what we’ve been able to accomplish for archives.

hwsamuels says:
Your challenge


Congratualtions on your election and most especially for you wonderful speech.  Enclouraging our cleeagues to come forward with those stories that demonstrate the value of archives is a wonderful and most needed challenge.  

Good luck on your year ahead and best wishes,




Helen Samuels

1354 Grassy Brook Rd

Brookline VT 05345