A Personal Vision for SAA

September 5, 1998

This address was during the closing plenary session at SAA's annual meeting in Orlando, Florida.


At the end of the Council meeting concluding his presidential year, Bill Maher gave our Executive Director, Susan Fox, a book on "How to speak Italian with Your Hands" and handed me a volume entitled "Book of Popular Americana." In that moment, for the first time since I accepted my nomination for President, the notion that I am a foreign President hit home, with all its implications. SAA has had four non-American Presidents before me, but they were not really foreign, as they were all English speaking Canadians, close cousins, so to speak.

Thus, for a short while, I was panic stricken. Then, it occurred to me that the rest of Council, other officers included, could help me through specific American issues, while I could put the fact of being a foreigner to the service of the society by offering it my unique perspective on more general issues affecting both the profession and the society, a perspective very much determined by the integration of my cultural background with my North American experience.

When I first came to a SAA meeting as a visitor from Europe, I looked at SAA members through the lenses of someone who carries with her the baggage of a fully recognized and respected profession, made slow in its development and conservative in its attitude by the load of centuries of traditions and accumulated knowledge. What I saw was a young, dynamic, diverse community seeking a more defined role, recognition and power, and struggling with a world that was changing too fast. I thought: "I can help. I wish to serve this profession on the rise. And I became a member."

I returned to the SAA annual meeting the following year, ready for it. I had read all the American archival literature I could put my hands on, from Norton and Jones to Berner, and I had visited a significant number of American archives. Thus, I had a better understanding of what was going on, I could entertain meaningful archival conversations with colleagues, and I could contribute to the educators and description units.

The third time I came to SAA, I was a newly appointed professor at the University of British Columbia; I joined to the Canadian archival community and I was focusing all my efforts on understanding my new environment. At that point, I realized that I was playing in an entirely different ballpark. I began to look at SAA through Canadian lenses, and it was as a Canadian that I was invited to serve in my first SAA committee, the Committee on Education and Professional Development (CEPD).

Ten years have passed since that time and I have grown intimate with SAA to the point that some of my American colleagues at times forget that I am not American. However, I do have a clear memory of the way SAA appeared to me first as a European, and then as a new Canadian, and, while I have acquired the ability to see archival issues through American eyes, I keep changing my point of view and comparing what I see, in an attempt to look at SAA in a world-wide context and as an outsider. Thus, I have decided to take this opportunity to outline for you my personal vision of and for SAA.

My understanding of the history of this association is that, in the beginning, the raison d'¨tre of SAA was to provide people engaged in the same activities and entrusted with similar responsibilities with the opportunity to share their experiences, knowledge, and ideas and to validate them. In the following decades, its primary purpose became to form and nurture a professional identity by providing a forum for discussion, developing an archival literature, and delivering archival training. That this purpose can be considered largely fulfilled is evidenced by the fact that, today, most American archivists define themselves and are recognized as such not by their actual jobs, but by their body of knowledge and skills and by their educational credentials. From the position of strength derived to it from the growing sense of identity among American archivists, SAA has recently been able to take up a leadership function. In the past few years, SAA has spoken authoritatively on archival and records related issues, and has developed, or participated actively in the development of standards.

Thus, from the time of its foundation, the primary mission of SAA has slowly but surely shifted, and, while many of the activities it carries out today have the same name, their purpose, and consequently their content, have dramatically changed. Undoubtedly, the old ways are still lingering about, but not for very long, because the membership of SAA needs services that can enable it to respond to social changes. In order to provide these services effectively and economically, SAA needs to focus its efforts, approach differently some of its activities, and become itself an instrument of change by contributing to the determination of new directions for the archival profession.

The factors that most affect our profession are the consequence of worldwide trends, such as globalization, the formation of multiple centers of power, the information revolution, value changes, and social differentiation. These trends require that SAA cultivate participation in the international sphere while at the same time establishing close working links with organizations at local levels. This requirement is due to several facts:

  • The transfer of government powers to supra- and sub-state entities;
  • The rise in power of non-state actors (such as multinational enterprises, which have increasing powers to decide where jobs and wealth will be created, and not-for-profit organizations of all kinds, which lobby legislative bodies on all sorts of issues);
  • The changes in the world centers of power;
  • The power of information technology to expand horizons and shift communal orientation among publics, with the consequent decline of "parochialism" and the rise of continental and international outlooks; and
  • The rising dissatisfaction among the citizens with the way democracy works.

While these trends also require that SAA become directly involved in research partnerships, focus its educational and publication activities, and speak for the profession in labor related issues, the most pressing general need for SAA, in order to be able to proceed forward, is to project itself outward.

SAA is already part of a network of archival associations that stretches around the world, but it needs to strengthen its international efforts. The concept of SAA as a truly internationally active and influential organization could be fostered in the design and promotion of educational, publication and research programs with a clear international character, but also by a concerted effort to increase the number of international members (both individual and institutional). This could be done by encouraging SAA members to participate in international activities, by financially supporting representatives in key international committees, by organizing international events, and—as already mentioned -- by participating in international research initiatives, and increasing the international relevance of SAA education offerings and publications.

While forging a strong international role for itself, SAA should seek opportunities to work with various community groups on issues of common concern. Recently, SAA has been successful in developing a national reputation, but it also needs to recapture its regional reputation and to take a greater role in community initiatives. SAA should commit itself to cooperate with educational institutions, as well as industries, local governments and agencies and not-for-profit organizations to advance learning and research, and to foster the transfer of knowledge between the archival profession and these various communities. Also, SAA can establish a strong local and regional presence by focusing on its ability to provide advice and support in relation to policy analysis and development, and advocacy and outreach. All these linkages, supported by initiatives like, for example, the issuing of job descriptions with qualification requirements, will enhance SAA effectiveness in influencing hiring standards, salary levels, and other work related issues.

Certainly, to develop and maintain multiple connections with different communities is not possible for the Executive Director alone, who is already responsible for the relationships between SAA and national allied organizations, neither can it be left to the SAA units, because such effort, to be fruitful, must be systematic and ongoing. This competence for international and community relations should therefore reside in the SAA office, whose work can be rethought and steered towards new directions. To support this specific competence, I envision SAA establishing an Advisory Council comprised of non-members representing many areas of society, including business, industry, government, education and culture, organized labor, charitable organizations, etc. to be consulted on such matters as outreach programs, publication initiatives, research needs and opportunities, and fundraising.

You have certainly noticed that I have mentioned research already several times. European professional archival associations have repeatedly demonstrated that it is possible to increase an association's impact on the various communities and to have a strong influence at the global level if one is willing to look beyond the issuing of statements—no matters how enlightened and useful—and of guidelines—no matter how practical, and even go beyond the discussion and approval of standards developed elsewhere. SAA has the potential to steer the future of the archival profession and contribute to the creation of new knowledge if it is prepared to focus on innovative ways to participate in research initiatives as a partner of research groups constituted at universities and elsewhere, on the basis of a program approved by Council. The specific objectives of a SAA program of research could aim at: a) identifying new avenues of research in the policy areas; b) involving its non-academic members in policy-relevant research, and c) promoting multi- or interdisciplinary capacities in the fields of policy research, thereby creating alliances between disciplines, policy makers, and governments.

SAA should regularly apply for research grants and seek matching funds from various sources, including granting agencies, industrial organizations, and individual donors. Research proposals and grant applications could be developed by SAA members expert in the specific area of investigation in conjunction with the SAA office. However, SAA could be a player in research initiatives by providing a forum for the regular presentation of partial findings both at its meetings and in its publications, which would thus become the most effective instrument of international and community penetration for SAA.

The SAA publication program should also aim at occupying spaces that no other publishing organization has identified as its own. The translation into English of foreign archival texts is one of those areas. We are very good at emphasizing the need of fostering diversity and nurturing graduate archival education, but it is time we begin putting our money where our mouth is. As it regards the first issue, there is no way SAA can cultivate ethnic and cultural diversity if the profession does not acquire an understanding of ethnic and cultural groups through the reading of their archival literature. And I can add, from direct experience, that there is no way one can cultivate in himself as well as in the new generations of American archivists an understanding of one's professional identity and history if one does not constantly compare his assumptions, concepts, experiences and actions with those of archivists from the rest of the world. I truly understood for the first time the motivations behind Italian archival policies and laws after I began to understand the American and Canadian ones.

And this brings me to the second issue, archival education. We need to support graduate archival programs in ways that are more than symbolic, and to the point that such programs will direct all their graduates towards SAA as a vital part of their student and professional life, because nurturing the education of its members is any professional association's primary responsibility. SAA should demonstrate its commitment to the highest standards of education by aiming its publication program to supporting it, for example, with translations; by upholding its MAS guidelines for pre-appointment education on every occasion; by insisting that large employers of archivists review their hiring practices and rules according to the education standards recognized by SAA; and by collaborating with all concerned universities in the organization of an annual archival educators conference, so that it becomes a regular feature of the SAA annual meeting.

As to continuing education, SAA should get involved in co-sponsoring leading edge seminars and workshops with other organizations, be they archives or other relevant communities, thereby providing individual members with a unique opportunity to experience the specific problems/solutions of working environments different from their own, and the participating communities with the opportunity to hear the points of view of professionals with a variety of backgrounds and knowledge base. SAA should also get involved in co-sponsoring intensive short-term education programs with universities and colleges, particularly on the subject of basic—as opposed to applied—archival research.

The directions that I have outlined above should all contribute to membership retention, recruitment, and renewal. SAA recognizes its membership as its key resource and places the highest value on its contributions of ideas, time and expertise. Moreover, SAA is already committed to providing access to its services regardless of financial ability, to involve in its activities all its members, including representatives of other professions, to provide an equitable environment that celebrates diversity, respects difference, and ensures that all may serve the profession at their highest potential.

However, SAA must develop a coherent and comprehensive approach to membership acquisition, with a more interdisciplinary and international focus. SAA's ability to retain and attract members depends upon its competitiveness in the national and international scene, on its capacity of providing unique opportunities for education, research, involvement with relevant communities (at all levels of government and in the spheres of business, industry and not-for-profit organizations), participation in policy development and in the definition of international standards. SAA's ability to maintain a healthy membership also depends on the existence of appropriate mechanisms to recognize members' contributions and achievements in relation to the goals and objectives outlined in the strategic plan. SAA needs therefore to focus unequivocally on a few clear directions, to foster a strong sense of involvement among its members, existent and potential, to acknowledge the value of community-based work undertaken by its members in support of the profession and the society, and to encourage a closer co-operation between members, SAA staff and its elected officers, especially when it comes to applications for grants, representation in other associations, and the development of collaborative ventures with other organizations. But, in order to do so, SAA must become a more pro-active and risk taking organization, that is, its general approach must undergo a radical change.

Among the possible changes, there are some that I see as unavoidable if SAA is to proceed forward. One of them has to do with the identification of new sources of revenue. As the situation stands now, the annual meeting and the publication program constitute SAA's sources of income primarily by membership dues, and secondarily. Increasing membership dues can no longer be the sole way of keeping our finances healthy. We need to focus our services and get involved in new profitable initiatives. We need systematic and ongoing fundraising, not from our membership, but from external communities, and a full-time development officer can only do this. We need regular and planned grant applications, and we need to attach our name to initiatives funded by other organizations.

Also this fund raising/public relations activity, just like the international/community relations activity, needs to be situated in the SAA office, and reinforces the need for re-examining and re-thinking the services it offers. In the next few months, Council will identify means for conducting such a study. Whatever its outcome, in order to protect the interest of individual members, we must primarily think of the most pressing needs of the general membership.

As a Vice-president seeking volunteers to appoint to SAA units and to nominate as SAA representatives to international groups, I have heard once too many the statement: "I cannot serve because I am not a member, and I will not become a member because SAA does not help my career." One can reply till becoming blue in the face that such statements are unprofessional and shortsighted, that it is the primary responsibility of every professional to support his profession through work in the national association, that an association serves its members only in the measure in which they serve the association, that the more one invests in it, the more one gets from it, that the association is its membership and cannot be useful to its members if they do not make themselves useful…to no avail.

Perception can be stronger than facts. Thus, we need to change the perception. How? By offering to members of the profession something they cannot get anywhere else. Our mission statement says that, through its work, the society ensures the protection of the historical record and increases the awareness of the value of archives. What about the value of archivists? As I said earlier, SAA should get directly involved in job related issues, and specifically job descriptions, including qualifications, minimum salaries, hiring practices and standards, etc. at all levels of government and in the private sector.

However, SAA can also enhance the awareness of the value of archivists by providing its membership with unique opportunities for interacting with other professionals in both allied and distinct fields and at an international level. Advocacy has been a good start but we have to do much more. Certainly the annual conference could be more geared towards such purpose. Funds could be raised by various means to compensate professionals from different sectors who come as speakers, and to support the expenses of international archival speakers. On a more regular basis, the co-sponsoring of events and educational offerings with private and public organizations, including other associations and universities, would provide a basis for the establishment of stable relationships of mutual respect and collaboration. Other strategies could consist of having in each SAA committee a person from a different profession as "advisory member." "Corresponding members" could be sought in other countries that would work with sections and committees on SAA initiatives. Advisory and corresponding members could be dispensed from membership in the SAA for a given period until they will begin to appreciate the advantages of being part of it.

These are just ideas. But, what I strongly believe is that SAA cannot proceed forward if it does not go outward. More and more, American archivists will find their identity in their education and their special skills, will have a large number of forums for exchange of ideas directly related to those skills, will look for advanced training and literature that directly address their job needs, will flock to associations that cater to their specialist requirements, will be on a fast moving track from one position to another. How can SAA establish its relevancy to these members of the profession, typically young, ambitious, impatient, and focused on the most challenging issues? What is SAA's unique role?

I can see that role very clearly. SAA's responsibility for the future as the national archival association is to emphasize the unity that lies at the root of the archival profession, a unity in knowledge, competence and responsibility, regardless of specialization, geographical location, ethnic, cultural and other diversities. The means are equally clear. SAA needs to focus on

  • Nurturing a pre-appointment education with a well defined core body of knowledge and offering advanced continuing education of world-wide relevance;
  • Providing international publications, thereby fostering knowledge that eliminated cultural barriers;
  • Offering an annual meeting that points to common issues, problems, and solutions;
  • Establishing relationships with all sorts of organizations and communities centered on shared interests and purposes;
  • Presenting to governments, administrations, politicians, and the mass media the united point of view of the records professions;
  • Representing the profession to its employers by determining and upholding hiring standards;
  • Fostering and taking part into research; and
  • Being pro-active in the development of international policies and standards.

If SAA will begin right now to focus its efforts on what unites us all, it will one day not too far become the "ecclesia" of records professionals, the place where all those who share the same call and believes get together as one professional body. This is what SAA was for me when I searched for a bridge that could bring me into contact with North American fellow archivists…and look where it has taken me…to the SAA Presidency!

Well, it might not seem like much to some, but to me it is the greatest honour and you can be assured that I will serve you in the coming year with the same enthusiasm and commitment that made me choose to become a SAA member twelve years ago.