SAA Responds to the American Historical Association

August 10, 2021—The Society of American Archivists (SAA) appreciates the recent statement and apology from the American Historical Association (AHA) that was posted in the wake of its open letter to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). AHA’s statement provides greater context to the original letter and was written in response to an immediate outcry from archivists and historians. 

As an organization that seeks to promote the use of archival materials to foster equity, diversity, inclusion, and historical accountability, SAA appreciates AHA’s intent to support NARA in the face of misinformation and unreasonable demands on the agency’s staff. SAA expects such support to be constructive and written in consultation with the archives community. The employees of NARA—and of every cultural heritage institution—are essential partners and valued colleagues for the countless communities they serve: businesses, governments, scholars, teachers, genealogists, and researchers of all kinds. It is past time that our communities come together to discuss and to advocate for our shared needs: increased funding for educational and cultural heritage organizations; the end of precarious labor and the “publish or perish” mindset in higher learning; and an educated public that values and engages with our work. 

Archives—large and small, governmental and nongovernmental, in every corner of the United States and US territories—are operating in response to circumstances that are specific to each institution during these extremely trying times. In conducting their business, archivists must assess local COVID-19 conditions and prioritize the health and safety of staff as well as researchers and visitors. As a result, archives across the country have vastly different policies and procedures for welcoming researchers in their reading rooms based on their unique circumstances. SAA expects researchers to extend goodwill, grace, and respect to archivists when they institute procedural changes to public access operations due to our ongoing public health emergency. No matter what policies archivists adopt to manage their facilities, respectful communication between researchers and archivists about the pandemic and post-pandemic operations of the archives is necessary for these relationships to remain strong and fruitful. 

It is imperative that these relationships remain strong because we have important work to do together. The adjustments made by archivists and researchers under duress and due to limited resources—remote research, rapid on-demand digitization, enhanced description and metadata, and access to underused digitized resources—during the past 18 months will be instrumental to archival research in the future. In terms of advocacy, the archival and historical communities came together this past year in a major effort to ensure the largest budget increase for NARA in many years. SAA will continue to advocate for increased support for NARA and all cultural heritage institutions, not only for the benefit of archives, but also for the benefit of all researchers.    

The relationship among archivists, researchers, and communities must be founded on reciprocity and mutual respect. Archival institutions should not be publicly criticized for carefully planning their public service model nor should they feel that their labor is not valued. Access policies should not prioritize certain users, given the diversity of the communities we serve. 

SAA is always open to dialogue and deeper coordination with AHA, as well as other professional organizations that value and require the expertise of archivists, access to archival collections, and the many services we provide. We value collaboration, and we value community.