My First SAA Conference: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Since we were in hot and steamy Texas for the SAA conference, I thought I would have a Western theme to this post. Enjoy!

The Good: “Bringing it Together” Part of my excitement in attending the conference was to see if I could make connections from my time as a student to a professional. Some of the sessions did not disappoint. My favorite session, for this reason, was session 104 on archives and web 2.0 (see the SAA facebook page for videos of session 104 and more, nice job SAA!). Even though this really was not the most applicable session to my professional position, it was great in that it addressed how the profession can handle a topic that I was first introduced to in grad-school. Every professor I had, at one point or another, stated that archives had to do a better job being transparent. If I may go all postmodern on you for a second, transparency was identified as a way to address the notion that all human endeavor is biased in some way or another. If we cannot remove bias, we can at least be transparent in our decisions so future generations know where we were coming from. The first presenter in session 104, Angela McClendon Ossar, identified web 2.0 technology as a way to bring transparency to archival appraisal and processing. By blogging and tweeting, the archive can shed light on the black box. I thought this was a wonderful practical solution to a theoretical problem posed in the classroom. Awesome job!

There was also a surprising amount of good archive talk at the social activities I attended. While I guess it could be considered shoptalk, it was great to hear from working archivists. Whether it was a discussion of the meaning of records with some classmates fellow alums over $2 Lone Stars, or discussing how to appraise records based on documentation strategy over a sassy pinot grigio, I saw that every time a group of archivists gather it is another opportunity to learn something about the field. Note: all booze was consumed after the workday and not in excess, in case any people who could fire me, hire me, or are married to me, are reading this post.

Overall, I was very impressed how generous archivists are with their time and how willing they are to discuss things with someone new to the field. I am very excited to be in a profession where people are so clearly passionate about what they do and willing to lend a helping hand to others.

The Bad: “Why Are We Not Past This Yet?” While some of the sessions were great and really taught me a lot, some of them made me wonder why we were still talking about certain things as a profession. My example for this is session 501, whose official title was “More Product, Less Process Revisited: Choosing the Right Processing Strategy for Your Repository and Collections.” That sounds interesting, right? Well, in my opinion, the actual content of this session probably did little to help people choose a processing strategy, but rather “revisited” the type of debate that must have occurred when Greene and Meissner first published their article in 2005. Two members of the panel stated concerns regarding MPLP, including fears that widespread misuse of minimal processing will lead to the alienation our users, will make archivists irrelevant, and cause the McDonald’s-ization (yes, I just made up that word) of the profession. Update: OK, so apparently I did not make up McDonaldization. I guess I will have to Google words that I think I made up before I publicly claim that I made them up. HT to Angela McClendon Ossar.

You are not removing staples? Nooooooo!!!!

You are not removing staples? Nooooooooooo!!!!!!!

Image courtesy of Flickr member sparktography / CC-BY-NC

Now, this type of misuse of minimal process would be very disconcerting if it were not for the fact that, as far as I could tell, the evidence of misuse lies in anecdotal stories related during conferences and that SAA offers a workshop on MPLP. Um… really? It seems to me that we should have moved past a debate discussing the theoretical (and not to mention false) choice between “complete processing” and “minimal processing.” Is it not the reality that most archivists are adapting several different types of processing to accommodate the wide ranging and wonderful diversity among our archival institutions? I am not saying that there is not a place for a reasoned and rational debate on MPLP, or any archival issue for that matter. I am saying we should have that debate with facts in hand, and be a bit more aware of what is going on in the archival-streets (yes, I just made up that phrase).

In addition to MPLP, I feel there are other topics that we need to move beyond the acceptance phase. These topics range from user involvement, digital record management, and digital preservation. These are no longer new or radical concepts, and we should be talking about how to harness them, not engage in unhelpful hyperbolic claims that they are scary, unwanted, or cataclysmic to the profession.

Update: There seems to be a very interesting and relevant discussion brewing on the A&A, started by Kate Cruikshank of Indiana University, focusing on examples of how archivists are implementing minimal processing in their institutions, and a very informative post on ArchivesNext by Kate Theimer and Dan Santamaria. Nice work! There will also be a section dealing with MPLP in an upcoming issue of American Archivist, let’s hope this adds to the discussion.

The Ugly: “I am Freakin’ Tired” Archives is a second profession for me, my former profession being in the culinary field. I would come home from being in a kitchen all day bone-tired. While at the end of the day at SAA I did not smell of burnt grease, I was as tired as I was in any day in the kitchen. Not that I thought it would be all giggles and cupcakes (yep, made that one up too), but since I was out of my cubicle and pretty much on my own, I thought there would be a certain relaxation factor. Yeah, not so much. It is hard being “on” for that long of a time. I think my condition at the end of the week was similar to the condition of my name badge at the end of the week: worn out, misshapen, and mildly inappropriate…

Last longer... get it?

Last longer... get it?

Final Verdict: I will see you at SAA 2010, baby!!


Filed under By-Lance

4 responses to “My First SAA Conference: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. t

    Nice post, Lance. GLad you had a good time and most of the archivists I’ve met are generous with time, advice *and* booze. See you in DC.

    • Lance

      Thanks so much for the comment Terry, I will be sure to remember the line about archivists generosity with booze for my next conference 🙂 See you in DC!

  2. Hi Lance,

    Re: “The Bad”–you saw my post and Dan’s over on ArchivesNext, right? I think we both tried to address some of the stuff you mention.

    And, let’s not forget that we go to conferences to find out what other people are thinking. And sometimes what they are thinking may shock and surprise us. That’s good to know, in its own way. For people just coming out of school or taking their first job, it’s worth knowing that maybe not everyone is on the MPLP bandwagon. It’s useful to hear their arguments and get some ideas about how to address their concerns. I think Dan said something like “conversation is always a good thing” and don’t get Terry started on how important it is to listen to everyone’s point of view, or he’ll talk your ear off . . .

    Attending SAA is, indeed, an exhausting experience. And, as you may have noticed on Twitter, there is tendency for people to find they have some kind of bug or flu when they arrive home. I don’t think that’s the first time it has happened. So, add to to your words of wisdom to pass along to first-time conference attendees, “Don’t plan anything too strenuous for the week after you get back.”

    Glad you had a good time and see you in DC!


    • Lance

      Thanks for the comment Kate. I certainly do not want to give the impression that I am not interested in hearing other peoples views on MPLP, or any other topic. Since I have not done much processing myself, I do not even want to convey that I have made up my mind or that I am a staunch defender of MPLP.

      Dan Santamaria mentions in your post on ArchivesNext that he is disappointed when people suggest that MPLP means “a single approach” to processing. In her email starting the discussion on the A&A, Kate Cruikshank wrote “As long as we’re talking in the abstract, the opinions polarize and the debate gets lively, but we don’t get any insight into the thinking that people are applying to the backlogs before them.” I think both these comments get to the heart of what I am trying to say in my post. Namely, lets get beyond the blanket statements and generalizations and examine how professionals are using MPLP and any corresponding criticisms of these approaches.

      However, I think that you bring up a great point that we need to hear all sides so that we can better understand and address these concerns. Just because I think we should be moving on does not mean that we actually should, or that all are ready for that move.

      As for the post-SAA tiredness and taking it easy at work the next week, I have learned that the hard way! At least I think I avoided the bug that was going around.

      Thanks again for the comment and I am already looking forward to DC!