Day 1 Proper of the conference began with acknowledgements to the organisers, some kind of raffle draw and then a plenary address by an American radio journalist. Altogether this conference has a celebratory feel to it – fitting since this is SAA’s 75th Anniversary year, but very different in tone from the UK conferences where the opening keynote speaker tends to be some archival luminary. More on the American archival cultural experience later.
My session with Kate Theimer (of ArchivesNext fame) and Dr Elizabeth Yakel from the University of Michigan (probably best known amongst tech savvy UK practitioners for her work on the Polar Bear Expedition Finding Aid) followed immediately afterwards, and seemed to go well. The session title was: “What Happens After ‘Here Comes Everybody’: An Examination of Participatory Archives”. Kate proposed a new definition for Participatory Archives, distinguishing between participation and engagement (outreach); Beth spoke about credibility and trust, and my contribution was primarily concerned with contributors’ motivations to participate. A couple of people, Lori Satter and Mimi Dionne have already blogged about the session (did I really say that?!), and here are my slides:
After lunch, I indulged in a little session-hopping, beginning in session 204 hearing about Jean Dryden’s copyright survey of American institutions, which asked whether copyright limits access to archives by restricting digitisation activity. Dryden found that American archivists tended to take a very conservative approach to copyright expiry terms and obtaining third party permission for use, even though many interviewees felt that it would be good to take a bolder line. Also, some archivists knowledge of the American copyright law was shaky – sounds familiar! It would be interesting to see how UK attitudes would compare; I suspect results would be similar, however, I also wonder how easy it is in practical terms to suddenly start taking more of a risk-management approach to copyright after many years of insisting upon strict copyright compliance.
Next I switched to session 207, The Future is Now: New Tools to Address Archival Challenges, hearing Maria Esteva speak about some interesting collaborative work between the Texas Advanced Computing Center and NARA on visual finding aids, similar to the Australian Visible Archive research project. At the Exhibit Hall later, I picked up some leaflets about other NARA Applied Research projects and tools for file format conversion, data mining and record type identification which were discussed by other speakers in this session.
Continuing the digitization theme, although with a much more philosophical focus, Joan Schwartz in session 210, Genuine Encounter, Authentic Relationships: Archival Convenant & Professional Self-Understanding discussed the loss of materiality and context resulting from the digitisation of photographs (for example, a thumbnail image presented out of its album context). She commented that archivists are often too caught up with the ‘how’ of digitization rather than the ‘why’. I wouldn’t disagree with that.
Back to the American archival cultural experience, I was invited to the Michigan University ‘alumni mixer’ in the evening – a drinks reception with some short speeches updating alumni on staff news and recent developments in the archival education courses at the university. All in all, archives students are much in evidence here: there are special student ‘ribbons’ to attach to name badges, many students are presenting posters on their work, and there is a special careers area where face-to-face advice is available from more senior members of SAA, current job postings are advertised, and new members of the profession can even pin up their curriculum vitae. Some of this (the public posting of CVs in particular) might seem a bit pushy for UK tastes, and the one year length of UK Masters programmes (and the timing of Conference) of course precludes the presentation of student dissertation work. But the general atmosphere seems very supportive of new entrants to the profession, and I feel there are ideas here that ARA’s New Professionals section might like to consider for future ARA Conferences.