Society of American Archivists
Attn: Council members
17 North State Street
Chicago, IL 60602-4061
10 September 2014
Dear members of the SAA Council,
I am writing to you as a member and critic of the Archives & Archivists listserv. My name is likely familiar to some of you given my role in the recent debates about A&A and its future. I have been part of on-list discussions about the culture of the list, am the author of two lengthy blog posts (“once upon a listserv” and “once again upon a listserv”) critiquing list dynamics — one of which prompted personal attacks on-list by those who disagreed with my views and approach — and I also participate in discussions about #thatdarnlist on Twitter. Those experiences have led me to form the Amiable Archivists Salon, a website and email list focused on issues of professional culture and inclusion in the archival and associated professions.
I am also the founding co-chair of New England Archivists’ LGBTQ Issues Roundtable, and have studied and written on issues related to gender, sexuality, and inequality for over a decade, online and off. My perspective is, of course, specific to my own areas of expertise and experience. Yet my observations regarding A&A are informed by listening to and engaging with many others on questions of community, power, privilege, and belonging.
With all of these contexts in mind, there is much that could be said about the complaints and critiques on and around the Archives & Archivists list that have been raised in past months. I’ve already articulated many of them myself in emails, blog posts, and on Twitter. Today I am writing directly to you for the first time to raise concerns about the recently-revised terms of participation and how they were implemented. I believe the new terms and their roll-out send a clear and troubling message regarding what SAA considers as speakable and unspeakable, appropriately visible and best handled invisibly, within our professional community.
Among the revised list of “prohibited” items, deemed “unrelated to the archives profession,” is “Discussion of the listerv itself or the behavior of individual posters.” Those with concerns are requested to contact the list administrators. There is nothing wrong, of course, with providing list subscribers a clear and private process for reporting concerns. Establishing such a process is a step in the right direction, one particularly important in severe situations of targeted harassment, bullying, or threats of violence. Yet categorically precluding discussion of community dynamics — to identify them, no less, as “unrelated to the archives profession” — is misguided at best and appallingly thoughtless at worst.
In a space where vulnerable individuals already feel intimidated, requiring their public (on-list) silence regarding experiences of ill treatment or desires for change compounds existing marginalization. It allows those engaged in the intimidating, dismissive, or harassing behaviors to dominate the public square of the list. It helps perpetuate the false belief that those silenced individuals are absent from, or do not properly belong to, the community of archives professionals. It suggests that their concerns about how they are treated within their professional community are not, in fact, professional concerns. It allows already dominant voices to drive the public narrative of who we are.
As a queer woman, I am dispiritingly used to the suggestion that my lived experiences are somehow “prohibited” or “unrelated” to the central concerns of society. I am used to having my life and values openly debated by others as if I am not present, as if my voice and perspective is of no importance in determining a course of action. Such exclusion and erasure is never welcome, or just, whether the attitude is coming from an elected representative or a peer in an online forum. Thus, to have terms of participation in one of my professional spaces now require that I not challenge problematic behavior when and where I see it occur, regardless of how politely or accurately I do so, is a “professional” expectation with particularly insulting resonances.
The troubling, silencing nature of the new “Discussion of the listserv…” proscription on A&A has only been further compounded by the SAA’s uneven implementation and ineffective enforcement of its own terms. Though adopted in mid-August at the annual meeting, these terms were never posted on, or explained to, the list in plain language by a representative of the SAA Council; nor was there any explanation of how the new terms would be enforced. Thus, when the popular Friday Flowers series was “banned” from the list last week, in accordance with the new terms, it was seen by many as a targeted, personal decision made by the list administrator. This perception was reinforced when ensuing on-list commentary violated the terms, and at times the SAA Code of Conduct, in multiple ways — yet no visible, authoritative presence stepped in to enforce the terms or otherwise facilitate a productive conversation. Such under-resourced and uncoordinated action suggests that SAA is not willing to follow through in an effective manner on the decisions the Council makes regarding expectations of behavior in SAA spaces. This emboldens those who feel entitled to ignore the terms and pushes the already-intimidated further away.
As I pointed out in an email to the list back in May, meaningful moderation of difficult discussions (for example, debates over community norms!) requires the labor of individuals trained to facilitate those discussions, who earn the trust of the community through consistent, visible, and impartial enforcement of agreed-upon ground rules. Those individuals should also be explicitly invested with the authority of the organization under which they serve, and publicly backed by those to whom they report when necessary. SAA did not take the time to establish such a moderation presence before adopting the new terms, despite evidence of what would happen the first time push came to shove. I find this a disappointing failure of responsibility for a space you own and administer.
Archivists do not just apolitically collect, preserve, and make accessible the material evidence of existence — we are active, complex participants in the world. We are actors whose interactions with one another matter, whether they happen in professional or personal contexts, online or off. Too often, we separate online professional communities — what scholar Danah Boyd refers to as “networked publics” — from non-virtual professional spaces. This networked/analog dichotomy is a false one, as is the illusion that we can silo our “professional” selves from … well, ourselves in all our messy humanness.
One aspect of SAA’s newly-adopted Code of Conduct that I appreciate is the way establishes expectations for community behavior in both corporeal and virtual space. I encourage SAA to consider the varied conversations that take place — formally and informally — in corporeal gathering places such as the annual conference. We bring our whole selves into such spaces, sharing baby pictures, discussing uncomfortable workplace dilemmas, demonstrating changing norms regarding self-presentation, and swapping tips for data migration alongside recommendations for advocacy and outreach. What should remain constant is not necessarily that every exchange be purely on-topic (by whose definition?), but that we acknowledge each participant’s humanity and value, and strive to meet them with empathy.
There are socially positive and socially negative ways of sharing pictures of flowers, sharing links, discussing community norms, debating different metadata schema, talking about inter-generational tensions in the profession, or reacting to the tough job market. Likewise, there are constructive and destructive ways of using certain modes of writing or interacting. Humor, snark, or anger can be a force for positive change — say, when directed at an individual or institutional body who has misused their social privilege or professional authority. Such modes can also be a way of reinforcing pre-existing hierarchies, being deliberately cruel, or an exercise in attention-seeking drama. It is ineffective to try and improve how we interact with one another by limiting what we can speak about in a public forum; it is lazy to try and improve our community by establishing community norms that amount to variations on the theme of tone policing. Such superficial fixes abdicate responsibility for conversations we need desperately, to have about underlying values and structural inequalities.
SAA is not being asked to reinvent the wheel here, and I’m assuming at least some of you on the Council know this. The difficult question of how to facilitate constructive discussions around changing societal norms is hardly a new one, and was not invented in the internet age. We need look no further than our own collections to see evidence of the blood, sweat, and tears that have been poured into social change actions within our local and national communities (publics). Without digging into the archival sources, one example you might have learned from is that of the community whose own Code of Conduct informed your own: the Geek Feminism blog. In this post from early July, “How will our Code of Conduct improve our harassment handling?” the Geek Feminism bloggers reflect on what following through on a code of conduct actually looks like, and how it will support their vision for a more welcoming community. You might also have considered the lessons National Public Radio’s CodeSwitch bloggers learned handling online discussions about “race, ethnicity, and culture.” These are just two of dozens, hundreds of online pieces grappling with how to handle (networked) public discussions in which people of mixed experiences and views come together and wrestle with productive coexistence.
Archivists are a diverse bunch, we bring different life experiences and differences of opinion to the (physical or virtual) table. As our national professional organization, your job is to advocate for us all, and ensure vigorous, even colorful — but ultimately empathetic and productive — debate within our big tent. At least within those spaces you claim ownership of — spaces like the Archives & Archivists listserv. I hope to see you step up to the plate and do so sooner rather than later.
In hopes for a better professional future,
Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, MLS, MA (Simmons GSLIS ’11)
Invitation: A friend with whom I shared a draft of this letter offered to add their signature in support. It seemed only fair to extend the invitation democratically to any of you who wish to add your names in comments below. I welcome any who feel so moved.
Jennifer Andreola said:
Thanks for posting this, much to think about here! I agree with some of your interpretations and disagree with others. I understand why you bring up the subject of silencing. One of the issues raised earlier was unwanted offlist contact. SAA cannot affect that but it can try to level the playing field in its online space. I believe its desire to create safe space is sincere. I’ll offer a couple of observations.
We’re dealing with information asymmetry in that a small group spoke publicly on the list while most subscribers tried to adhere to the request not to discuss the Listserv. If I had to guess, it is because so many prior discussions of the List have focused on the behavior of named individuals. (I’ve been guilty of that myself).
As you’ve pointed out, certain dynamics play out in many online communities. Perhaps the A&A implosions might not have occurred if there had been a greater number of facilitative participants within the group. People who could have pointed to what can be learned from behavioral studies of group dynamics, communications, online engagement, etc. But maybe that just would have resulted in one more niche group within the larger one.
Although SAA has tried to be transparent about the process of changing the Terms of Participation, as Geof Huth pointed out in a message to the Listserv, its recent actions represent a compromise. As with policy making in so many situations, we know the post-decisional actions. We don’t know how the deliberations preceding it played out. So it is possible SAA considered some of the issues you raised but decided to go in a different direction.
I do think a clearer message at the outset that the revised Terms represent the outcome of a vote (the survey of info professionals) might have helped. At least to convey to those affected that this was not arbitrary or punitive action imposed by a small elite but the result of surveying the group. Whether more people who voted then would have accepted the changes more readily, identifying the revisions with their peers rather than SAA, is unknown, of course.
In the political world, you see in certain quarters some efforts at nullification or delegitimization of the result after presidential elections. In others, there’s more a sense of “why didn’t we win, let’s examine why and learn from it.” So it didn’t surprise me that there has been a wide range of reactions. Perhaps SAA anticipated it and chose to let some of it play out (there are pros and cons to that).
Amy Moorman, MA, CA said:
“It is ineffective to try and improve how we interact with one another by limiting what we can speak about in a public forum.”
To me, this is the crux of what remains of the problem. It is such a turn off to have expressions of collegiality, and as you put it “bringing our whole selves” to the discussion, categorically banned. Thank you for articulating it so succinctly.
I also agree with Maarja in that we don’t know what went into making these decisions by SAA – but we should. This whole process has been the antithesis of transparency, and I imagine is further distancing some professionals from even being involved.
I am not a member of SAA, and to be honest every interaction I have with the “organization” (as a monolithic entity) reinforces to me that decision. It is probably long overdue for me to find other avenues of professional interaction than the listserv.
I understand your desire to have these kinds of conversations, but the main concern I have with your position is that the overwhelming majority of us do not wish to use the listserv for the purpose you mention of, in effect, interrogating community dynamics. We want to use it to discuss the practice and theory of archives in its most conservative (little c) definition. I like talking about this kind of stuff, but not on the listserv. The kinds of discussions you want to have and we are having right now are best employed on blogs like this one–or, in real life, which is a forum that is the most forgiving and least prone to the kind of harsh bloviating that’s been gumming up the listserv for months now. I ask that you accept that most of us want to use archives listserv to discuss archives, and we are glad that SAA has put reasonable restrictions in place to give us the opportunity to do just that.
First of all, Mike, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your thoughtful response and dissent.
You are, of course, as welcome to voice your priorities for the list as I am — and I hope that you have communicated your own list priorities to SAA in whatever way you feel is most appropriate and effective. Their job is to take the umbrella perspective based on all of the data they are collecting (on the list, on the web, behind the scenes) and make an executive decision regarding the best community ground rules and tools to implement them.
I understand your frustration with the “noise” of community dynamics and the desire to have those go away or be discussed elsewhere. My reservation with using the tools SAA implemented toward that goal is that I believe it is impossible to remove the question of how we treat one another from ANY forum, and to attempt doing so — particularly too quickly — means perpetuating structural inequality and community dynamics that are destructive. I believe using the listserv “to discuss archives” does, in fact, mean discussing this too. To cast our memories back to January of this year, it was a discussion about professional expectations in education and salaries that sparked one of the more recent wrangles over how we treat one another professionally. The work of discussing archives is, in my experience, inextricable from the work of coexisting.
That said, I respect that I am one observer, taking a singular perspective. You’ll notice I wrote this letter and posted it to my blog (and emailed it to the SAA Council), I didn’t post it on the listserv. I may protest the new terms, but I will abide by them while they remain in effect and take my conversations about community / professional dynamics elsewhere. One of the better truths of the internet (however cliche) is that it is pretty much always possible to find or create a space in which to have the conversations you wish to have.
Well said, Anna! I’m replying here because I’m not sure whether my last post went through, Apologies to all for any repetition.
I think the real point here is that, whatever we want the listserv to be, we can’t escape “interrogating community dynamics”, nor should we. If we want to truly be a mature, respectful community of archival professionals (and this listserv conflict has sadly demonstrated to me that often, we are not), we need to be able to discuss how we treat and react to each other. The listserv is, or should be, a major forum for this kind of interaction: how can we use it effectively as a method of communication if we can’t ever discuss how or why the forum is used? If we confine discussion of these kinds of issues to blogs or other sites and leave them off the listserv (the primary listserv for our ENTIRE profession), then we continue to ghetto-ize the real concerns of many of our members. We continue to proclaim that respect and understanding of our own colleagues is not something we really care about. This is as immature as it is unjust, and it does a disservice to us all as archivists and as people.
Good point, Anna: many thanks for not bringing this conversation to the listserv–even though semi-professional performance artists on the listserv wish to continue to do so!
I think the point is that the situation, and our status as archival colleagues who should be capable of general respect for one another, dictate that, indeed, we do need to “interrogate community dynamics.” Clearly the listserv conflict demonstrates that, as a professional community we have a long way to go towards acting like a mature, responsible, collegial group of people. We may *want* to use the listserv to discuss the practice and theory of archives, but what has happened in recent months shows that the listserv is, by and large, broken. If we want to ‘restore’ it or to shape it how we wish, how are we going to do so unless we can talk about it on the actual listserv itself? If we discuss this only on blogs and other sites, how will we ever affect changes in the listserv? By forbidding this kind of discussion, we also deny the legitimate concerns of many of our fellow archivists, which is as insensitive and immature as it is unjust.
I respect and understand your urge to engage in this type of discourse. Per SAA guidelines, which reflect the interests of the majority, kindly respect your colleagues and leave this type of discussion off the listserv so that those of us that do not wish to engage in it in the context of the listserv need not be drawn into it. I am confident there are other corners of the Internet (like here), where we can engage in substantive discussion about these and related matters.
Brad H. said:
So much co-sign. From what HAS been released about the process of revising the terms of participation, my overall impression has been that the final document was arrived at according to the Calvin-and-Hobbes School of Compromise (“A good compromise leaves everybody mad”), which seems ill-advised on an issue as fraught as this.
@Mike: Isn’t the name of the list Archives *& Archivists*? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to be able to discuss issues affecting archivists qua professionals on the profession’s supposed discussion list of record, particularly given that three of four goals in the most recent SAA Strategic Plan deal (explicitly or implicitly) with the concerns of individual archivists vs. archival repositories or institutions. I don’t think you’re going to find *any* active community online where there is no bleed through of community dynamics into for a supposedly devoted to a particular subject, especially if (like A&A) there are no thematic sub-fora that encompass the entire community. (The Section/RT lists don’t factor into this because they are aimed at subgroups defined by professional interest.) As I’ve noted on Twitter or elsewhere, I *have* found the List extremely useful for answering the sort of theory and practice questions you describe. But ask a question about an issue affecting archivists as people, and you are in effect also asking for trouble.
Having said that. I don’t actually disagree that the List is a poor place to have these discussions– but I think that is more a factor of the attitude problems exhibited by some posters rather than a flaw inherent in the list format itself. It seems like there should be some place where the profession as a whole is able to grapple with these issues, but A&A has proven that it isn’t that place.
Brad, you’re right that it’s a tough call. I am not wagering with the new guidelines that all discussion of this nature will be hermetically sealed from the listserv, just that maybe we can all take a deep breath and consider the appropriate forum to voice our opinions before taking to the listserv.
And yes, I agree with you that a bunch of morons rile up the sane lot of us that can’t help but fire back. (Guilty as charged.) Ironically, the listserv, an old medium of communication, has over the last few months inhabited the characteristics of your local newspaper’s comments page. My hope is that if enough well-intentioned people both follow the new guidelines and ignore the trolls that wish to ignore them, that we will get back on track.
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I’m so pleased people are having a lively conversation about this post! Thank you all for your enthusiasm and respectful debate.
I have all comments on moderation for first-time commenters with this new blog interface; that will be many of you given the blog has just migrated to WordPress. I’m clearing the moderation queue as quickly as I can today, so please bear with me!
I’m about to leave work for a physical therapy appointment and then the evening commute; I’ll be back online around 7pm and will clear the moderation queue as necessary then.
On the listserv, we’d be calling for your head and asking for Kathleen Roe’s cell phone number. But here in the blogosphere, we’re more patient.
Melissa G said:
Melissa G. Gonzales
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