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Society of American Archivists
Attn: Council members
17 North State Street
Suite 1425
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.