SAA Report: Interrogating the ‘Great Society’

I’ve just returned from the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting, held this year in Cleveland. As usual, it was a rewarding experience, full of opportunities to connect and catch up with colleagues from all over the country, as well as to learn from the speakers in a variety of sessions.

As in years past, I found the panels and other sessions which focused on historical trends – rather than contemporary case studies or practices – to be the most inspiring and thought-provoking. A great example of this was The ‘Great Society’ and the Archives: Fifty Years of Archival Activism, which looked at the development of activism in the archival profession over the last 50 years, starting with Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society speech of 1964, and moving forward throughout the 70s and 80s. All of the panelists cited Howard Zinn’s 1970 address at the SAA Annual meeting, which I’d advise you to read if you haven’t already done so.

The panelists offered divergent perspectives on the course of the archival profession in regard to social justice. Some offered more positive perspectives on this trajectory, citing the acceptance of documentation strategies and the growth of community archives initiatives. Others were more pessimistic, saying that archivists, as Michelle Caswell bluntly put it, “aren’t doing enough as a profession to build a more just future.”

As I noted on Twitter at the time, I think the framing of the panel around a speech given by a wealthy white man was unfortunate, because it misrepresents the process of social change and glosses over the years of organizing, institution building and direct action at the grassroots level as a means to broad societal changes. Although one had to read a little between the lines, Kim Anderson’s presentation, which charted changes to the archival profession the 70s and 80s, underlines this point. Howard Zinn’s address was not the only thing that happened at the SAA Annual meeting in 1970: there were education sessions on “Archivists and the New Left” (which drew a crowd of over 300 attendees), and “Archival Resources for Black Studies.” These sessions were themselves preceded by years of ad-hoc organizing by archivists through unendorsed groups such as ACT.

Although the panelists largely focused on the events of the past, a few did mention more recent efforts, including A People’s Archive of Police Violence, which grew out of the efforts of a group of concerned archivists in response to a growing trend of police brutality across the country, and particularly in response to the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice in November of last year. This included gathering oral histories at sites around Cleveland during the Annual Meeting, and then gathering funds to help to post them to an Omeka-powered website.

There were no easy answers or solutions offered in this panel, but I found it a perfect way to end the conference. Like life, archives can be messy, complicated and often compromised, but concerted collective action does make a difference.

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