SAA 2014: Archives, Activism, and a Whole Lot of Twitter

Oh, the most wonderful time of the year: conference season! When professionals the whole world over experience the joy of free continental breakfast, standing-room-only panel discussions, and odd luggage necessary to safely transport misshapen posters and displays through the TSA gauntlet. For me, the beginning and end of my conference whirlwind consisted of the Society of American Archivists 2014 meeting. Luckily, this year’s host city was Washington, DC. In lieu of a boarding pass, I grabbed my SmarTrip card and hoped down to Woodley Park for days filled with archival fun.

Full disclosure: I am not, per se, an archivist. I am a graduate student specializing in cultural heritage information management with a focus on rare books, manuscripts, and medieval material culture. However, if my coursework has taught me anything, it is that the ongoing convergence of library, archives, and museum professionals — coupled with the ever-increasing technological synergy between these disparate institutions — means that it is incumbent upon us as information professionals to being engaged on several scholarly fronts. With this in mind, I felt that my participation in the SAA conference would not only help me in my own interdisciplinary efforts, but would also add a unique voice to the archival conversation that would occur at the conference.

As writing about the chaos of conference life in some semblance of linear fashion is a herculean task, I will segment my comments by events, panels, discussions, or other relevant dimensions.

  • Before the official kick-off of SAA, a pre-conference workshop was held that explored the use of open-access applications for optical character recognition of non-standard texts. Led by Matthew Christy of the Early Modern OCR Project from Texas A&M, this workshop provided extremely helpful insight into the workflow for training Tesseract to identify and convert early modern print types into computer-usable text. On a personal note, this was a whirlwind of new information to the uninitiated OCRer (i.e. me). However, knowing what I do now, I think that this was an excellent professional development experience that will be useful on future projects.
  • FOIA and Access: The plenary discussion featured a lively discussion on the importance of FOIA to the realm of investigative journalism. A fantastic – and timely – discussion that highlighted the importance of archivists as both holders of information and conduits of access.
  • Integrating Digital Objects and Finding Aids: As with all panels focusing on digital materials, this panel was packed.  This panel, focusing on the Northwest Digital Archives, presented great ideas on approaches to ensuring object-collection hierarchy maintenance; use of publicly available resources as service hubs for private collections; and approaches to user testing.
  • SNAC: Representatives from the SNAC project led a great discussion on the development of linked EAC-CPF records to help unify entity identification in distributed record holding institutions. Again, another jam-paced session due to the digital orientation of the topic. Still, a great opportunity to learn about ongoing initiatives.
  • HIV/AIDS Archives: In this panel, a fascinating conversation occurred in which the difficulties associated with archiving an ongoing social phenomenon were illuminated. In particular, the NYPL archivist of the AIDS/HIV Collection recounted conflicts between their collection and the ACT UP activist organization due to the public perception of the historiographic activities of archivists. The difficulty arises from convincing the public that archives are not only collections of things that ‘have occurred’, but are rather ongoing records of individual, organizational, and societal events, continually being reappraised, reassessed, and reinterpreted. The quotable takeaway is the ongoing conversation between the competing concepts of “AIDS History” and “AIDS is History.”
  • Poster Session:
    WP_20140814_15_48_16_Pro

    36″x40″ of glory!

    The poster session was an excellent opportunity to meet a variety of scholars and professionals and to give them an introduction to my work on Project Andvari. A lot of very fruitful conversations occurred. A couple even led to possible partnerships for future collaboration and data sharing (and a possible job opportunity, but let’s not get too hopeful). All-in-all, it was a great chance to practice my presenting skills and to get my face out there as a participating member of the larger scholarly community.

Conferences are always hectic (and exhausting). There is always far too much for one person to experience, but the net effect is one of great professional development and scholarly sharing. This year’s SAA conference was no exception. I walked away from this experience enlivened with a renewed energy for my professional field. While I couldn’t attend more sessions, I was extremely grateful to my fellow conference attendees and their dogged upkeep of the #saa14 thread, allowing me to follow the numerous concurrent sessions that I could not attend.  As I near the end of my graduate coursework, I am excited to more fully enter in to my chosen profession, knowing that the field is populated with such energetic and innovative professionals.

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