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:
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    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.

A Latte of Museum Fun in Seattle

Written by Justine Rothbart

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With our lattes and umbrellas in hand, museum professionals arrived last week in the city of Seattle. We came prepared to the 2014 American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo. This year’s AAM Annual Meeting took place on May 18 – 21 and covered the theme “The Innovation Edge.” The sessions spanned a wide range of subjects, from “Preserving Collections in a Digital World” to “S#!t I Wish They Taught in Grad School.” Attending this conference with a fellow CHIM Cohort member, Kelsey Conway, made us both reflect on the relationship between our current studies and the museum world. As we navigated this conference, we became profoundly aware how important the role of library and information professionals are to museums.

Justine Rothbart (Me) and Kelsey Conway at the 2014 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Seattle, WA

Justine Rothbart (Me) and Kelsey Conway at the 2014 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Seattle, WA

At this conference, there were curators, education specialists, graduate students, collection managers, exhibit design specialists, historians, and archivists. Some had multiple titles and wore many different hats, while others just had one. With our varying titles, we had one thing in common: museums. Our connection to museums may be different, but we all understand the importance and significance of these cultural institutions. Author of The Devil in the White City and Keynote Speaker Erik Larson said, “I’m not a historian. I’m an animator of history.” Whatever the title is, each of our roles play a significant part in shaping the future of museums.

In the session “Innovations in Using Museum Collections for Learning,” Amy Bolton, from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discussed their new interactive exhibit “Q?rius.” She discussed not only the aspects of creating a hands-on exhibit, but she also discussed the creation of their digital library. In the “Topics Library” users can click on a subject and find the relationship with the related objects, media, and resources all in one location. In the session “Preserving Collections in a Digital World,” Leah Niederstadt from the Beard and Weil Art Galleries at Wheaton College discussed a future project where Google Earth will be used to visually track the provenance of the objects in the collection. These are just a few examples from the conference that tie into our current Library and Information Science studies.

The convergence of libraries, archives, and museums (LAM) was prominent throughout this conference. During our first semester in the Spring of 2013 at Catholic University we discussed LAM convergence in our class History and Theory of Cultural Heritage Institutions with Prof. Stokes. In our class we were lucky enough to have Ford Bell, the President of the American Alliance of Museums, as a guest speaker. Seeing Ford Bell address the hundreds of conference attendees last week was very different to when he spoke to our CHIM cohort in our small classroom. But it just reemphasized the important connection with library and information science and museums.

As a graduate student, attending a conference, like this one, is a great way to see how our studies are implemented through real-life examples. It’s also a great way to meet new people and meet up with old friends. Whether it’s in a session or at the top of the Space Needle, this conference was all about the making new connections with people who share the same passion (and having fun at the same time!).

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Click here for more information about the American Alliance of Museums.