Saturday, August 23, 2008


This year's Society of American Archivists annual meeting is about to kickoff in San Francisco. The theme this year is "Archival R/Evolution & Identities." As usual, the SAA conference schedule is packed with timely sessions documenting cutting edge projects that are in development, reflecting on cutting edge projects that got started, and looking to future cutting edge projects. Why, might you ask, am I repeating the phrase "cutting edge" so many times? The reason is simple: the archival profession is where it is at in terms of the next great leap forward in library technologies, and has been for a number of years. I will get back to this theme in a minute, but I will make a little detour first.

I do not mean to belittle ALA's contribution to the library profession, but the fact remains that - due to their size and very muddled mission that results from having so many different constituencies to appease - ALA has a harder time of bringing the right sessions, the right people, and the right venues together at its two annual conferences than do other, smaller conferences. As a relative newcomer to the world of ALA, I was overwhelmed by the number of sessions at last years annual conference in Washington, D.C. The sessions that I attended by and large were wonderful, but I had a very difficult time getting to the relevant sessions, since they were spread out over a huge geographic area (in one day alone, I dashed back and forth from one conference hotel to the next no fewer than 6 times), which left very little time to meet colleagues after sessions to compare notes, exchange contact information, and develop possible joint projects. The sessions I attended - all related to digital collections, digital technologies, and evolving IP issues related to them - were attended by people with very similar interests as mine, but we were not easily able to connect. (Those who know me know that I am very gregarious and do not have a hard time connecting with colleagues in most instances).

However, these wonderful sessions had to be squished into a bloated program which resulted in the multiple dislocations that I mentioned above. It would have been much more productive, in my humble opinion, if instead of having all of the various ALA divisions meeting the same week in a monstrously-large conference, that the various tracks be split off into smaller, more focused conferences, not unlike the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section pre-conference. Instead of two huge conferences a year, perhaps the profession would be better served by having four smaller conferences each year, each with a different set of foci. I suspect this would allow people of overlapping interests more opportunity to learn from one another, cross-pollinate ideas, and build the networks appropriate for their disciplines.

Because of this, I have become an increasing fan of the more "boutique" conferences and urge other librarians to start thinking outside the box in terms of conferences, workshops, and training opportunities that might be useful to their personal and career development. For instance, the Society for Scholarly Publishing has a track record of very interesting sessions aimed at the publishers themselves. But by attending said conference, librarians get a chance to see what new developments in the publishing industry are coming down the pike and can prepare to meet those challenges or to embrace new opportunities created by them. Conversely, the publishers are extremely interested in hearing the concerns, needs, and constraints facing us, their clientele. In fact, they have a markedly slashed conference rate for librarians. (Full disclosure: I have to admit that after attending last year, I was invited to be a member of the Program Committee for SSP's next annual conference in Baltimore, Md. Nevertheless, I still feel that I can recommend it in good conscience).

As a long-time member of SAA, which is a relatively small conference at around 1500-1800 participants each year, I have found that it is much easier for people with similar interests to connect and cook up projects together. EAD (Encoded Archival Description) was rapidly disseminated via SAA; EAC (Encoded Archival Context), a quantum leap forward in terms of authority control and the semantic web, is being fostered; the rapid adoption of MODS, METS, and a host of other technologies is taking place because of connections made at SAA. Archivists have had to deal with issues of preservation for the entire history of the profession, so it is no surprise that archivists are typically taking the lead in digital archival preservation initiatives around the country. Similarly, archivists have had to manage complexly hierarchical content for the entire history of the profession too, which has resulted in methodological bags of tricks that can be effectively applied to our ever-increasingly digital world. Many of the concepts behind the management of the various pieces that make up a digital object or digital collection come right from archival theory.

For the record, I have a library degree and proudly call myself a librarian. I spent much of my career as a special collections librarian focused on the technical services and donor relations of manuscript collections, and was and am very tied to the archival world. But what I have realized over the years is that archival theory and practice and its practitioners, while often seen as being peripheral to the library profession, have been off cooking up the methodologies, techniques, and technologies that will help keep librarianship a strong, relevant, and vital profession on into the 21st Century. And just as I think that librarians should start taking a look at what is going on in SAA, I think the members of the profession should also start looking at other communities doing creative work on the periphery of our profession to bring those insights and skills back to enrich the bag of tricks of all librarians.