Regional Archival Organizations: History in the Making

With this post, Archival History News engages with the historical memory of archival institutions within the United States. The following two papers by Lee (Leon) Miller (Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University) and Lauren Brown (MARAC Historian, University of Maryland)  represent first-person perspectives on the past, present, and future of regional archival associations. Originally presented orally on August 16, 2018, at this year’s Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists in Washington, D.C. (during the annual meeting of the Regional Archival Associations Consortium), these papers have been slightly modified for readability and context, though they retain their original vigor and personal understanding of the unique role of geography-based professional groups, particularly the Society of Southwest Archivists (founded in May 1972) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (founded in June 1972).

— Co-Editors Eric Stoykovich and Nathan Saunders

 


    It Started in the Southwest: SSA and the Development of Modern Regional Archival Associations.

[Written by Lee (Leon) Miller, Head, Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University]

In 1987 the Society of Southwest Archivists (SSA) had perhaps forty “official” members. “Official” because SSA really had perhaps seventy to a hundred persons who thought they were members; however, the society’s membership records hadn’t been kept up, members hadn’t been asked to pay their dues, and with the records it had, SSA could trace only thirty-five or forty paid members.

In response, SSA President Bob Martin appointed me Membership Chair and I appointed a new Membership Committee. The first thing we did was contact people we thought were, or had been, or should have been, members. We organized a membership committee with one or two persons from every SSA state. Their job was to personally contact people in their area and ask them to join.

Our committee members were instructed to use their own work stationery with their own letterhead (not SSA letterhead) so the contact would be personal, from someone local, from someone the prospective member had probably heard of or met or even knew, someone from their state or even hometown.

To begin, committee members contacted people they knew but after quickly exhausting those contacts, the committee began seeking more sources for names. The membership committee therefore began coordinating membership work with other organizations, including SAA (Society of American Archivists), ARMA (Association of Records Managers and Administrators), MAC (Midwest Archives Conference), and MARAC (Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference).

Trading membership lists was very successful. People in ARMA, MAC, and MARAC wanted to join SSA. We therefore defined the Society of Southwest Archivists not as an organization for archivists living in the Southwest, but as an organization for anyone who supported archival work in the Southwest, regardless where they lived or whether they were professional archivists.

Fairly quickly, SSA found itself with members in Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Nigeria, South Korea, and Madagascar. As long as someone was interested in archival work in the American Southwest, and as long as their dues check cleared the bank, SSA welcomed them as a member.

Trading membership lists was a simple way for archival organizations to cooperate, but it was also a way to begin ending SSA’s isolation from the larger archival world. Just as it solicited MAC’s members, MAC solicited SSA’s members and SSA leaders wanted SSAers to join MAC, or MARAC, and especially SAA and ARMA. They wanted SSA members exposed to other organizations and other archival traditions, because that’s how people learn and grow.

The SSA leadership repeatedly hammered the point that if you’re a professional archivist, joining only your regional is never enough. One hallmark of being a professional is taking a responsibility for the profession as a whole. SSA was never in competition with SAA; instead SSA’s leaders always portrayed SSA and SAA as complementing each other.

Using these methods, the Society of Southwest Archivist’s membership increased by almost 600% in two years. That had immediate implications.

With more members, SSA needed a better newsletter. “The Southwestern Archivist” grew in size from 16 pages to 36, 48, and occasionally 52 pages.

With a larger and more international membership and larger newsletters, SSA could sell advertising to national, not just local, vendors. The money from advertising wasn’t as important as the credibility advertisers brought. SSA sold Metal Edge West (now Hollinger Metal Edge) its first advertisement in a regional newsletter. If Metal Edge considered SSA important enough for its advertising dollars, then you should advertise with us too, and you should join us and become part of SSA.

More members meant SSA needed a more professional annual meeting. More people competed to present papers, and so the number and quality of meeting presentations increased.

And, with more members, SSA could guarantee a certain attendance at its annual meetings. That allowed SSA to sell booths not just to local or regional, but also national, exhibitors. We sold Metal Edge its first booth at a regional meeting. That company’s claim to fame and fortune is that it, almost alone among national vendors at that time, would exhibit at regionals, and it started down that path because of its positive experiences with SSA.

Other national vendors quickly followed Metal Edge’s example, and after exhibiting with SSA, began exhibiting with other regionals as well. Fairly quickly, regional meetings across the country became venues for national companies.

Another implication of a larger membership was that the society needed to upgrade its education program. For that it turned to SAA. SSA’s leaders insisted that for every SAA workshop held in its region, that SAA notify us about it well in advance, that they list SSA as a co-sponsor on all promotional materials, and that SAA give SSA’s members a discount.

SSA’s leadership arranged for SAA to hold as many workshops as possible in its region because it considered them a benefit for its members. If SSA, as a small regional, didn’t have the expertise to create and host major workshops, then it could instead harness SAA’s expertise and SAA’s educational staff, thereby turning SAA’s workshops into an SSA membership benefit.

It saved SSA’s members travel costs and gave them access to state-of-the-art training, while allowing SSA to use SAA’s services as promotional tools, development tools, and as membership benefits for its own members.

Because SAA advertised its workshops in the Southwest nationally and internationally, and because every advertisement for an SAA workshop in the Southwest said “co-sponsored by the Society of Southwest Archivists,” workshops in the Southwest also increased SSA’s national prominence. That national attention was important for several reasons.

One problem with regionals is that they can be used as an excuse or a justification for looking-inward, turning inward, and withdrawing from the larger archival world. At the time, MARAC was famous – or rather, notorious – for that.

MARAC in the 1980s never missed a chance to proclaim that MARAC membership was all any archivist needed and joining SAA was a waste of money if not an act of treason against your region. That is, MARAC publicly acted petulant, jealous, and hostile toward SAA in a juvenile, almost oedipal kind of way.

The Society of Southwest Archivists’ message was exactly the opposite. It was crucially important to SSA’s leadership to always state loudly, clearly, and forcefully that SSA and SAA never competed; instead, they complemented each other. We believed it was in everyone’s interest – SSA’s, SAA’s, and the profession’s – for as many SSA members as possible to belong also to SAA.

SSA’s membership committee therefore created the first joint membership development campaign between the Society of American Archivists and a regional. As part of sharing membership lists with SAA, we arranged for SSA members to be able to join SAA at a discount. The membership committee kept records of which SSA members belonged to SAA and if they didn’t, it sent them a letter outlining the benefits to them of joining SAA along with an SAA membership form; likewise, every new SAA member from the southwest received a letter about the Society of Southwest Archivists.

SSA’s leadership didn’t have to talk SAA into this. Donn Neal was SAA Executive Director at that time and he was delighted that SSA was interested. SAA’s dues structure was much simpler than it is today (a joint membership campaign might not even be possible today), but it was a way to distinguish SSA from less collaboratively-minded regionals. It created a distinctive national identity for SSA as cooperative instead of competitive and it strengthened the connection between SSA and the larger archival profession through mutual cooperation that benefited everyone.

SSA’s leaders then began placing SSA members on SAA committees. Typically, there’s not a lot of organized interest in SAA appointments; one person may ask to be on a committee, but that’s usually just one person’s voice. SSA would arrange for two or three people to write letters suggesting someone, and if the same person were suggested by two or three people in writing, that person’s appointment was almost assured.

The same was true for SAA elective office nominations. Before SSA began this campaign, few SSAers had been nominated for an SAA office. Again, the membership committee would select someone it thought should be on SAA Council and write letters to the SAA Nominating Committee.

The SAA Nominating Committee was delighted because SSA greatly simplified their job. It’s often difficult to buttonhole people and try to get them to agree to run for office and come up with enough names to fill a ballot. SSA leadership gave the SAA Nominating Committee names of people they had already vetted and backed them up with three or four letters of support. The SSA members suggested were therefore almost always nominated for SAA positions.

SSA’s leaders did this because it wanted SSA members in positions of influence in the larger archival community. When discussions were held about national and international archival issues, we wanted a Society of Southwest Archivists’ perspective in the room. We considered it part of our job, part of the job of the leadership of any regional, to make sure that that regional’s interests and perspectives were heard at the national and international level.

SSA’s leadership also did it because they believed promoting our members was a basic membership service and a basic membership benefit. As regional leaders, they considered it their job to constantly push SSA members forward, to push their members beyond the borders of the Southwest’s region, out of the nest, to expose them to the larger archival world, to give them more avenues for contributing to the larger archival world, and by so doing, expose their members to a wider range of archival thought that would help them develop and grow as archivists.

Helping members grow as professionals – and as persons – is any organization’s single most important responsibility.

So, SSA suddenly became a national player; the major regionals were no longer just MAC and MARAC, but MAC, MARAC, and SSA. That was possible because of the new and creative ways SSA sought out cooperation with other archival organizations, especially SAA. That cooperation created the modern Society of Southwest Archivists.

But SSA’s innovations also shaped the larger profession.

  • The SAA’s key-contact program was inspired by the organization of SSA’s membership committee.
  • Joint membership programs were pioneered by SSA.
  • Regional co-sponsorship of workshops was pioneered by SSA.
  • National vendors supporting regional organizations was pioneered by SSA.

However, this is more than an example of success through cooperation and collaboration. It is also about creating new paradigms for collaboration that others then adopted. The Society of Southwest Archivists’ innovations are now common throughout the profession, but they had to start somewhere, and they started in the Southwest.

 


    Regional Archival Organizations: the MARAC Experience.

[Written by Lauren Brown , MARAC Historian, University of Maryland]

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) was born in June, 1972, at an organizational meeting  at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.  Its birth was part of a larger phenomenon that occurred that year, when several regional archival organizations sprang up across the entire United States.  I plan to explore some of the aspects of that development as it played out in the Mid-Atlantic region, talk a bit about current trends within the regionals, and then make some concluding remarks about the future of these associations.

The events of 1972 happened against a backdrop in which the Society of American Archivists (SAA) was perceived as expensive, often difficult to reach because of the need to journey long distances, predominantly attended by higher-level archivists, and not very much focused on basic workshops and sessions.  If archivists simply wanted to become better acquainted with other area archivists in their own region and deal with basic nuts and bolts issues, then attending small and inexpensive meetings close to home seemed to be a very attractive option.

Pages from Founding MARAC 1972_MARAC archives_Box 1, Folder 1 (2)
Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), Records of, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

In 1972 one could join MARAC through paying an annual membership fee of $2 and could attend the first meeting in the Fall, with meals included, for just $6.  While there was concern in certain quarters that the new regionals would siphon interest and membership away from the SAA, the leadership of SAA at the time was prepared to be supportive.  It provided a monetary stipend to MARAC to assist it financially—but in a gesture intended to demonstrate its independence, that stipend was returned to the SAA and not deposited by MARAC.

Let’s take a look at three key individuals who planned and hosted the original organizational meeting in 1972.  One was Mary Boccaccio, just recently hired by the University of Maryland as its first professional archivist.  She was only 26 and acutely aware of her need to acquire more professional training as she launched an archival program at the University.  But the two other “ringleaders” were seasoned archivists—Frank Evans, who published a definitive bibliography on archival literature and later served as a president of the SAA, and also Elsie Freeman Finch, who was already carving out a distinguished career specializing in archival instruction, advocacy, and outreach issues.  Elsie remarked at the time that she thought MARAC could become a very hands-on, participatory group drawn from mid-level and lower-level staff lines.  MARAC could also provide exposure to “beginner” workshops and more basic sessions while allowing young archivists to engage in committee work and take on leadership positions within the fledgling organization.

One thing that is curious with MARAC is that while historically it has always included a significant cadre of archival students and archivists new to the profession, it has at the same time attracted the interest of seasoned archivists such as Fred Miller, author of the first SAA manual on arrangement and description, Karen Paul, long-time archivist of the U.S. Senate, and Trudy Peterson, whose distinguished resume is too lengthy to recite here.  It seems that these “heavy hitters” in the profession simultaneously enjoyed and on occasion even occupied leadership roles at MARAC meetings while at the same time playing a prominent role at SAA meetings.  This discernable overlap in membership between this regional and the SAA seems to be a constant historically.

Another aspect that typified MARAC: younger archivists served MARAC in various positions and then moved into leadership positions in the national organization.  A good example of this is Danna Bell, who for two years was chair of MARAC and then later served as President of SAA.

One might ask why MARAC has continued to be a thriving, healthy organization.  There are a variety of reasons for this, including of course reasonable membership and registration fees, and usually short travel distances to meetings, but also I think there is a strong sense of collegiality, a sense that it’s relatively easy to get approval for session ideas at meetings, an opportunity to focus on regional concerns when needed, and to tour local area attractions.  Significantly, in the membership surveys that have been conducted throughout MARAC’s history, one can see that the membership has valued the high quality of sessions and workshops being offered.  This accessibility, I think, has been a key factor.

Founding MARAC 1972_MARAC archives_Box 1, Folder 1 1
Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), Records of, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

While there may be some who suggest otherwise, MARAC serves to complement and not necessarily compete with the work of the SAA.  It has certainly nurtured young professionals who have gone on to serve in the SAA and the archival profession generally in various capacities.  There are actually smaller organizations within the Mid-Atlantic region itself, such as the MARAC state caucuses (for each state within the conference) and groups like the Delaware Valley Archives Group and the Capital Area Archivists of New York.  In similar fashion, I believe these sub-groups have served to strengthen the profession.

I think a possible driver towards fragmentation of the archival profession in the United States and beyond, if that is a perceived danger, is the formation of national organizations focusing on a given archival specialty–to the point where certain members in SAA might elect to drop out and affiliate instead with that new national organization.  The Association of Moving Image Archivists might be an example of this trend, though it has been more pronounced in the library profession, with the formation of national organizations and annual national meetings catering to librarians in the field of law, music, medicine, and special libraries.   This particular trend bears watching.

I believe that MARAC will continue on in its current role as a key regional archival organization in the country—and will maintain its tradition of being an inexpensive and collegial venue for archival professional development, one that that nurtures and hosts significant leaders in our professional overall.  There are facets of the current organizational landscape that might evolve over the years; for example the SAA and the regionals might develop a more formal working relationship in coordinating the provision of archival workshops.  Perhaps also certain sub-regional groups in MARAC will take on more importance than is the case at present.  But I believe it is clear that MARAC as an organization will continue to prosper as well, for the reasons outlined in this paper.

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