SAA Conference 2015: Archives Saves Lives

“Archives Saves Lives” was the striking theme that carried through SAA’s yearly conference held this August at the Cleveland Convention Center. It was reiterated in the plenary sessions, on the clickable pens given out in the bookstore, and interpreted by members who were encouraged to fill in stickers reading “Archives _____ Lives” and place them on a wall. Though some may have been skeptical of this statement, after speakers Tom Owen of PGATV, Daniel Horowitz Garcia of StoryCorps, and SAA President Kathleen Roe had related their experiences bringing archives and people together, the statement might not have seemed that much of a stretch to some, including me.

This was my first time attending SAA’s yearly conference. But when I saw Kathleen speak at the plenary session that first day, it was not the first time I saw her. In fact, there had been a breakfast and meet-and-greet not an hour before, where SAA officers mingled with new members. Standing awkwardly with my coffee and fruit cup, a friendly woman came to introduce herself. I had no idea who I was speaking to until the hour was over and she took up a microphone to thank everyone. By that time, fortified with coffee and the knowledge that there were quite a few new members other than me, I had come to the conclusion that I might just enjoy myself.

And I did.

The Cleveland convention center was newly built, the weather was beautiful, and the days full of new things to learn and people to meet. My focus leans toward Instruction and Outreach, so I chose sessions that I thought might help me learn something. And though some of the grant-funded projects I heard about were not so universally applicable, I also learned about some very small, isolated archives that have really fantastic outreach projects. Some of the sessions I attended because I simply wanted to know more – like the debate on Postcustodialism I attended that Friday or a really interesting panel titled “Reading from the Crypt: Tales of Archives, Horror, and Dystopia”. Though not necessarily practical, it was encouraging to look at how archives are represented in dystopian fiction – and I added about twenty books to my reading list. I also was able to meet with other representatives from SAA student chapters all over the country. Aside from being able to set aside time to talk about the challenges and successes of our chapters, meeting other archives students and hearing about their diverse experiences was a learning experience in itself.

Aside from attending sessions and round tables, there were other spaces to explore what other archives professionals are doing, interact with them, and to work on personal career development. I enjoyed the many graduate student and professional posters displayed throughout the conference. Several times I audibly cried out at a poster that explained a project I was working on, or had wanted to do. Generally, if the poster’s creator wasn’t there, you could pick up one of their business cards pinned next to the poster. I also went to the career center, where I was able to post my resume, review job postings, and get some one-on-one time with a career advisor. The bookstore offered some great discounts on books that I had needed for class, and on topics I hadn’t seen published before – like archival exhibitions.

At the end of another long conference day, it was hard to get up the energy to attend the evening events, notably the reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But upon arrival, I didn’t regret the lost sleep at all. Not only were there three floors of desserts ranging from cake pops to popcorn, but we could wander the museum free of cost and spend some time chatting with the people we had met during the day. I also attended the UMD iSchool Alumni reception the following day, where I nibbled on shrimp and sipped a Manhattan while chatting with students and professors about upcoming classes, the sessions we had attended so far, and life in general. Again, well worth the lost sleep.

Though I came away from my three-day experience with a better understanding of Kathleen’s call to action “Archives Saves Lives”, I also came away feeling like I was part of a group that was working to make itself better so it could become a meaningful part of people’s lives. I highly recommend that students attend in the future – it’s expensive, but well worth it. Here are some tips from my own personal experience:

  • Go through the online schedule ahead of time and select what sessions you want to attend.
  • Download the schedule app. I didn’t and consequently did not know about some of the pop-up sessions and schedule changes.
  • Explore the city you’re in. Cleveland was beautiful, and one of my favorite experiences during my time there was dropping in to see the Special Collections at the Cleveland Public Library. They had some of their collections out just for us, and the curator gave us an amazing tour.
  • Beware the lunch gap. The schedule can make it confusing when there is supposed to be a break for lunch because there are some lunch sessions still being held. Plan accordingly.
  • Meet people. It can be hard to find something to say to someone, but make an effort and then find them later on LinkedIn.
  • I buffed up my LinkedIn and made business cards before going, but I made the most connections by tweeting or re-tweeting during the conference. It also forced me to think about what I had just heard.

Edith Sandler

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