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Advocating for archives without (advocating for) archivists

November 9, 2012

Let’s play Jeopardy! Here’s an answer from a Q&A in a recent SAA publication:

“It is in the nature of archives to have backlogs—sometimes huge backlogs. And it is an unfortunate reality that archives are often understaffed. At a time when the volume of archival records created is increasing monumentally, it is common in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world for budgets to be cut and paid staff to be reduced.”

So…what’s the question? Perhaps something about the need to advocate for funding for archives? Maybe something about More Product Less Process, or efficient archival processing? Or something about prioritization when you don’t have the funding to do everything you’d like?

Well, if you guessed any of those, you’d be wrong. The right answer, for some definitions of the word right, is: “Why have volunteers in archives?”

On Wednesday, SAA released a new publication titled Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives. I was super excited when I saw the announcement, because the line between ethical and unethical volunteer programs is a fuzzy one, and we as a profession could use some guidance in this area.

Having read the thing, I would describe it more as a set of examples than a set of guidelines. The 90-page document contains 82 pages of volunteer project descriptions and sample forms and training manuals used in real-life archives volunteer projects. NARA uses volunteers to assist with research and reference. The Shelburne Museum has a volunteer who appraises photographs. The Indiana Historical Society volunteers find new homes for deaccessioned materials. Many, many institutions train their volunteers to process collections.

Readers may notice that a lot of these projects are not all that different from the kinds of work that entry-level archivists–when they can find work–typically do.

In answering the question, “What are some of the special challenges for volunteer programs at archives?” the volunteer guide dismisses the concerns of archivists who are wary of these programs:

“Not all employees at archives are supportive of volunteers in archives. There is a feeling among some staff, including supervisors and managers, that volunteers diminish the status of the archival profession. Some staff fear that volunteers will replace them and take away their jobs.”

If volunteers are doing the work of professionals in your archives, you should absolutely fear for your job. Why should your institution pay you to process collections or answer reference questions when someone else is willing to do it for free?

And why is my professional association endorsing this devaluation of archival work? I’m honestly at a loss here. Isn’t it in the best interest of SAA, which is supported by dues paid by professional archivists, to promote paid employment in the field?

In September, SAA President Jackie Dooley wrote a letter to the governor of Georgia in protest of the closure of the Georgia Archives to the public. Exactly the kind of response I’d hope for from our professional organization. But a few days later, when SAA cited this article on the effort to keep the archives open, they failed to address some important misconceptions about the role of professional archivists:

“Although Clayton State University, which is located next to the Georgia Archives, offers a master’s degree program in archival studies, Kemp said using student interns to keep the facility open is not a viable option. It would mean the secretary of state’s office would still have to pay security and janitorial staff to work.”

Archivist Jeremy Floyd, quoted on ArchivesNext, explains it best:

“So the Georgia secretary of state says professional archivists can’t be replaced by unpaid interns, not because they lack the training or expertise necessary, or that it would be exploitative of those students, but because ‘oh yeah we’re also firing the janitors and security guards that allow the building to stay open’. Maybe they can get unpaid janitorial and security interns, problem solved. Seriously, we need to eliminate the perception that budget shortfalls can made up for with volunteers and interns performing essential functions. Its not good for the interns, its not good for the archives, and its not good for the profession.”

It’s obvious to those of us working in the archives profession that you can’t have archives without professional archivists. But that news article out of Georgia shows the the danger of assuming that people outside the profession share this view. If you advocate for archives without advocating for archivists, you’re sending a message that the value of archives comes from the stuff, rather than the services.

I expect better from my professional association, and I think you should too.

52 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2012 11:07 am

    Rebecca, thank you for this post. In the days since ‘Resources’ went live and the outrage on twitter started, I’ve an unfocused unease about this publication. But I think you’ve really clarified the heart of the problem here.
    I think an important clarification is that I and other archivists upset about ‘Resources’ do not believe that there is no place for volunteers in archives, and we do not see every volunteer as dollars taken out of the pocket of a more deserving archivist. Instead we see a distinction between a volunteer program which is run ethically and benefits us all (archivists, users of archives, and volunteers themselves) and one which is exploiting volunteers undermining the value of our profession.
    So what would an ethical volunteer program look like? I don’t know that I’m the one to define it on my own, but I have a couple of thoughts.
    First we must differentiate between interns and volunteers. Interns (paid or unpaid) should be those in preparation to enter the profession (either considering archives graduate training, in the midst of it, or recently graduates) and we archivists should see these as people aspiring to join our profession. If we take on an intern, we have an obligation to provide that; which means an investment of resources to provide an experience rich enough to meaningfully contribute to their education. And internships should have a set term, so that at the end of that period the intern can look at the skills they’ve acquired and see her or himself one step closer to being a professional. If at the end of it, the archive can look at a pile of tasked accomplished, all the better but that shouldn’t be the primary motivation for taking on interns.
    Volunteers come to archives for a wider variety of reasons, and have different (but perhaps overlapping) motivations. Those motivations need to be considered. And also of consideration are the operations of your archive. Which of those things you do are essential, necessary, possibly legally mandated? Those are rolls that should be accomplished by paid professionals and staff. Now beyond that, everyone has a whole laundry list of projects we do, or would like to do if we only had the time. These things, if they line up with the skills brought to the table by volunteers are a wonderful opportunity for volunteer projects. And volunteers come with a range of skills, they are a wonderful asset to enhance our profession, to make what we do more visible and advocate for the importance of archives. We should appreciate all volunteers can do for us, not see them as a pool of untapped free resources.
    In short, a good judge of whether your unethically relying on the labor of volunteers is this thought experiment: Imagine one day all of the people you’re not paying stop showing up. Can you still accomplish the vital tasks of your archive? If not, you’ve got a problem.

  2. November 9, 2012 11:34 am

    Great post. There are similar ongoing arguments in the UK about using volunteers in libraries (current government policy is to encourage local councils to respond to savage budget cuts by closing council-run public libraries and to replace them with ‘community libraries’ run by volunteers). Librarians were very upset by the professional body’s statement on the issue, and I believe a review of the policy is now going on (see and There are a lot of similar issues about the replacement of paid, professional staff with volunteers, and, sadly, not enough recognition that professional staff have skills that make libraries work, and that without them the service will just not be very good.

  3. Brad H. permalink*
    November 9, 2012 11:59 am

    Welp, Jeremy basically said everything I was going to, but let me give it a shot anyway… As noted on Twitter, the failure of this document to draw a bright, clear line between “work appropriate for professionals” and “work appropriate for entry-level archivists” is pretty much the opposite of helpful. It is hard enough to justify the existence of archives and their levels of staffing to the powers-that-be (I’m not going to open the “Archives are a luxury” can of worms again, but I think most people can at least agree that archives are at least *undervalued* by most administrators), and if the perception is that paid work can be done for free, where does that leave the existence of paid workers?

    As I have said before here and elsewhere, I consider myself *very* lucky in terms of my career path. I was hired straight out of grad school to a position that is, if not an employee management position, then at least a program management position, so the professional status of what I am doing is mostly not in question. But a lot of the reason I was hired to this position in the first place is because I had a lot of archives experience in grad school– and a lot of that was volunteer work. There is a definite tension, particularly when archives trainees are involved, between giving volunteers work that is *appropriate* for their level and work that is *meaningful* for them. I had a little bit of both in my volunteer experiences, though for the sake of being able to put them on my resume I tried to agitate for the latter where I could. Looking at it from the other side, though, I can see why that tension can be problematic. At what point is the work that your volunteer is doing taking away from work that could be done by a processing archivist or other entry-level professional? In my personal case, the tension was mitigated somewhat because I generally only had about 10 hours a week to volunteer, which is no substitute for professional work– except when you only have funding for a part-time processing archivist, in which case it might be seen that way after all.

    This is sort of along the lines of the discussion Terry and I had a while back about what is appropriate work and career path for an entry-level archivist on this very blog. Back then I opined that requiring an MLS and the theoretical expertise that comes along with it was probably necessary whenever your position description involved broad-based, management-type work. I’ll go further here– with exceptions for short-term things like internships and fieldwork, whenever the job requires any sort of autonomous or semi-autonomous decision-making about appraisal, arrangement, description, or access, you should be paying whoever you get to do that work. To do otherwise invites substandard work and is a disservice to the profession as a whole. (Actually at UWM we err on the side of paying even our non-intern-level students for lower-level tasks, such as data entry and digitization QA, which is as it should be if your institution can afford it.)

    “There is a feeling among some staff, including supervisors and managers, that volunteers diminish the status of the archival profession.” Hmph. They feel it because it’s true, guys.

    • Laura permalink
      November 9, 2012 12:28 pm

      I think this points to how, in terms of interns and unpaid work, archives is sort of like the fashion world. No, you will never get a paying job at a fashion magazine unless you’ve been a lowly intern for awhile. However, 95% of fashion interns will never ever find a professional position, even if they were fabulous interns. The difference here is that at least fashion interns aren’t also wasting a ton of money on a Master’s of Fashion Magazine Science degree.
      Once again, we have to bring up the fact that library science schools (*cough*Simmons*cough*) keep admitting and graduating anyone with a pulse, regardless of the professional work available.

      • Lori Lindberg permalink
        November 14, 2012 12:40 am

        It is not the school’s responsibility to ensure there are jobs. The school’s responsibility is to provide training to whomever wants to be trained. I know that sounds callous, but it’s the truth. Why should any school stop admitting students when there are people who want to take the classes? The school’s responsibility is to teach you. It is not to ensure there are jobs.

        • Craig P. S. permalink
          November 14, 2012 10:45 am

          It is not the school’s responsibility to ensure that there are jobs BUT it is the school’s responsibility to have a realistic and honest outlook on the jobs market and the profession and to communicate that to students. Most schools have taken the NeoLiberal attitude of increasing revenue by increasing enrollment size, basically selling their degrees as a product rather than participating in the Commons activity of Education. The problem is not that schools aren’t ensuring that there are jobs, but rather that schools are saying to students that there are jobs where there are not so as to take in more enrollment. Also important to note that much of this enrollment pressure comes from Administrators above departmental level….

  4. Laura permalink
    November 9, 2012 12:02 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you! So many frustrating dimensions to this!
    One thing I’d like to bring up is that Simmons recently increased its advanced archives internship from 60 hours to 120 hours (and removed one elective from the degree program to compensate). Sixty hours was plenty of time to process a small collection, including encoding an EAD finding aid and making a MARC record. Making the internship 120 hours just gives the sponsoring institution more free work, and takes away from time that the student could spend learning other things like advanced technology, appraisal, and advanced preservation (areas which are all actually required in most professional archival job postings – unlike basic processing – but which Simmons still considers electives).

    • November 14, 2012 9:46 am

      As someone who’s completing their degree at Simmons right now, and in fact is in the middle of my 130 hour (and that’s how much it actually is – not 120) internship, I have many opinions about this. I think that the motivations of the faculty were very sincere in creating this new version of the advanced internship. If you read Donna Webber and Jeannette Bastian’s book about archival internships, they are very aware of the potential issues with interns being taken advantage of. And the internship program is very regulated here.

      THAT SAID, 130 hours is too much. I do agree with the advanced internship being separated from the Archival Access & Use class (it didn’t belong there, and students should have that class already under their belt before the advanced internship if they’re to get anything really out of it, imo). Giving students the chance to work some place for more than 60 hours is also a good idea. But something like 80 hours would be more appropriate. As someone who also works two (non-archives) jobs while attending school, it’s been pretty difficult, and I know for a fact some people have it much harder than me.

      I’d like to say that there is a role for internships that are regulated by a school, as long as they are vigilant about it, which Simmons largely is. I’ve gotten a lot out of my internship, and for the most part what I’ve learned at it is more valuable than what I’ve learned in all but a few of my classes at Simmons. Personally, I would like to see most internships be restricted only to these kind which are for credit and fulfill a part of a curriculum, with volunteer work regulated by the ALA. I think that would make internships do what they’re intended to do and not infringe on entry-level job prospects so much.

      Finally, to veer off topic, despite all the praise I’ve just heaped on Simmons for their internship programs, I also want to say: there are many, many things Simmons does badly on an administrative, non-faculty level, and for the most part I have a lot of contempt for them. They are the only game in town (not just town, but the entire New England region) for archives programs, except for UMass-Boston’s non-ALA approved History-Archives MA, and they know it. The amount they charge students is essentially criminal, and I suspect that courses are deliberately constructed in a way so that students have to take more than they need (why is Preservation Management and Collection Maintenance two classes? Why isn’t Appraisal part of Access & Use? Why are there three courses for Archiving and Preserving Digital Media, Digital Stewardship, and Digital Libraries, except that Simmons is trying launch a Digital Stewardship online degree and they need classes for these people to take? Why is LIS 488 so useless? Why, when students’ time is so precious, is learning spread so thin?). The new curriculum that’s being introduced in Fall 2013 is a big improvement, but not enoughof one.

      /end rant

  5. November 9, 2012 1:50 pm

    Here’s my question: What can SAA actually and effectively do to advocate for the increased hiring of Professional Archivists? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really want to know. Do we have any organizations to model our efforts on? (New Faculty Majority, maybe?) I know that a stated goal of the SNAP Roundtable is to push SAA in this direction. What can SAA and its members do besides writing letters?

    I don’t see how SAA can be an effective advocate unless it has a direct line of influence with the decision-makers who are deciding budgets and policies, and given that those decisions happen on such an individual level (university by university, state by state), how do we get the biggest bang for our advocacy buck?

    • November 9, 2012 3:43 pm


      That’s a question I’ve thought about for some time: what can SAA realistically and effectively do to advocate for more funding for archives (i.e. hiring more people). For me personally [disclaimer, disclaimer, not speaking on behalf of anyone but me], I’ve been disappointed not to see more done in this area. Part of the problem, may be that our “advocacy buck” is more like advocacy spare change. Which I don’t think means that nothing can be done, it just means it’s harder. We can’t just hire a bunch of professionals to do it. I can say that this is something I’ll be lobbying for when SAA is talking about establishing strategic priorities, but that’s a long conversation. Maybe we need a kind of strategic plan for advocacy? Sounds like a good project for Kathleen Roe & me to work on!

      • November 9, 2012 4:25 pm

        OK, here’s my huge disclaimer: I have not done “real” advocacy work and totally acknowledge that I may have no idea what I’m talking about. But is it possible for SAA make inroads with any organizations where “the decision makers” congregate? How does SAA bend the ear of the folks in the Association of American Universities, or the National Governors Association? Obviously there would be natural alliances for these examples, like working with ARL and COSA, but you get my drift…

        • Lori Lindberg permalink
          November 15, 2012 5:15 pm

          Not just public sector, either, Eira. I see so much of this in the private sector, it’s sad. IMHO, the public sector archivist has the law on their side in many jurisdictions (tho Georgia certainly gives pause) through Sunshine laws and Open Government legislation. The private sector is being ignored or is already conquered by those in records management who have effective scare tactic terms like “compliance,” “risk management,” and others. They talk in terms of real money at stake if they don’t maintain their recordkeeping. That gets the ear of the bean counters. Archives? Perceived as not a revenue generator, or worse, a money sink.

    • Greg permalink
      November 12, 2012 10:04 am

      One of the unfortunate problems with SAA’s advocacy efforts is that it just doesn’t have sufficient clout. The ALA has, essentially, pushed any archivist – certified or not – out of all college/university archives positions because it can. Since I’m not a librarian, I’ll let others argue over whether the ALA is a professional association, an advocacy group or a labor union. Put that aside, however, because it is only to illustrate our (archivists) problem. ALA has a huge membership and all of the library directors are from ALA accredited programs. Until SAA acquires this kind of clout, I believe there will be little or no ability to affect hiring/volunteer/internship decisions

      • Greg permalink
        November 12, 2012 10:22 am

        Umm, let me make that “any archivist without an M(L)IS” – othewise the archives would be a really lonely place…

      • November 14, 2012 12:57 am

        Greg, what if instead of fighting with ALA for resources, SAA just merged with ALA and formed a new organization? I think this would be mutually beneficial for several reasons 1) the fields are increasingly merging anyway 2) SAA would benefit by being a part of a larger, more established (i.e. more recognized) professional association 3) ALA would benefit by having more members and more reasons to justify their own existence I’m biased because I am both my organization’s only Librarian and only Archivist and refuse to pay 2 professional organizations and juggle competing conferences. I know I’m not the only one in this situation.

  6. Steve Ammidown permalink
    November 9, 2012 2:15 pm

    I keep thinking of the statistic listed for the National Archives- Nationwide, they have 3,000 some odd employees and 1,600 or so volunteers. I can’t grasp how an agency tasked with protecting the nation’s records can function efficiently if it has more than half as many volunteers as employees.

    I’ve been a volunteer at NARA- they’re lovely to their volunteers, and I always got the sense that they really appreciated the help. And no wonder- their budget is slashed to the bone, and they’ve had work culture issues int he past that I sense have made retention hard. And most of the gigs they give volunteers are repetitive, mundane things that require no previous knowledge, and had probably been on the bottom of somebody’s workflow for ages. And some of them weren’t and bordered on processing. While I’m super grateful for the experience I got, and it played a large part in me deciding to pursue archives, I can look back now and see where at the very least a project archivist might have done a better job.

    I wonder- would it be easier to advocate for archives at the highest levels if the people you were advocating to weren’t political appointees, as so often happens at state and national levels?

  7. November 9, 2012 3:24 pm

    As a small caveat about this particular publication – it is not actually titled “Guidelines for Developing Volunteer Programs.” It is more or less what it purports to be: a list of examples of volunteer programs of various stripes that a repository could use as a model for their own program.

    I, for one, would LOVE to see something on professional guidelines for (ethical! nonexploitative!) volunteer and/or intern programs. But with a scant “overview” that actually raises more concerns than it addresses, this publication is obviously not that. It would be great if the Advocacy Agenda for SAA was also focused on the needs of professionals, but their emphasis on advocating for resources never quite drills down to “resources to ensure that archives can sustain professional archivists.” Maybe that is something to get on the agenda for the future?

    Even then, of course, that would not answer the question that Eira asks of how SAA can effectively advocate to actually get the budget-making folks to listen.

    And a related question: as Eira points out, so many decisions are hyper-local to institutions – how common is a “Friends of the Archives” group? I know I’m a member of my alma mater’s “Friends of the Library” and my current employer has a healthy “Friends of the Library” program, but neither have anything specific to archives. It seems like the powerful tend to listen a little closer when the message comes from other powerful people.

    • Rebecca permalink*
      November 9, 2012 3:51 pm

      I would love to see SAA put out some true guidelines on volunteer programs, and I agree that that’s not what this document is intended to be. (My post is slightly unclear on this point.) I mostly take issue with the two statements from the publication that I cited here: that establishing a volunteer program can compensate for not having enough professional staff, and that fears about volunteers displacing paid staff are unfounded.

      • November 15, 2012 11:56 am

        Thinking big: these guidelines could be part of a free toolkit for developing internships/volunteer programs. NOTE: I haven’t read Bastian’s book, so this could all be in there. Ethics, labor questions, and advocacy could all be addressed in this toolkit. It could be crowdsourced or have a comment period (as Brad said in one of his posts). The resources doc in question could be included, but be contextualized by other resources so it doesn’t stand alone as the only resource available. However, that horrible line about workers’ fears could/should be taken out! They’re your colleagues, not shifty eyed wage slaves (my read on how that paragraph reads). I’d love to see both sides represented: managers and workers. This wonderful magical toolkit could have a section for volunteers/interns that would include things like volunteer/intern bill of rights, “how to advocate for your position or the position of others”, when to say no to a task, learning expectations, harrassement…..all things that you Rebecca, Lance and other have already addressed in posts and presentations. Though this won’t solve the type of systemic societal problems that Craig points out, it would show that SAA is at least thinking of these types of issues, and more importantly respects all its members/the profession. It would be a good start. There are plenty of people that would be up for the task of creating this document, if given the chance. Thanks for the post and keep up the great work, justice league!

  8. Craig P. S. permalink
    November 9, 2012 3:32 pm

    While I appreciate everything in the post here most certainly, I think the example of Georgia is related, but a bit tangential. Jeremy Floyd’s quote shows a disconnect, to me. Yes, the Georgia Secretary of State makes a tacit assumption that volunteers could do professional work, which is not just horrid but literally theft. But the decision in Georgia wasn’t just that “Archives staff are not valuable” or that “Open archives are not valuable” but rather that whatever cannot justify itself in terms of revenue or direct political power is not valuable. This is part of a larger Political-Economic problem which I’m sure at least some of you have heard me rail off on enough already.

    As Eira points out there are decision makers who are crafting budget and policy who are entirely clueless. Now, part of this can be addressed with advocacy and education about the nature of Archives and the nature of the work done in and with them. This is, I think, part of addressing the “volunteers just aren’t going to cut it” problem. However, as for the “volunteers are bad for LABOR” issues and larger budgetary issues where The Commons in ALL venues (not just Archives) are under attack from “austerity” measures, I do not think simple advocacy/education in re: what Archives are (how “powerful” they can be, you know the whole schpiel) is going to cut it. How to address this is far more difficult and complicated, but one good place I think to start is worker solidarity, the sort of thing blogs like this and (and groups like SNAP) are trying to foster in some way. SAA as a whole is going to take a lot of time (at best) to turn in this direction of actual solidarity and support for its constituency on a labor front so for now it’s possible smaller conglomerations and Roundtables are the answer. Personally I also feel that this is part of a larger struggle against austerity/NeoLiberalism/etc, the Georgia example makes this quite apparent though anyone working for a major University can likely look to the decisions of it Administration and see the same problems. There is a larger Political and Economic power-play at work here which it would behoove Archivists to realize they are a part of. This volunteer issue can be used to expose that.

    Finally, as for a very SIMPLE “what can SAA actually and effectively do”? Well, for one, NOT PRODUCE PUBLICATIONS LIKE THIS which not only take an unrealistic view of the situation but make suggestions which would exacerbate the problem. Beyond that it’s hard to imagine exactly how SAA could advocate for our rights as *workers* and professionals since, well, they’ve not done much of it.

    Oh also… This may get me in a bit of trouble but… I do believe there actually is NO place for volunteers in archives. In fact, I think even unpaid internships are tragic. Work should always be compensated. Yes, we currently work in situations where we may wind up with volunteers and/or interns who are not getting paid for their work and we should do our best to treat these situations as ethically as possible given the circumstances, but part of this fight is moving towards ending that, there is NO TRULY ETHICAL volunteer program. This is something we work towards or else I’m not sure our points even hold up. And this is not just an Archives issue.

    • Laura permalink
      November 9, 2012 4:18 pm

      Instinctually, I agree with you that there’s no place for volunteers in archives. But then I wonder how this compares to situations such as legal pro bono work or doctors who volunteer overseas. I do think there are some situations where a truly needy community needs help preserving its papers or else that record will be lost. But how do we draw the line between truly needy archives and archives that are just not properly run/funded? Also, I think one key difference is that pro bono work in other professions is still done by licensed professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) who almost always have full-time jobs in their profession or are retired.

    • November 9, 2012 4:33 pm

      Craig, I think you hit the nail on the head with your first two paragraphs. Another thing that concerns me is the idea that “Well if we just demonstrate to them how much we matter, they’ll get it! They just don’t understand how good we are for society!” is…. probably not totally based in reality. Obviously we need to show the worth of archivists and archives. But I’m truly concerned by the idea that if we just educate people enough, that will convince them of the value of what we do. You see this all the time with partisan politics in elections – “The only reason people didn’t vote for us is we just didn’t make ourselves clear.” Well, sometimes, sure. But other times, no matter how clearly you outline your message, it still might not work.

      I want to explore this topic more, but I’m afraid it will go down the “do people think archives are luxuries” rabbit hole, and I don’t want to be responsible for opening up that discussion…

    • Greg permalink
      November 12, 2012 10:11 am

      So what do I tell the the two retired ladies who asked to volunteer for a few hours each week in the archives because they wanted to? They like going through the yearbooks and matchhing names to faces in photographs. They don’t do anything that would happen if I had to pay for it (out of my budget). I’m always on the lookout for donations and grants that will fund little projects, but I funnel that work to students and volunteers that are really interested in history or archives. There is a culture of volunteerism (often referred to as “giving back”) in America that I think we risk damaging if we just say using volunteers is unethical.

      • Craig P. S. permalink
        November 12, 2012 1:32 pm

        “Culture of Volunteerism” should mean volunteering to help those who have been abused/downtrodden by the systemic problems in this country that force so many out, not this. Adopting the sense of “culture of volunteerism” into the Archives only exacerbates the problems. “Culture Of Volunteerism” in this sense is harm to both Archives AND that Culture

        Speaking to your very specific example: Oh yeah sure, take them on, this is part of what I meant by addressing problems realistically, but if you take on volunteers in an Archival setting while not advocating against budget cuts and constraints and not advocating for a time where volunteers wouldn’t be needed them I’m not sure…

  9. November 9, 2012 3:50 pm

    I’m really shocked to learn about that Simmons update from 60 to 120 hours. Hopefully their goal there is to weed out those who aren’t independently wealthy from the archives profession. Because I can’t think of another justification for doubling the required hours.

    • Lori Lindberg permalink
      November 14, 2012 1:20 am

      Wow! That’s quite a difference from ours. At SJSU the internship course requires 45 hours of work per credit hour attempted. 2 credits = 90 hours, 3 credits = 135 hours, 4 credits = 180 hours.

  10. November 9, 2012 4:19 pm

    As in the past, you’ve hit the nail squarely on the head, Rebecca. For our own professional association to say, “Not all employees at archives are supportive of volunteers in archives. There is a feeling among some staff, including supervisors and managers, that volunteers diminish the status of the archival profession. Some staff fear that volunteers will replace them and take away their jobs.” has me gobsmacked. Really?

    You only have to read SAA’s mission statement, though, to see why they put their shiny-new “Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives” front and center on the website. As for advocacy for us as Professionals, from the SAA website:

    • Advocacy: SAA serves as an advocate—in both government and public opinion forums—on behalf of archivists on such key issues as intellectual property, copyright and fair use, declassification or destruction of federal records, abuses of privacy and confidentiality, the Freedom of Information Act, and others that may affect archivists’ ability to function in a fair, professional, and successful manner. In addition, SAA works to improve and enhance public awareness of the importance of archives and archivists.

    This ‘Advocacy’ policy says nothing about a living wage or the financial responsibilities Archivists are saddled with and all too often are ill equipped to manage. How many Archivists have undergraduate degrees in history, art history or the like and a graduate degree in Library Sciences or History? Those are all fabulous subjects, but are completely meaningless when a University has to cut its budget 20% across the board and the person managing the Archives doesn’t have the skill sets required to understand the larger budget picture or how to cut the budget without eviscerating the department.

    I, too, believe there really is no place in Archives for volunteers. In what other Profession are unpaid volunteers allowed to work next to paid employees? I can understand internships, even ones that are unpaid, as long as those internships correspond to credit in an educational setting. That’s how I got my start as an Archivist. But I also came to Archival Sciences as a second career having spent 15 years in the Financial Industry. I stepped out of a 2 ½ year internship directly into a Consulting Archivist position, but only because my business acumen provided me with the foundation to negotiate appropriately for myself.

    What can SAA do? They would be doing the membership a huge favor if they supported Professional Archivists by providing Accounting, Financial Management and best practices in business environment resources, rather than ways for Institutions to create Volunteer Programs, which by the way, cost money that could be used to support interns. And, perhaps it’s time to re-think the Advocacy part of the Mission Statement so that it more directly supports the needs of its current membership.

  11. November 9, 2012 5:22 pm

    Agree with Jeremy Floyd on importance of not conflating interns and volunteers. Especially important in considering NARA, which operates within the Federal environment. You can read on its website about NARA’s “Pathways Program” which provides opportunities for students interested in archival careers.

    This publication about volunteers was intended to demonstrate how *some* archival institutions, NARA among them, use and benefit from volunteers. Aren’t guidelines (not prescriptive). Truly an “it depends” situation here, no cookie cutter or one size fits all answers.

    Volunteers need not be only students or people hoping to enter into a profession. At NARA some volunteers are retired agency employees doing knowledge transfer type assignments. (Fits with Obama administration’s handling of brain drain, suggested phased retirements, knowledge transfer and mentoring recommendations, etc.)

    A NARA retiree with over 3 decades federal service named Tim Mulligan is an example of one type of volunteer at thea agency. See the link for a press release about a product he compiled for NARA as a volunteer after retiring. Tim’s deep immersion in captured World War II era records, historian background, scholarship in having written several books on his subject speciality, and great command of written and spoken German key elements here. In combination they enabled him to contribute to NARA and its researchers beyond the time his paid public service had ended.

    An agency such as NARA looks at the situation with a contribution such as his as “how can we best serve the American public” (customers) during a time of budgetary constraints. Tim performed a service no new archives professional could have provided at the start of his or her career. So what he is doing (he still is a volunteer) is similar to professionals doing pro bono work in other fields. Part of workforce management is tapping, as appropriate, into the desire of former employees to continue to contribute in specialized ways.

    • Craig P. S. permalink
      November 12, 2012 1:42 pm

      I’m not sure I agree that the text is just examples and not prescriptive. It *is* prescriptive by way of examples. No, it is not saying “Get rid of your staff and take on volunteers” but it is certainly suggesting, particularly through its naivete (“Some staff fear that volunteers will replace them and take away their jobs”), that volunteers are an answer to budget cuts/constraints rather than, say, fighting budget constraints tooth and nail. This is not a strategy for going forward, it is a strategy of submission. As an organization that is supposed to be a Representative and Advocate for the professionals which make up its body, this is the exact opposite of what it should be doing.

      There is a HUGE difference btwn the “pro bono”* example you cite and the idea that volunteers can fill a void left by austerity and I do not accept the conflation of the two.

  12. November 9, 2012 5:36 pm

    If volunteers have no place in archives, what should those coming out of archival programs not able to find work do instead? A MLS with a internship isn’t always enough to secure employment after graduation, in some regions these jobs are highly competitive.
    I’ve spent years volunteering for my local government archives it’s affordable and easy to get to. I’ve been able to use the time there to earn my hours to become a certified archivist, gain solid practical experience, and meet great people who are now my references. It’s been a good experience for me. I should point out that their volunteer program is over 20 years old and their budget is public, I know my volunteering isn’t taking work from anyone else. I’m lucky I had the choice to volunteer not everyone does, without that choice I would have been forced out of this profession long ago.
    Yes, it would be great if I had a paid position these last few years but not doing anything while looking for that paid position isn’t going to help me find a job in the long run. I could point out that without my volunteering there would be gaps in my resume or that others are doing the same thing. I’m looking out for my own self interest even while knowing it perpetuates this overall problem. There is a expectation in this field that new archivists have to pay their dues, someone talking about this post mentioned privileged, I do see quite a bit of that in this profession. Until either one of these mentalities changes I don’t think any amount of advocacy will help matters.

    • Craig P. S. permalink
      November 12, 2012 1:48 pm

      The problem of volunteers in Archives should not be one for recent grads to face, but managers and those with jobs. Of course volunteers with the accreditation to be doing professional work should be advocating as well, but the onus is not on them alone nor should they be bearing most of the burden in this fight.

      You may find being a volunteer affordable. Unfortunately that is not the case for most people, especially those facing debt payments on top of everything else once Graduate School is over.

      The public budget is not proof that your work isn’t taking away from someone else because they have the excuse “We don’t need more budget for more paid positions because we make due with what we have by employing volunteers”

      ” There is a expectation in this field that new archivists have to pay their dues” is somewhat true, but we must murder this expectation if we want a more just profession.

  13. November 9, 2012 7:14 pm

    “If volunteers are doing the work of professionals in your archives, you should absolutely fear for your job. Why should your institution pay you to process collections or answer reference questions when someone else is willing to do it for free?”

    Volunteer A (at Workplace, The Former) works full time at a home improvement store and spends one of his days off processing collections simply because he enjoys it. He rarely comes in the same day of the week, two weeks in a row.

    Volunteer B snow birds in Florida.

    Volunteer C won’t come in whenever the word snow so much as appears in the forecast, and had to switch days because it was conflicting with Weight Watchers.

    Volunteer D goes off to visit grandchildren for weeks at a time.

    People who aren’t being paid don’t have enough of an incentive to show up often enough for any significant work to be done. That is why the archivist at Workplace, The Former does not fear for her job. She is in the building all day, every day, not to mention having more skills than all the volunteers put together. In order to finish projects, such as the one I spent four years on, the assistance of volunteers is invaluable. And an organization such as Workplace, The Former wants to make sure it is following practices used by other organizations. That is what makes the resource guide a good thing to have.

    Providing resources to make the best of a bad situation does not mean SAA is turning it’s back on entry-level archivists.

    • November 10, 2012 10:32 am

      And who manages all the Volunteers? The Archivist? How much time does that Archivist spend juggling workflow, volunteer issues, etc.? Again, there is a COST associated with that effort and unless Workplace, The Former is independently supported financially, wouldn’t those funds be better served being utilized by the Archivist for the Archives? How about hiring an Intern who can earn educational credit? Or an entry-level Archivist who needs the experience?

      I recognize that every workplace is different and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. But the tacit implication of the Volunteer Resource is that SAA supports and PROMOTES this idea. I can’t remember when I’ve seen SAA promote financial education to provide information to help Archivists protect the meager budgets many us are now working under. What about promoting ways we can survive while juggling three part-time jobs because we can’t find a full-time job that pays a living wage?

      As a seven year member of SAA, I can say that it was not until SNAP was created that I felt comfortable even discussing these issues. On the rare occasion they were brought up with those in the industry for 15+ years, there clearly was a slant toward the ‘it’s a calling, not a vocation’ mind-set. It is refreshing and wonderful to see the intelligent discourse happening (especially on Twitter, no surprise) about the changing nature of Archival Sciences. We may not all agree, but at least we don’t dismiss new ideas or each other.

      • November 10, 2012 7:10 pm

        Yes, supervision does take time away from the archivist’s work. There were interns as well, and I was the entry-level archivist. The organization has a volunteer coordinator, too. Unfortunately, the way the endowments are set up, money for staff can not be used for the collections themselves. I stand by my assertion that the guide is making the best of a bad situation. As I see it, SAA is not suggesting that a wealthy university (or similar) ditch its staff for volunteers. They are throwing a life vest to organizations such as mine that have a backlog (my project wasn’t even supposed to touch new acquisitions), limited grant funding, and a deadline. Perhaps I’m naive.

        • Rebecca permalink*
          November 11, 2012 4:52 pm

          No, of course SAA is not suggesting replacing paid staff with volunteers. And Resources does remind readers that volunteers need to be supervised by skilled archivists. But I really do think this document encourages archives to consider using volunteers when they don’t have enough paid staff, especially for processing–the kind of work that entry-level archivists typically do. As I said in my initial post, it acknowledges the fear that volunteers pose a threat to paid staff, but doesn’t address that fear, or provide advice for volunteer program managers on how to defend volunteer work to their staff. If the argument for paid staff over volunteers is that paid staff have to work regular hours and volunteers don’t…well, I’ve seen job postings for volunteer archivists that require regular hours and don’t include a salary. (Ben wrote about one a while ago on this blog: .)

          I’m not putting blame on any individual volunteer program (including the ones I cited here), just like I wouldn’t blame a recent grad for taking a job with an embarrassingly low salary so she can pay her rent. We do what we have to do to survive. And it’s absolutely possible to have an archival volunteer program without devaluing the skills of professional archivists. Unfortunately, this document doesn’t provide any guidance for how to do that.

    • November 10, 2012 6:54 pm

      I’d be more forgiving of SAA if it wasn’t for its continuing inaction/silence on the issue. If there was action and advocacy for the profession’s future (and really, that’s what the labor issue is all about), then papers like this would be acceptable. Instead, we have years of SAA doing nothing for fostering development, but explicitly supporting a reliance on free labor.

      SAA should be supporting innovation, where new professionals can shine. SAA should be supporting development tracks, where aspirants can come out with a real hope of employment. SAA should be fighting entrenchment, so that the profession has a real future. SAA should be supporting inclusiveness, so that those with The Urge can best direct it (even outside photos and MSS). Instead, we get nonsense like this. That’s why it’s problematic – it pushes exactly the wrong solution to real problems without even addressing that they exist.

      I’ve said this before – SAA is less a professional organization and more an Archivists’ Club. Functioning organizations don’t watch their profession get hollowed out while standing silently.

      • Craig P. S. permalink
        November 12, 2012 1:51 pm

        This is my favorite comment on this post.

  14. Anne Foster permalink
    November 13, 2012 9:51 pm

    No one seems to have realized that a volunteer program can itself be successful advocacy. At my archives, volunteers come because they love the larger institution/place and they want to spend time helping that place succeed. Most are retired professionals, but few have any archives, library, or research experience. Getting them to spend their volunteer time in our department, though, is a way to reach out to non-archivists and help them learn more about what we really do. These volunteers then go back at night and talk with volunteers in other departments, spreading the word. Some have connections to the current administration, so they can advocate for us to the very folks we want to reach. Over time, we are building a cadre of supporters distinct from either archivists or researchers–the coveted “general public”.

  15. Heavens to Murgatroyd permalink
    November 14, 2012 8:57 am

    I appreciate SAA for doing this publication. Sometimes we need more of that “how we did it good” stuff. Practical, technical, process oriented. It is a tangible resource that I can use as a professional archivist and manager to further the success of my repository. My success is judged first by my supervisor and employer, then by the profession. As a member I would rather see SAA producing more such practical resources that I can use rather than screaming into the void about pay and employment.
    Rebecca said this at the end, implying that the message should not be: “the value of archives comes from the stuff, rather than the services.” Most archivists would be dismayed if this was put to a poll. Volunteers, donors, resource allocators, and the general public all think its about the stuff. You as an archivist may think its the value added service, so yes, that disconnect does make it a calling. Perhaps realism is in order.

    • Craig P. S. permalink
      November 14, 2012 10:51 am

      “screaming into the void about pay and employment” … We’re trying to figure out ways to advocate for more equitable pay and employment, not screaming into a void. Such dismissal is not just unwarranted, but also part of the problem.
      Just because the non-Archivists may think it’s about “the stuff” doesn’t make them right. Realism means advocating against that, which is what Rebecca was doing.

  16. Rebecca C. permalink
    November 14, 2012 1:11 pm

    Great post and comments. I only wish I could forward this to my boss, who in answer to my plea for additional staff suggested I recruit additional volunteers to my existing core of 15.


  1. SAA volunteer program resource guide | Laura DeMuro
  2. Benefits of their collective expertise | NixoNARA
  3. It’s easy to be comfortable | NixoNARA
  4. Hanging Together | Off the Record
  5. My next job is going to be bunghole inspector. No one is going to do that for free, right? « You Ought to be Ashamed
  6. STFU or. . . . ? | NixoNARA
  7. Advocate me this | NixoNARA
  8. Wading into that Volunteering Debate | May Subdivide Geographically
  9. Professional privilege: get uncomfortable | You Ought to be Ashamed
  10. The Great Internship Debate: What’s Next? | Archivasaurus
  11. Archival Advocacy: Canada and Abroad | Krista McCracken

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