Professional privilege: get uncomfortable
Any of you who attended Friday morning’s SAA plenary probably won’t be surprised to hear that I was less-than-thrilled with our newly-ex-president’s take on employment issues. The transcript is supposed to be posted soon, and until then I don’t think it’s worth commenting on the content of the speech. In the meantime, Archivasaurus put up a really great response post about privilege in the archives profession, including the responsibility of archives leaders to examine their own privilege when discussing issues facing the archivist community. Her perspective as a new archivist and current student is valuable, but to really address the topic, we also need to hear from someone on the other side, and that’s where I come in. Because my professional identity is so tied to SNAP and the new archivist community, most people don’t realize that not only am I not really a new archivist anymore, but that my experience as a new archivist did not include many of the inequities that SNAP and SNAP-minded people are fighting.
I think it’s only fair that I start out, like Archivasaurus did, with the advantages I had starting out in this profession. In addition to most of the ones she names, my parents took care of my tuition (yup, I’m one of those kids) and my worst-case scenario out of grad school was moving back into my old bedroom, not ending up homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. Although I was fortunate to land two paid internships, I was prepared both to take unpaid internships during grad school and, when I got out, to accept jobs that paid less than I would need to meet expenses. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, but I benefited from a safety net that many others new professionals don’t have.
I attended my first SAA as a new archivist, funded by my employer because I was giving a presentation, replacing an archivist who left the field abruptly for financial reasons. At the conference, I ended up meeting lots of archivists around my age, who were mostly students and recent grads, and who saw me as “one of them.” I quickly realized that my experiences were not typical for new archivists. I talked about this a little in the intro to my Post-SAA howl post. I didn’t use the word “privilege” at the time, but that’s the experience I was describing–becoming aware of the position I was in, getting uncomfortable, and not really being sure what to do about it.
I had a couple of options at this point. I could ignore all the stories that I was hearing, since they didn’t match my own experience in the profession and didn’t make me feel very good about myself or about my chosen field. Or, I could listen. I chose the latter. I spent a year listening, and when Kate Theimer said, “You need a roundtable,” I had a pretty good sense of what an SAA component group could do for new archivists.
Starting the SNAP Roundtable and becoming its first chair put me in the awkward position of leading a group fighting for things that wouldn’t benefit me directly. Better internships? I’m way past that point in my career. Moving beyond project jobs? The kind of work I do isn’t really done by project archivists, so again, not a personal concern. By the time I assumed the role of SNAP chair, I also wasn’t really even a new archivist anymore. I’d only been out of school for 3 or 4 years, but I had a FT permanent job and supervisory responsibilities. On top of that, I didn’t have to spend time on job searching or coursework. There is no way I would have had the time to devote to starting and building SNAP if I were a typical new archivist: unemployed, or precariously employed, or balancing grad classes with work and internships. SNAP’s steering committee has had much more turnover than other component groups, precisely because its members have these other more pressing responsibilities. The success I’ve had with the roundtable is directly related to my privileged position as a well-employed archivist.
Professional privilege means not having to think about how your words and actions affect those new to your profession, and that’s exactly what happened with SAA’s volunteer guide (which I’ve already written about at length, and which was mentioned in the plenary address that inspired this post). Since it wasn’t explicitly for or about new archivists, the authors didn’t consider how the guide would be read by new archivists. And instead of acknowledging this oversight, SAA went on the offensive, responding with a post that resorts to some pretty ugly stereotypes about new archivists and young people in general.
I’ve been there, you guys. It really, really sucks to get called out when you screw up. A few years ago, a blogger who writes about accessibility issues in libraries and archives tore me a new one for not including text with my comics, thereby rendering them unusable for readers with visual disabilities. Although I was offended by the tone of her post, and embarrassed at being called out so publicly, her criticism was spot-on. I couldn’t see beyond my privilege, as a person who navigates the world visually, to think about people who don’t. Instead of criticizing the blogger’s attitude, and the way she chose to express it, I reached out: how can I improve accessibility within WordPress.com’s limited interface? I never found an elegant solution, but all my comics from that point forward include text-based transcriptions, and I hope that they are truly more accessible.
When SAA’s Nominating Committee chooses candidates for leadership positions, they are instructed to “strive for a balanced slate in terms of gender, geographical area, types and size of candidates repositories, and professional interests.” Length of time in a profession is not a form of diversity that is considered in selecting candidates, and, based on my own experience leading SNAP and working with SNAP’s Council rep, I think it would be tough for a new archivist to make the time commitment that SAA Council requires. But, since new archivists are not represented among SAA’s leadership, leaders have a special responsibility to listen to the concerns of new archivists–yes, even when those concerns are not expressed politely.
My challenge to our incoming leaders is: get uncomfortable. Rethink your assumptions about new archivists, young people, and the job market. Consider the advantages you’ve had in your career, and the combination of hard work, innate talent, privilege, and pure luck that has gotten you where you are today. Listen to stories that make you cry a little; every new archivist has one. Use your power not to widen the divide–between new and experienced archivists, or between older and younger archivists, or between “us” and “them”–but to bring all of us closer together.