Interpreting the results of this year’s SAA election

Originally published on LinkedIn on April 26, 2021.

As you may remember, back on April 18, I wrote a post analyzing the candidates in the running for SAA positions. Today, as I learned from a post on here, and a subsequent press release, six of the people I voted for won, as I noted in a post on here. Almost 18% of the SAA members participated, which is pretty great, I suppose. Let me go through each of the candidates and explain who won, and why it matters.

Vice President of the SAA

As I noted in my post on April 18, the Vice President of the SAA sits on the SAA’s governing council. Terry Baxter, who is Vice President-Elect, argued that white supremacy in the archives world of the US is not openly shown, and called the embrace of neutrality and ambivalence toward “direct action is just as corrosive and dangerous,” going onto say that until white supremacy must be “burn[ed] down,” the SAA will not be open to all members. He also called for continued remote access to the annual meeting, providing ways for connection through “organizational change and…member support,” opportunities to use Zoom to break down barriers among “members, other archivists, and archival organizations.” He also called on the SAA to work with other organizations, advocated for the cancellation of all student debt and supported a restructuring of dues on an income basis, and continuing, and expanding, the Archival Workers Emergency Fund.

While all of those things impressed me, and are something I support, I voted for Erin Lawrimore instead, as she is the blog editor for the Accessibility and Disability Section (ADS), eliminated unpaid internships from the Job Board when on the SAA council before, called for the SAA to use an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework to acknowledge “current and past wrongs,” said that saying rightly that archival work and archives are never, and are not, neutral, saying the current broad SAA Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion should be changed, and also called on improving the SAA’s current Strategic Plan through the development of an action plan focused specifically on “anti-racist and anti-oppressive action.” She also said that archivists should reckon with their role in sustaining White supremacy. Perhaps people thought that Baxter had more solid ideas than Lawrimore, or maybe because she seemed more institutional (in the sense she was already a part of the SAA Council). I supported her because of her role in the ADS, which is “committed to being an inclusive community for people with disabilities and allies to learn from each other” (and more), and her position in wanting to change SAA plans and statements, even though his ideas about dues would actually be helpful to someone like myself, as I could avoid paying more dues. However, a victory for Baxter is still positive for the SAA, as it could move the SAA forward in a positive way, based on Baxter’s proposals, although it is unfortunate that a White man will be in the position rather than in a White woman. Hopefully, Lawrimore continues to push for her changes by working with Baxter.

Baxter will begin his one-year term as Vice-President this August and will become SAA’s 77th president in 2022–2023. He will replace a White woman named Rachel Vagts, current president of the SAA and Manager of Special Collections and Special Collections at the Denver Public Library. Vagts has, as noted by her alma mater, moved “educational offerings and annual meetings to virtual formats and adjusting the budget to avoid employee layoffs,” and is having conservations on systemic racism, and “organized a successful members-driven fundraiser for archival workers in pandemic-related financial challenges.” She is currently part of a committee searching for a new executive director.

Treasurer of the SAA

There were three candidates for this position: Sharmila Bhatia, Audra Eagle Yun, and Todd Welch. Treasurers are officers on the SAA Council. Bhatia, who is the Treasurer-elect, who will take her position in August, and her term will continue until the 2024 Annual Meeting, is Indian America, saying that there should be increased diversity, including encouraging college and high school students to be archivists. She also noted repositories have more collections on White people than LGBTQ or ethnic/racial minorities, a barrier to diversity in the progression, some sources inaccessible due to bad description, and hiring managers not recognizing their own biases when promoting or hiring non-White candidates. She further argued for holding an online forum named SAA Financial Outlook every year, called for more meetings and forums on topics like SAA’s finances, and short articles on SAA finances throughout the year on various platforms.

As I noted in my post, Yun had some similar ideas to Bhatia, and also said she would expand existing work, look to the SAA Foundation, continue the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, and learning from peer associations. Welch, on the other hand, said he would use his experience as a past treasurer for the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA), with graphics on financial topics, and creating a “series of reporting platforms” that showed the links between “key expenditure lines and specific examples of activities, actions, or products that the funding made possible.” While I called both of them strong candidates, like Bhatia, I said that a vote for Bhatia would be a vote to “make the organization more diverse, as she…mentions the predominance of White records in archives, something else that none of the other candidates mentioned,” and called her best positioned to be the treasurer.

Members of the SAA Council

There were six candidates for the SAA Council, the SAA’s governing body. They were Michelle Ganz, Jasmine Jones, Dominique Luster, Teresa Mora, Tonia Sutherland, and Kelly Wooten. Jones, Luster, and Sutherland were elected and will serve three-year terms beginning in August 2021, with their terms ending at the 2024 Annual Meeting.

Rather than naming all the ideas of the candidates, like Ganz, Sutherland, and Wooten, I’d like to highlight what the three women who won will do for the SAA going forward. Jones will push an “anti-oppressive, equity-centered approach,” to tackling DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) which centers marginalized people, recognizing our biases, and engaging with membership on the “impacts of systemic oppression or exclusion” carried explicitly or implicitly in the SAA and the profession. She also will push for more diverse leadership, embedding inclusion and equity within the framework of the SAA, and identifying where the SAA’s leadership can be more transparent on decision-making. This all while working with SAA members and groups to ensure continued growth and sustained improvement of the SAA as a whole. Luster, on the other hand, calls on the profession to be resolutely anti-racist and anti-oppressive, to believe in equity, inclusion, and diversity. Furthermore, she said the Council should more directly embrace, and celebrate diverse individuals in the archival field, and says she will work with SAA members to advocate for “fair and forthright acknowledgment and compensation to the contributions we make in a complex social network” across society as a whole. Sutherland will ensure that change in organizational and institutional cultures is supported by leadership. While recognizing biases, she says she believes in the power of collective action and community. She will bring perspectives from those newest to the profession, especially those advocating on behalf of the “most vulnerable and those who live in the margins of American society” and defending memory work.

I hope that Ganz, with her idea for “multiple pathways to SAA membership and participation,” having the public be “as excited about archives” as archivists, and new programs to “help archivists and potential archivists learn to advocate for the profession” works with the SAA Council, especially someone like Sutherland, to ensure that her thoughts and perspective is not lost. The same goes for Mora, who advocated for educating the public on “the nature and significance of our labor and…advocate for archivists as workers,” including a living wage for archivists, ethical and equitable hiring practices, and Wooten, who argued for “meaningful actions, sustained work, and significant changes that demonstrate ongoing commitment by leadership to dismantling white supremacy.” She also wanted to have ways that online technologies can support “interpersonal engagement in our programs,” along with other ideas, something which she could work with Baxter, the Vice President-elect, on, for sure. So, I am glad that Jones, Luster, and Sutherland were elected. It says something about the SAA membership that they were chosen.

Members of the SAA Nominating Committee

There were six candidates. Alison Clemens, Angel Diaz, and Dave J. Moore were elected, with Diaz receiving the most votes and becoming the committee chair. The committee will also include two third-year Council members selected by the Council at the May 2021 meeting. This replaces those who currently serve on the committee: Helen Kim (chair), Itza Carbajal, Valencia Johnson, and Council members Petrina Jackson and Ricardo Punzalan. This committee is “responsible for creating the slate of candidates from which SAA’s elected leadership will be determined” as I noted in my last post. While I am glad that Clemens and Diaz were elected, I am a bit disappointed Moore was elected rather than April K. Anderson-Zorn, the latter who even got an SAA Foundation grant to “create Wikipedia pages for underrepresented archivists,” highlighted the importance of growing LGBTQI+ collections, and helping “all underrepresented students and colleagues,” adding that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) members need to lead SAA. Compare this to Moore, who says the SAA should be actively anti-racist, calls for involving BIPOC voices, and argues that nothing can be achieved by “maintaining the status quo,” with a call for diverse people to lead the SAA in the future. Perhaps his strident, strong beliefs are why people supported him, although I see it as an unfortunate loss that Anderson-Zorn was not elected because her focus on growing LGBTQI+ collections may not be part of the agenda. I wish Moore, who says he “can’t wait to roll up the sleeves and get to work with this fantastic group of folks” can make positive changes for the SAA.

I am glad that Greg McCoy, a corporate archivist, who claims he is on a “constant journey to challenge my perceptions, to make myself uncomfortable, to realize my unconscious biases,” and calls for “decreasing structural racism,” increasing overall awareness of BIPOC history among all SAA members, encouraging them to “move from being passive supporters to active allies and advocates,” did not win. I don’t believe that someone like him will bring diversity to the SAA. There needs to be someone from a public institution on the committee, rather than for a corporate entity, as that will increase the continued creep of financial market-based ideas into the archival realm. I’d say the same for Seemiller, who called for an “equitable environment where BIPOC archivists feel valued and welcome,” and for more “guidelines for conducting a diversity audit” along with additional resources. As I noted elsewhere, her claim that most White archivists are “ready to dedicate themselves to doing the work to help make our workplaces and collections more equitable and look to SAA leadership for guidance” is short-sighted and naive, as it forgets how White the archivist profession is. As I wrote, “Who is to say that all White archivists will automatically become anti-racist? That seems an absurd proposition. Being anti-racist takes work.” I still would say this is an accurate statement.

I am overjoyed that Clemens was chosen because, as I noted in my post, “she is the only candidate to talk about transphobia and ableism,” and Diaz argued that DEI is “an active process.” I hope that McCoy, who argued for increasing overall awareness of BIPOC history among all SAA members, continues to push for that idea.

That’s all for this post and as always, comments are welcome!

© 2021-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

SAA elections and why they matter

Images from top of e-ballot form and SAA website (

Originally published on LinkedIn on April 18, 2021.

Once again, the SAA (Society of American Archivists) is holding elections, like they did last March, but this time for Vice President/President-Elect, Treasurer, Council, and Nominating Committee positions. In this post, I’d like to go through each of these decisions and explain my rationale for voting for each one of these candidates as an SAA member.

There are two candidates for the next Vice President of SAA, a person who sits on the SAA’s governing council, which I’ll talk about more later in this post. One is Terry Baxter. He notes that he worked ten years at the state archives, then at Pacificorp for two years, and worked at Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon as an archivist for 22 years, and then at the Oregon Country Fair as an archivist, joining the SAA 21 years ago. Apart from this, he argued that while white supremacy in the archives world of the US is not openly shown, its “persistent embrace of neutrality and its ambivalence toward direct action is just as corrosive and dangerous,” citing the example of the SAA leaders rejecting endorsing the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials in 2008 and taking ten years for that to happen. He also made the point that White supremacy within the SAA has obstructed “full participation of members, especially BIPOC members,” and says that SAA will never be fully inclusive until “we burn down” white supremacy. He argues that remote access to the annual meeting should be allowed, says that SAA should commit to “providing equitable connection through both organizational change and through member support,” and said that there are opportunities for SAA to use Zoom to break down “barriers among members, other archivists, and archival organizations.” Powerfully, he said that the SAA should work with other organizations, openly advocating for cancellation of all student debt and to support a restructuring of dues which “reduces or eliminates dues for some of the lower tiers and increases dues for upper tiers,” along with continuing the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, trying to expand it whenever possible.

The second candidate is Erin Lawrimore. She works as a university archivist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, joining the SAA in 2001, and is currently the blog editor for the Accessibility and Disability Section (ADS), even serving as a member of the SAA Council from 2016 to 2019. During her time on the council, they eliminated unpaid internships from the Job Board, gave section leaders direct access to a small pool of funds, endorsed the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, and stated that many of the initial criticisms were rooted in White supremacy while shining a “spotlight on archivists and archival projects that challenge traditional historical narratives and use archival resources to support justice initiatives.” She also says that she has various roles where she uses her role as a university archivist to “support the work of small, underfunded archives,” adding that an organization is inclusive when it uses an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework to acknowledge its “current and past wrongs and to actively ensure historically marginalized communities have the power to make and influence decisions,” not hiding past harms, and to do reparative work, fighting against systems that perpetuate oppression, as she describes it. Lawrimore goes further in saying that archival work and archives are never, and are not, neutral, saying there is value in learning a fuller history, “acknowledging how and why these histories were hidden,” which includes the role of archivists in “contributing to historical marginalization and erasure.” In response to the nominating committee, saying the current broad SAA Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion defines often allows us to “skirt around candid, necessary discussions” about White supremacy and says the SAA’s current Strategic Plan can be improved through the development of an action plan “focused specifically on anti-racist and anti-oppressive action” with specific and measurable actions the SAA can take toward dismantling White supremacy. After explaining her work on the SAA Council, she said that an actionable plan focused on dismantling the legacy and impact of White supremacy on SAA and profession “would serve as a clear message to guide us across all decisions,” and said that committing to the development of this plan would allow the SAA to readily and center “questions of accessibility and inclusivity” in organizational decisions and in Council meetings. She concluded by saying that archivists should reckon with the role in sustaining White supremacy, identifying and giving language to that White supremacy, and then the SAA can, in her words, “attempt true reparative action and move toward becoming a genuinely inclusive organization.”


This was a hard decision to choose between Baxter and Lawrimore. Baxter mentioned abolishing student debt, restructuring dues that would reduce dues for those earning less and increase dues for those earning more, keeping the Archival Workers Emergency Fund (AWEF), using Zoom to break down barriers. While Lawrimore doesn’t mention this, she makes a strong statement against racism, White supremacy, and in favor of inclusion. As the editor of the ADS blog, she is undoubtedly aware of the value of Zoom, and AWEF. While student debt is not mentioned, addressing it would fit within the ADS’s Community Values. So, I’d have to say that Lawrimore is a better person for the position of Vice-President/President-Elect than Baxter and I voted for her, as a result. If elected, she will “serve a one-year term beginning in August 2021 and then will become SAA’s 78th President in 2022–2023.”

There are three candidates for Treasurer (an officer on the SAA Council along with the President, Vice-President, along with nine other non-officer council members) who, if elected, “will serve a three-year term beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting,” specifically Sharmila Bhatia of the National Archives, Audra Eagle Yun of University of California, Irvine, and Todd Welch of Utah State University. Bhatia, an electronic records format specialist, described herself as a “minority among minorities” as an Indian American, and said there should be an exploration of increased diversity, encouraging college and high school students to be archivists. She said that the lack of representation of diverse communities within archival repositories is a big barrier to diversity in the archival profession, with repositories having “extensive holdings of white communities,” but not as many with racial/ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ communities. She then says that some archival sources are “inaccessible due to poor descriptive practices in the past” and that while there has been action to “discuss and take action to revise and update our appraisal or collecting practices,” language to describe holdings, and how access is provided, adding there are “gaps in our knowledge and practice” in a profession that isn’t diverse. Bhatia adds that another barrier is that hiring managers don’t “recognize their own biases when it comes to hiring and promoting non-white candidates,” saying managers should be looking for “people who are able to bring a different perspective or approach to the position,” rather than looking for someone who fits into the organization. She further argued that the SAA should, like it did last year, hold an online forum, “SAA Financial Outlook,” every year, and said that they should be “leveraging online platforms for more frequent short meetings such as committee business meetings and forums on targeted topics including SAA’s finances,” issuing short articles on topics about SAA finances on various sites and exploring new methods for membership engagement.

Yun has some similar ideas to Bhatia, whose work focuses on “community-centered archives partnerships, archival collection management, and feminist leadership.” She has, in the past, authored various publications, presented at various conferences, and served on the SAA Council from 2017 to 2020. She noted that while she is “part of a disproportionately well-represented group in librarianship and in the archival profession” (a cisgender White woman), she has been elevating “perspectives and expertise of those who have been marginalized in historical documents and narratives,” while aware of her own implicit bias, the existence of inequity, the “imperceptible pervasiveness of whiteness” in the archival profession, and says she recognizes her “positionality and power both as a manager and as part of a highly represented racial/ethnic group,” and says she would, as an SAA treasurer, apply an inclusive approach. She notes that the SAA is at a point of “necessary self-reflection and change following the appointment of a new executive director,” says that she would expand existing work, look to the SAA Foundation, continue the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, and learning from peer associations.

Then there’s Welch. He says he is dedicated to improving his “understanding and appreciation for diversity through outreach and engagement with diverse user groups,” with various professional commitments over the years, notes that he views his “personal and professional DEI experiences as a lifelong, evolutionary journey,” including working with the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest, the Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff, and the Hopi Placename Project. He further said that he would use his experience as a past treasurer for the Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA), using various graphics which would be posted on “the website, publications, and promotional materials sent to graduate school programs,” working with others to develop a “series of reporting platforms” that showed the links between “key expenditure lines and specific examples of activities, actions, or products that the funding made possible.”

Choosing which treasurer would be best for the position is even harder than the choice for Vice-President/President-Elect. Bhatia, Yun, and Welch are all strong candidates. However, I have to go with Bhatia, as a vote for her would make the organization more diverse, as she is Indian-American and mentions the predominance of White records in archives, something else that none of the other candidates mentioned. As such, she is best positioned to be the next treasurer of the SAA, so I have her my vote. If she is elected, she will serve a “three-year term beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting.”

Just as difficult is choosing the three people who will sit on the SAA Council, the governing body of the SAA. If elected, those three people “will serve three-year terms beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting.” The current candidates are Michelle Ganz of the History Factory, Jasmine Jones of the University of California, Los Angeles, Dominique Luster of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Teresa Mora of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tonia Sutherland of University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and Kelly Wooten of Duke University. Ganz says that she will “ensure that any conversations, forums, or educational sessions include implementable solutions” to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) problems and that her entire career has been focused on making “the archival profession and archival collections more diverse, inclusive, honest, and accessible,” including acknowledging the mistakes of the past. She also says there should be “multiple pathways to SAA membership and participation,” promising to make the Council workings as transparent as possible, and notes that while SAA has “always made room at the table for everyone,” more can be done. She further says that she wants the “public to be just as excited about archives” as she is, saying she will also help propose new programs to “help archivists and potential archivists learn to advocate for the profession.” That is something I fully, and completely, support.

What about Jones, Luster, Mora, Sutherland, and Wooten? Jones says she will push an “anti-oppressive, equity-centered approach,” to tackling DEI, including centering marginalized people, recognizing our biases, and engaging with membership on “impacts of systemic oppression or exclusion” that are carried out whether explicitly or implicitly in the SAA and the profession as a whole. She additionally says that “retaining, valuing, and advocating for our diverse membership and their responsibilities” is vital, as well as is “embedding equity and inclusion” within the SAA’s framework, identifying places SAA leadership can be more “open and communicative” on how policies and decisions are made. She even says she would be proud to work with SAA groups and members to “ensure a collective effort in continued growth and sustained improvement of the organization.” Luster says something similar. She calls the profession to be “resolutely anti-racist and anti-oppressive,” to believe in inclusion, equity, and diversity, including “reimagining new systems,” and believes the future of the SAA Council can bring forward must be “specifically anti-racist and anti-oppressive.” She goes onto say that she understands the role of the Council, says that the Council should be “more intentional about embracing and celebrating diverse individuals who come into this work and the various forms of knowledge they bring across society,” and says she looks forward to working with fellow SAA members in “advocating for fair and forthright acknowledgment and compensation to the contributions we make in a complex social network” across society as a whole.

Then we get to Mora and Sutherland. For Mora, she said that DEI means “empathy, ethics, and respect,” that she has experienced biases in her professional career as a Latina woman, and recognizes that archivists “hold significant power when it comes to what histories are told,” and said that SAA needs to examine and critique its past practices and understand how it has “wittingly or not, established barriers to participation.” She later said that it is important for the SAA to “educate the public as to the nature and significance of our labor and, in turn, to advocate for archivists as workers.” This means, she argued, that the SAA should be “at the forefront of lobbying for federal funding, ethical hiring practices, and a living wage for all archivists,” working with existing groups, regional organizations, and increasing the “public standing of archivists,” along with promoting “ethical (and equitable) hiring practices,” like a living wage, “recruitment and retention within BIPOC communities.” Sutherland, on the other hand, said that changing organizational and institutional cultures must have support from leadership while saying she believes in the power of collective action and community, even as she recognizes her biases. She also argued that the archival profession is undergoing a change from those newest to the profession, which includes engaging collectives and communities, “a willingness to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable and those who live in the margins of American society, and a fierce defense of memory work in all its forms,” arguing she wants to bring these perspectives to the SAA membership as a whole.

The final candidate for the SAA council is Wooten. She co-edited a book titled, Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century (Litwin Books, 2012), and writes about zines as a “source for learning about people’s lived experiences and as a mode of expression for anyone to tell their own stories.” She specifically says she wants to dismantle “white supremacy that historically and presently benefits” people like her “at the expense of others.” She defined words like diversity, equity, and inclusion, saying she bases her approach on a “feminist ethics of care, which values the feelings, experiences, and knowledge of others.” Later she says that statements in response to anti-Black violence by GLAM organizations “must be supported by meaningful actions, sustained work, and significant changes that demonstrate ongoing commitment by leadership to dismantling white supremacy.” She added that she wants to continue exploring the ways that “online technologies can support this kind of interpersonal engagement in our programs,” and work to incorporate creativity, social responsibility, and inclusion into “our work at every level as integral and essential, not as irrelevant, frivolity, or afterthought.”

That leads me to my recommendations. It is tough! Since I only have three people to choose from, I’d have to choose Jones, Luster, and Sutherland, because of their ideas and better able to move the organization forward in a positive direction. After all, Jones calls for an “anti-oppressive, equity-centered approach” which centers marginalized people, while Luster argues that the profession should be “resolutely anti-racist and anti-oppressive.” Sutherland talks about a change in the archival profession from those new to the profession (people like me) and says she wants to bring the perspective of those advocating “on behalf of the most vulnerable and those who live in the margins of American society, and a fierce defense of memory work” to the SAA membership. However, if Ganz, Mora, and Wooten end up becoming members of the council, then that would still be a win for those who wish to fight oppression and racism, although Jones, Luster, and Sutherland winning would be more of a positive in fighting those evils. If they are elected, they will “serve three-year terms beginning in August 2021 and running through the 2024 Annual Meeting.”

Last but not least are those running for the nominating committee of the SAA. This is the committee that is “responsible for creating the slate of candidates from which SAA’s elected leadership will be determined.” They are, specifically, April K. Anderson-Zorn, Alison Clemens, Angel Diaz, Greg McCoy, Dave J. Moore, and Jamie Seemiller. Anderson-Zorn is a university archivist who co-wrote, received, and recently concluded “an SAA Foundation grant to create Wikipedia pages for underrepresented archivists,” creating forty new pages in all, while publishing archives, volunteering, and serving on SAA committees. She said that she knows the archival profession “can be a powerful force for change when everyone is included,” the importance of growing LGBTQI+ collections, and helping “all underrepresented students and colleagues” while recognizing her privilege, seeking “archivists working to document underrepresented communities in unique and unconventional ways,” as part of the committee. She also says that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) members, need to lead SAA, and says that she will “support my BIPOC colleagues and those working to bring EDI to our repositories, our profession, and our communities.” Compare this to Clemens, who argues that her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion “pertains to how SAA can support archives workers,” arguing that the SAA itself has “an obligation to build and support a more racially and ethnically diverse profession” and notes that she is troubled by transphobia and ableism she has witnessed in the profession, with some people saying the profession has not been inclusive or welcoming for them. She adds that she hopes she can select “anti-racist candidates who will take an intersectional approach to lead SAA in this important work.” Apart from this, she argues that she takes “mentorship and leadership responsibilities seriously,” setting people up for success and be honored to use her “perspectives and experiences” on this committee. She goes onto say she wants to build a “diverse slate of candidates” on the committee, but that these candidates cannot do this work without “the support and labor of white archivists.” She further says she wants to “consider queer, trans, or disabled candidates, specifically,” and notes that there are inevitably going to be some changes in the future due to the retirement of the SAA’s Executive Director and hopes to serve a role in identifying leaders to meet current challenges in “service of our profession and its workers.”

Then we have Diaz. She argues that DEI is an archive process, and effort, that involves a “representation, acknowledgment and reparation of barriers, and an expectation of support and valuing of experiences and backgrounds,” recognizing we all have implicit biases and the value of having a “diverse slate of leadership that is reflective and responsive to the needs of our membership and the communities that archivists serve.” She goes onto say that the nominating committee should look for candidates who have a “demonstrated commitment to decreasing structural racism and making a more equitable workplace” and that we need to look critically at structures that have “allowed racism and inequity to thrive,” seeking candidates who are “willing to challenge norms.”

There are three more candidates. One of those is McCoy. He says that diversity in all its forms is the “most powerful way to unlock an organization’s capabilities and potential for greatness” and says that he is on a “constant journey to challenge my perceptions, to make myself uncomfortable, to realize my unconscious biases…to stand for what’s right and not simply expedient, to act positively to influence people around me and the organizations I’m a part of.” He says that every SAA member should see themselves reflected in the leadership, bringing their “fully authentic selves to their profession,” noting the role of the committee in “decreasing structural racism,” increasing overall awareness of BIPOC history among all SAA members, encouraging them to “move from being passive supporters to active allies and advocates.” He closed by saying that while he is not the vision of diversity and inclusion, allies and advocates are incredibly important, and he “aspire[s] to make equality and inclusion a reality for all SAA members” as a committee member.

Like McCoy, there is Moore, another White man. He notes the value of archivists in society, the importance of confronting his privilege and implicit biases, the power of storytelling, and the value of always learning more, bringing in people to the SAA leadership who are “willing to lead the tough conversations we need to have in order to progress,” saying the SAA should be actively anti-racist. He does note that White archivists should identify these issues and put in work to remedy them, including involving BIPOC voices, because archival collections “represent many voices.” He goes onto say that nothing can be achieved by “maintaining the status quo” and that the profession cannot progress forward “unless we seek out diverse leaders who will help us do it.”

The final person for the committee is Seemiller. She says that she is aware of her “own implicit biases and…recognize[s] that [she]…cannot make collection decisions in isolation,” talking about her work as an archivist for the Denver Public Library. She adds that the first step toward having a diverse set of candidates is creating an “equitable environment where BIPOC archivists feel valued and welcome,” bringing in candidates who have ideas on how to “tackle structural racism within our profession and how to come together to make SAA a stronger, more inclusive organization” that can push for change and take risks, even arguing that most White archivists are “ready to dedicate themselves to doing the work to help make our workplaces and collections more equitable and look to SAA leadership for guidance.” She ends by saying she would like “guidelines for conducting a diversity audit, more DEI resource lists, and courses on community outreach and developing a collection management policy with a DEI lens.”

This was a hard choice in part because I was disappointed that the group of people for the nominating committee was not as diverse as those running for the position of treasurer and the seats on the SAA Council. Having said that, I believe that Anderson-Zorn, who believes that BIPOC members should lead the SAA in the future, Clemens, since she is the only candidate to talk about transphobia and ableism, and Diaz, due to her argument that DEI is an active process, are the best choices for the Nominating Committee. While I like McCoy’s argument for increasing overall awareness of BIPOC history among all SAA members, and Moore arguing that people should be brought into the SAA leadership who are “willing to lead the tough conversations we need to have in order to progress,” I do not believe that McCoy can be fully believed as someone who will fulfill their own commitments, while Anderson-Zorn is a better candidate, to say the least. Furthermore, I like that Seemiller says there should be an “equitable environment where BIPOC archivists feel valued and welcome,” but I think her claim that most White archivists are “ready to dedicate themselves to doing the work to help make our workplaces and collections more equitable and look to SAA leadership for guidance,” is extremely naive and short-sighted, not remembering how damn White the archivist profession currently is! Who is to say that all White archivists will automatically become anti-racist? That seems an absurd proposition. Being anti-racist takes work.

In closing, if Lawrimore wins her candidacy for Vice-President, Jones, Luster, and Sutherland win their seats on the SAA council, Anderson-Zorn, Clemens, Diaz win their seats for the nominating committee, then it would show that the SAA is moving in a positive direction. If instead, the White men, especially, like Baxter, Welch, McCoy, and Moore, win instead of better-qualified candidates, and candidates who are people of color do not win in these races, it will show that the SAA has a lot of work ahead of it, putting into question how committed the organization’s members are to diversity, inclusion, equity, and addressing inequities in our society and in the organization itself.


After finishing this, I finally submitted my ballot and voted. I encourage all SAA members, if they haven’t already, to do the same!

© 2021-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

Time for new leadership…at the SAA

Email I received on March 2nd from the Society of American Archivists

Originally published on LinkedIn on March 5, 2020.

A couple days ago, I got an email from the Society of American Archivists (SAA) about voting in the upcoming election, which will change leadership of this professional organization representing archivists across the U.S. As the SAA describes it, 15 candidates are “vying for three different offices,” with the candidate elected Vice President serving a one-year term beginning in August 2020, becoming the SAA’s 77th President in 2021–2022. Additionally, there are three available seats on the SAA council, with those elected serving three-year terms “beginning in August and running through the 2023 Annual Meeting” while the three candidates elected to the 2021 Nominating Committee will “serve one-year terms beginning immediately.” While I am new to the profession, I wanted to vote for change to move the organization in a more positive direction. In this post, I’ll review all the candidates in each category and share my thoughts.

Let’s start with the three candidates for Vice President/President-Elect: Courtney Chartier, Joyce Gabiola, and Kris Kiesling. All have strong experience, professional or not.

Chartier is currently the head of research services for the Rose Library at Emory University and has been part of the SAA since 2011, while also being the co-founder of the Atlanta Black Archives Alliance. She argues that while the current “Core Values” statement of the SAA is strong because it is something that can bind archivists together, showing that all in the profession value “accountability, access…and right on down the line to social responsibility,” it is not a perfect match for what is happening now. She further argues that there need to be more pathways for “talented and passionate people” to reach the SAA leadership, more of a need to “truly and authentically understand each other.” Basically, she wants to solve existing communication problems. The kicker was at the end of her statement, where she said that existing conversations within the SAA are not “critically engaging the breadth of archivists with how our world is changing the profession.” She declared that this can change, with the necessity for a dialogue to change how people see the profession and the core values. The latter, as she puts it, changes “just like we do.”

I was inspired by this and started to lean toward her until I read about Gabiola. She is an unaffiliated archivist who has worked with the LGBTQ+ community, especially as a queer Filipinx American archivist and researcher, who has been a co-chair of the SAA’s Program Committee from 2018 to 2019, applying “antiracist/anti-oppressive lens to create a conference environment that reduces incidents of harm for historically marginalized attendees,” among much more that can’t be summarized in one simple sentence. It’s all outlined in her biography which I linked to earlier. She also has been a member of the Association for Asian American Studies, Los Angeles Archives Collective, and Archivists of the Houston Area. She is colleagues with people such as Michelle Caswell, who are at the forefront of critical archivists with progressive viewpoints, challenging existing structures and institutions while promoting community archives. Her goals for her presidency follow what she is already doing. She sees anti-racist and anti-oppressive action, tied with de-centering whiteness, as a way to ensure ethical access to records and preservation within archives. She also believes that White supremacy has to be addressed in order to uphold the core values of the SAA and address various concerns (those about diversity, labor equity, technology, and so on) without disregarding or erasing current (or past) atrocities. This also means having “more difficult conversations/actions toward change,” with diversity only happening when whiteness is de-centered, coupled with anti-racist/anti-oppressive action. This also involves addressing changing concerns and supporting endeavors.

Personally, I don’t know as much about the anti-racist and anti-oppressive action she mentions as I should. When you look up “de-centering whiteness” you find articles noting that this “requires dismantling a system that has become the status quo,” and saying that at the present “white American cultural values occupy the central position in US society, and white culture governs access to power and resources” which they feel is unfair because “no single racial group should have exclusive hold on the central values of society.” The solution is to replace this with multiracial values so that “no single racial group controls access to power and resources exclusively.” Additionally, while it is named de-centering whiteness, it is more specifically called “decentering whiteness and building multiracial community.” Of course, this will inevitably lead some White people to become uncomfortable and may be why Gabiola won’t be elected. But, if she is, it will be a monumental achievement, showing the progressiveness of the SAA despite its past failings. In any case, I believe that Gabiola will bring fresh ideas and a new approach to the SAA, even more than Chartier, although a victory by her would be positive.

The person who represents the old guard is Kiesling, currently the Elmer L. Andersen Director of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota and has been part of the SSA since 1994. You know what type of person she is, when she has hosted nearly 100 workshops on EAD/stylesheets from 1996 to 2012. How boring could that be! I know its important, but seriously! Come on. Even worse is the fact that she thinks that the SAA’s Core Values are an “excellent platform” to help address member concerns. Yes, she acknowledges the limits of the organization and mentions labor equity, technology, and climate change. But she seems hesitant for action, saying that “any action taken has consequences…[and] trade-offs.” She does talk about workplace inequities and calls for more suggestions from members. Pretty weak when compared to Gabiola and Chartier.

That brings us to those nominated for the SAA Council: Janet Carleton, Adriana P. Cuervo, Stephen R. Curley, Derek T. Mosley, Rachel E. Winston, and Katherine M. Wisser.

Starting with Carleton, she has extensive experience as an archivist since the late 1990s, part of the SAA since 1999, often focusing on social media and its connection with archives. She makes a good point about diversifying the field, re-evaluating what value and relevancy can offer, empowering those newer to the profession, and saying that people need to be connected further together, while calling for efficiencies and fiscal responsibility. While some of what she said made sense, the part about fiscal responsibility and efficiency seemed like business speak which should have no place in the profession. Wisser, who is currently Associate Professor and Director at Simmons University and has been in the archival field (and the SAA) since 2003 has similar ideas. She says that the needs and interests of the SAA’s “diverse membership body” (which is actually mostly white if you extrapolate from the last A*Census in 2006 which measured the diversity of the archives field) needs to be weighed and grumbles about limited resources and difficult choices. She says that decision-making should be transparent and Council members need to represent the membership in terms of how it divides “a mix of academics, professionals, and policy makers.” Of course, there are no mentions of community archivists/archives, anti-racism, inclusivity, or social action, showing her limited perspective.


The profession, as it currently stands, as noted by the same census, is much more dominated by women that it was in the past, while the percentage of men within the profession has declined. Additionally, at the time the census was conducted, the profession was middle-aged to older, with not as many under age 29.

We move onto Cuervo. She is currently Head of Archival Collections and Services at the John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers University–Newark and has been in the archival field since 2005. She has been part of the SAA since 2010 and focuses on saving musical records. That sounds great, except when you get to description of what she would do: trying to keep the finances of the SAA healthy while “investing in professional support for ALL our members,” with open communication, collaboration, and an “unwavering commitment to inclusiveness to this governing body.” The latter involves trying to be a broker between “different constituencies within the profession” with different views on the future of the SAA, saying that the “SAA should be the organization where ALL who work in archives turn for sustaining professional excellence.” Seems sensible, but others listed here have the same ideas and say more than she does.

Then we get to Curley. He is currently the Director of Digital Archives for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and has been involved in archives for indigenous people since 2015. That same year he joined the SAA and has been a member of the organization’s Native American Archives Section. He calls for navigating and balancing membership needs of the archival community “with the financial needs of the organization, proactive dialogue and an ethic of purposeful listening must be embodied and exemplified by SAA leadership.” He also, interestingly, calls for the SAA to reach out and align the organization with other groups that have similar values in order to “cultivate opportunities for solidarity and meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue.” This implies groups like records managers, historians, and librarians to name a few off the top of my head. He argues it is vital for the SAA to “encourage meaningful disruption within status quo power differentials and bureaucracies in order to tap into unspoken, underrepresented strengths.” He also promises to have a decision-making process which will “incorporate a diversity of perspectives” while the SAA will interface more “with its membership, regional archival associations, and other spheres of influence.” This is something laudable, meaning that Curley is a great choice to be one of SAA’s newest Councilors.

That brings me to Mosley. He is the Archives Division Management for the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in the Fulton County Library. He has been in leadership positions of archival institutions since 2011. He has also been a member of the SAA since 2013 and the American Library Association’s Black Caucus. Despite these roles, which would give him a unique perspective, he only talks about the organization being “more strategic” in its activities, having allied professional groups and collaborative projects. He also calls for more transparency of internal operations since many members are “unaware of how SAA operates and the financial operations and obligations that are ongoing,” saying that there will be “more published data so that all dues paying members can make sure the organization is moving.” He also says that the SAA must continue to “fight for adequate funding at all levels of government.” Similar to Curley, I feel that Mosley is a wonderful choice to be one of SAA’s newest Councilors.

There is one other I’d like to focus on here: Winston. She is currently a Black Diaspora Archivist at The University of Texas at Austin who has been part of the SAA since 2016. Her previous publications have focused on stories from records of enslaved (and formerly enslaved) people in Texas in the 19th century, while she has presented on “Cultural Preservation and Storytelling” and the importance of “Using Archival Instruction as a Tool for Engagement,” among other topics. Her description is long, but worth summarizing here. She first says that the SAA’s core values and strategic priorities need to be upheld, but that the Council must “embrace making difficult decisions that impact all aspects of our organization,” with necessary compromise and communication. Furthermore, she calls on building deeper relationships across the SAA while “working to facilitate individual and collective success,” and says that needs of the SAA membership need to be taken seriously, while solutions come at a cost. She also says she will be a “steadfast advocate for our professional development” and calls for further advancing “inclusivity efforts.” Due to her experience and ideas, I’d feel that she is a good fit to be one of the newest Councilors of the SAA. Although she talks about solutions coming at a cost, it is nothing like Carleton who sounds like a tired business executive.

That brings me to the final category, the Nominating Committee. Michael Barera, Itza A. Carbajal, Raquel Flores-Clemons, Valencia L. Johnson, Helen Kim, and Karen J. Trivette are all candidates for this SAA organ. Sadly, I couldn’t consider Flores-Clemons because no biographical information was listed.

Let’s begin with Barera. He is the University and Labor Archivist at The University of Texas at Arlington and is currently a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists. He thinks that archivists should involve themselves in Wikipedia, a site where most of the editors are men (even as shown by data shared by the Wikimedia Foundation), specifically White Men on English-language pages, leading to internalized sexism in the site itself, which the former executive of executive of the Wikimedia Foundation Sue Gardner acknowledged. I know there has been a big push to edit Wikipedia by some archivists (including those in NARA) and I edited the page on archival appraisal for a class project. And yes, I’m a Wikipedian myself, but is this the best way to use our time as archivists? I’m not sure or convinced at this current time. So, that was a bit of a turnoff. Apart from that, his statement where he calls for more diversity, appreciating viewpoints of archivists with “experience in different institutional backgrounds, a variety of archival roles, and in different regions of the country” and saying that archivists with these perspectives and skills have a “tremendous amount that they can share with the profession” seemed positive. He also stated that some early-career professionals have a “lot of talent and extremely high career development potential” who should be paired with “SAA volunteer opportunities that fit their interests and skills.” That would sound great, except, why does it have to be volunteer opportunities? Why can’t they be paid? Having unpaid internships, which should be illegal under all circumstances, exist is bad enough, but now you think volunteering will help people? A clearly tone-deaf position. That is why I would never support him to be a member of the Nominating Committee.

Moving onto Carbajal, currently the Latin American Metadata Librarian at the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Special Collections, located at the The University of Texas at Austin. She is the chair of the Human Rights Archives section of the SAA, and a founding member of the Archivists Against History Repeating Itself archivists collective which is an informal collective of archivists and archival studies scholars which are seeking to “enact structural change and to use traces of the past to the interrupt cycles of oppression” in the present. They have activities on various topics, whether war, colonialism, abelism, capitalism, the prison-industrial-complex, and much more. She has written about decolonization, donor relations, saving online data, and community archives, along with much more. Her response incorporates much of what Barera said, and expands upon it. She wants the SAA’s leadership to reflect the current and future nature of the archives field, advocating for and helping others get involved in the field. She hopes to use her status, privileges, and connections to connect with the field in new ways. She also says she has, due to her perspective as “a woman of color from multiple historically underrepresented cultural backgrounds and identities,” an ability and sensitivity to identify who “continues to be left out, who needs to be brought in, and how to balance competing interests and visions within a diverse group.” That makes her vital to improving the field going forward, so she should be one of next members of the SAA’s Nominating Committee.

We move onto Johnson. She is currently the Project Archivist for Student Life at Princeton University, where she has worked since 2017. She was part of Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Working Group which wrote the wonderful “Anti-Racist Description Guidelines,” and helped put together an “Archiving Student Activism Toolkit” when working at Project STAND. Those are already positives. Her statement was short, but powerful. She said that an “ecosystem of ideas and innovation” can be fostered by sharing power with those peoples who are “critically and ethically questioning” the procedures and silences of the SAA. For the latter, she notes how marginalized archivists experience a lack of support, being misunderstood and othered, leading them to create or seek out support networks. She would try to bring those people back in, connecting with them and those archivists who have a vision of how to improve the SAA and the profession as a whole. She hopes as a member of the committee, she can amplify their voices. With such a resounding statement and the importance of diversifying the profession based on what I said earlier, it is vital to support someone like Johnson. As a result, she clearly deserves to be member of the Nominating Committee.

From there, let’s look at Kim. She is currently an Institutional Archivist at the Getty Research Institute. She has been part of the SAA since 2011. Her long response to the SAA’s questions shows her dedication to the subject. She notes that when children aren’t exposed to anyone in the archives profession they can’t imagine themselves as part of it, resulting in a lack of diversity in the field. She also talks about institutional hurdles in the field, whether through grant-funded positions, unpaid internships or a “reliance on professional activity to succeed in the profession.” What she is saying resonated with me, as I’ve had my share of unpaid internships (one at Public Citizen and another at NARA) and grant-funding (at the Maryland State Archives). She also notes how she has been a mentor to supervised interns of color, her professional hiatus because of pregnancy and parenting, saying the SAA should try to make “the profession a more equitable one for all, especially those people who are underrepresented.” She goes onto say that as a member of the Nominating Committee she will look beyond people’s CV, wanting to know people’s backgrounds and life experiences, asking how they will lift people up and include others to create a more inclusive and diverse environment. Most importantly, she says that diversity has to come from the top, adding that it has to be felt and seen in the organization’s leadership. This would send the signal to prospective archivists that the field is changing and welcoming, allowing the SAA to reflect the diversity of the U.S., helping it ensure that archivists are “collecting the voices that have every right to be represented in the records.” A strong and powerful message. With such a plea for change and betterment of the organization will benefit many people. As such, she should be a member of the SAA’s Nominating Committee without a doubt.

There is one final person: Trivette. She is the Associate Professor and Head of Special Collections & College Archives at the Fashion Institute of Technology–SUNY Library. She currently sits on the editorial board of The American Archivist, the SAA’s journal. In her response to the organization’s questions she first talks about her experience with past nominations, how she looked at her network of contacts and “associated communities,” using various communication networks, yielding a “diverse and robust slates of candidates.” She then boasts about her nearly 20 years in the profession and claims that she can be trusted completely to “carry out her responsibilities fully.” She pales in comparison to Kim, Johnson, and Carbajal. Like Wisser and Charleton, you could say she represents the old guard of archivists, whose ideas are becoming outmoded by a new generation of archivists who want to change the organization (and profession) for the better!

In closing, here’s my slate of those I think should be elected to the SAA’s leadership, with my reasons explained above:

  1. Joyce Gabiola for SAA Vice President/President-Elect
  2. Stephen R. Curley, Derek T. Mosley, and Rachel W. Winston for the SAA Council
  3. Itza A. Carbajal, Valencia L. Johnson, and Helen Kim, for the SAA Nominating Committee

That’s all. Once you get to the end of the voting, you’ll get a screen just like this:

Best of luck voting! Your comments on this post are welcome.


© 2020-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

“​Ability to remain neutral”: Realities of NARA and its archival role

Titles and excerpts from posts by Margot Note, David A. Bliss, Shode Nicole Gladden, Kaitlin Smith, Anna Gilliland, and others (see here and here) about claims of “neutrality” among archives.

Originally published on LinkedIn on January 22, 2023.

Recently, an article in The Epoch Times, a far-right conspiracy-prone publication affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement, by Nathan Worcester, blared “Background Reviews of Top Officials Lend Credence to GOP Allegations of Bias at National Archives.” The article stated that leading Republicans in U.S. House and Representatives are searching for possible “bias” in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), citing a letter to current Acting Archivist Debra Steidel Wall by James Comer, the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, declaring that he was “investigating whether there is a political bias” at NARA, claiming that there was “inconsistent treatment” of recovering classified records held by the former President and President Biden. The article also cites “authorities” like Mike Davis who heads an organization (Article III Project) which “defends constitutionalist judges…and opposes judicial and other nominees who are outside of the mainstream”, professor Daniel Z. Epstein, a member of the conservative libertarian Federal Society, a lawyer for the former president Reed Rubinstein, and conservative journalist Megan Fox to support its narrative that NARA has “liberal” bias.

The article then claims that NARA leaders have “long championed the left-wing and partisan Democratic views pervasive in Washington and its wealthy suburbs.” They use biographical information about NARA’s general counsel, Gary Stern, Acting Archivist Wall, and Biden’s nominee for Archivist of the United States (Colleen Shogan), denials of FOIA requests by NARA about the Mar-a-Lago search, financial contributions to political campaigns, to “prove” supposed partisanship and “left-leaning” views of these “bureaucrats”. Even so, they admit that there was “concern” among those at NARA “about [Hillary] Clinton’s handling of records” and that the agency is “slowly releasing records” about the Mar-a-Lago search. This article unsurprisingly tied this focus to the recent election of Emily Drabinski, taking office as the new American Library Association president in July, who said she was a “Marxist lesbian” following her election. The publication left out that she called this comment “an excited utterance” and said she would serve all librarians regardless of political views. The article culminates in the claim that if supposed political bias continues then American people may have “deeper questions about the institution’s ability to remain neutral in an increasingly politicized world”. This is echoed by their earlier claim that Yale Law School is a “more neutral (or formerly neutral) institution.”

The realities of NARA are far different than what The Epoch Times has stated. David Ferriero refused to do what some liberals and progressives, like those in the ERA Coalition, called for: post the Equal Rights Amendment as an official constitutional amendment. However, Ferriero, following the advice of the Office of Legal Counsel, which said the ERA can no longer be ratified because the deadline has passed, decided to not do so. It is here that it is worth quoting from my November 2022 newsletter, in which I said, about the confirmation hearing of Colleen Shogan:

…Shogan, for her part, said she was committed to more transparency, opening Civil Rights cold cases…She also said she would not decide the ERA unilaterally, stated she was nonpartisan and nonpolitical, and noted commitments to transparency, efficiency, and so-called “public private partnerships”. She said reducing the backlog of requests for veteran records as the “most important discrete problem” facing her if she is confirmed as the archivist…Shogan stated that “the Archivist serves in the capacity, in a nonpartisan, apolitical capacity.” She also noted that NARA will need to “find creative ways to become more efficient, to capitalize upon public-private partnerships, and to engage previously underserved communities in meaningful ways”. This is in line with what David Ferriero has done when he served as archivist from November 2009 to April 2022. She stated that the ERA…for which the archivist has the legal responsibility to “certify each state ratification of a proposed amendment and, once 38 states have ratified, publish the amendment in the Constitution”, could only have its fate decided by “the federal judiciary and/or Congress,” a response which pleased reactionary people.”

This statement was flatly rejected by the ERA Coalition, which argued that the “role of the U.S. Archivist is ministerial in nature” and that the ERA has fulfilled all constitutional requirements and the Archivist “has a statutory duty to publish it.”

The Epoch Times could not bother to mention the incident in which Ferriero supported the closure of the NARA facility in Anchorage in 2014, the 2020 decision by NARA to censor a photograph containing signs critical of the former president and references to women’s autonomy, and the proposed closure of the Federal Records Center in Seattle which was proposed in December 2019 and later stopped in April 2021. The article also overlooked the fact that Wall and Shogan support the continued public-private partnerships to digitize archival records, something which Ferriero began and continued. Currently, NARA records have been digitized by Ancestry, Fold3 (owned by Ancestry) and FamilySearch (controlled by the Mormons). There are current digitization partnerships with:

  • for-profit companies (, its Fold3 subsidiary, Moon Collectors, LLC, Paradise Entertainment, Limited)
  • lineage-based non-profits (Daughters of the American Revolution)
  • the Mormons (FamilySearch)
  • public institutions (Le Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Digital Commonwealth, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Veterans Affairs Department, and Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland)
  • quasi-public institutions (The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)
  • other non-profits (Barack Obama Foundation)

In years before Ferriero was Archivist of the United States there were partnerships with the EMC Corporation, Google, the University of Texas, and many others.

All this makes the claim that people such as Ferriero, Shogan, and Wall are left-wing as laughable. If this was the case, then why would they have gone to private companies and non-profits to digitize information? This is probably because they don’t want people to know what scholar Jarrett M. Drake argued in 2020: that the national and state governments that partner with FamilySearch certain “untold millions of dollars” by sharing their records for indexing and digitization, and that “millions of archival records have been made available by incarcerated labor.” This is something that will never be mentioned in The Epoch Times.

One aspect that the publication is correct about is that NARA is not neutral. The claims of neutral continually asserted by the organization’s leaders is incorrect. However, this does not mean that the institution is partisan, but rather that such neutrality is impossible. As I wrote back in February 2022, the actions of archivists do not occur in a vacuum, but are “connected to larger political and social structures, and affected by society itself.” Instead archives, like museums, libraries, and galleries, are not neutral spaces, but are, rather, contested ones, with sources which are not neutral. This article, and the request by the newly elected House Republicans further reinforce this idea. This should be recognized before it is too late. As Drake argued, “archives have never been neutral – they are the creation of human beings, who have politics in their nature.”

Neutrality in archives is impossible. In fact, SAA President Courtney Chartier wrote in April 2022, that “if we claim neutrality, then we uphold evil institutional and personal communities” and stating that those archivists who “refused to document the contributions of certain people, or created hostile educational and work experiences for their fellow archivists” are not neutral. This is the reality that The Epoch Times and others who appeal to neutrality would like to ignore. The same goes for the fact that these reactionaries would like you to forget about: NARA has been consistently underfunded. My colleague, Lauren Harper, at the National Security Archive pointed this out in a post last year:

The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) budget has remained stagnant in real dollars for nearly thirty years…While its budget has flatlined, the number of records NARA must preserve, particularly electronic records, has increased exponentially over three decades…NARA is stretched too thin in normal times, and its insufficient budget and statutory authority were no match for the Trump administration’s disdain for records management…NARA’s current budget is a recipe for disaster…Budget woes are not new for the agency…decreasing budgets and staffing shortages hamper some of the most critical offices within NARA…Staffing issues play out in less obvious ways, too. One pernicious example is that it results in limited oversight of agency records retention schedules…Our audits make clear that NARA needs to actively oversee the electronic records management process, as opposed to taking agency self-assessments at their word…The next AOTUS needs more than just resources, they will need to maximize the authority they have and be granted more.

This is likely a major reason for the continued digitization partnerships. Instead of helping NARA overcome these issues, the upcoming investigation by Congressional Republicans into false claims of “partisanship” at the agency will only divert funds away from necessary tasks and put more records, and people’s jobs, in jeopardy. One could surmise that the investigation itself is an effort to delegitimize the institution and even set the groundwork for its possible privatization if certain people are elected into Congress or the Presidency. In any case, such investigations will be accompanied by calls to further reduce the budget of NARA, instead of giving it the resources it needs so it can hire additional staff, improve its work culture, and digitize more records in-house without having to resort to digitization partnerships. Otherwise, the cultural memory of the U.S. will remain at risk, as will the ability to “protect and preserve a future.”

© 2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

Steering Share: Digging Into the FamilySearch Inmate Indexing Program

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of Steering Committee member, Burkely Hermann, National Security Archive. It was originally published on the Issues & Advocacy blog on May 27, 2022.

Hello everyone! In today’s post I’d like to share a project that I’ve been working off-and-on since 2019, in my spare time, which relates to digitization, archival ethics, and access. Since then, I have been using MuckRock to request documents from county jails and state prisons about FamilySearch’s program to have inmates index public records, like censuses and military records, which are then used by genealogists and the general public. In order to put this project into context, I’d like to give some background to highlight why this project matters.

In February 2020, in my first article on the closure of the National Archives facility in the Seattle area, I noted that some U.S. legislators criticized the partnership between the National Archives and FamilySearch, who stated that this partnership, meant to digitize records, has not “resulted in actual access to records that have been prioritized by stakeholders.”

Currently, NARA’s webpage on digitized microfilm publications and original records states that digitization partners like Ancestry, Fold3 (owned by Ancestry), and FamilySearch “have digitized microfilm publications and original records from NARA’s holdings and made them available on their websites.” NARA has had a partnership with FamilySearch since 2005, with NARA describing them as having a “clear focus on records of interest to genealogists.” The current partnership agreement with FamilySearch will remain in effect until NARA or FamilySearch terminates it, which is unlikely.

All of this matters because FamilySearch, a division of the Mormon Church (LDS), is using inmates to index many of these public records. This means that the records you might be using on Ancestry, which FamilySearch shares records with, or on the latter site, have likely been indexed by inmates.

It is important to keep in mind that jails and prisons are not the same. Jails are run by counties or cities, housing those with short-term convictions or awaiting trial. Prisons are operated on the federal or state level, with inmates who have longer-term convictions.

I became interested in this topic after reading Shaun Bauer’s short article in Mother Jones in August 2015 entitled “Your Family’s Genealogical Records May Have Been Digitized by a Prisoner”. Unfortunately, Bauer never wrote a follow-up piece, and some genealogists, like assorted people on social media and Megan Smolenyak, more prominently, defended the indexing, claiming that a “few key aspects” were left out.

In contrast, Jarrett M. Drake, a Harvard University PhD candidate who focuses on “archival, educational, and organizing projects that pertain to prison abolition,” argued, in a 2020 book, Paths to Prison: On the Architectures of Carcerality, that the national and state governments that partner with FamilySearch certain “untold millions of dollars” by sharing their records for indexing and digitization, and argued that “millions of archival records have been made available by incarcerated labor.”

Although my research on this subject is still ongoing, there is clear evidence that sometime in the 1980s, LDS opened a Family History Center at Utah State Prison, followed by one at California’s Tehachapi State Prison in 1989. In February 2001, the Chicago Tribune acknowledged that the Freedman’s Bureau records, which are popular especially with Black genealogists, were collected and culled by 550 inmates at the South Point Correctional Facility at Utah State Prison.

Smolenyak’s interview with one of the indexers, Blaine Nelson, said that the indexing of the Freedman’s Bureau records took eleven years, 600 inmates, and “over 700,000 volunteer hours.” He declared proudly that, by February 2001, “some 480,000 Freedman’s Bank records had been extracted and indexed.” This means that one of the “richest databases for African-American research” as Ed Lunt, who helped establish the indexing program at the Utah State Prison in 1990 with his wife Penney, described it, was only possible due to the large amount of unpaid inmate labor.

The indexing did not end there. It has continued since then, with millions of names indexed by inmates, not only in Utah, but in other states, like Idaho and Arizona. Some even declared that this indexing means that prisoners are “working to strengthen everyone’s family tree.”

In 2021, Steve Collings, a product manager for the FamilySearch Correctional Services program, stated that LDS had “35 different facilities” with where inmates do indexing across the Mountain West, including Utah, Wyoming, and Arizona, with plans to expand nationwide, then worldwide. Whether the indexing provides “personal growth” to inmates as LDS claims, or not, LDS has been mostly tight-lipped in providing many details about the indexing and noting the exact locations where LDS has contracted prison indexing.

In my research, I’ve found that five jurisdictions in Utah currently have contracts with LDS to have inmates index records: Box Elder County, Cache County, Duchesne County, Kane County, and Summit County, as I note on the “Documents received” sheet within my “FamilySearch and prisons” spreadsheet. Sevier County presumably also has a contract, but I have not received documents from them. The most recent one I received, for Box Elder, shows that FamilySearch is all in on the inmate indexing as it was signed earlier this year by Stephen Valentine, who is the Senior Vice President of FamilySearch International!

From my requests I also learned that there are genealogy programs in Idaho prisons, but they reportedly have no policy related to the program. The same is the case for the Utah Department of Corrections. I also received redacted emails from the Washington Department of Corrections showing communications about Mormon volunteers coming to the state’s prison facilities. Otherwise, I learned that Beaver and Washington counties have volunteer programs but reportedly do not have records of that program.

In order to do these requests, I’ve been using MuckRock, which allows you to submit freedom of information requests to any governmental agency within their databases and keep all of the interactions public, or even private. Unfortunately, it has been somewhat costly to do this work, costing $5.00 per record request, making it hard for those without adequate financial resources to make these record requests and hopefully receive documents which can become public, even if they are heavily redacted. Where I work, the National Security Archive, has the same goal, but on a much larger scale, with various projects and experts on certain subject areas.

As I continue my research, with the impending end of requests to county jails in Utah, I’ll be trying to find out more about this program beyond Utah, to other states. I’ve done this a little with requests to counties in Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and other states such as Colorado and Arkansas. Although I’m not sure what I will learn about this indexing program going forward, and how widespread it is, I am confident that it will remain a learning experience which will inform people, particularly archivists and librarians, about those who index the public records which are used on a daily basis. Hopefully, it will also encourage a push for a larger NARA budget, so that more digitization of their records can be done in-house rather than contracted out to FamilySearch or for conditions be put on the next agreement to prohibit indexing by inmates.

© 2022-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

The fate of history in the balance: The Seattle Federal Records Center still under threat

On February 16, John C. Coughenour, a Reagan-appointee and Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, blocked the sale of the National Archives facility at Seattle, one of the Federal Records Centers (FRC) in the U.S. with a preliminary injunction. This ended the movement of records from the facility to FRCs in Missouri and California, many of which are “un-digitized records.” He called the situation a “public relations disaster” of the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), the entity which proposed the sale, and said that the PBRB had “a stunning lack of appreciation of the issues” of indigenous people. While the attorney generals of Washington State and Oregon applauded the decision, as did indigenous people, genealogists, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, and others, the fight is not over. The Stranger said that history “requires defending in the present,” The Cut argued that the fate of the Seattle FRC “remains undecided,” and MyNorthwest noted there is “more potential trouble” in the future if noting about the facility changes going forward. On February 18, local Seattle leaders and the governor of Oregon both wrote President Biden, calling on him to stop the sale of the facility. Even with the injunction, it is short-lived, meaning that the facility remains under threat. As such, it is important to once again, as I noted in February and November of last year, to explain the negative impact the closure of this facility will have on those in the Pacific Northwest and in the U.S. as a whole.

Over the past year, there have been legal efforts to delay the closure. Kim Wyman, the Secretary of State of Washington State, began meeting with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and other stakeholders, in hopes of brokering a solution to keep the archival materials, which document “history across the Pacific Northwest” in the state of Washington. At the same time, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson made filings in federal court, including the recent lawsuit which included almost 600 pages from indigenous peoples, individuals, and interested groups which attest to the value of the Seattle facility and materials which are held there. If the “nearly million” boxes of archival materials from the facility were moved to Missouri and California as planned, access to records about Asian American history would be made more difficult, as would records that relate to the “cultural preservation, history and treaty rights” of various indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest. Moving the records to facilities in those states would make them less publicly accessible, destroying one of the “wellsprings” from which the “collective memory” of the region and nation is formed, as argued in the case in the amicus brief by the Korematsu Center. A recent successful lawsuit filed by Ferguson in early January, joined by 29 indigenous groups, and historic community and preservation groups, to stop the relocation and sale of the Seattle FRC, explains the problem succinctly:

“This action shows a callous disregard for the people who have the greatest interest in being able to access these profoundly important records…The facility contains the DNA of our region. It provides public access to permanent records created by Federal agencies and courts in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington…the National Archives at Seattle is the only property among those the PBRB recommended for sale that has profound importance to the region in which it is situated and is regularly used by members of the public…These irreplaceable archives are primarily un-digitized and do not exist elsewhere.”

The closure of the facility would violate NARA’s own principles to preserve and provide access to U.S. records and document U.S. history, especially those documents essential to U.S. government actions, rights of U.S. citizens, and any other records which “provide information of value to citizens.” It also runs afoul of NARA’s commitment to drive “openness, cultivate public participation” and strengthen U.S. democracy through “public access to high-value government records.” That same commitment states that NARA will lead the “archival and information professions to ensure archives thrive in a digital world.” That seems unlikely since only about 1% of the NARA’s record holdings are digitized and even less than 1% of presidential library records have been put online.

Furthermore, moving the records from Seattle to the FRCs in California, whether in Riverside or in San Francisco, and St. Louis, Missouri, would disregard the core values of archivists outlined by the Society of American Archivists. These core values state that archivists have a duty to foster greater access and use to records, maintain records which allow “contemporary and future entities” to seek accountability, serve as responsible stewards for primary sources,” and root their “ethics of care that prioritizes sustainable practices and policies” when it comes to archival duties. The “boxes of information” within the Seattle FRC, highlighted by one local Seattle reporter, Matthew Smith, would be made less accessible if the records were moved elsewhere in the country. If the Seattle FRC is closed, it will be a sad day for archives, records, and preservation of U.S., indigenous, and community history.

Although the closure of the Seattle FRC has been halted by Judge Coughenour, this is only a temporary measure. In the short-term, you could contact the management team of NARA, especially chief archivist David Ferriero (, deputy chief archivist Debra Steidel Wall (, and Chief Operating Officer William J. Bosanko (, and the PBRB at, to express your opposition to the closure, while calling on President Biden to follow the judge’s decision and keep the facility open. In the long term, NARA needs increased funding and you can use the information put together by the Archival Researchers Association to contact your members of Congress to push for legislation which would increase the agency’s budget.

© 2021-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

Reprinted from Issues & Advocacy. This was written before the sale of the facility was halted by the Biden Administration. After learning this, I said on Twitter, “that doesn’t mean it should be sold. The decision to sell tthee [sic] facility was rotten and it’s good it was stopped,” called for a bigger budget to NARA, and noted “it was good timing to write another article about this back in March. I personally wasn’t sure whether the sale would be cancelled [sic], but I am glad it was.”