Monday 7 September 2009

SAA vs. SOA Conference

When I submitted my grant application, I argued strongly that international cooperation would be necessary if archivists would find practical ways to work with electronic materials.  Last week, I had the pleasure of attending my first Society of Archivists Conference, and I certainly learned a great deal about e-records work in the UK and Europe.  (I'll be posting throughout this week at my blog concerning the sessions I attended.)

While I certainly learned a lot about the varied and productive approaches that UK archivists are taking to e-records, I also learned much more than I expected about the differences in how the 'archives sector' (as they would call it here) is organized in the US vs. the UK.

At the most basic level, I was surprised that the SOA conference was significantly more intimate (one is tempted to say civilized) than a typical SAA meeting, with all that those words imply.   

This might not seem surprising, since SOA attendance is much smaller than SAA , since the conference sessions do not begin until 9 am, since they do not spill over into weekends, and since  all meals, breaks and social events, as well as lodging, were included for one fixed price. In any case, I found that the all inclusive nature of the conference made it easy to meet and chat with people in the fairly relaxed settings, and I have more contacts to follow up on than at the typical SAA meeting where I seem to be constantly looking for someone amongst the crowd.   On the other hand, there is a lot less diversity to the sessions--although this may be due to the fact the theme was 'digital futures'.

I have to say I was very impressed by the presentations I heard; the conference was well organized around this theme, and the talks displayed a good balance between research and practice, with both informing each other.   For the most part, people debated issues honestly while not pulling punches.   I saw researchers and practitioners debating issues directly and effectively, particularly in the panel discussion on archival education and training and in the e-records sessions I attended.

I was also interested to note that numerous representatives of the National Archives, both of England/Wales and Scotland, were attending and speaking.  The National Archives in Kew plays a much stronger leadership/coordination role than NARA does in  the United States.  Under its relatively new executive director, TNA is developing a strategy document called "Archives for the 21st Century." 

This is certainly not news to UK readers of this blog, but the document will shape government policy toward archives services not only at the national level but within local government and other institutions.   One can debate whether on not the policy is wise and well argued, and clearly many people have commented on it, but the most salient point for me (as an American observer), is that such an attempt to coordinate policy is even taking place.  Admittedly, the NHPRC serves a bit of this role in the US by funding records management and archives projects that affect archival workout side of NARA, but even if the PAHR bill becomes law, the US government will have a much more limited role in affecting records issues at a local level than will government here.  NHPRC and other federal agencies have softer and indirect impact, since their role is mainly defined as funding research and projects, not setting policy for local archives.  

The ways of organizing the archive sector in each country reflect the different ways that the US and UK organize socieites and conceive the proper role of government and I'm sure each has its benefits and drawbacks.  I'll leave it for others to debate theological questions such as 'how big should government be'.  I am just interested to see the practicalities of how policy differences affect archival work on a day to day basis.

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