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Responses & Retrospectives: Rachael Woody’s Annual Conference Coverage on the Value of Archival Labor Sessions

Apr 30, 2021


Rachael Woody (photograph courtesy of Rachael Woody).

This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at [email protected] with your ideas!

For me, attending the annual Society of American Archivists conference is time to reconnect with beloved colleagues and reengage with topics I care deeply about. I can’t afford to attend the conference every year, so I always view the conference program before I make the final decision. Are there sessions I want or need to attend? Are there topics that are new or finally being covered? Or, does it look like the conference is repeating topics without contributing anything new? As someone who has to pay my own way, I have to make sure there’s a return on my investment of both time and money. This year, SAA’s annual meeting theme had my attention from the start: TRANSFORMATIVE!. As in transforming archives. The program sessions followed suit with panelists willing to tackle tough topics and start new conversations.

My Work on Fighting the Devaluation of the Archivist

Before I dive into my response to a block of the SAA 2019 Annual Conference sessions, let me preface by saying that the value of archival labor is a topic that I am deeply involved with. In the last two-years I’ve:

  • Written the current NWA job posting policy requiring salary ranges;
  • Performed a literary review of American Archivist articles on everything from A*Census to the multiple articles on how recent graduates are struggling to find healthy employment in the field;
  • Conducted a regional survey on the value of archival labor (with findings forthcoming); and
  • Am currently spearheading the creation of a paid internship program at Northwest Archivists.

In my research I’ve found that the literal value of archival labor has been stagnate for the last ten-years. Additionally, the student loan debt to entering archivist salary ratio has caused instability in the profession; particularly in geographic areas that aren’t flush with archival repositories with government-backed budgets. I believe that we have reached a critical point in time in which we must acknowledge this devaluation of the archivist, and address it before our entire profession atrophies.  It’s through this lens that I respond to three SAA sessions focused on the value of archival labor.

SAA Sessions: My Response

On Sunday, August 4, 2019, there were three sessions dedicated to archival labor: an open forum, session 210, and session 410. Below are links to the sessions and the session summary italicized for easy reference:

Open Forum: SAA Council Forum on Archival Salaries

This special forum, hosted by SAA Council members Melissa Gonzales and Steven D. Booth, will explore the notion of requiring salary information in position descriptions for jobs boards, the benefits and challenges of doing so, and the potential impact this ideal may have on the archival profession. Invited panelists and the audience will explore why professional associations should and should not take a position, and if so, how can archivists at all levels frame it to truly advocate for the profession and not harm it.

The open forum was well attended with several hundred seated in the ballroom. There was no formal content to present and the panelists began the discussion with SAA Council’s recent angst over whether or not to require salary ranges for job posts. What gets sticky here is that SAA makes money from the job board. So, trusting SAA to make the ethical decision to require job post quality indicators can be challenging when the system currently in place benefits SAA. As noted in several tweets, the forum discussion revealed that SAA makes $60,000-$90,000 in annual revenue from the job board. (SAA’s FY20 Budget states it revenued $85,000). Sadly, that amount is much more than the average mid-career archivist’s annual salary.

Screenshot of Tweet by @akaGladys: Learning at salary forum that SAA's job board generates $60-90k of revenue for the org a year #saa19" 10:03 AM Aug 4, 2019 Twitter by IPhone 2 Retweets 23 Likes

When reviewing the “cons” of SAA requiring a salary range on job postings there were no cogent arguments from the panelists. Instead, strawman arguments that showed more privilege than sense were provided. The following points were offered as a justification for SAA to forego responsibility of providing space to predatory job listings:

  1. People keep taking these low-paying jobs so organization will keep offering these low salaries.
  2. If SAA requires salary ranges “Will it really provide change that leads to better salaries?”.
  3. The assertion that people who seek higher paying jobs have “bad intentions”.

Screenshot of Tweet by @rachaelcristine Aug 4: Several #archivist salaries forum persons see "cons" to requiring salary range in job post. One remarks they would question motives for those who apply for jobs with more money. Me: Since when is being paid your worth a bad thing?! #saa2019 #saa19 #devaluationofthearchivist Symbols at bottom show one comment, 6 retweets, and 33 likes

The panelists who denied SAA’s responsibility placed it instead on those who are struggling against these damaging job practices currently allowed in the profession.

Patronizing statements were made by some of the panelists to those struggling, saying essentially:

  1. People should do their own research to determine what an adequate salary is. How?; when the Census data is extremely outdated and government salaries hardly translate to other organizations? SAA is in the best position to provide this information to archivists and organizations – with parameters given for organization type, geographic area, various job levels, and requisite salary.
  2. People should negotiate better. Negotiation is rarely available to those in the profession. Also, then shouldn’t SAA be providing negotiation education and support?
  3. People should be willing to move for a better job. Some of us can move. Others cannot due to family or other life obligations. This is a tone-deaf statement rejecting the real-life realities many archivists face.

Why Salary Range is so Important

Requiring salary ranges on job posts aids in salary transparency. Salary transparency reveals wage inequity and helps put a stop to gender, race, and gender identity or sexuality discrimination. Increased salary transparency across the profession will lead to healthier financial realities for archivists, and addressing wage inequity will support actual diversity within the profession. It’s important to note that both Northwest Archivists and Southwest Archivists have already made this a policy.

210 Low Pay in Archives: Review of Recent Events, and Where Do We Go From Here? [Pop-Up]

This Pop-Up Session will discuss the current state of generally low pay for archivists in the U.S., discuss SAA and regional archival organizations recent attempts at doing something about it, including archival certification, salary job listing requirements, recommended salary minimums, and the current literature in the field; look at salaries across the country and useful statistical data like the salary required to own a home in a specific city; and strategize additional ways the profession can help push salaries upwards, including possibly unionization.

This session was a little less frustrating for me as the panelists appeared to agree that something needs to be done about the financial health of our profession. Rosemary Davis was brave and bared all – including her student loan debt number. This panel delivered real talk on what many in the profession are experiencing: you have a master’s degree with the student loan debt to show for it and you can’t make ends meet because entry-level archivist positions are sub-$45,000. This session introduced the concept of the “spousal subsidy”. As in, you can only afford the luxury of being an archivist on low pay because your spouse has the pay and benefits to cover you both. This has obvious repercussions on who can afford to be an archivist and directly damages diversity within the field.

Screenshot of a Tweet by @vgillispie Aug 4: The "spousal subsidy" concept is too real. I was recently offered a job with a salary offer $20K below my current salary. The hiring manager said he was hoping I had a "family situation" that would allow me to accept the offer. I do not. #s210 #saa19. Symbols show 1 comments, 5 retweets, 27 likes.

410 Short-Term Jobs for Long-Term Careers: Designing Ethical Project/Contract Positions

With SAA defining standards for interns and volunteers, archivists on short-term projects or contracts are the next frontier in the ethics question. These archivists have barriers to completing their work–including time, funding, and skills–making their supervisor’s role crucial in designing and supporting a successful contract employment experience. Aimed at project managers, supervisors, and contract archivists, this session is intended to foster dialog among participants about ways to create more sustainable models of project positions.

This panel is an adjacent topic to archivist salaries as temporary or project positions are becoming more and more common and less of a stop-gap measure for organizations that are struggling. It also highlighted that allowing regular archival work to become temporary or project-based only helps to devalue the work. And further, we must be more precise in identifying archival labor as work, a long-term endeavor that requires skill. Versus calling our work a project, a word that indicates it’s temporary, can be stopped at any time, and potentially requires less-skills. This thinking extends to how project positions are professional positions, not pre-professional positions, and should be treated (i.e. paid) accordingly.

Screenshot of Tweet by @alexiadpuravida Aug 4: Advocate that project positions ARE professional positions, not a pre-professional position [emojis show 4 hand claps] #saa 19 #s410 (symbols show 2 retweets, 24 likes)

SAA’s Mission and How We Are Actively Working Against It.

SAA’s mission is to promote the value and diversity of archives and archivists. The anti-salary range panelists (and the majority of SAA Council) appear to contradict SAA’s stated mission. How can we say we champion diversity and value archivists when we allow rapacious practices such as low-wage jobs, no salary transparency, temporary or term jobs, and unpaid internships? (Yes, SAA Council did vote to disallow unpaid internship job postings, but more can be done to discourage the practice pervasive in organizations nation-wide). It is known that by allowing these practices we perpetuate a system built on discrimination against race, gender, and gender identity and sexuality. If you’re in a management position, in academia, or work for the government – congratulations! You’ve avoided the worst of it with your elite position. But you’re leaving the rest of the profession behind and such short-sightedness will devalue the entire profession (including you).


We’re just beginning these tough conversations and there’s obviously a lot to be done before we can begin to see progress. Here’s what I’d like to see next:

Recommendations for SAA Council and Organization:

  1. Officially support the grass-roots archivist salary spreadsheet. Now at nearly 500 entries, this is the most recent and robust national archivist salary data we have available.
  2. Financially commit to conducting the census more regularly. Yes, I realize it costs money. However, letting the census lapse 15-years is absolutely preventable. Decisions about how to best support the profession can’t be made if we don’t have current and accurate numbers.
  3. Call for a membership vote on whether or not to require salary ranges for job postings.
  4. Take a more active role in protecting and advocating for archivists and not just archival organizations. Explore ways in which SAA can do this; such as: conducting an exploration of how SAA can support unionization, offer collective benefits, provide guidance on appropriate job salary scales, etc.

Recommendations for Archivists Against Devaluation:

  1. This was an excellent conference, but the conversation needs to continue. For those who did panels, tweeted, and discussed the topic in-person; we need you to do more of that. For those who want to join in, please join in!
  2. When SAA calls for guideline reviews, feedback, and votes; you have to show up and give your feedback. Better yet, run for Council. Council needs your voice.
  3. Contribute blog posts and professional writings to the field that help educate and advocate around this topic.
  4. Speak up and repeatedly at your work, at your regional group, and at SAA and related national conferences.

This post was written by Rachael Cristine Woody, a member of The Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

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