On Disappointment and Surprise at the Behavior of Certain Senior Archival Community Members

What's up in the Society of American Archivists? On January 15th, breaking with 30 years of precedent, a group of 52 SAA Members1 (mostly retirees, past-presidents, fellows, library/archive heads, and other senior community members) challenged Nominating Committee's selections for Vice President with a written petition conforming to Bylaws Section 5.C to add a third candidate: SAA Fellow Kris Kiesling.2

For those unfamiliar with the normal process, a Nominating Committee are elected and entrusted with choosing a slate of candidates for critical roles. They choose from volunteers, nominees, and recruits. They have historically chosen 2 candidates for VP. The winner first serves as VP, then becomes President after a year of learning and service.

Although the President's role is important, their 1-year term is complemented by SAA Council on 3-5 year terms and the permanent Executive Director, as well as many other leaders. In this structure, the effect of a bad president3 is not as deleterious as it might be in other organizations.

These community members’ choice is extraordinary. They have not communicated why they chose to disrespect the choices of elected Nominating Committee.4 They did not use the bylaws exception to right a wrong. If there is an urgent and overriding need to break with 30 years of tradition, surely the entire body deserves to know.

The most reasonable speculation I've heard is that Nancy Beaumont will retire from her Executive Director role and that the new President will be involved in recruitment. If so, the membership should be told directly. It should not be accomplished by cabal. And even then, I challenge these leaders to consider that someone with decades ahead of them in the profession may be a better choice in recruiting a new Executive Director than a fellow member of the Old Guard. The new president will not recruit by fiat.

To Those Who Signed

This part is addressed primarily to the mid/late career and retired folks who signed, not the few early-career folks. You need to realize that this heavy-handed action conveys enormous disregard for your peers. We are not just the future, we are the present and the future. We are the people who will remember your legacies. We are the people who thought we could turn to you for counsel. Now? We don't know.

Your actions conveyed distrust in the elected Nominating Committee. Your actions conveyed distrust in the candidates. You either don't trust your earlier and mid-career peers with leadership or you don't trust us to know critical information, or both. This is not what handing over organizational reins to a new generation with grace and guidance looks like.

If you're surprised or upset that many younger folks in the profession (and older, but I can't speak as much for them) are angry,5 let me reiterate something I said in my post on reading Motley in 2019:

You should hope the younger generation is still engaged enough to try to change your organization. Otherwise it will die.

You can choose to disrespect nominating committee and the entire body of archivists by acting without transparency. It's not the behavior I'd recommend if you want this organization to have a future.


  1. The signers were (as publicly stated in the PDF linked from the election page): Elizabeth Adkins, Nancy Bartlett, Heather Briston, Bruce Bruemmer, Amy Cooper Cary, Tamar Chute, Paul Conway, Jackie Dooley, Jackie Dooley, James Fogerty, Michael Fox, Steven Gentry, James Gerencser, David Gracy, Pamela Hackbart-Dean, Steven Hensen, H. Thomas Hickerson, Peter Hirtle, Robert Horton, Geof Huth, Elisabeth Kaplan, Ardys Kozbial, William Landis, Cal Lee, Michelle Light, Curtis Lyons, Mary Maher, William Maher, Lisa Mangiafico, Kathy Marquis, Donna McCrea, Nancy McGovern, Dennis Meissner, Steve Mielke, Beth Myers, Cinda Nofziger, Rachel Onuf, Anne Ostendarp, Richard Pearce-Moses, Tim Pyatt, Kathleen Roe, Jill Severn, Heather Soyka, Kate Theimer, Sheryl Vogt, Christine Weideman, Bradley Westbrook, Bryan Whitledge, Brian Williams, Helen Wong Smith, Elizabeth Yakel, and Tanya Zanish-Belcher. ↩︎

  2. Kris is very qualified to be a president, but this is not the point. It may also be the first time a Fellow has been nominated for office. ↩︎

  3. I do not think the two candidates chosen by Nominating Committee would be bad presidents, or even mediocre ones. I am simply noting that even a worst-case scenario for presidency would not seem to merit such interventions. Edited to add: I was also asked about the 5 years part of 3-5 years. I was thinking of the recent number of years Michelle Light served, one term, I believe a break, and then another year to fill in for someone. The standard terms are 3 years. ↩︎

  4. Lae'l Hughes-Watkins, its chair, reminds us of her candidacy statement on which she was elected by the broader SAA community. ↩︎

  5. Edited to add: the anger is visible, but every conversation I've had with peers has centered on sadness, disappointment, and confusion. ↩︎

Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.