Reading Motley in 2019

When I picked up “Out of the Hollinger Box: the Archivist as Advocate” at Eira Tansey’s recommendation, it was with rather minimal expectations. The piece is from 1984. I was not ready. An informal survey revealed most of my peers haven’t read it either, so I decided to excerpt the parts which I’d describe as blowing. my. mind.

Motley’s piece is a strong rejoinder to anyone who gives Society of American Archivists grief for being too political when they bring up global warming or other issues of national import. It’s a rebuke to those who get angry that the “kids” are trying to change the organization.1 Keep it up, friends, colleagues, and comrades. Grab hold of the bits of legacy which surprise you and let them carry you forward.

Out of the Hollinger Box

The following quotations are directly from the piece and are not out of context, though there may be typos from my transcription. I’ve provided my own commentary, much of which is marginalia scribbled on my printout. An informal citation for the article is: Motley, Archie. “Out of the Hollinger Box: the Archivist as Advocate.” The Midwestern Archivist v.9, no. 2 (1984), pp. 65-73. You can find the issue in Wisconsin’s IR.

Activism is a natural function of human beings. (65)


This article is rooted in the belief that we should be hesitant to distinguish so-called “professional” concerns from concerns of an extra-professional political nature. Our work must be situated in a larger social context. (65)

our work MUST be situated in a larger social context!

Activists fought for the hiring of a paid executive director for the SAA when Council said we could not afford to hire one. (66)

I literally never thought about how we got that positions.

Activists campaigned for contested rather than single-nominee elections and were the first to secure position statements from the candidates for SAA office and present them to the membership for its information and consideration. (66)

wait — contested elections weren’t always in place? I know it can be hard to fill every slot, which raises some questions about whether we need the number of things we have or whether people just don’t want to do it … but you’re saying contested elections and position statements were a thing people had to make happen? I can see how it would’ve been hard before HTML. I, the presumptuous youth, salute you and all the work that went into getting those statements out!

Activists were early advocates of open council meetings… and in 1971 suggested the open forum that is now a regular part of SAA annual meetings. (66)

again, things I didn’t realize were new!

They first suggested a letter to the editor section in SAA Newsletter (67)

The newly expanded Council minutes, which record votes on issues, can also be regarded as the product of activist efforts to provide more information to SAA members about the inner workings of the organization. (67)

I have been presuming so much! Nowadays, I can and do easily read these online.

Activists were in the forefront of the fight to place the SAA on record in support of public ownership of the papers of the Presidents of the United States and to involve the SAA in related litigation brought by numerous other professional organizations. (67)

yes! This kind of work is our wheelhouse and we should provide our perspectives.

An extended discussion of the role of women in the profession and society reached its zenith at the 1978 SAA annual meeting when the membership overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of the Equal Rights Amendment… (67)

record scratch … did WHAT?

… and recommended that the 1982 SAA annual meeting be moved from Virginia, which had not ratified the amendment to a state which had. (67)


Council quickly endorsed these recommendations and shifted the site of the 1982 meeting to Massachusetts. (67)


But really. Really really. I was born after the ERA’s 1982 deadline passed and it was presumed failed (Nevada and Illinois both ratified it in the last 2 years?). If you’d asked me, knowing what I know of that fight and of the SAA I’ve known in the last decade and presumptions I’ve made despite reading histories of things like descriptive standards… I would never… what I’m saying is, this part really blew my socks off.

During the historic SAA business meting in Nashville in 1978, attended by more members than any business meeting held previously or since, the majority of members present decided that conditions under which we work and the legal framework in which those conditions are situated are very proper subjects for consideration by members of a professional organization. (67)

They decided that in 1978? Who let this slide!? These are extremely proper subjects, but sometimes it feels like we have to constantly make a case for talking about it. 1978. Let’s put that citation in our pockets.

Several members resigned from the Society as a result of the debate in Nashville. But rather than dividing us, as many opponents contended they would, activist-sponsored resolutions supporting the E.R.A. produced a common pride in ourselves and our colleagues, and promoted an increased respect for the SAA Council for implementing decisions of the membership. (67)

None of this actually surprises me (except that it happened in SAA! Society of American Archivists? That one?). Change will always lose a few people. Taking a stand will always lose some people. We have to decide what we want a professional body to be. I want it to be opinionated. Ethics and practice matter in a profession.

Farther down, I read…

[in Boston, 1982], again at the urging of activists, the SAA joined many other professional organizations in passing a nuclear freeze resolution (68).

Well, bless me.

The rest of Motley’s article goes on to talk about what our advocacy might look like. I’ll grab just a few more quotes which still speak to me today:

When faced with the dilution of sound archival programs through frequently unnecessary budget cuts and the curtailment of employees’ rights by hostile supervisors, administrators, and managers, we must oppose cuts and defend our rights by taking strong stands in our institutions and in the archival profession as a whole. We simply cannot accept efforts beginning with the White House and the Congress own down to the state and local level to annul the gains of the 1960s and 1970s … We must never underestimate the fact that current efforts to curb trade unions and curtail workers’ rights are not so much the work of those angered by the admitted excesses and corruptions of some unions, but are the handiwork of those who feel that the average workers should have little to say about the nature and purpose of his or her work because such concerns are those of management rather than the employee. (68)

My note “just @ Frank Boles next time.” This quote is for Boles, who in 2019 tells archivists to keep their heads down, do what their workplaces tell them to, and not worry about justice… and for everyone who reviewed that piece without challenge2 and defended it…

“those who feel that the average workers should have little to say about the nature and purpose of his or her work because such concerns are those of management rather than the employee” — these are the enemies of the archivists as workers, the majority of archivists and all other workers with whom we align ourselves.

Efforts to return America to the McCarthyism of the fifties are flourishing, particularly through the gathering of alleged incriminating information on individuals and groups, and by intensive efforts to restrict this information once it is on file. Individually and collectively, we must strongly support free access to information on people, gathered, ironically, at their own expense as taxpayers. (69)

…we may also begin to sting the conscience of America to forbid the gathering of illicit data that continues to cause so much unnecessary grief and economic, social, and personal hardship… (70)

Allow people to review the terrorist watch list and get their names off it. Cut back on overall surveillance. Less surveillance on Black Lives Matter activists. These are all reasonable demands from information professionals.

And finally…

…we should… be alert to the dangers inherent in the currently pervasive management syndrome. … We should keep in mind that trade unionists and the average blue or white collar worker often understand management’s frequently adversarial relationship to workers better than do most professionals, including archivists, who are often oblivious to the similarities between management attitudes and practices in “big business” and in the non-profit sector. (71)

This was a heck of a premonition.

[if the SAA is conducting management workshops], SAA should also conduct workshops to advise workers how to cope with management, how to stand strong in the face of adversity, how to consider and effect unionization in their shops, or other collective means to improve their conditions (71).

I underlined and drew stars beside this section.

There’s more in this piece. I don’t believe it was in my archival education. I am fairly sure it wasn’t. I would’ve come to SAA with higher expectations. I encourage others to read it. When people tell you to stay in your Hollinger box, remember the majority vote of 1978 which affirmed that it was necessary we address the conditions of our work and the legal frameworks of those conditions. Remember the people. Remember this piece. None of these things happened without archivists speaking up.

Go forth! Make the SAA address questions of ethical sponsorships. Support discussion of and action on climate change as an issue which will affect all of our workplaces and lives over the coming decades. Write and bring those organizing workshops. Name the poison of white supremacy where it arises. Keep the spirit of the 1978 gathering in your back pocket, add to it the spirit of Motley’s piece and the spirit of everyone else you’ve seen make change for good.

Be excellent trouble.

A Bit About Motley

Since I’m not from the Midwest and have never really been an archivist, you’ll have to forgive me for not having heard of Motley. The page for the Motley Scholarship doesn’t surprise me after I’ve read this piece, though. An abbreviated excerpt:

Archie Motley was born on December 2, 1934, in Chicago. Son of prominent African American painter Archibald Motley Jr. and Edith Granzo, Motley graduated from Englewood High School and later earned a BA in philosophy from DePaul University in 1960 and an MA in philosophy from Loyola University Chicago in 1965. He began working at the Chicago History Museum in 1955 where he ultimately advanced to the position of curator of archives and manuscripts in 1974. He spearheaded active collection development of Chicago’s urban, social, and cultural history—especially collections related to labor, African Americans, and community organizations—but also many other types of material related to Chicago’s complex and tumultuous history. In 1998, he was named Chicago History Museum’s archivist emeritus. … Motley’s life and legacy cannot be easily calculated. His impact on the archival profession and on the history of un- and under-documented communities is impossible to quantify.


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

  2. Or proper, peer-review scrutiny. Tansey’s public review of the print shows exactly what was missed. It’s also in the spirit of the piece above, challenging our organizations to do better. It’s a challenge to what’s supposed to be our flagship journal not to publish sloppy work. The outcry of archivists has already led to changes on the publication’s website saying that reviews will now be double-blind. ↩︎