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Throwing Out the Baby, the Bathwater, and the Bathtub: The Sad State of the Archives and Archivists Listserv

Today, Nancy Beaumont, Executive Director of the Society of American Archivists, made an announcement on the Archives & Archivists listserv that SAA would no longer retain the first thirteen years of posts from the listserv. During this time the listserv was hosted by Miami University of Ohio, and last September, the list was moved to an SAA server. This stems from a decision made by SAA Council that they not retain the archives for three reasons: 1) an appraisal decision informed by the SAA's archives at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, 2) a consideration of administrative issues, and 3) a consideration of cost.

While the appraisal decision is well-informed by the claim that the list archives do not have evidential value as SAA records, the belief that these records have little informational value does not sit well with me. The list archives document the development of archives becoming a stronger profession in the face of technology and the creation of a tight-knit social network. While not all of the posts are "serious," the discussions themselves are important to preserve as one can see the ways in which archival discourse has changed over time.

The administrative issues stem from legal concerns about copyright and posters wanting certain messages removed. While these concerns also have merit, a great deal of discussion lists have retained their messages for periods even longer than the existence of the A&A list. And finally, in terms of cost, SAA claims that the financial burden would be too much to bear to preserve and maintain the list archives. I find that to be completely ridiculous! Storage costs continue to go down, and even if SAA chose not to make the technical commitment to serving the archives themselves, I'm sure enough interested individuals or organizations could find a way to host the archives themselves. In fact, I'm sure a few technologically inclined archivists have already found a way to capture the list archives without a second thought.

Neither SAA Council nor staff made the effort to let the SAA membership know about the potential plans throught the A&A listserv. While a motion regarding this matter was documented in SAA Council minutes from last August, there was no mention of the creation of any task force to determine the disposition of the list archives. Furthermore, the statement made by Ms. Beaumont claims that the Task Force created reports to justify their decision, but they have yet to be released to the SAA member body for review. Most egregious of all, though, is that SAA Council made this decree less than three weeks before the deletion of the archives from the Miami University listserver. The final version of the motion passed by SAA Council reads:

THAT SAA retain the electronic records of the A&A List archives for a minimum period of two years for the purposes of appraisal based on content analysis, cost of maintenance, and ongoing study of the use of the data.

Simply put, it has not been two years since even the last of the archives held at Miami University were originally posted. SAA Council appears to be violating its own motion.

In all, I find this to be an embarrassment to the profession. How are we to be trusted with retaining the memory of society if we can't even retain our own? I certainly hope there are some enterprising archivists out there that are willing to step up to the plate to find a way to store this data before it gets thrown out all together. Do we have to prove SAA Council wrong, or go against their wishes just to prove a point? In some ways I hope not, but if we must, we should. This is finally getting some good coverage thanks to and Boing Boing posting links to Rick Prelinger's post. (Edit: I've been watching Technorati, too - coverage is starting to spread like wildfire!) I certainly it gets more since this appears to be such an egregious violation of the profession's goals and the trust of the SAA members.



  • 💬 Ed Summers at March 14, 2007, 14:34 UTC:

    Thanks for blogging about this Mark. It does seem totally absurd. I certainly don't understand the financial concerns when the listserv mbox data could be dumped into something mail-archive.

    Nice job in your response on the discussion list as well. I'll be looking to your blog to hear how this develops.

  • 💬 Anonymous at March 15, 2007, 21:11 UTC:

    Mark, that's a good point about the violation of the two-year retention motion. You should send that to SAA executive officers and the A&A list.