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Professional Privilege: A Response to the 2013 SAA Presidential Address

August 16, 2013

UPDATE: A pre-publication transcript of Jackie Dooley’s 2013 SAA Presidential Address is now available on the SAA website. The final version will be published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the American Archivist.

Shortly after the SAA 2013 Presidential Address, I tweeted the following: “Dear #saa13 professionals in positions of power: you have inherent privilege. It must be recognized for us to have productive convos.”

The tweet grabbed a bit of attention in the Twitter world, and I have been asked to expand upon it. Obviously, this is not a topic which can be fully explored 140 characters at a time. Even this blog, frankly, only scratches the surface. So, first the disclaimers: these are my opinions alone, and they do not represent the opinions of my employer, my school, my roundtables within SAA, or any other affiliation real or imagined.

To begin, I should operationalize my terms. When I say “positions of power”, I specifically mean leadership positions which make policies and/or those with representative authority (the power to speak on behalf of others). When I say “privilege”, I use it in the academic sense that a privileged person has certain rights, autonomy, and power that do not extend to more marginalized groups. Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” provides an excellent operational definition of privilege. It is an especially wonderful exploration of privilege because it is written from the perspective of the empowered (a white woman exploring her own unconscious privilege in the women’s studies community). McIntosh also provides many useful examples which challenge our typical perceptions of privilege. As she writes, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.

In that sense, when I ask archivists in prominent leadership positions to examine how they benefit from (or at least are not actively harmed by) certain aspects of the professional status quo, I am not accusing anyone of being intentionally mean or oppressive. What I am saying is look deeper. If a member of a marginalized group tells you that “circumstance x is harmful to me”, you are coming from a position of privilege if you say “well, circumstance x has never been a problem for me” or “that’s the way it is, deal with”. This is especially true if you have the power to do something about circumstance x.

The concept of privilege in this sense has no bearing on how hard someone has worked, or whether they do or do not deserve the position they hold. In my own short professional life, I worked multiple part-time jobs (above 50 hrs per week) without insurance while pursuing internships, presenting at local/regional conferences, and pursuing two undergraduate degrees and a minor. In other words, I worked REALLY HARD to get to where I am.

I can examine my own privilege, of which the following is a small sample: for part of my undergraduate career, I was supported by a second income which made it possible for me to quit part-time jobs in favor of unpaid internships. I had a mother who was college educated, making me significantly more likely to succeed in higher education. I am a white woman in East Texas, who has a much easier time obtaining employment or internships for small cultural heritage organizations and government agencies.  I received limited financial assistance to attend graduate school. I am a legal resident and citizen with full access to financial aid. I live in a country where I, as a woman, am entitled and allowed to pursue higher education.

In my tweet, I was specifically referring to individual attitudes of SAA leaders (who are on, but not necessarily intending to represent, the Council) towards the issue of unpaid internships and volunteer labor. I believe (and a number of SAA members in and beyond the SNAP roundtable, including advocates in higher education and SAA leadership roles) that the proliferation of unpaid internships at the expense of even part-time temporary positions is directly harmful to my professional interests. While I recognize that they exist, and in many cases it may be necessary under current norms to take them, I believe they undermine the professionalization of archives and archivists. I believe SAA has a responsibility to articulate the value of and defend our profession at all levels.

Now, here is the crux of my frustration: when seasoned archives professionals enter conversations among new archives professionals and demand to be treated as “equals”. This is a perfect manifestation of the disconnect between equal membership and equitable membership. I am not equal to an SAA Council member, nor is the Council member equal to a student paraprofessional. We should have equitable rights and representation within our professional organization, however. The denial of privilege relates to individuals who refuse to recognize that they have disproportionate power in our interactions.

Jackie Dooley articulated in her address today that she felt at times excluded or marginalized from student/new professional discussions on Twitter. The truth is that  it is not the responsibility of a marginalized or minority group to empower a member of the majority group (in this case, experienced white archives professionals). In other words, it is not the responsibility of brand new archivists who have concerns about our professional worth to mollify SAA Council members with whom we fundamentally disagree (on this particular issue).

Furthermore, all parties involved simply cannot pretend that we are speaking from equal ground. Students and new archivists are speaking up, archivists in leadership positions are speaking down. As they say in stand-up comedy, joking “up” is comedy, joking “down” is cruelty. (Patton Oswalt’s recent op-ed on “Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes” provides an interesting examination of this dynamic). When Council members and other SAA leaders talk down to less empowered members – dismissing their concerns, calling them out in otherwise safe spaces, or even engaging in ad hominem attacks – this fundamentally undermines our ability to engage in product professional discourse.

We (new archives professionals and students) really do want to engage with you (experienced/established archivists), learn from you, work with you, hear from you, even wrestle (figuratively speaking) with you on professional issues. It is completely inappropriate, however, to leverage your privilege from a position of power to “win” arguments about issues that directly affect us (but do not affect you). Specifically: I was shocked that Jackie Dooley used the platform of the SAA presidential pulpit to “respond” to Twitter, listserv, and blog conversations among SNAP members about our frustrations with volunteer labor, the lackluster job market, and unpaid internships. At one point, she minimized our collective frustration by lamenting “… if only life were fair”. The upside is that she made some very fair and laudable points about this population’s future in SAA and she brought profession wide attention to a number of social justice issues I care deeply about.

I have had the opportunity this week to meet a number of self-declared advocates among LIS faculty and SAA leadership. Every single one I have engaged with has been gracious, welcoming, and incredibly generous with their time and expertise. So, I want to emphasize that I am not trying to demonize people or mitigate the incredible accomplishments of these seasoned professionals. However – and this is the take away- BEING NICE IS NOT ENOUGH. Considering oneself an advocate for students and new professionals does not exempt one from marginalizing or disempowering that very same group.

In closing, here is another great quote from Peggy McIntosh’s article:

“My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.”

Additional Reading:

Oswalt, P. (2013). “Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jakes”. Slate Magazine.

McIntosh, P. (1989) “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In Peace and Freedom.


From → Internships, SAA

  1. Jenny permalink

    A friend just forwarded this post to me. Thank you for writing it. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” was a required text when I was an undergraduate, and, 15 years on, I think every member of SAA would do well to read it.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my blogpost! “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” had such a profound effect on me when I read it for the first time that I feel compelled to share it wherever possible. I’m glad to hear it had a positive impact on you as well.

  2. Dear Sam Winn,

    Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful response to my talk yesterday. My objective was to open a conversation with SAA on these tough issues. It appears that I was successful. 🙂 I was definitely throwing down the gauntlet to the SAA leadership (of which I stopped being a formal member three hours ago–which doesn’t mean I’ll be tuning out), raise the awareness of experienced archivists, and recognize the really crappy hand that lots of new archivists have been dealt. Some of your comments leave me wondering about how you (plural) and we (i.e., my cohort of archivists with lengthy experience and diminishing brain power) can successfully communicate about these issues in a productive way–but more on that later. I’ll try to find a place and time to comment further publicly after I’ve spent a bit of time reveling in my full-time return to the day job on Monday morning.

    Best wishes, Jackie Dooley

    • Jackie,

      First of all, thank you for engaging. Your willingness to at least talk about the issues is refreshing, and I really do think you made some excellent points in your speech. I think it’s easy for all of us to kind of talk past each other sometimes (especially on the internet), but it’s meaningful to some extent that we are talking at all. I’ll join you in hoping that your 2013 address continues to spark serious discourse and eventually something actionable.

      Thanks for opening up Off the Record to the discussion as well. I’m keeping an eye on the comments. In the meantime, happy Monday! (womp womp)


  3. Stephanie Bennett permalink

    Two points that really struck me as things to remember are:

    1. “The truth is that it is not the responsibility of a marginalized or minority group to empower a member of the majority group (in this case, experienced white archives professionals). In other words, it is not the responsibility of brand new archivists who have concerns about our professional worth to mollify SAA Council members with whom we fundamentally disagree (on this particular issue).” So important to remember, in any number of interactions.

    2. “BEING NICE IS NOT ENOUGH. Considering oneself an advocate for students and new professionals does not exempt one from marginalizing or disempowering that very same group.” People have sympathized with the tough job market, recognized how hard it is… and then hired someone with many years of experience for an “entry-level” job. I appreciate that as archivists we have to get more bang for our buck, but I also feel that people should put their collections where their mouth is. Either a hiring manager trusts me to get the job done and be a useful member of their team or s/he don’t. As hiring managers, please be honest about the open position and your expectations/preferences, with me and with yourself.

    Young archivists need people who listen to us; demonstrate that they understand our concerns; and help us make an impact and make ends meet. Why don’t more graduate schools enable students to get paid internships for credit? SNAP addresses some of these issues but doesn’t wield the influence that SAA does. It could be as simple as soliciting members for practices that encourage the hiring of entry-level MLS grads, or how it deals with paid/unpaid work fairly. I used to do best practice research, and the first step is really that easy: ask “Does your organization do any interesting/cool/unusual things to ensure entry-level candidates are encouraged?” and sit back.

    This all is making me wish I had more time to do more research. But if anyone wants to take up these ideas, feel free!

  4. Amy M. permalink

    I fail to see how a hiring manager is marginalizing entry level archivists if they receive applications from more experienced archivists & therefore choose to hire them over someone with less experience. Isn’t that how the job market works? Hmm, apparently I don’t understand how groups are marginalized based on career-experience level?

    Anyway my point is I don’t see it as such a simple issue as someone thinks you can do the job or they don’t.

    I have nearly 7 years of experience working in archives but the lack of higher level jobs available makes it very difficult to move up and therefore I think difficult for inexperienced archivists to “break into” the field.

    I don’t disagree with the argument in the original post, in terms of SAA needing to advocate for professionalization. I just wonder what people think is a practical and possible solution? While funding positions over unpaid internships would help entry-level workers, what does it do for those already in the field who are having trouble moving up? Would it help the profession as a whole?

    I guess maybe you would say I am speaking from a position of privilege as compared to new professionals, but I am just not making the connection. How do you solve the issue of marginalization if it is based in the fact that the field is oversaturated and underfunded? What am I missing?

    I find this a very interesting topic, but apparently it just led to more questions than answers for me… Haha.

    • Hello Amy! Thank you for visiting the blog and leaving such a thought provoking comment. It is always helpful to have practical perspective from the hiring manager side.

      I do plan to leave a more substantive response in the near future, but I wonder whether you meant to leave this comment on the Off the Record post (, which deals more directly with the topics you brought up in your comment. You might have receive better responses there than you would on this post, which deals primarily with professional dialogue.

  5. MTK permalink

    Looks like I missed out by not being at SAA this year. Thanks for the blog post. I read Jackie Dooley’s speech and just read your response. I am no longer a “new archivist” since I have been doing this since 2007, but I still feel very new to this profession in many aspects. Perhaps people like me can be the “middle man” in this discussion. I am not so far removed from my early years that I don’t remember what it is like, but I also can also understand where some of the more seasoned of our profession are coming from as well. I am still a student also (I am finishing up my MSIS program this December). Another issue that I see is the mid-level position. Those are even harder to find in our profession. It makes it difficult for those new to profession when they are competing against mid-career archivists who end up applying for entry level positions.I am not sure I know what the answer is to these questions, but I am happy to join the conversation. I think that is the first step opening up a real dialog and not just talking over and around each other.

    I am also very intrigued by the “professional privilege” aspect. I need to read the book you mentioned. I can see where I have had privilege on my side, although I refer to it as luck. I was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time for my 1st archivist position. I was even luckier to only be unemployed for a few months when that job ended and I found another project archivist position for a year. I was luckier still when that temporary position morphed into a full time gig. Yes I have worked hard and deserve my job, but I recognize that I was extremely lucky and there are many others who work hard and deserve the same, but have not been as fortunate. As professionals we should be working to help each other succeed which will benefit us all in the long run.

    • MTK,

      Thank you for the excellent comment! The article I mentioned (“White Privilege”) is actually very brief and available for free online. It’s pretty dense, but a rather quick read. You mentioned one aspect of the job market that I have been thinking a lot about. I also benefited from being in the right place at the right time for my first full-time archives job. You and Amy M. each brought up the experiences of mid-career archivists in the job market, and I agree that it is a very important discussion to have. I would say it’s just as unfair for mid-career archivists to get stuck in a series of temporary processing jobs and paraprofessional positions. I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t know what the solution is either, but I am profoundly glad that folks are trying to talk about it.

      Kate Theimer, author of the Archives Next blog and former SAA Council member, is exploring the need for a midcareer archivists’ group in SAA. Check out her most recent post, “Gauging interest in group (formal or informal) for ‘mid career’ archivists”. Anyone who wants to be involved in that conversation will definitely find a tenacious ally in Kate Theimer.

  6. Thanks to the archivsaurus for a helpful post and discussion. I am one of those way privileged white males who has served as an archival administrator at a major university for about 17 years. I am as lucky as you can get and I have worked hard, not to get this position (which I didn’t ask for), but to make a difference in lives of our students, our faculty and our community through archives. While this discussion around issues of power and perception is quite rich, I’m not sure it really helps us get at the fundamental issue: What specifically are we doing to create jobs in archives at all levels, and are there steps we can take to create a progression of employment that creates opportunity for our skilled people, but also meets the needs of our employers and our communities? Our ability to advocate for the value of professional archival work and reach people who have resources is the key. All of us, administrators, line professionals, non-professionals, interns and volunteers can and should do this.

    We need to get much, much better at it.

    How many times do I have to repeat to the Dean or the donor, “archives is professional work”? How many projects were bungled because academic administrators thought they could get the job done with volunteers and interns? Did I even get to the table when the university decided to eliminate our Academic Associate classification, which didn’t require a master’s degree? (No.) How long did it take to reinstate continuing appointment track for archivist appoinments after they eliminated that? (Three years, the librarians never lost their status.) But the key point of this ramble is thanks to Jackie Dooley we’re talking about these issues, but we’re short on solutions. Here are two that worked here:

    * I recast job descriptions in recent professional searches to weight more heavily the qualifications for certain very technical archival skills that I believed would be applicable to younger archivists and that we need in our archives (video editing and social media).

    * I cast and heavily weighted required qualifications for spanish language and social media skills.

    In this way we were able to hire two younger archivists. They were the “most highly qualified candidates” based upon the way I wrote up the job. I decided we could do our work differently. I think its’ possible to create opportunity that benefits my institution/community, AND relieves some of the inequity at the same time.

    Another important opportunity is when we are making cost estimates for processing incoming collections. Do we estimate hours of professional and non-professional work? What do we say when they challenge the budget? Haven’t we got enough horror stories of projects gone wrong? In this case I had one chance to make my case with executives, but its not working so far. I’m still trying to create a job there.

    I’m not waiting for SAA’s cavalry to come over the hill. They might come up with some good ideas I can use, but ultimately it takes the courage of one individual to take pride in what we do and to justify the good work of archives. One person, one moment, one donor or executive or board member at a time. Maybe it’s you in that elevator.

    • Rob,

      I appreciate how you hit on two core issues – how we can channel this conversation into actual job creation “at all levels” and how we can advance our ability to advocate “for the value of professional archival work”. These issues are not unique to the American archives field; David Lietch, secretary-general of the International Council on Archives, alluded to the same dilemmas at the international level during his presentations to the International Archival Affairs Roundtable and ICA forum. He asserted that “we should stop apologizing for being archivists” or risk being marginalized when archives are declared “too important to be left to the archivists”.

      One thing I would like to note is that many of us were talking about these issues long before Jackie Dooley’s speech. Although this barely scratches the surface of the conversation, you can preview some of the discussion from the last two years here , here, here, here, here, and here.

      What makes this year’s conversation different from last year’s or 2011’s is the growing presence of managers, administrators, and educators who have both the ability and the inclination to implement positive changes. That shift is due in large part to Jackie Dooley’s decision to devote her Presidential Address to this topic. She used her professional privilege – the ‘bully pulpit’ of the SAA presidency – to bridge the discourse gulf between early career archivists and archives administrators.

      With all that said, thank you for your exceptional contributions to the discussion. You offered many practical recommendations, and your comments helped me – as a burgeoning professional – to better understand the dilemma administrators are in. You also challenged students, paraprofessionals, interns, and early-career archivists to take responsibility for advocating for the value of our profession. Even when we don’t have the power to write better job descriptions or offer paid internships, we CAN help advocate.

      Best wishes,

  7. Boss Hog permalink

    I hope you’re feeling better. 🙂

    I think the one point missing from your analysis is that those in a ‘position of privilege’ typically do not control the amount of funding an archives receives for a given fiscal year. Administrators can make budget requests, but these will not necessarily be granted. Indeed, most (if not all?) archives are part of a parent organization that provides their mandate…and may often view libraries/archives as units where funds can be cut to meet other priorities. Jobs, let alone well-funded ones, are not created ex nihilo…

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Culminating Thoughts on SAA13 « Eira Tansey
  2. Professional privilege: get uncomfortable | You Ought to be Ashamed
  3. Internships, Privilege and SAA: A Council Member Responds | Off the Record
  4. The Great Internship Debate: What’s Next? | Archivasaurus

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