Is change possible within SAA? Or, why I want to kill Archival Outlook

I am currently serving on SAA’s Nominating Committee, which means I am part of the group that selects who will run for elected office in SAA next year. Part of this process involves talking with potential candidates about the role they will play and, in many cases, encouraging them to run. Yesterday one potential candidate made this request:

 I’d like to talk generally about your experience on Council, things you think are issues, “improvement opportunities”, and the overall direction of SAA.  It’s not worth it to me to go through running for [office] if it doesn’t mean some potential for change and improvement as a result.

It will not shock regular readers of this blog to learn that I think change is needed within SAA. What kind of change and how that occurs is a different issue, but for now I want to focus on the potential candidate’s question about potential for change. And I’ll use as an example one thing I know I want to change: getting rid of SAA’s newsletter, Archival Outlook, which is printed and mailed to members six times a year.

But first, let’s talk a little bit about SAA’s budget–a topic which again merits much lengthier discussion. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of SAA’s income comes directly from archivists, archives, and archival education programs–through member dues, fees for continuing education classes, purchasing of books, subscriptions to the journal, advertising of jobs in the career center, and registrations at the annual meeting.  Therefore in the current economic climate, I think it’s safe to say that it will be very challenging for SAA to significantly increase revenues (short of finding entirely new products or revenue streams).  In FY2012, according to the Treasurer’s Report:

For the fiscal year ending June 30, SAA posted an operational net gain of $14,812.44 . . . . The SAA Operations net gain exceeded last year by $51,754.44 and budget by $1,974.02. Given that Operations revenues fell short of budget by more than $44,000 , achieving the net gain was due to expense reductions, most notably in Advocacy.

I’m not a numbers person. But having sat through several Council meetings in which the budget was discussed my general impression, which I think is supported by the Treasurer’s report, is that things are running pretty close to the wire right now. What that translates into for the purposes of this discussion (again, reminder, my personal opinion, not a policy statement of SAA Council or anybody else) is that the organization can’t do anything that might disturb its current sources of income and also that it can’t undertake any new initiatives that incur expenses (which has meant deferring many advocacy activities). Unless, of course, current expenses are cut.

Which brings me to Archival Outlook. It’s a fine product and the recent redesign has made it much more visually appealing than it used to be. I’m sure that many members love receiving it in hardcopy via the postal service six times a year. However, producing it incurs about $140,000 of expenses, offset by about $27,000 of revenue. Let’s just round it off and say the net costs are around $100,000. What do we get for that investment? Great content, but content that is locked up in a format that can’t be easily shared on the Web. The electronic form of Archival Outlook is a PDF file of the entire issue. It’s very large and you can’t share or link to individual articles. Therefore, it’s impossible for the content to be posted and shared using tools like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Delicious, Google+, blogs, or even email. Imagine if the content inside  Archival Outlook was published on an ongoing basis in electronic form so that people could link to it and share it. This would allow it to be shared with people other than the current archivist subscribers, which in my opinion would greatly add to the value of SAA’s activities for advocacy and outreach. I’m not saying any article would go viral, but I think the article about the Tupac Shakur archives might have gotten a bit of attention.

So currently we are investing $100,000 in production of a product that can’t be shared in the ways people currently share information and which goes primarily to SAA members. Let’s say (arbitrarily) that $50,000 of that is staff time and the rest are expenses for design, printing and posting. (My apologies for not actually going back to the budget documents and calculating these actual expenses. I may be way off on my numbers, but I think for the purposes of a thought experiment this is an acceptable guess.) If we killed the print version of Archival Outlook and used that staff time to produce content to be posted freely on the Web, as I’ve described, what would that achieve? We would free up $50,000 to spend on other priorities and we would have a better chance of promoting the activities of archives to a wider audience. And we could probably even find a way to sell some advertising to accompany this resource too.

What would we give up if we discontinued the printed Archival Outlook? Right now it’s a membership benefit, and although I don’t really value it, I’m sure some people do. Some members probably have collections of back issues, arranged in order on their shelves, dating back to when they first joined SAA. If they stopped receiving it, I’m sure some people would be upset. How many would drop their membership over it? Who can say, but I don’t think very many would. If you asked people if they wanted it to be changed, I’m sure the majority of people would say they like things just fine the way they are. (And the recent Membership Survey would probably support that.)

So, to return to the question, is change possible within SAA? I think what I’ve described above is a very reasonable proposal for change. It moves SAA forward into being a more 21st century organization, increases opportunities for advocacy and promotion of the profession, and frees up financial resources to invest in other strategic priorities. On the other hand, it will certainly upset some members, as any change will. (Note that currently SAA has a Communications Task Force whose scope includes examining Archival Outlook.  I look forward to seeing their recommendations.)

This is just an example of the kind of hard decision making necessary to bring about change in SAA. You can’t have new activities without finding more income or making significant changes to the way the organization does business. And neither one of those options will be universally popular. The only way I think change is possible is if there are enough people advocating for it and supporting it.

So what will I say to the potential candidate? I think the potential for change is there but that it will be a struggle. Change means risk and I’m not sure how comfortable SAA as an organization is with risk right now (perhaps justifiably, considering how even small decreases in revenue can affect the budget). But what choice is there? If we keep moving along as we have always done our current situation will be safe but we won’t be moving forward or able to adapt to the way the world around the organization has changed. It’s the responsibility of SAA’s leaders to set a strategic direction and make those hard decisions that will enable the organization to grow and evolve. Change is possible if enough people are committed to it and work for it. I hope the potential candidate wants to be one of those people.


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