“The SAA Annual Meeting is unwelcoming.” Yes, it can be. Here’s what we can do about it.

For the past few days I’ve been going through the over 1500 comments SAA members submitted when they completed the SAA Member Survey. As you might expect, some familiar themes emerge, and one of them is that SAA as a whole and that the annual meeting in particular isn’t very welcoming of newcomers. I was reading those comments (and these ones) right before I attended the fall MARAC meeting, so I made an effort to try to talk to new people, and I’m glad I did. However, this was a something I actually had to be conscious about because, and I’m being 100% honest with you, I don’t go to meetings with the goal of meeting new people. Sorry, maybe that’s not admirable, but it’s the truth.

Anyone who knows me knows that I know I lot of people and that I seldom get to see any of them in person. For me and I think many others, going to a regional or national meeting is a rare chance to see friends and colleagues and catch up. I treasure my friends, and if I have a choice between spending time with someone I see once a year and talking with someone new, I may be more likely to choose the former than the latter. I don’t think that’s unusual. So, yes, if you go to annual meeting as a newcomer and feel like everyone else is there to see their friends, you’re partly right. Which isn’t to say that I don’t end up meeting new people–I always do, and some of those new people become friends too.

I was lucky. When I attended my first SAA meeting, I was part of group of students who all knew each other and hung out together. But I’ve heard from friends about their first meetings, when they didn’t know anyone and felt lonely and excluded. And that’s not a nice feeling. No one enjoys feeling like that.

So what can we do about it? And by “we” I mean SAA as an organization and “we” as individual people? Well, you can do what the dynamic members of the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable did, and organize something to help. They coordinated a lunchtime meetup for people who wanted to get together–and was there a dinner one too? From what I heard those were a big success. And the Long Arrangers Roundtable does something similar, I think, don’t they? So if you’re already involved in an SAA group, you can think about what you can do to help better integrate and welcome newcomers.

What else? I was chatting with some friends about this on Facebook (no surprise there!)  and it was interesting to see how the conversation went:

You know, though, I can kind of understand. For years (and for some of those I was a lone-arranger), I felt kind of like an outsider at SAA meetings. No one really talked to me. I just wandered from session to session. It was really lonely. (I’m being completely serious)

if you walk into a meeting of 1600 or more and don’t already know someone … It takes a lot of energy to make that first connection – energy that introverts are already using to just walk in the door in the first place. I felt the same way at the conference I went to before joining NARA.

Just to the right of the registration booth there needs to be a “First Timers” booth staffed with SAA member volunteers to welcome the newbies and do a little on the spot mentoring. At the least, yank another SAA member walking by and introduce the newbie to at least one other member at the meeting. Kate Theimer: Let’s make that our project for New Orleans!

I love the idea of some sort of “welcome wagon” for newbies! I may even make it my personal goal to talk to some folks who look like they’re new and just trying to navigate.

[Me:] Are you volunteering to staff that “welcome wagon” booth, [name redacted]? Should have someone from the local area there too, to help with logistical questions. And maybe some swag to give out? Maybe some of the SNAPpers would want to staff it too.

We could make “First Timer” or “SAA Virgin” ribbons!

[Another organization] has done first time attendee ribbons for ever…we ask on the registration form if this is their first convention (so gets tracked in database), and we follow-up with this group with special blast emails, information, what to do, etc,; and special follow-up surveys, etc.

[Me:] I think they already have “new member” ribbons. Not sure about “first timer” ones. And they do have the new member/first time attendee reception, at the end of the first day, I think. But that’s not always a great way to meet people.

And they had that program for awhile – not sure if they still have it – where a “first time” could be partnered with a more seasoned attendee. The seasoned attendee would have coffee with them, help them out with logistics, and whatever. I did it one year but [redacted information about why it didn’t work out so well.]

[Me:]  That’s the “Navigators” program, and yes they still do it. But I’ve heard it has problems.

So there you go. A short brainstorming session on Facebook and my friend, let’s call him Name Redacted, came up with a good idea that I think is something SAA doesn’t already do. Anybody think this would be helpful? Should Name Redacted get working on organizing it? What else can you think of that might help?

p.s. I know there are other problems. Remember, I read through all the comments. I heard about other concerns, and I’ll get around to talking about those soon. Maybe even on the official SAA blog, but for now I just thought I’d focus on one thing and see if maybe we can do something about that.


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