Last week I attended the Designing the Archive conference, co organised by the ASA, ARANZ, ICA and PARBICA. This blog post is to jot down a few reflections on what I learned and experienced at the conference, and to give a few insights on doing professional development while on maternity leave. It was a big conference so I’m selecting just a few things that stood out to me. That is not to say that the presentations I missed or did not write about here were not important.
I’m on maternity leave and I chose to self-fund to attend. I could not pass up the opportunity to attend such an international conference when it was happening in Australia (I’ve previously attended ICA conferences in South Korea (2016) and Mexico (2017)). I’m finding that keeping my professional network active, and continuing to think about the profession, is helping to keep me sane and adjust to my new life as a parent with balance. Those first few months of first-time parenthood were really hard as not only was I learning what to do to care for a child, but I was also mourning being immediately (though temporarily) excluded from my usual network, professional community, routine and role/identity.
The first event I attended was the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) University Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting, since I work at a University. I realised in the first few minutes that:
A ) my brain was a little rusty as I had to think for a moment, what do all those words like appraisal and accession mean? At first I felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language since the last few months have all been (reusable) nappies, breastfeeding, babywearing and nursery rhymes.
B ) I really missed using my brain for work stuff and I enjoyed hearing everyone’s updates on what projects they were working on and what challenges they were facing.
It was clear from the first day at the Welcome Reception that the conference organisers had made genuine efforts to be inclusive of Indigenous cultures and perspectives. It was great to have that embedded into the conference and to have a Welcome to Country to open the first day of presentations. Jennifer O’Neal from the University of Oregon provided in their presentation a list of authors that we should all read regarding Indigenous knowledge systems: Cheryl Metoyer, Ally Krebs, Miranda Belarde-Lewis, Marisa Elena Durante, Sandy Littletree, Camille Callison, Kim Lawson, Kirsten Thorpe, Shannon Faulkhead, Loris Williams, Angie Abdilla, Tasha James, Cassie Willis, Lauren Brooker.
It was clear from many presentations that as a profession we are able to admit and acknowledge that archives and archival practice is not neutral. That we have got it wrong and often continue to get it wrong. I have been hearing these messages for the last few years from the profession since I started attending conferences, but it is not always clear what can be done to improve the situation. An approach that seems to be helping is participatory research – including in your projects the people that the records are about or affect. The session presented by Belinda Battley, Seren Wendelken, Gregory Roland and Joanne Evans, Chaired by Nicola Laurent, showed the benefits and necessity of doing so. This was also covered by Elizabeth Shepherd’s talk on human-centred recordkeeping and the MIRRA project – memory, identity, rights in records, access. There is a short video about the project available to watch online.
It was such a rare luxury for me to be baby free at times during the conference (with my partner parenting bub, armed with a stash of expressed breastmilk) that I chose not to live tweet much of what I watched. I have been multitasking and pulled in all different directions so much this past year, that I wanted to really just be in the moment and watch without any distraction, even though for me Tweeting also doubles as my note-taking. As a side-note, the only reason I have two hands free to type this article today is because I’ve settled my baby to sleep on me in a baby carrier (I discovered early on that babies are programmed to protest being put down to sleep alone, quite rightly to ensure their survival in the forest, but that they quickly and easily fall asleep when tired and held in arms or in a baby carrier).
The first keynote, Michelle Caswell, had me nodding along to almost every word they said. She presented an approach to rethinking appraisal theory from a feminist perspective. She said things that needed to be said and heard, including criticisms (quite rightly) of white supremacy and the patriarchy. I’m looking forward to reading her paper on it. As a sneak peak, here’s a quote from the abstract about what is feminist standpoint appraisal:
“In valuing the unique insights gleaned by people on the margins, feminist standpoint appraisal refuses the notion that archivists from oppressed communities must overcome their positionalities to meet institutional goals and professional demands for neutrality, but rather, values and leverages the insights gained from outsider status, viewing the attendant insights as assets, rather than as detriments, to the archival endeavor. Furthermore, feminist standpoint appraisal calls on archivists who inhabit dominant identities to acknowledge their oppressor standpoints and actively work to dismantle them.”
The morning and afternoon teas went for 45 minutes, and lunch for 1 hour, which I really appreciated. It was enough time to catch up with people and make new friends, and to take my time eating the delicious catering (the food was superb!). It also gave me time to walk to the parent’s room and pump milk so that I could leave bub with my partner for longer. There were times though that I needed to pump or spend time with bub away from the presentations, and I would have appreciated if presentations were streamed into the parent’s room, which is routine at some conferences.
When I booked my conference ticket I registered for the conference dinner without thinking through how that would work with a baby. I generally find that they are very unsettled when away from me in the evening (and much more settled in the daytime when we are apart). So I decided to pop bub in the baby carrier and get there right on time, so I could enjoy the event before it got too loud or we both got too tired. We have introduced solids using the Baby Led Weaning (BLW) approach, which avoids purees and spoon feeding and starts with finger food at around 6 months (For further info on baby led weaning, see the book by Gill Rapley). This meant bub could share my meal with me which made things easy. I also had someone kindly watch bub for a bit so I could have a few minutes to eat baby-free, which I was grateful for.
On the last day of presentations, Keynote Camille Callison was not afraid to speak her mind and to be honest about what we need to do to genuinely honour and include Indigenous voices in archival thinking and practice. While she was introduced as a librarian, she said that she calls herself a cultural memory activist. She noted that Western systems and approaches to recordkeeping do not work for a lot of Indigenous knowledge. Also that it took a long time in Canada for Indigenous oral histories to be recognised as evidence/records, compared to written documents. She emphasised that relationship building is essential to reconciliation.
The ICA runs a New Professionals program to support and encourage those with five or less years in the profession. It was great to see the program participants presenting on the last day of the conference. It’s wonderful to see the ICA supporting newbies to attend conferences and to network and be mentored. It was the ICA program which inspired me to co-establish, with Emma Harding, a student and new professional program locally within the professional association RIMPA. You can read more about the ICA’s program online, and about recent RIMPA Noobs initiatives too.
The last session I saw before the closing ceremony was on archives and data: opportunities and risks. Anne Lyon’s talk highlighted just how important records can be to national security and culture in Australia. She defined national identity data as records held in both public and private locations, assets around culture, history, identity, legal records. Births, deaths and marriages, court decisions, and more. She said it is a national security issue that this data has been undervalued. I look forward to reading her report which is available for free online. During question time, she was asked what records managers and archivists can do when information security is often seen as a technical IT issue and we are left out of the discussion. Her advice was to just turn up or invite yourself to meetings to ensure you are included.
While it was challenging to attend an interstate conference with a baby, it helped immensely that my partner took time off work and travelled with us, and parented bub for much of the conference. Though I did bring bub into some sessions. Attending wearing a baby sparked some interesting conversations around childcare and parenting. There were many references to Annabel Crabb’s writings on the matter such as her book ‘The Wife Drought’, and more recently, her Quarterly Essay, an extract of which is available online.
The call for papers is now open for the ICA 2020 Abu Dhabi Congress to be held 16-20 November, with the theme Empowering Knowledge Societies. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it, but I do hope I can find a way, financially and logistically!