Front page > VSARA Goes Forth: the NAGARA Conference Report
VSARA Goes Forth
Sweet Harmony & Solid Gold: Archivists and Records Administrators Make Beautiful Music in Nashville, TN
Records Analyst Rachel Muse attended the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA)/Council of State Archivists (COSA) annual meeting in July in Nashville, Tennessee. Read on for Rachel's report on just some of the conference activities.
I was thrilled to receive an award from the New England Archivists (NEA) which helped to fund my trip to Nashville to attend this year's NAGARA conference. While at NAGARA, I took in as many sessions and talks as I could fit into my two and a half days.
The first session I attended proved to be one of the most interesting and relevant to my work. It's 10 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Governor's Records Are? featured a panel of speakers from New York, North Carolina, and Tennessee, who each confront unique challenges when it comes to the disposition and preservation of governors' records.
In Tennessee, the disposition of governors' records is not dictated by state statute. A strong tradition of donating these records to the state archives, however, means that most of the state's gubernatorial records are held under one roof.
In North Carolina, statutes allow for the collection of governors' papers by the state archives, and so records are routinely transferred into archives throughout the course of each administration. Their gubernatorial records are managed like the records of any other state agency — through retention schedules — although recent controversy concerning retention of certain types of electronic records has proven problematic for the governor's office and the state archives.
Finally, in New York State, governors' records are not collected by the state archives under statute and have not traditionally been transferred to the archives. Rather, they frequently end up in the hands of colleges and universities or other collectors. The variety of ways governors' records are handled in each state is a fascinating glimpse into the reach of state law and the position of the governor, and state archives, in different settings.
Having been the primary contact with Governor Jim Douglas's office during the transfer of his records to the state archives in Vermont in 2011, I was interested to learn how different states deal with the unique issues of governors' records — the relatively fast transition, the heightened interest by researchers and the public, and the fact that a much larger percentage of these records (including electronic records) may be considered archival than those of other state agencies.
The disposition of governors' records also creates publicity for an archival repository, and the speakers discussed the negative and positive effects of this intense publicity. My counterparts in different states took on these challenges in different ways and found opportunities in the heightened publicity and interest in these records.
Another motivating session I attended was entitled A Better Mousetrap: Marketing Records Management in a Budget-Cutting World. The issue of ever-shrinking budgets was a recurring conference theme, both in and out of formal sessions. The presenters, records managers at the county level from Tennessee and Kansas, have developed strong records management programs by treating and publicizing records management as a business function in their agencies. They spoke in terms of compliance, auditing and adding value to their business activities.
This business-speak gets the message across to executive level, non-records staff: records management is a crucial function of government that helps other business units meet their goals. I left this session with a stronger than ever sense that records and information management is not a luxury but a necessity for a well-run government agency.
While the sessions were inspiring, they were certainly not the only source of new information at the conference. The conference featured two very different plenary sessions, each valuable in its own way.
The first plenary featured Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Wall, who'd stepped into this role just days before her appearance at NAGARA. She spoke of the major transitions taking place at NARA under the leadership of National Archivist David S. Ferriero. In a refrain that echoed throughout the conference, this transition period at NARA is marked by a focus on new technologies and a more business-like sensibility toward management and operations.
The next plenary session, Will You Still Need Me... Will You Still Feed Me... in 2064? also took a forward look at the future of archives and records management. Panelists from the worlds of archives, public history, a genealogical organization, and academia asked how archival repositories will remain relevant and engaged in an ever more web-based, fast-paced world where researcher expectations of accessibility are higher and higher.
The answer? Change! Grow! It's only by embracing the world of technology and social media that we will retain our audience. This session was particularly inspirational, filling my head with ideas for blogs, web sites, and new ways to interact with state agencies and the general public.
We did not shy away from discussing the dark side of government archives at this meeting. Budget and staff cuts, dramatic changes to archives and records management programs in a shifting world, and an ever-increasing focus on the bottom line may not sound like the most pleasant dinner conversation. But despite the concerns we face in the current economic climate, I think the thing that would amaze an outsider looking in on this event is how much archivists and records administrators, people working in a field that is best known for preserving the past, look toward the future with excitement and enthusiasm.
During my three days in Nashville, partnerships were formed and plans hatched to find ways to meet the challenges that we are all facing. I left the conference impressed by the work I saw being done, with a strong sense of optimism over what's coming next, and inspired to bring positive change to the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.