by A.L. Carson
The Midwest Archivists Conference 2019 meeting, held April 3-6 in Detroit (in the GM Renaissance Center, which may have the distinction, with its concentric circle design, of being the most bewildering conference center I’ve ever been in), chose “Innovations, Transformation, Resurgence” as its theme. The organizers put out a call for participants to “consider the ways they have transformed their local communities and the world,” and it seemed to have struck a chord: the sessions reflected a sense of rootedness as well as a desire to increase and deepen connections between repositories, their holdings, the communities they represent, and (crucially) those they haven’t.
The programming took a broad perspective on the profession and practice of archives, giving space to multiple approaches and understandings of the work, from imposter syndrome to workflows, resulting in some really generative sessions. I attended a number of sessions focused on surfacing the histories of underserved and marginalized groups in the Midwest, notably “Together, We Make It: Making Collections Featuring Minority Groups More Accessible” and “Documenting the History of HIV/AIDS in the Midwest.”
Two standouts on the technical practice and electronic records side were “Computer-Assisted Appraisal of Electronic Records” and “Archival Revitalization: Transforming Technical Services with Innovative Workflows,” both of which were relevant to my (new) position as a processing archivist. For a play-by-play of some of these sessions, you can check out my MAC Twitter feed (yes, I live-tweet conferences). Both emphasized balancing competing priorities and unequal capacities, familiar themes for anyone working in archives. Leading off “Computer Assisted Appraisal,” Cal Lee reminded everyone that there was no such thing as a perfect machine system (which would remove the human labor from appraisal), and that the goal should never be to create one: that machines are tools, not agents. That emphasis on human action, particularly communicating across and about technological divides, was echoed again in “Archival Revitalization,” which focused on instances of implementation (new processes, tools, and workflows) that were made possible through and in turn assisted human collaboration. Both sessions, too, spoke to the importance of understanding iteration as an integral part of workflows (whether appraisal, processing, or providing access) rather than something to be engineered out of a process.
Thanks to scholarship and grant programs (of which we can always have more), a number of paraprofessionals and short-term or project archivists were able to attend and present, which enriched the programming significantly. There was a strong showing from the regional LIS students, both in their poster session on Friday and the general programming. Having just started my position at Iowa State, this was my first MAC; it was also my first time in Detroit, and overall I was favorably impressed. While the conference center itself is a marvel of hostile architecture (which made literal accessibility a real and not-to-be-downplayed challenge), the intellectual content of the presentations and general attitude of the attendees made it a fairly easy space in which to be a newcomer.
A.L. Carson is a processing archivist at Iowa State University, where they are engaged in developing processing, preservation, and access guidelines for digital records as well as increasing the availability of the traditional collections.