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November 20, 2015

Student Kris Kniffen tells us about her trip to Ohio for the Society of American Archivists conference -- a journey of learning supported through a SLIS travel award.

"Many of the sessions focused on the role of archivists as storytellers and as promoters of accountability and social justice. In session after session, panelists discussed how archives can and are serving as a way of giving voice to underrepresented populations in order to create a more nuanced and balanced narrative. A particularly timely and poignant example of this are efforts to document people's experiences of police violence, and to document the social activism that recent incidents have inspired. Several panelists described encounters with people who were afraid to record stories of their own experiences of brutality, and the need for archivists to come up with a way to preserve these diverse points of view in the interest of fully documenting the issue, while simultaneously protecting the creators of these records. Panelists also warned that we need to guard against simply creating a new metanarrative that paints the police in a negative light - the stories of people who have had positive interactions with the authorities also need to be preserved.

Another issue arising from the discussion of documenting those who have traditionally been underrepresented revolved around how these efforts can sometimes go wrong. A key example of this has been the manner in which the practices of Native Americans have been made publicly available. All too often, records describing sacred and private practices have been made public because the anthropologist, government official, or other observer who wrote the record is treated as the creator rather than the people whose culture is under scrutiny. As such, it is the anthropologist or official who determines whether or not the general public can read of these rituals - not the Native Americans themselves. In a conference where the dominant theme was about how storytelling allows us to better understand each other and where diversity is necessary to capturing the full American story, this was an important reminder of the ethical issues involved. As one panelist put it, we must remember that just as people have the right to represent themselves and to join the dominant narrative, they also must have the right to be forgotten.

If any of my fellow students have just one take away from this report, I hope that it is that conferences are well worth attending - not just for the concrete skills they help build, the networking opportunities they provide, or the useful tools they introduce you to, but for the incredible projects they help to make you aware of, and for the opportunity to get inspired and excited about your profession, and for the issues facing it. Amidst the daily grind of honing our skills as information professionals it can sometimes be easy to forget why we set out to be such professionals in the first place, or why our profession matters - but a few days spent surrounded by stories of the great work being done throughout the rest of the nation, and the important questions being asked, serve as an excellent reminder."