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November 19, 2015

Looking Ahead on the 25th Anniversary of AMIA

On the 25th anniversary of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), I was asked to share some thoughts this morning about the future of AMIA. There are many ways to run with this thought. I have chosen to pose and respond to the question: What do we need to do as a community in order to thrive as an organization?

I want to preface these thoughts by saying that I will speak in generalities, which are inherently imprecise. I also want to make it very clear that any critiques offered are based as much on introspection as on reflection upon our community and AMIA.

With that in mind, I want to start off by saying that just as content has transitioned from being stored in dark, isolated places and being the purview of few, to flowing throughout every home, organization, community, and the globe, our role must also transition, following content under our care out into the world, as purveyors of archival practice. Storing, organizing, describing, and providing access are no longer activities belonging only to the archive. However, we should not think about this reality as one that diminishes our value. In fact, we are needed more than ever; but to realize our value and to be recognized for it, we must leave the formal boundaries of the archive. We must leave the four walls that make up our offices and engage with others who are creating, holding, managing, analyzing, describing, and providing access to content.

The value of meeting content upstream and performing outreach is not new. Archives have long recognized that these are important things to do, but when the content was certain to come downstream, and when it was stored on media that was held in rooms under lock and key, our livelihood did not depend on these things and our focus naturally shifted inward, tied to the physical location of our collections more than anywhere else. We were able to stay in our microcosm, doing what we loved, often flying under the radar, with an implicit, unspoken agreement between us and budget holders and decision makers that if we did not bother them or make too many waves they would leave us alone. Low salary? Little to no budget? Poor positioning in the organization? Terms of a deal that we seemingly struck in exchange for being able to pursue our passion uninterrupted, burying ourselves in our collections. The crevices created by all the support and resources we did not have could be filled through our dedication and hard work. Our knowledge and expertise made us the medium between our collections and the outside world.

Now, we must work through the outside world — those who create, possess, manage, and distribute content — in order to employ our expertise and extend the benefit of archival practice to content under our care. We can no longer keep to ourselves. We can no longer reserve our passion and conviction solely for the content we steward. Self-sacrifice is no longer an adequate mechanism to fill in the gaps. By failing to recognize this, and by choosing to subjugate ourselves to the interest of others, we put our content at risk.

We put it at risk, not only because we leave it in the hands of those without the necessary knowledge and experience, but also because if we do not speak for ourselves and our profession, others will speak for us.

How many more tech moguls do we need talking about their answer to the digital dark age problem, giving the distinct impression that there is not a history of digital preservation as a professional practice. That no one has considered the question of digital preservation? That there is no one out there taking responsibility for saving the amassing digital memories that our society now creates every day? Yet, this is not the fault of the tech mogul who simply shows up to speak their mind and express their ideas based on their expertise and experience.

The convergence that we have seen between fields over the past decade has been awesome, but it has brought with it blurred lines. Concepts such as big data, data scientist, and digital asset management are ambiguity-laden, inviting wildly varying interpretation. At the heart of these concepts, and at the heart of the environments and technologies for which they are in play, is archival practice. Our lack of representation there leaves the voids to be filled by experts in other domains, who then become voices that speak on behalf of our profession.

For us to thrive we must engage with confidence. We must take a seat at the table and take part in the conversation that will go on with or without us. We must be present to speak on our own behalf. And not only do we have expertise and experience to contribute, but we have knowledge and lessons to learn from others, that will help us advance our community of practice and evolve our profession. It is also true that to be heard, and to speak with authority we must be knowledgeable of the larger ecosystem and conversant in the language of the day. We must be mediators and interpreters, serving as a bridge between archival practice and IT, data management, production, software development, digital asset management, analytics, and more, and we can not do this if we are not knowledgeable and conversant in these areas.

Ellen Langer, Social Psychologist Professor at Harvard and author of a book titled Mindfulness, calls mindlessness the application of yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems. Mindfulness, the act of being aware and conscious, is an adjective that describes the people and community that I have come to know and love in AMIA, and I know that mindfulness is something we will carry into our future. We will approach tomorrow’s problems with new skills and vocabularies, broadened perspectives, and a more advanced tool set.

In a future thriving AMIA, I know we will still be a talented, smart, passionate group of people that embrace our careers with vigor and support each other with selflessness and genuine care. We have that, more than any other community I have been a part of. We need now to figure out how to take what we have cultivated here — our uniquely strong spirit and sense of community — and carry it with us to engage, attract, and inspire others well beyond the walls of this room. Our future depends on it. AMIA depends on it. The future landscape of access to moving image and sound depends on it.

In a future thriving AMIA, I see a community filled with people that recognize their value and have confidence about their place in the world, fighting for self in order to build a strong foundation from which to engage, advance, innovate, advocate, and educate in the interest of the content under our care, ultimately maximizing its accessibility and usefulness for those we serve.

Chris Lacinak

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