I was fortunate this year that we had institutional funds available to be able to attend the 2019 Archives and Records Association annual conference held at the Queens Hotel in Leeds between 28-30 August 2019.  Personal subscriptions to professional work-orientated societies and associations are often seen as a core component of professional practice, no more so in the fields of academia and higher education. 

On my twenty plus years of professional working experience, first in higher education libraries and subsequently as a qualified archivist, I have held a number of professional memberships over the years including CILIP; the Archives and Records Association and related archival-bodies, and more recently membership of subject focused associations including the British Sociological Association and the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration.  

My experiences over this time with professional organisations has been mixed.  I have been fortunate whilst undertaking my distance learning Archives degree to receive a student bursary to attend my first Archives and Records Association conference in Belfast and also international engagement bursaries to attend and present at the Society of American Archivists Conference in San Diego and also the IASFM conference in Poland in 2016.  However, I have also experienced concerns over a number of issues associated with professional memberships, on issues around membership costs; associated conference costs; issues around diversity and engagement and the level of support and engagement individuals can expect of their professional bodies.

As of October 2019, I have taken the decision after careful reflection to surrender my membership of the Archives and Records Association.  This year (2019) was only the second time in my seventeen years as an archivist that I have been able to attend a full conference of the Archives and Records Association.  It was fortunate for the first time in this period, there was funding available from my employer to cover the costs of my attendance at the conference.  For 2019 with my membership discount, the cost of the conference plus two nights’ accommodation was £540.00.  Add to this the cost of transport to/from Leeds of £86.40 and ARA membership of £163.00 this gives a total cost of £789.40.

This has been one of my key concerns for a long time reflected in my low attendance at ARA conferences over my 17 years as an Archivist.  The combined costs associated with membership and attendance at Conference is high and for the most part out of reach.  I cannot afford to pay myself to attend Conference every year given this level of cost and 2019 is only the first year that my institution has had the funds available to support my attendance.  I am the sole archivist at my institution, and I am sure that I can speak for many archivists in a similar position where funds are tight and there is just not the budget available to support this kind of conference.  By default, this helps make the conference elitist by disenfranchising many archivists from smaller archival institutions and community groups from being able to attend. 

I sincerely think this is an area that the ARA (in line with many other professional bodies) need to consider when planning their membership fees and types of conference and events that they look to organise.  With the major annual conference often out of reach, you start to look at the membership fee for your professional body and think what do I get for my money and is this affordable?  Do annual conferences need to be held in swanky hotels and are there alternative models that could be looked at in terms of making smaller more accessible regional events that more archivists, records managers and conservators would be able to attend?

I know a lot has been said post the ARA 2019 Conference on issues of Diversity and Inclusion in archives, all of which I agree with wholeheartedly.  Having worked with archives focusing on refugee and migration issues for many years, one of the key issues has always been the lack inclusion for refugees within conferences that are designated with covering these topics.  I think the ARA, along with other professional bodes, still have a long long way to go in addressing these issues and as a white middle-aged man myself, the overwhelming whiteness and lack of diversity within the ARA Conference this year was fundamentally worrying.  You may well ask, why rather than just complain, why don’t you do something about it.  It is with these issues in mind that I have chosen to end my membership of the Archives and Records Association.

I think it is important to consider the importance of diversifying archives through Empowered Collaboration, as outlined by archival colleague Jasspreet Thethi. , further details on her work is available on Jasspreet’s Intersectional GLAM website. A reflection on Jess’s great work and an overall reflection on the conference is included in Lucy Brownson’s blog for the ARA New Professionals blog entitled “ARA Conference 2019 – Lucy Brownson,” where Lucy argues:

” and rolling out bursary schemes in the name of diversity doesn’t make the Conference infallible to critique. Far from it: as conference fees remain high, expecting speakers to present their work for free is (in my personal opinion) exploitative to say the least. This feels especially pertinent when that work is so personally taxing for a marginalised speaker and adversely, incredibly beneficial for those in attendance (the vast majority of whom are in a position of great privilege) – it’s not just an oversight, but a neglect of care and duty as to the emotional labour therein involved. “

To this end, I have been responsible for setting up and co-convening the IASFM Working Group for Archiving and Documentation of History of Forced Migration and Refugees ; I’ve established to Oral History Society Migration Special Interest Group and I am now also a co-convenor of the British Sociological Association Diaspora, Migration & Transnationalism Study Group.  Through all of these networks, my hope is that by taking an active role and establishing/contributing to work within these professional groups you can start to have an influence on how the operations of these organisations, and I would be happy to explore opportunities for further engagement across all of these areas.  For the IASFM Working Group, we are currently planning submissions for the IASFM Conference on Disrupting Theory, Unsettling Practice: Towards Transformative Forced Migration Scholarship and Policy to be held at the University of Ghana in Accra in July 2012.  We are specifically looking to work with local activists based in Ghana to ensure engagement and participation of local groups and communities in Ghana to ensure that their voices are heard at the Conference.  It is one thing to host the conference in Africa, it is another to provide a welcoming and enabling space for the local voices and issues to be raised and heard.

Any feedback please leave a comment or drop me a line at p.v.dudman@uel.ac.uk