Society of American Archivists Conference 2012: Beyond Borders, A Personal Reflection

It is always interesting sometimes to look back at what prove to be interesting turning points in your own professional and personal journey.  For me, one just moment in my development as a professional archivist, and also a self-confidence boost for me as a person, came back in 2012 with the Society of American Archivists conference in San Diego, which proved to be a first for me on a number of levels.

The theme of the SAA2012 conference was Beyond Borders and this represented the first time I had travelled abroad for an international  professional conference; it was also my first (and to date, only) trip to the United States; it was also the first time I had been successful in applying for funding (an Archives and Records Association International Engagement Bursary) to attend such an event; and perhaps most importantly, it was the first time that I would give a conference paper.  The latter was of immense significance for me as I have had a stammer since childhood and I have always found public speaking a daunting challenge to say the least and so you can imagine picking an international conference for my first presentation was an interesting choice to say the least! I had been approached by archivist colleagues in the US to be a part of a panel for the conference which seemed like it was too good an opportunity to not at least give it a go, although the thought of my first conference paper being on the international stage as it were did scare the socks of me!

It was certainly a daunting experience I have to admit and I still find the conference recording of our panel very hard to listen to!  I guess we are all self-critical to a degree when it comes to listening to ourselves speak, and I think sometimes having a stammer, we can often be harder on ourselves than others might have been.  However, I do give myself the credit now for having the courage to take up the offer and accept the challenge to speak at the conference.  This from the person who always vowed he would never do a conference presentation due to his fear of public speaking!  Looking back, this talk did act as an inspiration for me and opened the doors to take on a varied range of public speaking opportunities, both in-person and virtually, that have followed on from this event.  This first talk laid the groundwork for future events that have included papers at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities as well as international conferences in Canada, Poland, and Greece.  These have all been amazing experiences that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, both in terms of having the opportunity to share my ongoing work and collaborations, but also providing the opportunity to meet and connect with a number of amazing people.  I will confess to still getting nervous at these events but I have learned over the years to accept that some presentations will go really well, and others not so well, and to accept each as a learning experience and an opportunity to both engage and reflect.

San Diego itself is an amazing city and I wish I had been able to stay longer and explore a bit more.  It is often the case sadly with international conferences that you never get enough time to fully explore the city in which you are situated.  I certainly hope to return to San Diego one day to fully explore but in the meantime I have curated a selection of photographs I took during my brief stay in the city.

It was interesting at the time as the SAA2012 conference took place in August 2012 which just happened to coincide with the London Olympic Games taking place in Stratford.  This was very much of an irony as the Games were taking place on Stratford which was just around the corner from where I was living at the time and also almost adjacent to our University of East London (UEL) Stratford Campus.  This was also especially important for us at the UEL Archives as we hosted the British Olympic Association Archive and Library. It was certainly a very surreal experience to be watching TV coverage of the XXX Olympiad situated in your own backyard from the comfort of a restaurant and bar overlooking the San Diego bay side.

I had been invited to be a part of a panel on the Saturday morning of the conference entitled, `Beyond Resettlement: Overcoming Hurdles to Document the Experiences and Contributions of Refugees,’ which fitted nicely within he Beyond Borders conference theme.  The panel was a collaboration with Anna Marie Mallett (Texas Tech University Archives) `Saving the Voices of Au Lac’; Christina Woo (University of California, Irvine), `Archive to the People: Taking Materials from the Southeast Asian Archive to the Community’; and Thúy Võ Dăng (University of California, Irvine), `Resisting Historical Erasure: Oral History and Out-reach in the Vietnamese American Community.’  The online session recording is still available to download from the SAA12 website (and we have also backed up a copy on the Living Refugee Archive).  My paper was entitled, `Rescuing Refugee Archives: Preserving the History of the Refugee Experience, a UK Perspective.’ The paper focused on my experiences of working with the Refugee Council Archive at UEL and many of the ideas outlined in the talk have gone on to inform our archival work and our engagement and outreach activities.  Issues discussed in the paper included the importance of refugee archives in helping to document under-represented communities and voices; the importance and history of the Refugee Council and its Archive – especially important at the moment as 2021 marks the seventieth anniversary of the both the Refugee Council and the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees; barriers to the use, re-use and engagement with the Archive (issues we are again exploring in light of the COVID-19 pandemic); and issues of digital access and sustainability combined with issues of collaboration and community-archive approaches; and the role of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives in helping to safeguard and preserve third-sector archival resources.

In hindsight, the SAA2012 conference proved to be a turning point for me both in terms of my own personal development and self-confidence; but also for the Archive as well enabling a new direction focusing on wider collaboration and participatory methodologies we would undertake to enable the Archive to be more representative and empowerment to the communities and helping to focus on helping to document and underrepresented voices and narratives of displacement. Issues that continue to dominate our work to this day.  For reference, my conference paper slides in PDF format can be downloaded here.

See My Virtual Exhibition of San Diego here: