Where Our Professional Conferences Fail Us

Why failing to provide certain courtesies and services at conferences are costly discrimination tactics.

 I’m cold and I’m starving. It’s been two days and there’s another long one ahead of me before I can leave in search of food. My mind is tired. My body is tired. And I’m trying to find my compassion for the conference organizers as I explain for the dozenth time that I’m gluten-free (gf) and dairy-free (df) and yes, cheese is dairy. I’m at a conference and unfortunately this is typically how it goes. What are my options?

  • Be hungry and angry – hangry. No fun for anyone. (Personal Cost)
  • Hope and pray the city/town has gf & df options and that those options deliver. (Financial Cost)
  • Leave the conference and miss educational sessions or valuable opportunities to network with colleagues so that I can find real (non-salad) food. (Financial and Professional Cost)

None of these options are good and all of them cost me. Not only did my registration fee go towards food I can’t eat and sessions I’ll potentially miss, but now I’m also spending more money to buy food I can actually eat.

This is my own personal conference issue, but there are more issues that exist and they’re all rooted in fundamental exclusion. Or, to put it more plainly (and no, this isn’t hyperbole), it’s discrimination.

Where’s the DEAI in “Conference”?

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) are not a trend. Each is a principle that has a long history and these principals are experiencing a renaissance. Right now, in my museum and archive conference circuit, I see DEAI play out in presentations with a few institutions beginning to experiment with what DEAI can look like. What’s ironic, and sad, is that we as a conference community don’t even think about how we can apply DEAI to the conference experience.

Gender and the Right to Pee

In our growing awareness and support of the LGBTQIA community one of the actions we are taking is to provide gender neutral bathrooms. Everyone has the right to choose which bathroom they wish to pee in and the right to do so in peace and safety. An added benefit to this change is that there are now even more bathroom options available for those that tend to pee more frequently and often suffer longer lines – women. The museum, library, and archive fields are statistically dominated by women and yet every conference location offers the same number of men’s and women’s toilets. Stripping the gender requirement from toilets helps to bring equality to the conference experience for both the LGBTQIA community and women.

I now challenge us to more fundamentally change how we support the LGBTQIA community. Here are some recommendations:

  • Stop asking for “preferred” pronouns and just ask for pronouns.
  • Offer educational sessions or pamphlets with suggestions on how we can transition our language to be gender neutral. No more sayings like “you guys”, people.
  • Review and actively alter our collections to be inclusive of the LGBTQIA community. Libraries, you’ve made a great start. Archives and Museums? We can do better.

Conferences Don’t Need be Religious but People Are

Larger conference centers have non-descript prayer rooms. Some conference programs will assist with directing people to local religious centers, but there is room for improvement. Our conference season typically occur during religious holidays. For example, Ramadan often takes place while the weather is heating up and conference season is upon us. Ramadan requires fasting from sunrise to sunset for those who observe the Muslim faith. Our conferences tend to happen in hot places during hot times of the year because that’s what’s cheap. Can you imagine attending an all-day conference while fasting and in 100+ degree heat? Do you know what makes it worse? People who ask why you’re not eating and then apologize (while still eating), turning the conversation to you and why you’re not eating – and maybe that’s just none of their business?

Here’s how we can begin to do better:

  • Offer education and awareness to all conference attendees about what religious holidays may be taking place during the conference and what those religious times require of those who observe the faith.
  • Offer dedicated prayer rooms with appropriate items of all faiths and make sure it’s clearly marked on the conference program and website.
  • Be thoughtful about when and where our conferences are and make better decisions around how we support people who are practicing their faith while they’re conferencing with us.

 If I Have to Eat One More God Damn Salad I will Scream

Salads are great, just not as entrees and certainly not as entrees for every meal. It’s absolutely incredible to me that conference food organizers forget the simple principle that everyone’s meal should meet nutritional standards. Each meal should offer protein, starch, and vegetables. Instead, I’m often left to ask the conference hosts which foods I can eat only to discover I can have the salad and maybe the red meat.  How hard is it to put the cheese or cream sauce on the side and offer steamed rice? Additionally, dairy-free options would help to nutritionally support those who eat kosher or halal.

Dietary restrictions exist for many reasons: religious, health, or none of your fucking business. My dietary restrictions are in place to help manage my chronic pain and autoimmune issues. I adhere to them in order to function and this is especially true while at a conference where I need to feel my best in a place that’s not my home.

Here’s how to do better:

  • Require that each conference meal offer protein, starch, and vegetables that meet every dietary restriction.
  • Clearly label food!
  • Have the local arrangements committee or conference staff research restaurants that accommodate dietary restrictions and clearly identify those on the conference website and program.
  • Support food delivery to the conference site, especially if the food options are inadequate.
  • If the conference can’t or refuses to provide appropriate nutrition then provide a discount for conference registration.

Conferences Are for Extroverts

Conferences are geared toward extroverts: those who are energized by being with other people. Introverts and those living with conditions where they can be emotionally or sensorially overwhelmed need a place to retreat to in order to take care of their needs and reenergize. My attendance at the American Alliance of Museums was the first time I encountered the Quiet Room. The Quiet Room also served as the Nursing Room, which was not the wisest decision as kids don’t care to be quiet. But, the room had the lights dimmed, talking was frowned upon, there were comfy chairs, and water and tea were provided. It was seriously heaven within the conference din. Studies show that at least 50% of the population are introverts, so why are conferences extrovert-centric? We need to find a more balanced approach in order for both personalities to thrive within a conference setting.

We Are Not Kidless Automatons

Kids are a thing. Many people have them and yet you wouldn’t know it due the complete lack of acknowledgement or support from our places of work or professional conferences. Some conferences are beginning to offer nursing rooms and that’s a start. But can we get a daycare in here?! By not offering subsidized childcare, conferences are forcing professionals to choose between personal or professional sacrifice. As a society, we know this burden impacts women disproportionately. And again, women make up the majority of the library, archive, and museum communities. So, certainly we should be doing a better job of supporting women and families, right?

Also, kids or not, conferences need to take place during the work week. In our profession we already sacrifice a lot, we shouldn’t be required to sacrifice our personal time, time with our families, to attend a work conference.

We’re All Here to Learn, But Can We?

There’re the above issues I’ve mentioned and each have their own nasty outcomes when needs aren’t met. The universal outcome of not supporting these groups is that their opportunity and ability to learn will be negatively impacted.

We’re also (still) failing those who live with different physical abilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and almost 30-years later we still suck at including this community.

Here’s how we can do better:

  • Collect all slides ahead of time and provide them on the conference website for download so that screen readers and other ADA tools can be used during presentations.
  • Require the microphone to be used at all times. I don’t know what it is with people thinking they’re loud enough that they don’t need a mic. You may not think you need a mic, but guaranteed there are other people who need you to use the mic. Additionally, I’ve been to locations where microphones weren’t automatically provided. They need to be there every time, no matter what.
  • Presenters need to audibly describe the images and text on their slides so that all contextual information to the presentation is conveyed.
  • Make sure your font is at least font size 22 and clearly legible.
  • Resources should be provided to presenters and speakers to assist them in crafting their presentations to be as accessible as possible.

This is Costing Me and It’s Costing Us

Conferences cost money. It costs money to attend (which goes towards all my salads). It costs me more money to feed myself outside the conference food. And it costs me money if I have to leave the conference to find food. If I or others can’t attend a conference then it costs us the professional development opportunity and the ability to connect with colleagues. This can have a repeated negative impact on our careers.

And it costs the profession if I or any of the persons who fall in the groups I’ve covered decide we can’t attend a conference because our attendance isn’t supported. That means the profession misses our contributions to the professional community with the compound effect of limiting diversity within the participating profession.

 Can We Do Better?

Can you imagine discriminating against the following?:

  • LGBTQIA persons
  • Women
  • People of faith
  • People with dietary restrictions
  • People with health issues
  • People who need mental and/or emotional introversion
  • People with children
  • People with varying physical abilities

That’s a long list with many on it belonging to communities that have been repeatedly and systematically discriminated against. Discrimination doesn’t have to be an active act to prevent or stop a group or persons from participating. In this instance, discrimination can be passive and impede or prevent a group or persons from participating through thoughtlessness or lack of prioritization. By not providing a conference experience built to include everyone in the library, archive, and museum communities we are discriminating against these groups.

With so much focus on DEAI we (as a conference community) need to start our practice by including and caring for the very people who attend our conferences.


This post was originally published on SAA’s “Archives AWARE” blog, December 19, 2018. Please view the original post here.

This is the first post in our new series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives?  Please email the editor at archivesaware@archivists.org with your ideas!

This post was written by archivist and COPA member Rachael Woody as a response piece to the recent articles published in November and December 2018 stating that the History major (as well as the majority of other Humanities majors) have reached a “crisis” level of decline.

The decline of students who pursue humanities education and the noted decrease of those who seek history undergraduate degrees has been a concern since the Great Recession of 2008. It’s recent resurfacing as a crisis in late-November and early-December 2018 is a direct result of Benjamin Schmidt’s report, “The History BA Since the Great Recession: The 2018 AHA Majors Report,” published by the American Historical Association in its series Perspectives on History(November 26, 2018).

In Schmidt’s report[1] the history degree has seen the steepest decline among humanities degrees since 2008. Schmidt notes that the decline began due to the economic reality post-2008, but warns that this is not a temporary shift. He states, “That the declines have continued among students who entered college well into the economic recovery shows that the shifts are not just a temporary response to a missing job market; instead, there seems to have been a longer-term rethinking of what majors can do for students.”[2] He continues with indicating that related subjects that make up the majority of humanities’ degrees are also seeing long-term signs of decline.

Schmidt and others[3] attribute this decline in large-part to be related to the inaccurate perception that there are fewer career options paired with concerns of less earning potential. In terms of “fewer career options,” there are actually substantial statistics out there that prove persons with history degrees are employable across a broad spectrum of jobs. The claim of less earning potential is viewed as more accurate when comparing the history degree against STEM fields; however, recent studies are showing that history majors earn more than other humanities fields, including English, psychology, and sociology.[4]

So, what else could be contributing to this steep decline in the humanities? When interviewed by The Atlantic last August, Schmidt states his frustration with old tropes being “trotted out” to explain the crisis: student debt, postmodern relativism, and vanishing jobs. To the job aspect Schmidt emphasizes a critical difference in our collective understanding of why students aren’t majoring in humanities:

“Students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospects. They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects.”

But it’s not just about jobs. To think so would inaccurately simplify what is amounting to a critical, evolutionary shift in how we perceive the humanities.

In response to Schmidt’s report, Jason Steinhauer published a Time.com article on December 6, 2018, “Fewer Students Are Majoring in History, But We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About Why.” Steinhauer recalls successful cases of history degrees rebounding at Yale University and also at Villanova University, where he is director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. When Yale noticed a decline in history majors (historically one if its most robust degrees), they asked students about it. In response the students indicated that it went beyond perceived job prospects and earnings—they wanted a logical path to follow (through the degree and out of it) and a cohort. Interestingly, these are also the hallmarks of STEM programs. STEM has evolved as an educational program to provide a variety of pathways students can follow towards a degree and a career, cohorts are formed that build in support and community, and there are clear and direct entries into a variety of jobs.

From these recent articles there are two main calls to action:

  1. The perception of job prospects and earning potential for history (and humanities) degrees needs to be critically evaluated. In addition to gathering and publicizing statistics, an effort needs to be made to show clear and definitive pathways into a variety of careers that provide livable wages.
  2. The way history is offered in academic institutions needs to evolve in order to attract and retain students. A restructuring of how the subject is taught, the introduction of support and communities, the ability to specialize in non-Euro- and U.S.-centric histories, and the regular interaction with history (primary resources) as if it were a lab should be pursued.

Why is this important to archives and archivists?

The importance of the decline of history programs within academic institutions is two-fold for the archives’ profession:

  1. If the decline of history degrees continues it will greatly impact the pool of interested and qualified applicants into the archives profession. This could lead to the atrophy of the profession as a whole and impact the overall care and management of archives across the United States.
  2. If there are fewer history departments, history classes, history students, and history professionals, then there will be fewer people who access and use the archives regularly. Archives being used less will have a compounding effect that can lead to a decrease in resources for the care and maintenance of those archives.

The abandonment of the history degree is being tied to the perceived lack of its financial and societal value. It is not a big leap to then assume that institutions tied to the study of history—archives and museums—are also decreasing in perceived value.

We have some related problems to consider.

It’s no secret that many archivists are struggling within the profession. The recent Wars/SAA Salary Survey and resulting 2017 SAA Annual Meeting panel presentation revealed some depressing statistics on the health of the profession. If you’re thinking, “We love our jobs and aren’t in it to make money,” you’re right about one thing: We aren’t in it to make money. However, the assertion that we love our jobs is complicated by the documented and concerning levels of mental (and, I would argue, physical) health issues archivists have developed as a result of their employment in the profession.

There’s also the, in my opinion, unethical predominance of unpaid internships and their inherent classism, the lack of availability of livable-wage entry-level jobs for graduate students, and the atrophy of mid-career jobs that are directly contributing to the overall devaluation from within the profession to address. From 2000[5], 2010[6], and 2015[7], SAA has published three separate articles in American Archivist studying the issue of the entry-level job market graduates face and revealing that inadequate salary is the number one or two reason archivists leave the profession. Across all three articles (spanning 15 years) these statements repeatedly occur:

  • Given cost of living, professional experience, and job scope, less than half of respondents indicated that their salary was “enough”
  • Due to the higher number of temporary and part-time positions paired with the evaluation that archivist salaries are insufficient in the majority of cases, many are leaving the archives profession
  • Two of the three studies (2000 and 2010) directly state that salary is one of the top reasons given for leaving the profession

Given that the cost of education to become an archivist is only increasing, it is understandable that many looking to join or who have recently joined the profession are alarmed at archivists’ relatively low salaries. And this isn’t just a problem for recent graduates, though much of what could be stated is only anecdotal as there’s not been an SAA census since the 2006 A*CENSUS.[8]Much has changed in the last 12 years, from technology becoming an integrated part of archivist’s jobs to the continued impact of the 2008 recession.

5 things we can work on right now. 

Both issues—the decline of history majors and the atrophy of the archives profession—are rooted in the fundamental belief that those things are no longer as valuable as they used to be. While either point can be argued, that doesn’t change the actions that can and should to be taken:

  1. Reduce the cost of education (debt) and/or increase the entry-level archivist salary so that the return on investment (ROI) increases
  2. Increase the perceived and actual value of archivists by paying commensurate salaries, paying interns, and ceasing the practice of temporary positions in place of permanent positions
  3. Frequently and voraciously speak to the value of the study of history, archives, and archivists
  4. Find ways to increase the intangible benefits of the job to increase the job satisfaction and overall health of archivists as people
  5. Be better as a profession about gathering statistics more frequently and take steps to implement improvements stated in the census reports[9]

In the end, we are in this job because we value history. I’m a big believer on change coming from within. If, through our conscious actions we can become better at valuing archives, our fellow archivists, and ourselves, we can return value to the profession.  By upholding the value of archives and archivists from within the profession, we can influence external audiences and how they value archives and archivists.


[1] Schmidt’s report relies on data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), with the most recent data available from 2017.[2] Benjamin M. Schmidt, “The History BA Since the Great Recession: The 2018 AHA Majors Report,” Perspectives on History (November 26, 2018), accessed December 8, 2018.

[3] Paul B. Sturtevant, “History is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data,” Perspectives on History (April 1, 2017) accessed December 8, 2018.

[4] Data provided by the University of Texas System and analyzed by Schmidt in an August 23, 2018, post.

[5] Elizabeth Yakel, “The Future of the Past: A Survey of Graduates of Master’s-Level Archival Education Programs in the United States,” American Archivist 63:2 (Fall/Winter 2000), 301–321.

[6] Amber L. Cushing, “Career Satisfaction of Young Archivists: A Survey of Professional Working Archivists, Age 35 and Under,” American Archivist 73:2 (Fall/Winter 2010), 600–625.

[7] Matthew R. Francis, “2013 Archival Program Graduates and the Entry-Level Job Market,” American Archivist 78:2 (Fall/Winter 2015), 514–547.

[8] Victoria Irons Walch, Nancy Beaumont, Elizabeth Yakel, Jeannette Bastian, Nancy Zimmelman, Susan Davis, and Anne Diffendal, “A*CENSUS (Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States),” American Archivist 69:2 (Fall/Winter 2006), 291–419.

[9] The author notes that there were recommended actions provided “A*CENSUS (Archival Census and Education Needs Survey in the United States),” American Archivist, that were not (noticeably) implemented; such as the call for conducting surveys every 10 years.


This post was written by Rachael Cristine Woody, a member of The Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Awareness (COPA). The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.

2019 Master Plan for Museum Professionals

“Winter is my favorite time to prepare for the year ahead. Regardless of when the fiscal year ends, the end of the calendar year is a natural point in time for us to take stock of the year that’s passed and prepare for the next twelve months. This is an opportune time to review goals for the year ahead and what it will take to get there. Much like we do in our personal lives with New Year’s resolutions, I advocate we should identify professional benchmarks to achieve in 2019 and the activities that need to be undertaken along the way.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog

RTI Digitization in the Museum

“Digitization within museums takes many forms. With the increasing accessibility of 3D digitization methods, it can be difficult to determine the point at which 2-Dimensional (2D) digitization isn’t enough and 3-Dimensional (3D) digitization is needed. However, there is an alternative option for objects that are mostly 2D, but require a more powerful form of digitization.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.

How to Increase Museum Conference ROI

“Tight operation budgets mean limited conference funds and staff have to think hard about which conferences they’re going to attend that year. While there are some ways to alleviate conference attendance cost (as discussed in a previous post How to Conference on a Museum Budget) it’s still going to be a chunk of change. This is especially true if you’re attending a national or international conference far from the museum’s home base. Some museum professionals have learned through trial and error which conferences they prefer to attend. Though it’s important to note that conferences change their offerings every year, and every year you should reevaluate conference opportunities. Others commit to whichever conference opportunities come up first before the conference budget runs out. Instead, I recommend conducting a small ROI (Return on Investment) investigation into each conference opportunity to evaluate which conferences will give you the biggest ROI.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.