When I Googled “work conferences” for tips, other searches showed up like “I hate going to conferences”, “work conference anxiety”, and “how to survive a conference”. Although conferences present a great opportunity to create and strengthen connections in your field, learn new skills and concepts, and see what your peers are up to, they can be difficult. As a new archivist, I am beginning to learn first-hand just how useful (and sometimes challenging) conferences can be. Having recently returned from the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA)’s 2018 conference in Portland, Oregon, it now seems like an appropriate time to write a digest of my time at AMIA and the state of this particular conference, from a first-timer’s perspective.
The first thing that struck me about AMIA was that, with its maybe 800 attendees, it is relatively small, especially when compared to the only other conference I have attended, hosted by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), in which a few thousand attendees converged on Washington D.C. in August.
However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. AMIA’s smaller numbers meant that I didn’t have to constantly battle people for space in elevators, conference halls, and poster sessions. Talks at AMIA always had enough seats to accommodate the numbers in the room, and even when chairs did run out, there was always enough room to pull in a few more.
The smaller group at AMIA also meant that people were able to give and receive a lot more face-time with their fellow attendees. At every committee meeting that I sat in on, meeting leaders called upon members by name, and everybody seemed to know the expertise of other members, which bolstered the sense of community at AMIA. It was also fairly common for presenters to call upon people by name during Q&A sessions, since they clearly had some level of an established professional relationship. The smaller numbers also made it easier to introduce myself to strangers, since I wasn’t crabby from being in crowds all day, and I was encouraged to partake in this who’s-who world of archivists.
In meeting new people, I was greatly aided by one of the programs that AMIA offered, in which seasoned veterans of AMIA volunteered as guides for first-timers. Volunteers wore bright yellow badges to encourage first-time conference attendees to say hello or ask for guidance, which, as a first-timer myself, I thought was a nice service that gave me a hint of who was at least somewhat approachable. Luckily, my supervisor Rebecca Fraimow was one such volunteer, and she graciously introduced me to many of her friends, colleagues, and former classmates while at AMIA.
Along with new faces, I was also able to see some familiar faces, since conferences are a natural meeting point for colleagues normally distributed around the country. This is especially true for me and my colleagues, who work with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), a collaboration between WGBH and the Library of Congress, which is dedicated to preserving content from public media creators around the United States. Because of the wide distribution of colleagues involved in the AAPB, we are often limited in our ability to meet personally, which makes the ability to meet at conferences all the more important.
At AMIA I was able to chat with Jason Corum, a WGBH employee who now works remotely from California; Rachel Curtis, of the Library of Congress, to whom I am constantly sending files, and with whom I and Jim Hone of WUSTL had a long conversation about the vagaries of mid-west and east coast weather; Callie Holmes and Mary Miller of the University of Georgia, partners with WGBH in the Peabody Project; and of course Evelyn Cox and Laura Haygood, two students at the University of Oklahoma who were presenting a poster called “Collaboration & Replicability: Passing on the Knowledge of AV Station Creation”, which was based on their work as Fellows at the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority as part of WGBH’s Public Broadcasting Preservation Fellowship. Since it is so rare that I see all of these far-flung colleagues, AMIA provided a great opportunity to connect with them in person.
Another positive part of AMIA was that there was personal time factored into AMIA’s schedule. Each day around 12pm and 6pm, sessions would cease so that conference attendees could take naps, grab food, or go sightseeing around Portland, which, as somebody who gets grouchy when I’m hungry, I greatly needed and appreciated.
Of course, the talks that these breaks were scheduled around were also great. My favorites tended to be more theoretical than technical, since as a new archivist I am curious to hear perspectives on how the field may change in the course of my career. The most interesting talk to me was the prescient “Everything In your Archive Is Now Fake”, a discussion on how deepfakes (artificial videos created using AI image synthesis) risk the credibility of the entire notion of the archive as a place of storing authentic videos of real events.
Other conference standouts were a panel on intersectionality, multiple discussions of regional archives, and a talk on working with challenging material, which ranged from the physically challenging (ex: movie-set ephemera), to the morally challenging (ex: pornography). Although I believe that the archives are still fairly conservative in many aspects, I was nonetheless glad that AMIA was willing to have challenging conversations about what archivists can do to improve representation of these types of collections.
The only thing that I thought was lacking from the talks were more substantive discussions of attracting and supporting archivists of color and the collections of people of color (POC). I admit that I’m biased since not only am I a POC, but also because my first conference was SAA, where POC issues were a main focus, both of which probably makes me more critical of AMIA’s relative lack of discussion on representing historically marginalized groups (like various POC communities, the LGBT+ community, the disabled community, etc.).
However, I still think that it is worth mentioning that I would have liked more of a discussion on what archivists and archives can do to support archivists and collections of color, since I think it is and will continue to be important as demographic shifts occur in the US. I also would have loved to have seen a committee dedicated specifically to archivists and collections of color (although I was encouraged to see that there’s an LGBT Committee and an International Outreach Committee, which has engaged in foreign-language accessibility, like Pamela Vízner Oyarce’s collaborative effort with Lorena Ramírez-López, Erwin Verbruggen, Gloria Ana Diez, and Jo Ana Morfin, to translate the AMIA website into Spanish, and to find Spanish-language resources to link to the AMIA website).
Although I believe that AMIA has work to do in fostering these discussions, I was impressed by the scheduling of screenings, which helped me step outside the standard conference fare of talks and mixers. I especially enjoyed the Archival Screening Night, where the audience was treated to as many six-minute video segments as three hours would allow. The videos were a refreshing way to see what my fellow moving image archivists had been working on and was a reminder that we have the privilege to work with really cool material with some great history. My personal favorite was a Singaporean kung-fu film from the 1970s that was banned by the government of Singapore for its depiction of corruption and crime, resulting in the film being stored in the lead actor’s refrigerator for over 30 years.
All in all, AMIA was fun, informative, and enjoyable. The conference reaffirmed for me that conferences are more than their commonly-held perception as a thing to be survived. The care that I saw for people on the individual level at AMIA demonstrated to me that it is a true community, one with flaws, but a community nonetheless. I believe that Casey Davis Kaufman and the rest of the AMIA board put it best when, at the opening session, they sang that “we are AMIA”.