Is “OK, boomer” a reaction to a particular perceived attitude? Or does it reflect sweeping generalizations about people born between 1946 and 1964? Is there an archives, library, history, and records context for the phrase?
The NBC news site posted a recent article about “OK, boomer” in which Nicole Spector wrote that
If you’re in the baby boomer age range and the term “OK boomer” doesn’t offend you, you’re probably not the type of boomer that the expression is calling out. Remember, this isn’t really about how old you are, this is about your attitude and how receptive you are (or aren’t) to the values and struggles of younger generations.
Spector quoted an expert on generational differences:
“Millennials have faced extraordinary levels of student loan debt only to be told that they need to take unpaid internships or cobble together a living wage with part time work, [and] when we dare to complain, the boomers tell us that in their day, they put in their time and we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” says Caitlin Fisher, author of “The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation.”
This matches my impression of the intent of “OK, boomer.”
Understanding change and evidence is part of information, news, and civic literacy. There’s more to sorting through this than labels reflecting various designations. Information, news, and civic literacy require reader appraisal, an essential part of archives and history work. Context matters, too. You see this in legacy online forums, including Listservs once dominated by Boomers, and the Social Media platforms where Millennials, Gen X, Boomers gather now.
Boomers came of age in an era when many U.S. viewers watched broadcast television regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). From 1949 to 1987, the FCC’s policies included a Fairness Doctrine for broadcast license holders. It had two components that centered on license holders’ handling of controversial topics: inclusion of community public interest broadcasting and requirements for airing opposing viewpoints. Civil rights advocates such as Medgar Evers used the Fairness Doctrine to fight against segregationist white nationalist broadcasters for news balance.
The Federal government rescinded the Fairness Doctrine (which applied to broadcast channels not the then new cable networks) in 1987. The 1990s archives, records, and history Listserv culture,which lingered into the 21st century, was premised on letting readers and viewers sort through news links about archives and records using individual “fairness doctrines.”
Forums founded in 1989, such as the Archives & Archivists (A&A) Listserv, reflected a culture of sharing news links. The rise in the 1990s of radio, cable tv, and web platforms centered on advocacy, sometimes interpreted as news but not bound by traditional journalistic standards, largely went unexamined in the archives and records Listservs I once followed. To the extent List subscribers, many of them Baby Bloomers, discussed shared news links, they did so much as members of the public discussed current events outside our professions.
Exchanges sometimes centered on the perceived ideological stance of the content creator of a shared link or the subscriber posting it rather than reliability of evidence. Over time, the links shared as news reflected a mix of traditional reporting and new media sites, advocacy press releases and op eds. Online archives and records forums didn’t yet reflect discussions of appraisal of the type internal and external researchers (including historians), the users of corporate, academic, and government archives, then did and still do.
In the online professional forums I followed between 1997 and 2018, Listserv subscribers sometimes simply addressed ideological stances, limiting discussion to assertions that others didn’t like a link because the source represented a particular spot on the political spectrum. I saw little nonpartisan examination of the purpose of press releases or of commentary links reflecting issue, political, or legal advocacy rather than straight reporting. Or why goals of airing out issues in public sometimes were not easy to achieve.
In some cases knowledgeable experts (historians, archivists, records managers) could not comment on news links reflecting third party descriptions of their workplaces, leaving error-filled assessments by outsiders as the final word in Listserv archives. Some employees in corporate settings may have been bound by Non Disclosure Agreements. In the case of shared links with flawed content about academic and government workplaces, subscribers’ adherence to core archival disclosure ethics sometimes precluded the sharing of non-public corrective or rebuttal information useful for sorting out the facts. Respect for an employer’s situation when handling complex issues not covered fully in shared third party links also was a factor for some subscribers.
Discussion of the research methodologies, objectives, and cultures of knowledge focused users of records (istorians, political scientists, genealogists, auditors, inspectors general) was rare on the Boomer-established archives and records management Listservs I followed during their heyday. Also largely missing was in-depth discussion of a central concept in the records life cycle and in news, information, and civic literacy: appraisal.
Did the cultural characteristics of the Archives & Archivists Listserv from 1997 to 2017 reflect common generational values shared by all Boomers? I would say no. As a Boomer, I saw some posts that fit “OK, Boomer” and others that did not. General observation and the result of surveys showed people looked for different things from the professional forum and participated in various ways. Although some subsets of generations shared more common characteristics than others, legacies were as different as those now being shaped by Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z on Social Media.
The freshest perspectives from historians, archivists, librarians and records and information specialists during the transition from Listservs to Social Media came from change agents across generations. One was Kate Theimer, a younger, non-Boomer A&A subscriber, whose contributions at the ArchivesNext blog between 2007 and 2017 I covered in a post earlier this year (“New Skills, Part I: The Gathering Place”).
Change agents across generations showed new ways of handling knowledge sharing. The Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, my generational contemporary, subscribed to the A&A Listserv early in his tenure. He responded to one of my Listserv postings in a way that reflected commitment to knowledge and ease with open learning.
From: David Ferriero
Date: September 30, 2010 at 4:27:45 PM EDT
Subject: re: archives
Thanks for your comments about my latest blog post. Thanks, especially, for the John Taylor history. Have heard lots about him and will now make an effort to reach out to him. Still on a steep learning curve regarding NARA’s history!
This email message was written in the Lyris ListManager Web Interface at: http://forums.archivists.org/read/?forum=archives
As the number of active subscribers decreased, signal to noise ratio became an issue for some A&A forum members. (I understand such complaints, having contributed to some of that, especially before starting my own blogs about arcane Fedland issues.) The comments by A&A List subscribers in 2014 under an essay in which the President of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) decried the forum’s “de-evolution” reflected generational divides in some instances but not others.
SAA de-commissioned the A&A Listserv in 2017. While its legacy is part of history now, historians, librarians, archivists, and records managers have new opportunities to build learning-based legacies.
Social Media platforms reflect the rise in recent years of historians, librarians, and archivists specializing in history, information, civic and news literacy appraisal. Among them are historian educators such as Jason Steinhauer of Villanova and librarians such as Lisa Hinchliffe of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Last month I chatted on Twitter with @lisalibrarian, who specializes in news and information literacy. She introduced me to the phrase “expanding knowledge,” which illustrates evolution from news links shared among members of the general public to specialized insights in archival records in the care of professionals as historical information becomes available over time.
Lisa’s work as a professor and coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science includes guidance on using primary sources. Lisa Hinchliffe and Chris Prom edited the 2016 SAA publication, Teaching with Primary Sources. In the Introduction, Lisa described the process of assessing primary sources.
In developing primary source literacy, a learner simultaneously engages at least four vectors of consideration:
• Description: What is this document? What kind of document is it? Who created it? When was it created? Was it personal or public/shared in some way? Are there any attributes (e.g., notarized, postal marks, tears, etc.) that are present? Can I read it?
• Relationship: For what purpose was this document created?
What is the context from which it emerged? To which other documents is it related? Is the context in which I am encountering it the context in which the creator intended? What is unknown about this document?
• Meaning: What sense can I make of this document? Of what does it provide evidence? What interpretative frameworks help to understand this document? What meaning have others attributed to this document? Is the meaning contested?
• Use: How will I use this document in my work? Does it provide supporting evidence for my claims? Does it provide contrary evidence that I need to engage? What is the appropriate way to cite the document?
Her work is practical and centered in context.
The primary source literacy instructor faces a complex and complicated task. Primary source literacy is a multifaceted set of skills and
knowledge. But, responsible educators not only attend to the topic of their instruction, they also develop their instruction in light of the preparation, capacities, and motivations of the learners. As archive, library, and museum educators often teach in the context of other instructors’ classes, there is a need to attend to the intentions and goals of these other educators.
These elements affect news literacy, as well. As Lisa observed recently on Twitter, there is little incentive to delve into the accuracy of facts and interpretations with which a reader agrees.
In August 2018, I described the chaos surrounding the gradual transition from paper record keeping to electronic record keeping within the Federal government.
Traditional records management relied on secretaries serving as the point of contact for receiving, sending out, and filing paper documents….Until the 1990s, secretaries filed papers based on a retention schedule-linked file plan created by records management staff who relied on unit records liaisons. With the rollout of LANs and issuance of personal computers to employees, in the 1990s individuals increasingly handled their own correspondence. Some printed it out and gave it to secretaries to file. Others read email messages and attachments, acted on them, and deleted them without realizing many were records.
In some places, the traditional records management chain–(1) records officers, (2) unit records liaisons, and (3) secretaries or clerks–bent or broke. Every employee who handled electronic records became part of the third element once represented by a designated few.
Early efforts at training creators and recipients of records to manually declare their status and move them from native applications to electronic records management systems resulted in a change from more granular records retention schedules to “Big Bucket” schedules. These placed records into broad categories with the same disposition (permanent or temporary with the same retention/destruction time period) for groups of records.
This made sense but depended on employees up and down the ranks seeing the value of taking the time out of their busy schedules to learn about, develop comfort with, and follow records guidance once handled before the computer age by unit secretaries. And seeing themselves in that guidance. That manual user declaration of records status had varying outcomes for very different reasons led to employer specific solutions by corporate, academic, and governmental policy makers. This illustrates the importance of records professionals understanding the culture and operations of their communities.
Whether we work for universities, corporations, government entities, or with community archives, understanding leadership is essential to success. This requires self awareness. A recent Harvard Business Review article examined barriers to effective leadership: a sense of omnipotence; cultural numbness; and justified neglect. The writer examined how to avoid cultural numbness:
Leaders who have crossed a line never describe this as a clear choice on that path but as wandering down a muddy road, where there they lost track of what was right and wrong. They describe a process where they became numb to others’ language and behavior and then to their own and lost their sense of objectivity. In essence, their warning bells simply stopped ringing.
So, start looking out for signs of moral capture: those brief moments when you don’t recognize yourself and any other indications that you are subjecting your own personal agency to the deviant norms of the collective. Another regular gut-check you can use involves asking whether you would be comfortable telling a journalist or a judge about what’s going on. . . .
As with omnipotence, it can help to get an outsider’s perspective, turning to a trusted friend or family member, who might be able to detect changes in you that you are not able to see. Also remember to regularly extract yourself from your organization to compare and contrast its culture with others and remind yourself that the rest of the world may not work the same way.
Listservs and Social Media platforms can reflect silos. Avoiding the traps of perceived omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect depends on expanding our comfort zones. Embracing open learning. And creating spaces for discussion beyond the deflection and flame wars sometimes seen on news or advocacy site comment boards.
Historian Timothy Burke of Swarthmore asked with a note of resignation in 2010 whether evidence is old fashioned. But his own blogging and the thoughtful examinations of information, news, and civic literacy I see among historians, archivists and librarians on Twitter tell me the answer is no. And that we have opportunities to shape legacies that demonstrate the enduring value of literacy by treating it as permanent–not temporary and eligible for destruction–wherever we gather now.