The Obama Presidential Library That Is

Employees of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) worked with the Obama White House Office of Records Management while the President was in office. NARA’s Presidential Materials Division takes some materials into its physical custody during an administration. Under the Presidential Records Act (1978), legal custody of all covered White House records automatically transfers to NARA the moment a president leaves office. About 95% of Obama’s records are electronic (no paper version), 5% paper. In addition to electronic and paper records, archivists also took physical custody of artifacts.

We can work to ensure archivists are in the images we use, literally as photos or in text, as we look at presidential records and change management. Their names are public, lauded by the Archivist of the United States in NARA’s 2018 awards ceremony. Let’s say them whenever we can. They helped establish the Obama Presidential Library unit which has operated within NARA since Barack Obama left office.

On February 20, 2019, tweets about a New York Times article, “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t,” went viral. Reporter Jennifer Schuessler looked at Barack Obama’s decision not to use private foundation money to construct a presidential library building `as presidents from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush had done. News stories often reflect quotes from the users of records who focus on the traditional research room as an access point.

Some quotes Schuessler used resurfaced this week, one out of context, in an essay in LitHub. In “Everything You Need to Know About the Controversy Over Obama’s Presidential Library” (September 29, 2021) Walker Caplan wrote in LibHub that “Yesterday saw the groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center, former president Barack Obama’s presidential library in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.”

But the ground breaking was not for a presidential library. That archival labor remains known only in small circles of knowledge professionals helps explain what Northeastern University professor Dan Cohen called in 2019 public confusion over Obama’s records. (Here’s how Obama’s records fit in with those of predecessors.) But another viral tweet shows how we can connect the past and present.

As Barack Obama prepared to speak at the ground breaking ceremony for his Presidential Center in Chicago a woman tweeted, “Today I received in the mail a letter from my mom. It was a photocopy of her phone-she wanted to share a picture that is on her phone with me….She photocopied her phone and mailed this to me.” I was glad to see most readers focused on her mother’s beautiful cursive writing rather than judging how she chose to share the image on her phone.

Although most of his White House records are electronic, President Barack Obama’s distinctive signature appears online on many paper documents. You can download this image from the Barack Obama Presidential Library, a NARA administrative unit which began operations under that name on January 20, 2017. NARA’s Presidential Materials Division employees contributed to making it available to you.

A President oversees records management at the White House while in office but materials covered by the Presidential Records Act automatically become the legal property of the National Archives at noon on January 20 as a presidential term ends. The property concept that Federal employees focus on sometimes seems blurred in news reports and op eds, such as one by Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer about the ground breaking ceremony for the private sector Obama Presidential Center.

Dr. Zelizer looks at the history of the presidential library system in the context of the Obama ground breaking. He writes, “As we now live in an era of disinformation, archivally fact-based interpretations of presidents are the best way for us to evaluate the dynamics of our democracy. Without the material deposited in these buildings, historians would not be able to accomplish this task.”

As NARA did with presidential records until 1981, some non-governmental entities still use Deposit Agreements, which NARA defines as “A legal document providing for deposit of historical materials in physical custody of an archival institution while legal title to the materials is retained by the donor.” A law passed in 1978–a 1974 law covers government ownership of Richard Nixon’s records–means U.S. presidents no longer deposit or donate covered White House records in presidential libraries through deed of gift. But that the National Archives automatically has legal control of them the moment the president leaves office.

The traditional system of presidential libraries started in 1939 with a man who could decide what to do with records he and his White House aides created and which to donate to the National Archives. For many observers the focus remains decisions (some made while in office) a former president makes about records. Another way to look at this is to center the law and the Constitution which NARA archivists up and down the ranks take an oath to defend.

You see President Obama speaking in front of the Constitution at a Naturalization Ceremony in the National Archives on December 15, 2015 as the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, NARA employees, and new citizens and their guests and family members listen. And First Lacy Michelle Obama speaking in the same place on June 18, 2014. The Obama White House legal staff worked closely with NARA’s General Counsel, Gary Stern, and his colleagues while in office. In January 2021, Gary spoke virtually to historians about presidential transitions after the passage of the 1978 records act.

A Twitter search for “presidential library” this week shows many news outlets and new media sites referring to the ground breaking for an Obama presidential library. But the Center will not house the library. The NARA employees who are processing the Obama records in the government’s Presidential Library unit currently work out of leased space in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. They later will move to other NARA leased or owned space, not the private Obama Presidential Center.

Part of the confusion online arises from the fact that each of the presidential libraries previously built with private funds and administered by NARA includes a museum. Joint Operating Agreements spell out space usage in a Presidential Library and Museum by the National Archives and by a president’s foundation. But no law requires a museum or even construction of a presidential library. That’s why inside the government the legal focus is on the transfer of custody to NARA as a President leaves office and the archival processing of records created in government service.

When Barack Obama spoke at the ground breaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday, he said its purpose is to focus on the future, not the past. In that context he correctly noted that people will not be coming to the site for archival research. He shared his vision for the Center but did not mention NARA, which holds and will continue to hold his presidential records in a separate facility. While this is on hold during the pandemic, NARA is committed to working with the Obama Foundation to digitize the 5% of his White House records that are paper. Some may be printouts of existing electronic records. NARA provides updates (September 9, 2021) on its Obama Presidential Library online.

Obama noted in his remarks that people will be coming to the museum in the privately operated Center to see “Michelle’s gowns.” NARA has agreed to lend some items from the Obama presidency, which it also holds as government property, to the museum for display. In 2013, the National Archives displayed one of Michelle Obama’s dresses, the one she wore on election night in 2008. To see why Tuesday’s ground breaking projects a private museum but not an archival facility, consider why Obama asked about his BlackBerry as the took office in 2009. And what library and information science students heard in a classroom in 2011.

More archivists work in academic settings, including with donated special collections, than in corporate or government settings. But all face transitions due to electronic record keeping. Accustomed to using a BlackBerry during the 2008 presidential campaign (such records are private, not governmental), Obama issued directives for use of technology to improve government operations. Photos show him using an iPad to read briefings but also discussing printed speech drafts with aides.

As Obama left office, CNN and other news sites featured workers in the White House shipping materials to Chicago for what then appeared would be a traditional presidential library constructed with private foundation money for NARA to house records. But with 95% of the materials (textual and audiovisual) electronic, the former President may have considered Return on Investment. And decided that existing NARA facilities were fine for housing the materials.

Library and information science students got a glimpse of budgetary issues from NARA’s perspective in 2011, when David Ferriero spoke at Catholic University in Washington, DC. David emphasized an urgent need to face electronic records issues. He described visiting the traditional presidential libraries and museums NARA operates. And noted how the cornfield and the Hoover home give a sense of space to the Library located where he once lived. But that as presidents die, fund raising to help maintain some library functions becomes increasingly challenging for the private foundations.

A long-term thinker who urges archivists to skate where the puck will be, not where it is, as hockey forward Wayne Gretzky recommended, Ferriero candidly discussed budget issues with CUA students in 2011 (38:35 mark at link). He said operating a system of presidential libraries consumes 25% of NARA’s budget (their holdings comprised 5% of the government records NARA then held). And that one study projected by 2035 the estimate for adding, then maintaining, separate presidential library buildings was 50% of NARA’s whole budget. He told students, “something’s gotta give.” You can explore the National Archives’ website to see its many other functions.

If you work with electronic records (intake, processing, preservation), you’ll understand why Obama decided not to raise money for a traditional presidential library but to leave them in regular NARA facilities. As NARA Chief Operating Officer Jay Bosanko also noted in a presentation to Susquehanna University students last summer, the present formula for presidential library construction and maintenance funding by a former president’s foundation requires a larger endowment share than in the past.

That Obama opted out–NARA has the archives, it can store the electronic and paper records in existing facilities–did not surprise me. For other reasons, NARA Office of Presidential Libraries archivists once processed another president’s records inside the National Archives but not at a presidential library. All history or political science research in Nixon’s White House records until 2007 reflected archival processing within regular NARA facilities. You see Karl Weissenbach, director, NARA Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, at right, first photo; supervisory archivist David Mengel; and NARA General Counsel Gary Stern with Dave Mengel at the opening in 2004 of Nixon administration records at NARA Archives 2 (College Park, MD). There was no Federal Nixon Presidential Library until 2007–33 years after Nixon resigned from office.

How U.S. presidents create records has changed greatly over the last 75 years. Journalism, traditional or new media, reflects the first rough draft of history. (In 2010, Jack Shafer explored the disputed origins of the phrase in Slate.) News articles may be static or dynamic, shared from years ago by members of the public on Twitter as frozen in time. Or updated periodically in follow up reports, just as a historian takes a fresh look at topics during the course of a career. But even the way we use published work has been changing since Obama took office.

The initial look at a presidency comes through collaboration between the U.S. Government Publishing Office (legislative branch) and the Office of the Federal Register within the National Archives (executive branch). In 2011, the Public Printer (GPO then still the Government Printing Office), Bill Boarman, the director of the Federal Register, Raymond Mosley, and his boss, Archivist David Ferriero, presented President Obama with the printed volumes of the Public Papers of the President. You see in the April 2011 video how Obama asked about the impact of technology. And how the GPO video showcases behind the scenes labor as much as the footage with Obama during the Oval Office presentation.

General Counsel Gary Stern once said of NARA in a records access context, “Come talk to us.” As in 2019 when I wrote for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations about the Schuessler article in Making History Together with the National Archives, I remain hopeful that we can talk about these issues. Conversations about presidents and records can seem contentious online at times but I see many opportunities for working together.

Instead of focusing on “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t” let’s focus on “The Obama Presidential Library That Is.” And everyone looking at challenges on both sides of the virtual reference desk as they listen to questions and work to find solutions. Including students now in college classes and young professionals with fresh ideas about how to move forward. Let’s continue to affirm our values remain unchanged. And talk to each other about how we best can work together during changing times.

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The Obama Presidential Library That Is

Post revised with new images. See revised version (October 2, 2021) “The Obama Presidential Library That Is” at

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Front Office, Back Office

Cary McStay is missing. Not in real life. But in tweets by men on a platform where many widely read Twitter conversations focus on research, history, records, archives, and special collections. And the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) where Cary works. Of the 10 tweets about Cary by name as I write this post, 2 are by Dr. Miriam Posner and 8 are by me. That’s it. All tweets describing or acknowledging or thanking her for her work come from women. One is a UCLA iSchool professor and the other a Federal historian and archivist who knows Cary in person.

No one else.

Why did I check Twitter? I just tagged Cary in the National Archives Catalog in a photo series showing her at work in 2008 with male and female colleagues. Cary joined NARA in 2006 as an archives specialist after working briefly for the Library of Congress. She holds a B.A. in History and a Master’s in Library and Information Science with a specialization in archives and records management. Cary has been NARA’s Nixon White House tapes supervisory archivist since 2010.

Although Cary keeps a personally low profile, some NARA press releases and a few news articles refer to her work. I can’t say why no men I Follow or once Followed on Twitter who know who she is never have tweeted her name. But if you’re an educator, you may have a future Cary in your classroom right now studying for a History B.A. Or a graduate degree in one of several knowledge producing or using academic fields.

One of your students may write op eds some day that support knowledge workers. A humanizing approach to advocacy resonates broadly with practitioners, enables consideration of suggestions, and showcases the type of skills a writer such as T. J. Stiles uses in biography. (Speaking for myself, humanization also gives a reader a break from seeing or hearing demagoguery.) As our professional associations show in their breadth of outreach, humanizing history and archives practitioners enriches understanding of both sides of the physical or virtual research desk.

NARA has greatly opened up since Kate Theimer, a widely read and respected blogger, described its culture as relatively closed in 2008-2009. Its online public access Catalog enables not just NARA employees and volunteers but any users of records outside the agency to create accounts and tag and add comments about content. Since June 2021 NARA’s Catalog includes on each page an autogenerated banner with a potentially harmful content alert (here’s what that means). The Catalog alert reflects the work of the National Archives’ own employees. They developed it within the framework of the NARA Task Force on Racism that Archivist David Ferriero established in June 2020.

NARA’s workforce composition is about 50-50 men and women. Just as some archivists, historians, and librarians write Wikipedia entries about women to provide knowledge about their contributions, I’m tagging women I know or recognize in the NARA Catalog. Two photos I tagged this weekend show Cary assisting researchers at Archives 2, NARA’s newest facility in the Washington suburbs. It gave me great joy to tag images of Cary among a group of colleagues early in her career. Some still work at NARA, others moved on to academic positions or jobs in different Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums (GLAMs).

The Nixon Presidential Materials Staff moved into Archives 2 shortly before my twin sister, a NARA supervisory archivist, oversaw the move of civil national security classified records to A2 in 1994. That the Nixon tapes unit remains in College Park may explain in part why some former employees discuss front room issues (reference desk, museums/public programs) and access to long open documents more so than back room special media processing. After NARA established a Federal Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California in 2007, it transferred all Nixon records functions except tapes processing from College Park to Yorba Linda.

In most presidential records units, NARA employees working as providers (arranging, describing, and doing disclosure review of holdings) or users of records (NARA oral history initiatives, content creators for exhibits or public programs) share space in the same building. No workplace is stagnant. But as you go about your own important duties (complexity and challenges may vary over time), there’s nothing like seeing backroom colleagues in person to keep their contributions in mind. As the rest of the Nixon records staff relocated to California, Cary and the tapes staff stayed in touch with presidential library peers virtually. In 2020, SAA members came to know Cary when she and NARA colleague Daniel Rodriguez presented a virtual session on “The Nixon Tapes in the Digital Age.”

A research room perspective (both sides of the reference desk) showed on Twitter in February 2019, when the New York Times published an article with a potentially confusing headline, “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t.” (Archives and library beat reporters often write as users of records which resonates with many researchers). I’m glad to say most stakeholders searched for and welcomed information and clarification from NARA. As much as I support NARA and enjoy sharing kudos, some of its officials may not have anticipated some of the questions that arose in 2019. As a learning organization, it recognized this and adjusted.

That 95% of Obama’s records are electronic only (no paper copy) wasn’t widely known to most NYT readers. Return on investment and endowment funding issues also meant Obama’s decision to forgo a traditional presidential library wasn’t a surprise to me. Among people I Followed on Twitter in 2019, I saw a strong museum and records user rather than a records provider perspective in reactions to Jennifer Schuessler’s NYT article. Tweets such as “dumb” and “ill-advised” and “illiberal” about Obama’s decision from a handful of scholars and archives practitioners pointed to “challenges and opportunities.” Writing in The Atlantic, Professor Dan Cohen embraced an opportunity to update what biographer Robert Caro’s well known admonition to turn “turn every page” means in the digital age.

NARA emphasizes information gathering and sharing with individuals and with groups such as the American Historical Association (AHA), the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) and archives and records associations. I’m grateful that SHAFR, which took no position on the matter and welcomed different perspectives, published my journal essay about the Obama records in the September 2019 issue of Passport. I later posted at my blog an illustrated version, slightly revised for greater emphasis on how we all now are electronic content creators facing records management, retrieval and access issues at home and at work.

Records access workers at NARA usually have users (internal and external) in mind. Having done such work as a National Archives employee, I know that for many archivists awareness of the public trust and the impact on users of releasing or restricting information is part of routine daily work. In some NARA presidential libraries, people specialize throughout their careers in such archival disclosure processing or in education and museum and public programs work. In others they switch around.

Random chats in the buildings we work in or visit suggest who we are beyond formal workplace presentations (photo). When I ran into her in the hallway outside her office in 2018, Cary told me how one of her team members, a man I knew as a friend and colleague, was about to receive Archivist’s Awards Ceremony recognition for which she had nominated his work.

Jeanne Schauble, who began her career in NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries, the same unit in which I once worked, exemplified a low key public service ethos worth considering when navigating complex issues online. The NARA Catalog places her in a well deserved spotlight in August 2010, when she received the Archivist’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her records disclosure declassification work. Jeanne was my late sister’s boss and a friend to us both.

Steve Aftergood noted at his Secrecy News blog in 2011 that “Jeanne Schauble, the longtime director of declassification at the National Archives, died last October.  She helped oversee and implement the declassification of more than a billion pages of historical records since 1995….As far as we could tell, no obituaries for Ms. Schauble or Mr. Resnick appeared in any national newspaper.  They weren’t famous.  But they were honest, honorable and skilled public servants.  Anyone who crossed their paths will remember them.”

In 2014, historians Luke Nichter and Douglas Brinkley spoke at NARA about their book, The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972. Archivist David Ferriero noted in his welcoming remarks that,

“It is particularly fitting that Brinkley and Nichter grace our stage today for as they cite in their acknowledgements ‘This book…benefited greatly from the help of many helpful archivists…first at what was known at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, then the Nixon Presidential Library.’

Singled out are many of the people in the room today so thank you on behalf of the authors.

And thank you also from the Archivist of the United States for the work that you have done to make these tapes available.”

As David spoke, Cary sat with three archivists who once had worked on the Nixon tapes, among them Rod Ross, a PhD historian (seated at right). Dr. Nichter thanked Cary andother archivists by name from the stage. Luke’s book acknowledgements always are thoughtful and attentive to those who assist him, including in processing records for release.

I handed my iPhone 4 to a NARA employee to take the reunion photo below. A professional NARA staff photographer, Jeff Reed, photographed Luke at the book signing that followed. Does this symbolize what people often see online–some work in sharp focus, other work less so? History, political science, and library and information science educators can bring more backroom work into sharper focus. Rod Ross shows how in an unexpected way.

Rod did an insightful, useful series of oral history interviews for the National Archives in the 1980s. He also was a subject of a NARA oral history interview in 2015 by History Office intern Rebecca Brenner (as of August 2021 Rebecca Brenner Graham, PhD–congratulations!). Rod described how he started as an archives-technician, the same position in which I and many others at the National Archives started, including Chief Operating Officer William (Jay) Bosanko. He first worked with the Nixon tapes in the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries. After promotion to archivist he did exit interviews and other assignments at a now closed White House liaison office.

Recruited to apply for a supervisory position in NARA’s Printed Archives Branch, Rod admitted the move didn’t work out: “It turned out that I really wasn’t a good fit to be a supervisor.” He instead became a leading NARA expert on legislative records. As I noted in my last blog post, Ferriero once stepped out of a board meeting for 15 minutes so he could introduce an author lecture for a book which acknowledged Rod’s contributions in the research process. Rod, who retired in 2016, was present to hear David’s remarks.

Some job cultures welcome publicly expressed self-awareness and open admission of willingness to try and fail but others do not. As an educator, you don’t know where your students will thrive. Some need something close to what you chose and need, others something very different.

If you wish, you can prepare them for seeing and recognizing what others have done. And thinking about their options in a very tight academic as well as GLAM job market. Centering one choice in an image doesn’t necessarily bring clarity and can limit considering options or exploring cause and effect. (I have some experience with trial and error here.) It’s worth looking at online through lines to see who’s there and why. And who may be missing.

Some of your students may one day work as managers or as supervisors, as Cary does now. Or as Federal historians, as I did after leaving NARA. Or as administrators with people in their care. They’ll need to see varied human elements that make up the big picture even as individuals in group photos focus on their own interests and needs. This takes similar skills to figuring out a history narrative or crafting a biography that illuminates who someone was and why they acted as they did. So in exploring job choices in class, consider including Cary McStay, Jeanne Schauble, Rod Ross, and others in the back as well as the front room, up and down the ranks. 

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“Let’s Make It Count for Something”

Sam Anthony stood looking straight ahead, aware of the cameras, as two employees of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) buttonholed him at a reception in the agency’s newest Washington area building in College Park, Maryland. One gestured with his hand held in a fist in the air, then pointed a finger as he emphasized what he wanted Sam, Special Assistant to the Archivist, to hear. Staff photographers and NARA contract video staff circled the room at the welcoming reception in 2009 for the Tenth Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero.

Sam, who had started at the agency at the same civil service grade level (GS-4) at which I began my Federal career while still in grad school, knew many of the people present. He recognized that they cared about the agency even if they sometimes debated or argued issues within their home units, in the hallways, and in the ground floor cafeteria that overlooks a terrace. Sam had his own views, of course. But he knew when, where, and how to express them. And when to listen. His early work was in reference and library services, where one of my late twin sister’s NARA colleagues, Ken Heger, was a mentor.

At the welcoming reception, Sam’s hands were full–literally. Representatives of the NARA union and other employee groups handed Ferriero gift items during their welcoming speeches. Sam collected them from David as the Archivist finished his remarks, then turned to join representatives in cutting three sheet cakes: AFGE Council 260; the NARA Afro-American History Society; and the NARA employees Assembly. Ferriero, who had begun his knowledge services career as an undergrad co-op student book shelver at the Humanities Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was president of its library employees association early in his career.

Sam was a gregarious Extrovert in private and public settings but never an attention seeker at ceremonial receptions. As designated still photographers lined up shots, Sam kept stepping out of frame. A kind, helpful person and a people magnet in an agency where many employees were Introverts, it wasn’t his job to act on policy issues or resource and budgetary allocations. His official duties centered on supporting the Archivist’s internal research and schedule needs and ceremonial and public responsibilities.

Although that sounded as if Sam’s focus was on VIPs, and he had impeccable protocol credentials, a 2019 feature essay in his alumni magazine conveyed his essence: “To Anthony, each second counts. Each word matters. And every person he meets is important.” Weaving humble beginnings throughout this post as I introduce my subjects is part of my homage to Sam, who died last Friday.

Sam’s unofficial, self-appointed duties went beyond being a good listener, cheerleader for his early career reference colleagues, and friend to many. Visitors to the National Archives included the rescue animals he welcomed to the agency during the government’s annual Fall Combined Federal Campaign charity drives.

Sam was incredibly attuned to those around him: people, dogs, cats. On the job, in his office or walking through the NARA Museum, he tried to understand what people sought and expected from him, then decided on actions to align with those needs while retaining an authentic sense of self. As his National Archives video tour for a 10-year old cancer patient showed, he used no automatic responses or templates.

Sam boldly embraced his creative and problem-solving side and didn’t shy away from trial and error. And laughed (yes, there’s audio of Sam in action on the job) at himself when the result was error.

Some two years after Sam ducked cameras in the downstairs meeting room in College Park, I chatted with him in Washington over a glass of wine at an evening reception at the flagship NARA building at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue. Every relationship has its pivotal moment you look back on later. In 2012, Sam did the talking and I the listening, as he shared what that moment had been with David Ferriero, to whom he would remain Special Assistant until this past Friday. The story reflected well on both men and seemed to establish a through line for their partnership at NARA.

Is partnership the right word? I see it as yes and no but mostly yes. There are differences in rank but an agency head depends on his staff just as all employees depend on him or her. This worked well for Sam from 2009 to the present. But although only a few people, Sam among them, knew the story, things went awry during the tenure of the Ninth Archivist, Allen Weinstein. (I heard the details years ago soon after Weinstein resigned in 2008, but not from Sam.) Weinstein’s successor, the Tenth Archivist, wrote in 2018 about how and why the “National Archives Does Not Tolerate Harassment.” Sam addressed the story in public in 2019, which is why I decided to include it.

While duties, responsibilities, and legal and ethical obligations are clear, there are no guidelines for how an Archivist should staff his immediate office. (A diary-sourced memoir by the Sixth Archivist of the United States, Robert Warner, is the only book available to study in detail some of the terrain an Archivist covers while in office.) Each chief works out the structure that best suits individual circumstances. Sam saw this starting in 2005, when he switched from public programs work to a new position as Special Assistant to the Archivist.

An agency head at NARA (and other executive agencies) has a complex mix of duties with each successive leader taking on the obligations of deciding mission priorities and setting policies within a stated vision. The path rarely is linear, but zigzags. External and internal events affect even the best planning, itself a complicated process. History shows that the overall picture often contains humanistic scenes with finely textured brushstrokes but the colors available on the palette differ.

From outside, as events occur, only sketchy figures, sometimes drawn on poster board with marking pens rather than fine brushstrokes, may be visible. Some structural elements are a constant, such the role of the Congress and of the White House (Office of Management and Budget), in areas covered by Articles in the U.S. Constitution that the National Archives displays in its Museum.

Actions on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can affect or disrupt what the Archivist’s scheduling staff places on his calendar any given day. But sudden changes, cancellations or quick adjustments, aren’t always about Washington power figures. As I’ve seen onsite, the Archivist may duck out of a meeting for 10 minutes to give welcoming remarks at a book talk elsewhere in the building because he knows the author’s acknowledgements include a NARA retiree (Rod Ross, in the instance I observed) and friend in the audience. And then return to continue deliberations in the boardroom.

Throughout my career in Washington at two agencies, one being NARA, I’ve seen how robust workplace rumor mills sometimes come close to getting some things right while at other times gossip is way off the mark. Sam was an outgoing story teller among staff on some agency issues but he remained trustworthy and discreet about the most sensitive matters, including those involving the Hill and White House.

While Sam joked about getting occasional stern looks from male and female bosses from the time he was a GS-4, he learned not just the process and protocol parts of his jobs, but how to be an architect of trust. Yet he never took himself too seriously. Sam loved ice cream (and donuts) and showed irreverent Sam as well as disciplined Sam at internal events he attended. Yes, there are receipts thanks to photographer Bruce Guthrie.

The Sam I knew reflected but wasn’t defined by the cancer that struck him in his 30s. As he said in 2019, “I didn’t want to be that bitter, angry person in the world because it’s all going to end soon. Let’s make it count for something.” The alumni magazine essay reflects a through line:

Alex DelSordo, Anthony’s rowing coach, said he was struck by how hard Anthony works to make others feel successful. He’s such an anomaly, DelSordo said, that you’re tempted to wonder “what his angle is.”

“The fact is,” DelSordo said, “because Sam almost died, and because he experienced what he did, there is no angle with this guy. He doesn’t accept life for what it is. He tries to make it better for himself and for other people around him. He’s taught me that selflessness is essential in life. I learned that less from going to church every Sunday than I did from him.”

Sam sensed anxiety in some of the college and high school students to whom he gave impromptu or formal tours of the NARA Museum. He shared some of the highs and lows in his life, was honest about challenges, and talked about centering what you want out of life rather than vocational awe. With younger visitors, he told them it was ok to lie on the floor to look up at the Museum’s ornate central ceiling. And got down on the floor himself!

Up 7th Street, with its restaurants and bars, Sam was a delightful conversationalist seated at a table with beer. What came through to me was his hope that things would work well for people facing challenges. He listened to my Introvert questions and gave thoughtful and sensitive and irreverently funny Extrovert responses. I could tell that he had a LOT of experience navigating the ways of Introverts!

So many of us learned to look and to listen better after getting to know Sam. To step out of ourselves. To recognize ambiguity and complexity and even to embrace chaos. I’ll always be an Introvert, even a shy one at times. But I picked up some of his habits, such as stopping as I walked through the NARA Museum to and from staffing assignments. And saying to visitors, “Hello, can I help you? What are you interested in seeing today?” I’ll always remember the gift of advice that Sam offered with a smile or an irreverent joke, the good wishes and hope for success its wrapping paper.

Sam died of metastatic cancer last Friday, August 20, 2021, after first being diagnosed at late stage in 2005 (initial symptoms 2004). The sad news brought an outpouring of love on Twitter from his circle of friends on Friday and through the weekend.

Elsewhere online, David Ferriero posted white Lilies last Friday in what might have seemed like sharing a Washington scene.

I commented, “My condolences on the death this morning of your friend and colleague, Sam Anthony,”

David replied, “Lilies in Sam’s honor.”

Honor, indeed.

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“Everything (Everyone) Has a History”

The lynch mob stormed up Pennsylvania Avenue as Carter G. Woodson, newly appointed dean at Howard University, sought shelter in a doorway. Rumors that mobilized troops would meet at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. on July 20, 1919 to “clean up” a Black neighborhood encouraged a white supremacist mob determined to put down “resistance” in the city.

As a group of attackers seized a Black man and shot him, Woodson heard him groaning. “‘I hurried away as fast as I could without running, expecting every moment to be lynched myself.’”

The white supremacists stormed downtown streets on July 19, 1919 after hearing false rumors of a sexual assault at a bar. Peter Perl of the Washington Post described in 1999 the impact of police inaction.

“Violence escalated on the second night, Sunday, July 20, when white mobs sensed the 700-member police department was unwilling or unable to stop them. Blacks were beaten in front of the White House, at the giant Center Market on Seventh Street NW, and throughout the city, where roving bands of whites pulled them off streetcars.”

The Center Market stood by the National Mall near the border between segregated White (NW) and Black (SW) neighborhoods in the capital city. Between 1928 and 1938 a massive public buildings project brought change to the downtown area now known as Federal Triangle. In 1935, the first employees of a newly established agency, the National Archives, moved into a building still under construction at 7th and Pennsylvania.

Planning collided early on with changing conditions. As newly hired archives employees began to survey and bring in government records, the agency ran out of space even as Depression-era workers put the finishing touches on the new building. Builders had to convert the interior courtyard to work/storage space. As with other executive agencies, long-term resolution of facilities issues in Washington depended on management and budget actions by officials in the White House and the Congress.

Sixty years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the establishing legislation for the National Archives, officials presided over the formal opening of a second Washington area archives building in College Park, Maryland. In 2014 Fosetina Baker visited the College Park research room to read records about the lynching in 1898 of her great-uncle, a postmaster in South Carolina. As the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, noted in recent blog posts, both Washington area research facilities and the records center stand on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples

Acting Archivist of the United States Frank Burke once observed that the mission of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is “to protect the records, good and bad” of the United States. They reflect the impact on and wide range of people’s interactions with the Federal government. NARA’s holdings include records about the processes, operational impact, and results of decision making and policy formulation within the U.S. government. Collections include settler treaties with indigenous peoples and documentation of citizens’ efforts to expand the rights listed in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Users of records in the National Archives include academic scholars; genealogists; researchers-for-hire who locate and aggregate records; college students; journalists; political operatives doing “oppo” research; public policy advocates; and individuals with publicly undefined goals. As I noted in 2019 in a journal essay for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the records the National Archives takes in under the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act increasingly are born digital. On January 29, 2021, the Association of American Historians (AHA) brought together archives officials and historians to discuss “Preserving Records: Archives and Presidential Transitions.”

Historical research provides insights contemporary observers did not or could not know. Historian Nancy Koehn wrote in 2013 about challenges Abraham Lincoln faced during the U.S. Civil War.

“’Lincoln is striking because he did all this under extremely difficult circumstances,’ Mr. [Ari] Bloom said.  ‘Some of his ability to navigate such difficult terrain was about emotional intelligence and the deep faith he nurtured about his vision. But some of it was also about how he gathered advice and information from a wide range of people, including those who did not agree with him. This is important in building a business because you have to listen to customers, employees, suppliers and investors, including those who are critical of what you are doing.’”

Koehn described what I’ve observed in person with some present-day leaders, as well: “Throughout the war, Lincoln was able to experience a range of emotions without acting on them rashly or in other ways that compromised his larger mission. This ability offers [a] powerful lesson for modern leaders.” 

In one instance, Lincoln wrote a letter expressing his distress at Gen. George Meade’s actions during the battle of Gettysburg but never sent it.  “Executives face the challenge of navigating their own and others’ emotions with forethought and consideration. As Lincoln realized, the first action that comes to mind is not always the wisest.”

In December 2014, historians James Grossman, AHA Executive Director, and Anthony Grafton offered an insightful look at the value of teaching and studying history.

When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.

The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.

Dr. Grossman later created the Twitter hashtag #EverythingHasAHistory. “I urge historians in all fields to find places to write and speak, to provide various publics with the histories essential to intelligent decision making.” He explained, “everything has a history, including people.”

Professional organizations and employers (public, private, not-for-profit) have histories, too. Equitable access long has been and continues to be NARA’s goal, on-site (currently limited by the COVID-19 pandemic) and online. In an overview of NARA history between 1965 and 1980, Trudy H. Peterson described allegations by a Rice University specialist in diplomatic history.

In a letter published in the Book Review section of the New York Times in September 1969, Francis Loewenheim alleged unfair treatment at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. He pointed to perceived problems with its publication programs and the restriction of documents. Nineteen historians added their signatures to his letter.

Trudy noted that,

As the situation deteriorated, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians agreed to create a joint ad hoc committee to investigate the case. The committee’s final report, issued August 24, 1970, concluded that there was no deliberate and systematic withholding of documents from Loewenheim at the Roosevelt Library nor was there a deliberate and systematic attempt to conceal the existence of a publication project from scholars.

Dr. Peterson observed that “The real impact of the Loewenheim case was not found in the report, which flatly stated ‘there has been no scandal at the Roosevelt Library” but in what followed. That NARA looked at staff training and external perceptions of its practices to ensure better communications helped the agency and researchers.

Archivists were instructed to ensure that researchers had access to all finding aids, knew of recently opened records and restrictions on documents, and were informed of publication projects. NARS became much more conscious of its role in providing open information about restricted items, and it became more aware of the complaints of scholars about restrictions in general.

Trudy Peterson hired me for my job and participated in internal training classes for new hires. I learned at the beginning of my career not to take for granted how stakeholders may interpret actions that seem straightforward or benign inside an agency.

The House oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over the National Archives took a look at the Loewenheim allegations. Its report described in 1972 the AHA-OAH findings and a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the U.S. Government Accountability Office).

The GAO report indicated that the National Archives and Records Service provided competent policy direction and supervisory attention to the libraries in accordance with the needs. It also explained in some detail the several administrative points on specific use of library staff and the printing of a specific publication….the General Accounting Office found that the publication was not a violation of Federal law.”

Members of the Congressional subcommittee saw no need for hearings and declared the matter closed. The high standards of evidence and well-established reputations for probity of the audit agency (I served for 26 years as GAO historian) and AHA (I’m a member) served both well. I linked to Federal auditing and historian standards in “Story Telling, Telling Stories” but noted that when describing our own experiences in attempting to validate a thesis, we’re largely on our own.

Many government employees limit their online participation to sharing public information. (This remains my approach as a NARA and GAO retiree.) The greatest challenges occur when you know what you’re reading or hearing deliberately misrepresents an issue. Or when you see flawed methodology or misinterpretation result in unintentional sharing of misinformation. Asking a carefully chosen question sometimes leads to a useful inflection point. In other cases, the effort to encourage correction fails.

Postings on a Listserv administered by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) from 2006 to 2017 show the impact of single or limited-source information. A forum subscriber outside the government raised questions in 2007 about proposed cutbacks at NARA. Debates over how best to prioritize funding and resource allocations in the private or public sector occur frequently online among users and providers of knowledge services.

When asked about her post to the SAA forum, the researcher quoted an unnamed internal source within the National Archives who bad-mouthed NARA’s Electronic Record Archives (ERA) and the then Archivist of the United States. And criticized senior NARA officials for reluctance to act in other areas unless they were was assured of multi-year funding in the federal budget.  

The researcher quoted gossip and rumors (“I’m told”). She wrote that the agency head (who left his job as the Archivist in 2008) “plays little or no role in exploring issues/options/consequences of major decisions…the people with the loudest bark in making recommendations tend to be the ones who get what they want.” She included negative characterizations of officials working on the ERA, “whose staff advocates are the loudest and most inflexible….of all NARA stuff when it comes to fighting for their share of the budget.”

Among the subscribers to the Listserv at the time was Fynnette Eaton, NARA change officer for the Electronic Records Archives. Early in my career, Fynnette and I worked together in the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries, where I was team leader for disclosure review of the Nixon White House tapes.

As often happens in online forums where a poster defines an issue in terms of good and bad, Fynnette took no part in the discussion the researcher started. But other subscribers shared stories from their different workplaces about the challenges of balancing limited resources when there are few options that will make everyone happy.

I observed on the Listserv that the woman’s account of budget priorities relied in part on rumors (what GAO describes in its rigorous auditing evidence standards as “uncorroborated testimonial evidence”). And that use of traditional research methods might “support what the insider says. Or they could support another official’s story.  Or they might show that people at NARA have differing, benign and genuinely held beliefs.”

The researcher’s advocacy pitch in 2007 used the type of hero-villain framing sometimes seen in online forums, workplace hallway conversations, or even stories told among friends or family. Events the next year showed how access advocacy can turn threatening when done in a partisan framework. During the presidential campaign, a blogger wrote about his efforts to see Chicago Annenberg Challenge records about Barack Obama held in the special collections library of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC).

The SAA administered Listserv seemed vulnerable to the sharing of tendentious commentary in new media “news links” posted by a handful of subscribers who didn’t do historical research as knowledge accountable officials. One of the UIC archivists turned to a traditional platform. She published a journal article addressing unfounded allegations about Obama records. Her essay demonstrates how to face adversity by showing core values.

The archivist described the researcher’s “insinuations” about a cover up and “days of rage” that followed as a now deceased talk radio host picked up the researcher’s story. She explained how “staff members library-wide were subjected to anonymous and abusive telephone calls.” She discussed outreach lessons learned in handling records subject to “sparring between the left and right wings and the immediacy of reactions online.”

Earlier this month, AHA sent a letter to NARA Chief Operating Officer William “Jay” Bosanko. It listed concerns raised by members during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which shut down in-person public access in March 2020. When AHA shared the August 2 letter on Twitter, some archivists and historians criticized it for not focusing on employee safety and for reflecting a poor understanding of archives work. To its credit, AHA issued an apology and explanation on August 5, 2021 of why the member compilation included some baseless rumors as well as thoughtful questions. (Both letters here.)

Everything has a history. Everyone has a history. A year ago, some academic librarians and archivists I Follow on Twitter erupted in fury after a Harvard PhD candidate, Jake Anbinder, tweeted about searching online catalogs while shut out of in-person research in archives. (Anbinder later defended a tweet as “A Joke”). I looked last September at opportunities for bridge building across professions and explained in “Women Out in Front” some of the issues in jobs historically held by women.

NARA has been very open about sharing voluminous pandemic information online since March 2020. Given the learning focus of AHA as well as NARA, I’m optimistic that this month’s Social Media furor will result in useful knowledge sharing. Before getting to know him in person in 2011, I met AOTUS David Ferriero on the SAA Listserv. In 2010, he surprised me with a reply to one of my posts in which he showed authentic comfort with learning curves.

Let’s recognize that everything has a history, everyone a history, every geographic location a history. And that regardless of perceived rank or status, we’re all on learning curves at different points in our lives. And show online who we are, as we look at the changing scenery along the road to knowledge we travel together.

Posted in Archival issues | Leave a comment

Story telling, telling stories

Tracy Chapman sang, “Write it down, but it doesn’t mean you’re not just telling stories,” in her hit single from an album released in 2000. “There is fiction in the space between you and me.” In some knowledge and knowledge-adjacent professions, how to assess stories–or story telling in all senses of the phrase–is a work requirement. Oral histories often include cautionary notes of the type my history office used:

It should be understood that the transcripts reflect the recollections, impressions, and opinions of the persons being interviewed. Like all historical sources, they need to be analyzed in terms of their origins and corroborated by other sources of information. The transcripts in themselves should not necessarily be considered definitive in their treatment of the subjects covered. 

A deliberate lie, if identifiable as such, is fiction. But there are other reasons for gaps or inconsistencies. Choosing to exclude individuals or groups. Omission of pertinent facts. Misinterpretation of what is asked. Differences in word usage and workplace context, as in the example I used in an essay I wrote for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations in 2019.

[Does] my use of “participant in” refer to my being the decisionmaker about an operational issue within the government? Or someone who provided analysis and historical summaries that others used in making a decision? Or someone who has played both roles, with additional context needed to show which applied?

The extent to which we navigate fact, fiction, gaps, and interpretations outside our chosen or aspirational jobs varies, although we’re affected by it in many parts of our lives. Small glimpses into the lives of others through their scripted or improv performances and production help us understand them.

LiveJournal and Blogger debuted in 1999, WordPress in 2003. Such platforms enabled many of us with the privilege and sense of safety to do so to blog, sharing our thoughts, our research experiences, our perspective on professions and workplaces. Some historians, such as Timothy Burke, whose essays I first read on the History News Network (HNN), blogged for nearly two decades on open access sites. Among knowledge workers associated with Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAMs), Kate Theimer stood out for me and many others as a role model for two-way engagement (sharing and gathering information).

The interests that drew me to HNN and other forums–how workplace bureaucracies function, what are their administrators’ obligations to subordinates and superiors, whom do they consult, how do bosses see management and leadership, what internal and external elements affect knowledge centered workplaces–came to feel out of place there. My participation centered on preparation but the general readers at the site between 2001 and 2010 weren’t trying to decide on undergrad majors. Or to explore job options in history for holders of bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees.

Visible HNN readers largely were history buffs in other jobs (some of the most vocal commenters were law enforcement officers, lawyers, and people in technical specialties outside knowledge professions and GLAMs). Many used comments posted under history essays to advocate for their own life choices (civilian or military careers) or political beliefs.

Although the site featured articles by a few Federal historians, and even linked to ones by archivists, such as Sam Rushay of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), most of the writers of HNN blog posts or linked articles were academics. Over time I learned from my mistakes on a site which seemed to be about history but drew few comments from practitioners. And started my own blog in 2010, with Dr. Burke’s HNN postings about history in mind.

From 2005 until June 14, 2021, Burke blogged on WordPress via He now has joined many other academic writers on the Substack subscription platform. One of Burke’s first essays at Substack was “Academia: Falling Away.” He looked at academic expectations, relationships, jobs, change, opacity, transparency, and openness.

You sometimes feel bullied. You are other times cast into situations where the only way to defend yourself or the urgently important professional values you still uphold means directly opposing another faculty or staff member who may themselves feel vulnerable and intruded upon by your opposition. You will quickly learn (or may already be practiced in) reattributions of the reasons for your own choices and preferences to exculpatory narratives that also shift blame and hostility to others—or to cope with the same being done to you.

As in many other workplaces, or even navigating Social Media, deciding what to do and whom to trust can be challenging:

Now that you’ve arrived, you likely have to navigate a deeply opaque landscape of distributed and networked power. You have colleagues who seem friendly but are in fact bad-mouthing you the moment you’re out of hearing. You have colleagues who are guarded who are in fact protecting you fiercely when you’re not there to see it. You have colleagues who are at all times exactly what they seem to be: friendly and supportive or distant and detached. You may meet colleagues who think you’re a student or a spouse, or disdain you not for who you are but for what you teach and research.

Depending on where you work, structure and standards can be limiting or useful. In 2013, Burke described in “An Oath for Experts: First Principles” proposed agreed-on standards for historians providing certain services:

An expert giving advice about a course of action must always be able to cogently and fairly discuss the most prominent critiques of that course of action and readily provide citations or pointers to such criticisms.

The goal here is simple: to establish a professional standard. You should not be able to claim to be an authority about a particular issue or approach if you are not conversant with the major objections to your recommended course of action. You should not force an audience to hunt down a critical assessment afterwards, or wait for an adversarial voice to forcibly intrude on the discussion. This responsibility goes beyond simply providing an assessment of the positive and negative attributes of an argument, interpretation or recommendation: the expert should be able to name the work of critics and generously summarize their arguments or analysis.

Citing one of my tweets about his 2013 blog post, Burke re-visited the issue in 2015. I still was in Federal service at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), where I was agency historian from 1990 to 2016. I found his exploration of the need to develop principles for historians intriguing because GAO issues detailed guidance to its mission staff. Friends in the unit where I worked as a civil servant, the GAO Office of Policy, issued periodic updates to the General Policies/Procedures and Communications Manual that my auditor colleagues used.

Over time, I read most of the audit manual and often referred to it. As agency historian, a mission support position within GAO, I found officially codified policies and prcedures and informal conversations about the agency’s work culture useful in understanding my place of employment. It often took new executives two or three years to begin to understand GAO’s culture. Some of the research I did on the experiences of BIPOC employees revealed stories newcomers hadn’t previously considered.

There’s more in view now on official websites and Social Media about history and GLAM jobs than for Boomer and Gen X job seekers. But parsing it is challenging. Unhappy employees or former employees may feel a greater need to share their perspectives online than satisfied ones. On the other end of the spectrum, employees vested in “vocational awe” may paint overly rosy pictures of what GLAM work entails.

In a bad job market, you may have take a job or accept a career path you hadn’t planned on in grad school. It helps to be prepared. Classroom instruction for undergraduate and graduate programs can and should play a part in exploring what different private and public sector jobs require and entail.

In April 2021 the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations published forum essays in its Passport journal about the current academic jobs crisis. The authors of the introductory essay noted,

The U.S. academic job market is in total freefall. As the American Historical Association’s (AHA) 2020 jobs report bluntly stated, “History Ph.D.s who graduated the past decade encountered fewer opportunities and more competition on the academic job market than any cohort of Ph.D.s since the 1970s.” And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which, the 2021 jobs report noted, has resulted in numerous “program closures, enrollment declines, and faculty layoffs.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that, even if things improved tomorrow (which they won’t), there will be several “lost generations” of historians who will never secure stable academic employment.

Writing within the structure of a limited word count for a forum, or an op ed, conference presentation or executive summary, differs in latitude from choosing illustrative examples when writing a book. Some participants looked at prior jobs crises, including Careers in Business initiatives in the 1970s, others examined academic culture or expectation setting for alt-ac jobs.

Michelle Paranzino’s forum essay called for “Rethinking Tenure: Serve the Public, not the Profession.” Although the forum included no historians whose duties include providing analysis for internal decision making within the Federal government, her essay touched on the value of writing in accessible language.

Most academic historians (myself included) have not been trained in how to write history as a compelling narrative story. We have been trained to find gaps in the existing literature, which tends to narrow the focus—and thus the appeal—of our work. Yet given that higher education is taxpayer-funded, academic historians have an obligation to serve the public….Public policy research and advocacy, community outreach, and teaching and writing for underserved audiences should be valued just as much if not more than peer-reviewed publications.

Tenure has contributed to an unjust and exploitative two-tier system of academic labor and has disincentivized academic historians from engaging with the American public, with damaging consequences for our nation’s collective understanding of and interest in history

I Follow some on Twitter but don’t know any of the forum authors in person. But in some essays I recognized a familiar challenge from having tried to examine systemic issues while also sharing my personal experiences. If you’re trained to apply traditional academic rigor to a complex topic, there is no easy answer to how to share what happened to you to validate your central thesis.

Recognizing human elements in navigating stories is part of being a historian. Within the Federal government, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management examines this in standards for us in 170 Series Historian jobs.

The historian subjects each piece of evidence obtained to critical evaluation in order to establish its relative value. This includes investigation to establish the reliability of the evidence which may involve such matters as identification of the author, consideration of his personality and reliability, his relationship to the event described (was he an eye-witness? a participant? or is he relating an event described to him by others?), and the elapsed time between the occurrence and the recording of the event.

….In assessing the value of evidence gathered by personal interview the historian must have an understanding of the interviewee’s personality and background to recognize personal prejudices and idiosyncrasies, to check the accuracy of memory, and to consider the knowledge and understanding of surrounding circumstances at the time the event took place or the decision was made.

In political science practitioners may use quantitative or qualitative research methods. Dr. Paul Musgrave, an Assistant Professor of Political Science, recently offered a fascinating look at the “difficult and lengthy” multi-level examination process for entering the governing class during “the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and its successor, the Qing (1644-1911).” At each level, only an estimated 1 in every 6,000 test takers succeeded.

As a grad student, Musgrave worked from 2006 to 2009 in a National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries unit as a Special Assistant to a director. His duties included managing an internship program and assisting with oral history interviews. During his first two years at NARA, an academic historian headed the agency. In 2009, a longtime civil servant briefly served as Acting Archivist.

Musgrave notes of the Ming and Qing system that “there’s nothing any more arbitrary in basing the selection of officials on their ability to interpret texts concerned with law, governance, and moral uprightness than in the traditional British equivalent (studying classics at the University of Oxford or Cambridge) or the contemporary American version (a law degree from Yale University).”

He adds “reliance on the system meant that, by the late Qing period, Chinese officials were confronted with problems hardly conceived of in Confucian classics—but on the other hand, vanishingly few U.S. policymakers have degrees in science or foreign languages, and yet they nevertheless make decisions regarding nuclear weapons, biotechnology, and international trade.”

In my experience, top policymakers rely on their own knowledge and on internal experts. Briefers can include Federal historians, who, as I did, analyze why prior initiatives worked or not. At both nonpartisan agencies at which I worked, NARA and GAO, the current agency heads started out in junior, entry level positions in their professions, then worked their way up, learning experientially and through formal study what handling increasing levels of responsibility entails. Both executives display that in their work.

By striving to balance theory and practice, educators can help undergrads begin to view history and GLAM job options realistically. The goal isn’t justifying what we chose, but helping others develop empathetic self and situational awareness. With so much at stake at the human level, isn’t that worth a try wherever we are?

Posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, People issues | Leave a comment

“For ensuring I remained safe”

Death threats aren’t a part of scheduling speaking engagements for most academic professors. Yet a mere year apart, Jonathan Turley and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, participants in two types of public programs in 2018 and 2019, had very different experiences at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C.

Law professor Jonathan Turley entered NARA’s museum in Washington for a speaking engagement on March 6, 2018, two years before NARA shut down to protect staff, contractors and visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier that morning his Twitter account linked to an announcement that he would be at the National Archives at noon to discuss “Democracy’s Messengers,” a documentary about the teenage pages who served Members of Congress. Professor Turley was a page in the U.S. House during 1978-1979. Cokie Roberts, the daughter of two U.S. Representatives, narrated the 30 minute film.

Visitors to the National Archives pass through security but do not have to show i.d. when entering the Museum. After the documentary screening, Professor Turley joined two former pages, Frank Mitchell and Camilla Besonquet, in sharing stories about working on Capitol Hill as teenagers. The program seemed uneventful for the high profile advocate and law professor. He sent no follow-up tweets.

A year later, I greeted Dr. Stephanie Jones-Rogers at the lobby entrance to the McGowan Theater. Her journey to NARA’s theater on April 29, 2019 was very different from that of Jonathan Turley. She brought with her the knowledge that some unknown person or persons outside NARA might want to harm or kill her for speaking about her book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Holders in the American South. Along with Doug Swanson of the NARA museum programs unit, I helped staff the the public event.

At 12 noon, I closed the doors to the McGowan Theater and took my seat in front of the speaker’s podium near the Green Room so I could be of assistance as needed. I listened as the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, welcomed Dr. Jones-Rogers, who rose from her seat directly in front of me and walked up to the podium. She thanked the National Archives, mentioned archival materials she had used, and shared what her research revealed.

Based on research in contemporaneous records (court documents, notices in newspapers, business records, personal correspondence) and the oral histories collected by the New Deal Federal Works Progress Administration, Dr. Jones-Rogers’s book shows a way of life dependent on treating others as lesser, as property. In the worst cases, this resulted in torture as well as subjugation of the enslaved.

A particularly horrific example in They Were Her Property describes the punishment of eight-year old Henrietta King by the mistress of a southern plantation where the enslaved suffered near starvation. The grotesque torture, in which the daughter of the slaveowner also participated, disfigured the enslaved Black girl for life for taking a piece of candy from a dresser. The wife of the plantation owner deliberately left out the candy to see what the starving child would do, then punished her by rocking her chair over the little girl.

As the program ended, I opened the doors, then stood next to them as visitors walked out to the McGowan Theater lobby. I thanked Dr. Jones-Rogers for coming to NARA for the lecture. An hour later, she tweeted thanks to the National Archives team for keeping her safe:

Prior to my talk at the NARA today I received a veiled death threat and I just want to thank Doug Swanson for his quick action and the wonderful security officers at the NARA for ensuring that I remained safe during my talk and book signing ❤.

Among the replies from her Followers:

–I’m so glad you’re safe and that they were there to help, but how awful that it was necessary.

–Oh, Stephanie, I’m so glad you’re OK, and so sorry you had to deal with that. Thankful you had a responsive team supporting you!

Visitors to NARA–public program participants and listeners, members of the public who come in the Constitution Avenue doors to view exhibitions, researchers entering the Pennsylvania Avenue door to look at records–bring with them highly varied experiences which shape their expectations. Some, such as Jonathan Turley, remember prior visits for events including gala dinners in the Rotunda, two levels up from the McGowan Theater. He recently wrote at his blog of his “commonly held view that the Rotunda is one of the most powerful and beautiful places in the world.”

Others point to visits in their youth. Or first impressions from doing research in the reading room on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the National Archives as undergraduates or graduate students. I first visited the National Archives with my war refugee parents when I was in grade school. Mom and Dad had fled militarily imposed totalitarian oppression under Fascism by Nazi Germany and under Communism by the Soviet Union. Dad had retired from civil service in Washington by the time I joined NARA as an archivist.

The National Archives building has changed since it first opened to employees in 1935, two years before completion of construction. It took some time to complete installation of shelving and other interior work. Records in the National Archives (Record Group 66) show that during the 1930s, members of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), including artists and architects, struggled with the planned content of the murals for the Rotunda that artist Barry Faulkner showed them.

As research by Dr. Lester Gorelic shows, CFA Chairman Charles Moore and others noted the general heaviness of the space and the awkwardness of having two split murals. Archival CFA records show some Commission members wondered during the 1930s if moving beyond depicting only the Founders would better link the space to the purpose of the new National Archives building.

Moore asked Faulkner to be more comprehensive.  He suggested that “one of the panels [should] be dedicated to the founders of the Republic and the other to Abraham Lincoln and his time.”  The artist took that to mean adding figures or “enlarging the scope of the study.” In one design he included Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln in the Declaration panel but deleted them in later studies.

Barry Faulkner’s study for Rotunda mural 1785-1865 with Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln

The final version installed in the Rotunda (1936) shows Lincoln’s profile in the shape of a cloud in the sky above Thomas Jefferson’s head in the Declaration panel.  Budget constraints placed on hold the sculptural elements planned during the 1930s for inclusion in the Rotunda, the larger vision for the space left uncompleted. NARA used projection in 2019 (my photo) in a salute to the late Cokie Roberts, who often pointed out the absence of women in the murals.

Appropriated funds enabled a major renovation between 2001-2005 which made the National Archives building safer and easier to use. Private donations from corporations and individuals now form part of the financial assistance the National Archives Foundation (I’m a member) provides as a valued private partner for NARA’s exhibit and education work.

A more open, welcoming lobby and a new gallery improved some of the renovated physical and historical space in 2013. The Records of Rights exhibition in the newest NARA gallery looks at initiatives to expand citizens’ rights. The gallery, named after philanthropist David Rubenstein, includes sections on civil rights, labor rights, women’s rights, and the laws that have affected the experiences of immigrants to the United States.

When I walked through the Orientation Lobby prior to the pandemic shutdown (the Museum partially re-opens July 2) I sometimes saw first-time visitors pause as they looked around. “Hi, welcome! Do you you have any questions?” Many asked about the Rotunda. I pointed to the elevators (with a staircase nearby), and said, “One level up. When you come back downstairs, the story of citizens’ rights continues in the gallery straight ahead.” Some only had time to visit the Rotunda space–if you’ve ever been a tourist, you know how busy itineraries can be.

Prior to a 2001-2005 renovation, museum visitors in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to walk up the steps had to enter through a separate door on the Pennsylvania Avenue side where there are no steps. Their access to the exhibit space depended on asking for assistance. They had to wait for a guard who provided on-request access to the Museum through the researcher side of the building. After access and safety upgrades, visitors who come to see museum exhibits no longer must enter separately from others who can climb steps. Now all museum-goers enter together, as equals, on the ground level of the National Archives.  

In 2014, Andrew Ferguson wrote in The Weekly Standard that visiting the National Archives had changed after 2005.

It wasn’t so long ago that visitors to the National Archives, in Washington, D.C., were expected to ascend. A trip to see the nation’s founding documents was an uplifting experience, literally. A broad flight of stone steps drew visitors up from the summer glare and clamor of Constitution Avenue to a porch high above, and from there through great bronze doors into the cool and quiet of a vast rotunda. Once inside, another rise of stairs brought them in line of sight of the Declaration of Independence, set upright in a bronze display case, and a final group of stairs placed them face to face with the Declaration itself, faded behind glass and washed in a yellow light. The Constitution was there, too, and the first page of the Bill of Rights. A fitting payoff for all that climbing.

The Archives is still one of the premier attractions for tourists in Washington, but visitors no longer make such a grand ascent. They’re not allowed to. As at the Capitol building and the Supreme Court, unauthorized citizens can no longer climb the broad staircase outside to enter through the bronze doorways. Instead, as at the Capitol and the Supreme Court, they gain access around the back of the building, on the bottom floor, and then once admitted they get to the ceremonial spaces by the backstairs, like a scullery maid.

Ferguson expressed nostalgia for looking up to see the Declaration of Independence.  But renovation with wheelchair access in mind now places all the documents at a level where most visitors can see them easily.  This also works well for NARA’s popular children’s museum sleepovers.

The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, candidly describes how he hated his undergraduate major and dropped out of college on his first try.  After serving as a U.S. Navy Corpsman in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971, providing medical care for all who needed his assistance, he returned to college as a co-op student. He worked as a library book shelver at MIT, then attained graduate degrees in Literature and in Library and Information Science. 

David focused on information seeking behaviors in grad school, noting once of users of library services, “they were desperate to talk.”  Specializing as a Corpsman in Neuropsychiatry also provided a foundation for his later work as he studied issues such as burnout as a young employee association representative in negotiating with management, then a Supervisory Librarian, before attaining jobs as a library and an archives administrator.  

The Federal government does annual employee feedback surveys. NARA scored well on staff perceptions of Employee Well Being and of Supportive Leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores in other areas show some improvement for 2020 but challenges remain. Administrators benefit from seeking information from everyone in their care, a process which enables learning and growth. Just as understanding and analyzing physical space issues results in renovations. Or in the private sector, understanding why products grow stale and need a refresh benefits producer and consumer. As change management experts advise, the goal is to move forward and improve while retaining the best parts of past practices.

In the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, NARA employees began internal conversations about race and racism which led the Archivist to charter a Task Force on Racism. The 2020 task force included three committees. The largest looked at employee morale and internal workplace issues, including the legal complaint process and why employees need safe space to discuss harmful actions they experience or witness.  If you’ve ever had people in your care, this concept is easy to understand and support.

A subgroup examined improvement of archival description of records in NARA’s holdings by staff (not the content of original records), including in Finding Aids–paths to the content of records. The goal of the Task Force was to assess the need to do reparative work with legacy descriptions by earlier generations of archival staff.  A third committee looked at the visitor experience in the context of museum exhibits, educational activities, and other public events.  This included sharing feedback from visitors to the Rotunda–the people’s voices.

On June 14, 2021, NARA issued a press release (posted publicly online with email notifications to subscribers) about the report the task force completed in April 2021.  The Archivist blogged about the initiative on June 17, 2021, linking to the report and noting, “You may find it difficult to read portions of this report. It includes frank and unblinking language about NARA’s agency culture and history, and I ask that you do not let that deter you.”

Stephanie Jones-Rogers faced death threats but was undeterred on Constitution Avenue. She stood in NARA’s McGowan Theater and spoke historical truth. Ensuring safety in doing that, for employees and for visitors who enter archives and libraries, is up to us.

Posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, People issues, Records | Leave a comment

“I didn’t even know!”

The young archivist’s words still linger. Meridith’s post inspired an essay seven years ago at my old blog, which I shut down (but did not delete) in 2017. Although she later deleted her blog, what the then-recent graduate wrote in 2014 stayed with me.  The archivist expressed delight at how the host of the Strange Brews podcast learned on Twitter about librarian Alison Kelly’s post about beer in the 18th Century.  Meredith wrote,

I was particularly struck by the enthusiasm exhibited during the episode, including this choice quote:  “I didn’t even know that there were blogs on the Library of Congress website, but there are and they’re great!”  This is a total Outreach Win for Alison Kelly and the Library of Congress….beer enthusiasts rebroadcast that research to their listener base – a highly targeted group of people who are now more aware of American beer history and more able to conduct additional research on the topic.

I love that the hosts of Strange Brews sing the praises of LOC blogs, model excitement about learning, and completely geek out with a librarian.

A wonderful example of professional generosity–an archivist highlighting a librarian’s post.  And the comfort with learning I saw at many blogs between 2009 and 2015.

Much has changed since I featured the young archivist’s post about her enjoyment of the librarian’s outreach.  The Society of American Archivists (SAA) then still administered a function-oriented forum, the Archives & Archivists (A&A) Listserv.  For discussion of a wider range of issues, many knowledge professionals then gathered at Kate Theimer’s blog, ArchivesNext, a model for participatory exploration of complex issues between 2007 and 2017.  You can read a compilation in her book, Well, What Came Next?, available here.

ArchivesNext had over 40 post categories, including Advocacy; Archival Description; Archives 2.0; Conferences; Copyright; Disaster Relief; Electronic Records; Government Information; History and Related Professions; Leadership; Awards (formal and informal); National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Organizational Change; Outreach; Participatory Archives; Spontaneous Scholarships; Technology for Archives; and Web 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0.  That Kate included History and Related Professions reflected her understanding of the value of connecting providers and users of archival materials.

In January 2014, Kate Theimer spoke on a panel in Washington, D.C., at the annual conference of the American Historical Association (AHA).  She also spoke at conferences in Canada and Australia.  In her keynote at the Best Practices Exchange in October 2015, Kate noted that organizations have varied metabolisms for change. 

Kate pointed out that discussion of mistakes–even failures–is part of the process of learning and finding solutions.  Eira Tansey noted wisely that she supported this 100% and that as others noted on Twitter, “the ability to do this is highly workplace dependent.”  The same is true of professional organizations and online forums.  SAA shut down its beleaguered A&A List at the end of December 2017. 

 In 2019, I looked at Lisa Janicke Hinchleffe’s smart guidance on analyzing primary sources. She introduced me to the phrase “expanding knowledge,” which illustrates what happens when you move from news links to specialized insights in archival records in the care of professionals as historical information becomes available over time. Turning to practitioners, especially on contentious issues, adds depth about their work, as well. 

Recognizing the value of outreach among knowledge professions represented a strategic choice at ArchivesNext, at the Smithsonian, and at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and many other GLAMs.  The panels that NARA officials did with AHA and the Organization of American Historians in January 2021 resulted in useful context often missing in third party links. In March 2021,  a multi-disciplinary panel hosted by the Institute for Historical Research, University of London, provided insights into “The Shock of the Record: Why Archives Matter.”

In archives, library, and history circles, the symbiotic relationship between blogs and microblogging sites stood out most clearly between 2009 and 2015, as the virtual world echoed cross training opportunities available to me at the start of my career as a knowledge worker.  In June 2012, Kate Theimer posted “Honest Tips for Wannabe Archivists Out There” at ArchivesNext.  She shut down her blog in 2019 but some of her words still are visible as quoted by Lance Stuchell in a post he published in 2012 at his own blog. 

In “My Unsolicted Advice,” Lance looked at Kate’s blog post in the context of some of the Tweets that inspired it.  

If you love “the stuff,” you’re closer to getting a job in archives and special collections”] kicked off a wave of responses about how it’s more important to love people and helping people than it is to love “the stuff.” And following on from that were observations about how some people still want to become archivists because they 1) don’t want to deal with people or 2) don’t like using technology. And for some reason they see archives (and special collections) as safe havens in which they can escape from pesky people and annoying computers.

Writing “some people” signaled that neither Kate nor Lance would rely on sweeping generalizations or dunking; comments reflected the presence of the open doors.  Lance noted, “It is…up to…graduate programs to give an honest assessment of the skills necessary to get a job in this already hyper-competitive market.”  Nine years later, the pandemic heightened the employment crisis for knowledge workers, including graduates of M.A. and PhD history programs.

Lance’s post quoted or drew comments from some of the same people who gathered at ArchivesNext.  One was Mark Matienzo (“I have serious concerns about the ‘anti-people’ attitude in the profession, because the interpersonal interactions are incredibly vital to what I do…”).  Eira Tansey and I offered comments, mine focused on Introvert knowledge workers. 

Some of the tweets that led to Kate’s post and Lance’s follow up veered into mockery, as can happen on a quick reaction platform.  I had that in mind in August 2012, when I wrote a blog post, “Not to Insult, But to Teach,” based on an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates wrote of mentoring a young man through behavioral change, “The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. It is to teach him a new one.”

As at Kate’s blog, commenters kept it civil and Lance offered thoughtful responses.  My comment (excerpted below) at Lance’s blog  focused on the large number of Introverts in the archives, library, and history professions.  

…working successfully with people and liking them includes understanding why [they] form mistaken impressions or conclusions you would not. The best way to approach that is not with belittling but with tolerance of its existence…which differs from accepting that it is the best way to look at it. As a coach and mentor, it’s the more experienced person’s obligation to find a way to nudge others along, not to beat them over the head with their “wrongheadedness.”

I added that although I had been working in archives and history jobs for a long time, I still get nervous or feel shy about some things I have to do.

As several commenters have said, you do what’s needed for the job, it is your duty to do so. But there’s nothing wrong with admitting that your natural leaning is to Introversion or even that you enjoy working on tasks in solitude. As Jonathan Rausch pointed out…its easier for Introverts to understand Extroverts than the other way around. Maybe we have an edge in adjusting, picking up Extrovert skills and adding them into our toolkit.

Ashley Stevens, who has written candidly about being an Introvert, helped me online even before we met at an archives conference in Washington in 2014 (right).  She chronicled her experiences in different jobs in real time over the last decade and in an overview post in 2017  She’s looked honestly at being a “people liking introvert;” how goals and jobs and workplace experiences can collide; her spiritual journey; and the impact in her personal and professional life of systemic racism and white supremacy.  

Ashley has changed jobs since writing in 2017 of a new position in Detroit that “We talk about career changes. Going from one career to an entirely different one….being in a career, exploring one facet of it only to realize, nope, that’s not for me. Then you have to shift gears.”  For some the shift is more transparent than for others.

Ashley’s courage and honesty can be an example. People in information science or history graduate programs or jobs handle challenges in different ways.  I’ve long wondered what happened to a young man who used the online handle PhDinHistory over a decade ago.  He dropped out of the field soon after a tenured professor told him not to piss in her online pond.  An early form of what some Tweeters now call dunking.  And a reminder that people spend social capital in very different ways.  Some as Meridith did, highlighting a person’s accomplishments and work, others by building a Star Trek style force field.  

At its best, Social Media helps us explore the types of work available in our professions (historian, archivist, records manager).  The extent to which tough economic times allow people to pick and choose is limited as you hope for jobs that suit your aptitude, personality, and goals. The greater the willingness to convey “I didn’t even know” the more likely online conversations will strike the right balance between candor and performance.  This can be easier in the classroom as a student than later, when stature or academic status or the need to prevail or perceived risk of facing dunking may loom larger. 

Career overviews that include some measure of introspection remind us that others have been where we are, too.  Adrienne Thomas started at the National Archives as as a student-trainee in 1970.  She moved from working with records to policy and operational support roles.  And rose in rank, serving as Deputy Archivist, then as Acting Archivist from December 2008 to November 2009.

As she retired, Adrienne shared how she felt being Acting Archivist:

…if it had only been running the agency internally, then it would have been no problem whatsoever…that’s kind of what I was doing anyway. The difference was of course the demands on the public stuff that you have to do as Archivist. While I had done Congressional hearings for the appropriations staff, we were now going into a period of time where the oversight committees were getting involved.

…I am glad that I had the appropriations experience so I wasn’t totally quaking in my boots as I was sitting at the table [at an oversight hearing], but it wasn’t fun. The other…public stuff, that’s not my thing either. But I got better at it as I went along. I certainly didn’t go out and seek speaking [engagements].

Extemporaneously answering questions from legislators about collection security, archival facilities, employee surveys in an agency that relies on employees doing a range of jobs, from records center labor to archival processing and museum activities, places you in the spotlight. How onlookers interpret a word, a phrase, a shorthand answer about a complex situation, depends on their goals and the filters they use. 

As with many libraries and archives, NARA long has attracted Introvert employees.  Trudy Peterson, who also would serve as an Acting Archivist (1993-1995), described James (Bert) Rhoads, the Archivist of the United States when she started her career:  “A tall man, he was gentle, courteous, and almost shy in personal relationships, happier when working with archival people and issues than when making a speech or courting a congressman.” You see then-new archivist Adrienne Thomas receiving an award from Bert Rhoads in his office in 1973.

I knew Bert Rhoads (who died in 2015) only from a distance.  Looking back, I realize that news stories and the rumor mill often miss or misinterpret what is happening.  That Rhoads went to the White House prepared to lose his job over the Nixon-Sampson agreement was unknown to reporters in 1974.  Only a few people knew that Rhoads had made it clear to his boss (the Administrator of General Services–the National Archives then part of GSA) that he would not publicly support an agreement which gave former President Nixon the right to destroy his tapes.

Called to he White House to meet with President Ford’s legal staff, the Archivist remembered thinking, “Bert, I think you’ve bought it. Enjoy your last day as Archivist.”  But as he recounted to NARA archivist Rod Ross in a 1984 oral history interview, White House officials understood and navigated the matter in a way that didn’t force that choice. 

An ongoing NARA digitization effort enables anyone to read records which show how President Ford handled the later passage of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act and the transfer of the Nixon tapes and files to the National Archives.  Rod Ross and I worked with those records as archivists.

Rod spent his NARA career in its Office of Presidential Libraries (including assignments at the White House); in the Accession and Disposal Branch in Suitland, MD; as Supervisory Archivist for printed archives; and as a reference specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives.  Rod later admitted publicly, “it turned out that I really wasn’t a good fit to be a supervisor.”  So he changed from being “a project head to being on the reference staff” with NARA’s Center for Legislative Archives. You see my photo of Rod with AOTUS David Ferriero (whom I know and whose honest take on being an Introvert–he started as a library book shelver–I mentioned during the discussion at Lance’s blog) three years before he presented Rod a well deserved Archivist’s Achievement Award. 


Meredith, Lance, and Kate no longer blog.  But we can follow their examples and that of Ashley. And create online space where we can share the joy or pain of learning something new, about ourselves and about the lives of others.  And let others share what they learn or need to know.

Posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, People issues | Leave a comment

On the record, for the records

The White House staffer asked, “Should you be doing that?” as he passed me in a hallway in the building adjacent to the West Wing. I was using a pallet jack to move to a staging area a pallet of cartons of White House records.

I showed him the two badges I wore together around my neck, one my National Archives badge, the other a White House Complex badge. “I’m a member of the National Archives team working with you here on the records move.” He nodded and I continued down the hallway.

My Office of Presidential Libraries colleagues included men and women assigned as detailees to the White House to take custody of the records of a one-term president.  We worked with departing White House staff, lawyers, and records officers to bring presidential materials to the National Archives. The coordinator often sent men to move loaded pallets from the hallways outside offices where we helped pack records. I occasionally volunteered to do so when others were busy.

Credentials, motives, values, goals, processes, people, and labor aren’t always visible outside workplace teams of academic, corporate, or government archivists, including those within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  So you want to make sure people feel it’s ok to ask questions, as the White House staffer did long ago. What containers hold has changed. Recent moves involve mostly electronic records (95% for Obama, 99% for his successor.)

Packing up servers and working with White House data center career staff (or with cloud accounts) now is a major part of end of term transitions.  So, too, statutorily preserving Social Media accounts for which NARA usually receives passwords from outgoing officials.  That Twitter and Facebook suddenly banned the then-president’s personal and official accounts shortly before  January 20, 2021 created unique challenges which the National Archives began working through immediately.

The first photo shows members of NARA’s transition team during the Obama move out, the second my earlier move team on the steps of the National Archives.  Some archivists and archives specialists work with the records later as members of a National Archives presidential libraries unit. Others return to work in their NARA home units.  But as the National Archives’ General Counsel, Gary M. Stern, has noted, preparing for a transition starts from the day a President takes office.

Gary, who once was a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the government successfully in 1989 for electronic preservation of White House Professional Office System records. Some related to the Iran Contra investigations. Since joining NARA as a Federal lawyer in 1998, Stern has worked with White House Counsel’s office representatives during each administration.

The National Archives has featured Gary Stern and other officials in many public programs (still open to view) since 2010.  Gary noted during a panel in 2015 that outside advocates sometimes choose litigation.  But he urged, “come talk to us,” before choosing that option.  During an information sharing panel in 2018, John Laster, NARA’s senior archival White House liaison official, offered a powerful affirmation that the staff of the National Archives has a passionate, authentic commitment to its access mission.

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) gives a president nearly unfettered records management authority over covered White House records until he leaves office. NARA does not swoop in suddenly at the end of an administration as it gains control over an outgoing president’s records. Every WH administration (and the Biden transition team and administration) welcomed NARA contact although doing so is voluntary.

As Gary said in a recent webinar, he usually communicates with designated White House lawyers almost daily, “certainly once a week.”  As Stern has explained, because the White House has limited space for storing physical records, NARA takes in some, initially for “courtesy storage,” during each administration, up to and including 2017-2021.

Last month, NARA officials welcomed opportunities from the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) to talk about “Preserving Records: Archives and Presidential Transitions” (29 January 2021) and “Records in Transition: A Conversation with NARA Leaders” (21 January 2021).  Both webinars included audience Q&A via chat functions.  These connected speakers to questions and perceptions from the public.

Participants included NARA General Counsel Gary M. Stern (both panels).  Former Acting U.S. Archivist Trudy H. Peterson and Professor Richard Immerman joined Gary on the AHA panel. Two other NARA officials, Chief Records Officer Laurence Brewer and external liaison and outreach official Meg Phillips, participated with Gary on the OAH panel.

Whether you work in government, academic, or corporate jobs in knowledge professions, your employer relies on legal experts who provide guidance on what to do and why.  For NARA, the Federal Records Act (FRA) and the PRA, statutes with different frameworks and authorities for the National Archives and the Archivist of the United States, control its acquisition of historically valuable materials.  A combined summary of the OAH and AHA sessions follows with brackets indicating my annotations.

The Federal Records Act (1950) covers the executive branch but excludes the President who manages his records through designees in the White House.  The FRA established a framework in which records creating agencies and departments work with NARA through their Agency Records Officers (AROs). Senior Agency Officials for Records Management (SAORMs), a new function first established in 2012, also work with NARA on FRA implementation. As CRO, Brewer meets with SAORMs so they can discuss or share concerns about their work with agency and department heads.

While the AROs and the SAORMs usually are career employees, they work for agencies and departments with political appointees who often outrank them.  Can inappropriate pressure from the latter occur?  Laurence Brewer says it can and that there are agency options for dealing with it, including turning to NARA or working internally with their Inspectors General.  NARA posts public lists of “unauthorized disposition cases,” some based on news reports, others raised by government employees or the public. It notes “unfounded,” “founded,” or under investigation.  (More shortly on why this structure does not apply to White House PRA records.)

What about Hillary Clinton, who became Secretary of State in January 2009, before the Obama administration began an initiative with NARA to modernize federal records management?  Gary Stern observed that,

Hillary Clinton did that unbeknownst…to us and even to her own records officer…for years.  [As] the Secretary of State she used a personal email account, which was a really…dumb idea. And of course, it may have cost her an election to do it. [Proper email use is] the number one advice we give to every incoming official in the White House and every agency.

The Archivist of the United States sends transition guidance to senior government officials. NARA discourages all government employees from using personal email accounts or third party non-governmental apps. If they do use them, they legally have 20 days to forward or copy emails from personal to government accounts for inclusion in the official record keeping system.

As for WhatsApp, some diplomats have indicated reluctance to use email while abroad. They sometimes “insist they will only communicate on WhatsApp because they don’t trust their own official email accounts.” Gary explained State has a protocol for how those are “exported, downloaded and copied over to official systems. So it can be managed and has to be managed.”

[I would add that after the Hillary Clinton story broke in news reports in 2015, a State Department Inspector General review found that some employees expressed concern about using official record keeping systems. A few expressed concern about “snooping.” During the 2008 presidential campaign, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apologized to Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton after revelations that contract State Department employees had peeked at their passport files.

Executive department and agency histories and cultures vary and FRA covered employees sometimes focus selectively on past events or individual experiences. Agency Records Officers have regular contact with peer-level NARA staff appraisal archivists. They also attend (virtually at present) NARA events such as Bi-Monthly Records and Information Discussion Group (BRIDG) meetings.]

As Brewer described, NARA’s records management function includes four major program areas:  (1) records retention scheduling and appraisal; (2)  guidance and training for ensuring FRA compliance by Federal employees; (3) records management policy and standards (4) oversight and reporting.  Information on all these areas available on NARA’s external website.  You see below Laurence Brewer listening as Gary Stern spoke during the OAH webinar.  And (left) in the second photo with AOTUS David Ferriero (right) and members of the NARA records and outreach teams.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applies to Federal Records Act materials while creating agencies and departments still hold them.  For unreleased records, members of the public also can submit FOIA requests for the small percentage (1 to 3%) of FRA materials that NARA takes into its holdings as permanently valuable.

Other records–those of PRA-covered White House components–only can be requested by the general public using FOIA starting 5 years after a President leaves office.  Meg Phillips described the number of requests NARA receives at the 5-year mark as “an avalanche.”  Gary Stern noted this immediately creates a huge processing backlog which keeps increasing.

So let’s turn to what panelists in the AHA and OAH sessions said about the Presidential Records Act, its history, and NARA’s role in the 2017 and 2021 transitions.  Although the Congress passed the Federal Records Act in 1950, it took no action at the time with presidential records.  By custom, presidents from George Washington through Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter treated their White House records as personal property. Richard Nixon, who succeeded Johnson as president, faced seizure of his records by the government when the Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) in 1974 due to ongoing Watergate investigations.

Trudy Peterson explained how the PRMPA and its implementing regulations included an archival obligation to separate governmental from personal information.  This affected its work with the Nixon materials from 1977 to 2007. In upholding PRMPA, courts noted a president’s right to “private political association.” As Gary Stern said, a provision in the 1974 statute established a public documents commission which looked at the status of presidential, Congressional, and judicial records.  Its work on the former played a part in passage of the Presidential Records Act in 1978.

The PRA gives the president nearly complete records management control while in office and virtually no role to NARA.  NARA takes legal custody of PRA administered records at the moment a president leaves office.  As Stern put it, unlike with the FRA, NARA has no role in overseeing or regulating how the President handles records during his administration.  White House, not NARA, records staff recovered from trash bins and taped up documents torn up by the former president since January 20, 2017.

While individuals and groups sometimes file lawsuits over Federal Records Act compliance, Gary affirms that “it’s much harder to sue” under the PRA.  As a result, courts have not really addressed record keeping challenges in the White House under current law.  NARA gets what the White House gives it.

There is no appraisal at the time of creation of PRA covered materials; NARA takes in all of them.  As with PRMPA implementation, the PRA recognizes that the president is both chief executive and leader of his political party.  To preserve the court acknowledged right of private political association, White House officials with assigned political as well as policy roles must use different email accounts for the former and latter.  Gary explained,

If they’re talking about fiscal policy, and then also asking, “How are the kids doing?” it’s considered a record. We might redact and withhold the personal stuff on a public access request and the FOI requests [once they’re in NARA’s legal custody], but it’s still a presidential record.

On the political, the way they’re supposed to do it and the way they do it…they have their political accounts, the RNC and the DNC. Folks in the White House who are engaged in political activities are supposed to have a separate account. That can be misused and abused.

And we know in the Bush 43 administration, folks were given RNC accounts and then did in fact, engage in official activities. In some cases, it seemed like they deliberately used their non official accounts to engage in official activities to…essentially get around the Presidential Records Act. That was exposed and they had to go back and recover those presidential records on their personal account.

The problem where we see that almost every day, sadly, across the government is when people use their personal phones and their personal email to do government business. It’s just as wrong to do that.

Historians have expressed thoughtful concerns about how to use the increasing volume of electronic records, which Gary said played a part in Barack Obama deciding to leave his records in NARA’s existing facilities rather than building a traditional presidential library.  As Trudy Peterson noted, especially at the deed of gift presidential libraries (Hoover through Carter, excepting Nixon), donated materials from presidential associates form part of the collections.  [Increased attention to FRA compliance may reduce the need for some but not all of that. Personal diaries and post-administration correspondence can provide insights on past actions].  In some cases departing officials, such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, walked away with materials that belonged in government custody.

Archival silences [and in my view, in some instances, chilling effects] will be a part of researching recent government records. The FRA depends on creation of “adequate and proper” documentation of government business.  But as Gary noted, there is no clear definition of adequate or proper.  And there is no way to force people to create records.

Let’s share reliable information in our communities and keep good conversations going. As Gary said of NARA, “come talk to us.” National Archives officials are accustomed to assessing situation appropriate solutions during ordinary and unprecedented times.  And as seen here, open to talking and listening to all.

Posted in Archival issues, History, Records | Leave a comment

Making bold connections

Vocational awe centers identity in a profession and job. Initially used for librarianship, the phrase can apply to other knowledge professions, including archivist, records manager, or historian.  Fobazi Ettarh, who first described the concept, said of vocational awe in 2018 that when “the rhetoric surrounding librarianship borders on vocational and sacred language rather than acknowledging that librarianship is a profession or a discipline, and as an institution, historically and contemporarily flawed, we do ourselves a disservice.”

Ettarh recognized that awe can inhibit acceptance of criticism or critical analysis of a profession.  Educators or practitioners who focus on vocation can obscure the value of centering people as diverse individuals within practices and processes. In 2019, she explained to an interviewer how she saw the difference between a job and a vocation:

Is librarianship an occupation or a vocation? “They have different connotations,” Ettarh said. “An occupation is your employment, but a vocation is a strong inclination to a course of action.” As in its original meaning of a call to the religious life, she said, some see librarianship as a vocation that persists throughout the day and night, following you around wherever you go….

“The stories of our patron saints are stories of vocational awe,” she said. “Sacrificing, struggling, and martyrdom are not goals of librarianship. We can be good librarians without doing any of these things.”

A decade ago on Twitter, you saw light-hearted reactions, “that’s so last year,” as memes and catchphrases flowed quickly through Social Media platforms.  Once fresh favorites used to discuss employment in or use of galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs) soon become outdated. (I still like LOLCats and Doge Speak but no longer use them on social platforms.)  Now, we look back at The Before Time as we face challenges in adjusting to the pandemic at home, on the job, and in the classroom.  We no longer prepare for, seek, and if lucky, retain jobs as librarians, historians, records managers, archivists, curators, or in GLAM adjacent positions the same way as in the past.

The job market for knowledge professionals, which never recovered from the 2008 recession, already reflected contingent labor in many jobs even before the current employment crisis.  Facing a gig economy adds emotional and financial stress in a time of personal anxiety and uncertainty during a global health crisis.  That exchanges on Social Media provide insights into individual and institutional values (positive or negative in terms of potential job satisfaction) adds stress.

Archival consultant Rachel Christine Woody observed in 2020 that revenue streams in many GLAMs matter more than ever as they face economic and fiscal challenges during the pandemic.  Online the voices of archivists often reflect experience in academic settings as college and university archivists comprise a significant number of members in the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  A recent Twitter uproar over a historian’s comments suggested varied experiences, some showing frustration at facing “handmaiden to scholars” stereotypes, others advocating for more insights on invisible labor.

Boomers and Generation X dominated early online discourse among historians, archivists, librarians, and records managers, displaying disparate and largely instinctive or reactive behaviors.  Millennials who observed or engaged with the oldest online practitioners form a transitional generation as the last graduate students sent by educators to Listservs in large numbers.  Members of Generation Z face enormous economic challenges but also have greater opportunities to explore bolder, even more radical, vocational learning and other-awareness than previously available.

More so than in library and history forums, dominant posters on the best known Boomer and Gen X Listservs for archivists and for records managers shared news links instead of learning based insights for navigating challenges in the two professions.  Some “news links” reflected traditional integrity based reporting, others New Media links with unreliable content. The resulting flame wars in the now defunct forums too often reflected entrenched positions, some relying on defensive tactics more often seen in the political sphere than in knowledge focused workplaces.

This inhibited exploration of information literacy and reliable fact-checked journalism, academic writing, or nonpartisan audit findings.  And how to distinguish them from hyperpartisan advocacy of a type seen in some national, state, or local level political campaigns.  The inability of some old-timers to recognize nuanced intellectual contributions by younger subscribers drove many participants, especially BIPOC students and new professionals, out of the forums in search of better online platforms.

Archival educators who sent Millennial students to Boomer forums rarely discussed sociology or strategic communications.  Yet success after landing a job required, and still requires, shifting from competition to connection in ways which avoidance-based vocational awe can obscure or undermine.  The change is most stressful in term limited or grant funded project positions or jobs without tenure.  Workers face the stress of performative pressures while knowing they may have to compete for jobs again soon.

During the 2020 summer of pandemic isolation, Dr. Meredith Evans showed us how to look at identity more fully by embracing others’ humanity and our own. When she spoke at the conclusion of her term as President of the Society of American Archivists during the virtual annual meeting on August 7, 2020, Meredith began by sharing her pronouns and listing who she is:

A sister;
a mother;
an ex-wife;
a friend;
a New Yorker who moved down South;
a woman of faith;
a Black woman;
a descendant of slaves;
an American.
an Extrovert;
a member of the GLAM community;
a manager of an archive and of a museum,
with degrees in history and library and archival science

She said she was doing this not to make anyone uncomfortable or to be judged and that she is very aware she doesn’t fit into most peoples’ boxes.  And that she refuses to be enemies with anyone.  Meredith (whom I know in person and admire) explained that her purpose in listing multiple roles and identities was to put her implicit biases on the table for the SAA remarks that followed.

Everyone around you has an identity list.  In an archives or history grad school program.  An online class. Competing with you for a job. Relying on you after you’re lucky enough to land it.  Participating in a virtual professional meeting or in person at conferences (second photo 2018). Supporting you as you look for a job or face challenges in a class or workplace.

To recognize that requires making radical connections.  First, connecting with yourself by doing an internal inventory that examines experiences, biases, and positive and negative influences in your life. And then, recognizing that others have their own lists which are only partly visible to you, even among the most closely connected people in your life. Just as workplaces (which also have list characteristics that usually are only partly visible) can be reduced to overly simplistic images, so can people.

Providing context for identity isn’t easy.  Nearly a decade ago, a young archivist wrote about an abusive workplace situation in a post for a labor focused group blog (You Ought to Be Ashamed) established by Maureen Callahan.  The YOTBA post drew many supportive comments and I later wrote about the young woman in a post at my own blog in 2012.  I linked to her story and the importance of “Watching over. Looking out for.  Each other.”  I later learned that she had taken down her post at the group blog.  Sharing painful experiences in public can feel risky.

I was honored to be asked by one of the YOTBA bloggers to become a writer at the group blog.  But I decided to start my own workforce and change management blog in 2010, predecessor to my current one, instead.  In my early blogging, I was strongly influenced by the essays published at YOTBA, including the one by the young woman who later erased her online account of trauma.

If directly telling a story about recovery from trauma feels challenging, so, too, reliance on allegory and metaphor.  In 2011 I wrote some of my blog essays for a small group, colleagues of a friend who needed support.  In writing about the friend who was facing adversarial rhetoric, I reached for Vietnam War era terms in explaining my preference for peaceful  (“flower power”) online debate.  And references to New Wave music I once listened to as I dealt with a particular type of trauma from which I’ve since healed.

I hoped others, including my friend, wouldn’t have to endure similar experiences. (He came through them ok before changing jobs a decade ago.)  That random strangers might read my essays about what my friend faced and not know the antecedents initially didn’t feel risky. But it’s important to remember that writing shared in public is available for anyone to read.  No one has to ask permission to explore public facing blogs, open Twitter accounts, Instagram posts.  For me, that’s mostly been good. I’ve had joyous experiences hearing from people who lurked my writing and reached out after months or years to engage with me.

I was sure that readers who were not part of organized efforts to pressure my friend would correctly interpret my peace advocacy, even if my cultural references were obscure. I had, after all, been careful in describing the characteristics of organized campaigns against people such as my friend. But I later concluded that while I anchored my writing to my friend’s statement in 2007 about a hoped for end of a long war, my use of Vietnam War references might be subject to misunderstanding.  Not everyone knew my shared history with my friend.

I also realized later that the songs that comforted me in my younger days as I worked through my past emotional wounds might not resonate with younger readers.  In such advocacy writing, better just to say, “this happened once long ago; here’s what my friend faces.” And leave readers to make the connections, or not, on their own without the clutter of obscure historical or cultural references.

I learned from that experience that recognizing the complexity of individual lists requires logging in to community space but minimizing your internal self-image “window.”  Trying to find the best way to express my abhorrence of warlike rhetoric about contentious issues taught me to center readers more so than myself as the writer. I also learned to recognize indirect or direct references to various types of trauma that random men and women share when writing and speaking.  And why vocational awe–which is different from professional pride–can add extra layers of stress.

By trying to connect honestly with our past and present, we understand how to better see and connect with others. The same is true for examining the structures in which we learn, teach, work. Traditional forums privileged older participants’ voices that sometimes inhibited open debate about labor, professions, and professionalism. Younger knowledge workers showed why exploring such issues expands understanding of others’ identity lists.. Samantha Winn’s January 2014 blog post about the archives profession examined labor and employment in ways not possible on the Archives & Archivists Listserv. And archivists Ashley Stevens and Stacie Williams wrote powerful blog posts in the last decade about race and structural inequality.

Kate Theimer taught readers of her ArchivesNext blog how to create inclusive online space for discussing challenges and solutions to problems.  I especially appreciate how she gave me time and space to recover from posting an embarrassingly out of sync comment caused by my reading a guest post too quickly.  (This can happen to any writer or reader.) Psychic space for recovery and reconsideration of reactions is a key element in learning and growth in the workplace and in professional spaces, virtual and physical.  It also enhances change management initiatives.

Christie Tong described in 1998 a workshop exercise in which she played Pachelbel’s Canon in D. She described in “Are You an Architect of Trust?” how she asked participants to describe an opening scene to an imaginary movie that came to mind while listening to the music.

After the music stopped, I asked for volunteers to describe the scene they envisioned. Utter silence. After a day and a half with these managers speaking up easily, I was struck by the difference. I asked them why that was. “It’s a bigger risk,” one manager responded. “It’s a lot different than discussing the strategic objectives or the P&Ls. . . you’re putting yourself out there.”

Finally, someone broke the ice.

When one of the managers did replay the scene he’d envisioned to the group, the room went up in energetic applause. They were captivated and moved by it. Being an Architect of Trust is about putting yourself “out there,” being willing to trust others first. It requires courage.

Let’s make the bold connections that can help us recognize glimpses of the complex lives behind each other’s identity lists.  To acknowledge that people don’t fit in boxes.  And that the places we learn or work have identity lists, too.  And that openness to fair criticism as well as praise (traditional or in the form of Likes, Favorites, Retweets on social platforms) can encourage community crafted change too often limited by vocational awe.

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