Do Robert Caro’s iconic typewriter and notes of oral history interviews represent how a historian works? Perhaps for some readers of his books who aren’t trained as or don’t work as historians. What about historians? It depends (that classic archivist response fits my historian side, too.)
In February 2019, when Jennifer Schuessler published an article in The New York Times about Barack Obama’s presidential records, an academic archivist saw the consternation many historians expressed in their tweets and tagged me. “You’re needed.” The limited number of clicks allowed non-subscribers meant some reactions reflected reading the article, others seeing the headline and sub-head.
When you work as a historian within the Federal government, as I did during the last 26 years of a 43 year career, you learn to step back and consider “what does the reader need?” The headline of the Schuessler piece, “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t,” left some readers to fill in parts of the story on their own. Yet the central point should have been that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) took custody and control of the Obama presidential records as he left office. And that it retains custody and administers them under the Presidential Records Act (1978), the same law that applies to the White House records of Ronald Reagan and his successors.
Doing a Twitter search on the news article helped me identify tweets that missed this point or otherwise suggested concern about the status and future of the Obama records. I looked at Twitter profiles (and gained new people to Follow) to see the professions of account holders. I avoided one category of tweets (any which showed a highly partisan political, polemical approach to the issue) but considered others.
I looked not just at the messages but metamessages of tweets. You can’t know why someone sees an issue as they do. But sometimes there are clues. Through trial and error during my career as a NARA archivist and later as a Federal historian, I’ve learned it’s important to respect what you can discern. But accept that you may misread what publicly shared words say about a person.
I reached some knowledge professionals a year ago but not others. There was an additional wrinkle involving risk (a situation outside NARA) that I took in parachuting into some Twitter conversations then and later. I absorbed the risk and outcome (my intuition proved right).
When a representative for the Society for Historians of Foreign Relations (SHAFR) contacted me in 2019, I accepted an opportunity to write a rebuttal to an earlier journal essay about NARA’s Obama Presidential Library. My article in the September 2019 issue of Passport looked at the Obama records in the context of change management, records management, and statutory controls–the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act. I chose an inclusive title (“Working Together with the National Archives”) and an optimistic conclusion.
We are not facing the crisis that Fred Kaplan foresaw when he wrote, in a 2003 essay for Slate, about “The End of History.” Kaplan predicted recordkeeping chaos…if there no longer were pages to turn in paper file folders. NARA’s ongoing efforts to preserve and make knowledge available provide all of us who care about archives the opportunity to make history together by gathering in “safe harbors” to talk through our perspectives on the issues with goodwill, inside and outside NARA. . .as we embrace exciting chances to face present and future challenges together.
I’ve embraced other opportunities to share information, including as recently as this past week. When historian Matthew Connelly published an op ed about NARA and Federal and presidential records in the NYT (February 4), I saw an opportunity to share context. I sent a Letter to the Editor (later published):
Matthew Connelly expresses concern about records deleted within Federal agencies after a set time instead of being transferred into the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Having worked onsite with officials in Federal agencies early in my NARA career to appraise paper records for transfer into the National Archives, I know that some 3% of Federal records warrant designation as historical.
This remains the case with electronic records. As in the past, NARA can reassess federal records cleared for destruction 7, 25, or 75 years after creation as deletion dates near. Presidential records fall under a separate statute.
I’ve worked on several moves of White House records to NARA. Since some 90 to 95% of President Barack Obama’s presidential records were “born digital” (no paper version filed), he and NARA agreed there was no need to construct a separate presidential library building. Rather, NARA employees hold Obama’s records (digital and paper) in its existing facilities for processing under a statute passed in 1978.
My goal was to convey continuity during change. And to give readers the chance to absorb information and file it away for future reference. Online and in person, people take in and communicate information differently.
In 2011, I had an opportunity to introduce my former NARA boss, Fred Graboske, to AOTUS David S. Ferriero. Fred’s words reminded me of a supervisor’s obligation to understand how others communicate rather than demanding they match his or her style. This works both ways. If you’re talking to a boss, try to understand their information needs despite knowledge asymmetry about the world they must navigate.
A photo of me introducing Fred to David (a deliberate pose to help Graboske link past and present), shows me laughing. Why? Graboske told Ferriero that I was a challenge to supervise. David replied, “I can well imagine.”
My reaction? “You agreed with Fred and immediately!” The three of us then chatted about how people communicate. Fred and I often ended up in the same place but took different routes to get there. As is David, Fred is a Vietnam war veteran.
Fred and his NARA team faced public defamation and intimidation decades ago in a situation crossing two administrations where offering a defense was difficult. The situation also included the leak (surprising from an unknown archivist) to a Washington power player (seemingly to undermine her) of an internal document written by Acting Archivist Trudy H. Peterson. She deserved better.
I learned from positive examples during my NARA Office of Presidential Libraries career, as well. Because my team served as pathfinders in handling materials a new way, I came to value empathy in change management. Situational awareness, cultural competence, and continuity matter, too.
The Kennedy quotes I used in my last post (“Who Owns History?”) remind us why historians of the presidency study decision making. Their work takes us behind the headlines and journalism’s “first draft of history.” The best history books humanize people individually or as members of a group or community. Reading books by good historians can be like water in a desert, especially when witnessing or enduring dehumanization.
David Ferriero’s Letter to the Editor in response to Connelly’s op ed showed several characteristics of a leader of a knowledge institution. A stewardship obligation to the agency he has headed since November 2009, linking past and present in moving forward. And awareness that as the agency head, he has people in his care and can speak up for the team.
That team is diverse in opinion and perspectives. When David undertook a major transformation of NARA, I understood the goal. As I recently wrote elsewhere,
As to electronic records, the bus left 20 years ago when people in the FRA controlled executive agencies and departments embraced use of electronic records for business activities while NARA still was offering print to file guidance premised on DM/ERMS that sought to replicate the paper filing designated clerks did.
In 2010, NARA finally caught up with and boarded that bus. And sought a better route than available when Eisenhower-era solutions failed Federal passengers travelling during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Where I faltered initially at times in understanding Ferriero’s vision, which I came to support in 2011, was in too readily accepting certain internal NARA assessments from a small group of staff and supervisors. And reflecting some of them at my old blog. In considering if I was being unfair, I eventually stepped back and thought, “What might I be missing?” And apologized at my blog to one official and developed a better understanding and appreciation of another. With those actions came greater peace as I realized I could take the time to absorb information, without assuming the roles of judge and jury.
If you look at the online version of David Ferriero’s response to the Connelly op ed, you see the headline and subhead, “The National Archives Responds: the archivist of the United States objects to statements in an Op-Ed criticizing new record-keeping practices.” What is at issue, and not clear in Connelly’s op ed, isn’t an abandonment of past practices. But rather that NARA recognizes the need to update practices that remain rooted in traditional principles to match present day realities.
While people inside and outside NARA have debated and continue to discuss how to effect those revisions, the need for change is clear. I know of no one who creates, receives, or primarily uses electronic records at home or in the office who would argue that 20th century procedures used with paper records remain viable.
David accurately describes the process of revising records control schedules. My shorter, less effective, Letter made clear that agencies have the option of asking NARA to take a fresh look at temporary designations as destruction dates near. NARA officials traditionally send out notices to agency records officers that materials are nearing destruction dates.
Records eligible for destruction 20, 30, 75 years from now can be reassessed before destruction to see if a business case can be made for longer retention or even change in status to permanent, eligible for transfer to NARA. Temporary records do not lie in isolation chambers for 20 years and then automatically self destruct (link 1960s humor warning) without notice to the agencies.
Ferriero also looks at misunderstandings about other records.
State Department permanent records identified by machine learning algorithms will continue to be turned over to us. Further, the overwhelming majority of correspondence of State Department under secretaries is captured in emails, which are permanent records.
NARA will not stop accepting paper records because “it simply doesn’t have any more room for them.” Rather, the Office of Management and Budget and NARA issued Memorandum M-19-21 directing all agencies to transition to electronic records for more efficient and effective electronic recordkeeping. This is a groundbreaking step toward a digital future, in keeping with the way modern records are created and with the expectations of the public and other stakeholders in getting access to their government’s records.
As to presidential libraries, Ferriero states that,
Finally, it is incorrect to say that we do not “plan to maintain any more presidential libraries.” Instead of constructing a new building for us to house Obama administration records and artifacts, the Obama Foundation will fund the digitization of the unclassified paper records. We will store the originals in existing NARA facilities. This enables the creation of a truly digital library when combined with the other 95 percent of the Obama records that were created and remain in electronic form. While this arrangement is different from our other 13 presidential libraries, we have established the Barack Obama Presidential Library, with a dedicated staff to preserve and make accessible the records of the 44th president.
David Ferriero once noted of NARA in a blog post about change and transitions that “our values remain unchanged.” I see it that way, too. What is different now than a decade ago is how NARA receives feedback. Early in his tenure, David wrote about “Leading an Open Archives.” I didn’t yet know him in person and brought a lot of wariness, even distrust, to my perceptions of NARA in 2010. But in learning about Ferriero’s past (including an article he published in 1984 as a supervisory librarian about protecting staff from burnout) and present actions, I came to see these paragraphs as who he is:
As we embrace social media technologies more and more, our work is changing. We’ve been increasing our understanding and use of social media, but now we need to build it into the fabric of the agency. In this new reality, managers and leaders need to understand the power and the limitations of using social media to communicate with employees and the public. Being innovative and agile allows us to respond to the changing environment and to learn new ways of accomplishing our mission at the National Archives.
I encourage each of you to think about this new vision of leadership. Charlene Li describes what’s needed:
Leadership requires a new approach, a new mind-set, and new skills. It isn’t enough to be a good communicator. You must be comfortable with sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships. Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored. Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn. And it is not sufficient to just be humble. You need to seek out opportunities to be humbled each and every day – to be touched as much by the people who complain as by those who say “Thank you.”
Power shows in seeing diverse perceptions of NARA and adjusting information sharing to meet them. It’s easy to take for granted that values and practices are readily discernible when they may not be.
Limitations lie in knowledge asymmetry, something I hope historians consider as they compare old news reports with the deeper insights archival materials convey in physical and virtual reading rooms.
And opportunities exist for all who care about how to “make history together with NARA” in meeting challenges in good faith.