Archival arrangement, archival learning

Pain, anxiety, hope and frustration punctuated the words students, job seekers, and the job insecure shared on the Archives & Archivists Listserv in January 2014.  But who was listening to messages under a post about “eating our young?”  A few newly graduated archivists had permanent jobs, but meany worked on short term grant funded projects or in part-time jobs, struggling to keep their footing and pay their bills.  And the huge debt of graduate school loans.

I was taking a break from subscribing to the Listserv, the reason long resolved now but then necessary. Unable to post there, I cringed at what some of my peers, older white men and women, longtime archivists and librarians and records managers, posted.  For some, trapped in “back in my day,” the advice came across to me as well-meaning but insular, which made it all the sadder to see.  Others relied on outright bullying or “So what?”

A community reflects its members and A&A skewed increasingly old and conservative.  A frequent poster was a records manager who posted news links, some reporting straight news according to journalistic standards, others reflecting skewed, even erroneous commentary in op eds.  (He now shares them, along with his take on current events, on Twitter under his Records and Archives in the News handle, @Rainbyte)

SAA president Danna Bell’s 2014 blog post about the increasingly toxic nature of the Listserv drew a repetition of many of the comments I saw in January.  When SAA finally shut down the Listserv on December 31, 2017, I found the bewilderment of some of the old-timers sad but frustrating.  Some, but not enough to affect the closure, understood why it had it had been comfortable for themselves but not others.  Race, gender identity, and economic status played a part for many in who stayed, who fled.

I described in my last blog post how Twitter provides opportunities for Insta peer review. Over the weekend, @archivist_sam eloquently recounted on Twitter the reasons she saw some of the divides in the archives community.

It isn’t 1978 any longer, the year I processed the Oscar T. Crosby Papers as a National Archives archivist on a cross training assignment in the Library of Congress.  The organization remains as I had arranged the collection, following longtime practices that place the writing closest to and most reflective of the creator first.  And items furthest from the creator (often news clipping and printed matter) as the last series.  This centers the person but also reflects how others saw them, including in the press. 

The cover to the Finding Aid states that Patrick Kerwin revised it in 2005.  Reading through, it seems familiar and I have flashbacks to sitting in the old Art Deco style Adams Building of LOC, in the back processing areas in the Manuscript Division.  I don’t mind that revision occurred, whatever its scope.  (It doesn’t seem greatly changed). Multiple perspectives and recognition of the need to revise, adapt, and change are good.

Some of my fellow Baby Boomers on the A&A Listserv created barriers they didn’t see or acknowledge.  The group wasn’t monolithic–there were many members who seemed to believe in inclusion and helping others succeed.  But too many, even there, were curiously passive, and missed clues pointing to where we are today.  An increasingly challenging information ecosystem.  And a ballot reflecting not just the two candidates for SAA Vice President/President-elect selected by a a nominating committee headed by Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, a Council member I joined other SAA members in voting into office last year.  But also a candidate unexpectedly added last week through a rarely used petition process.

SAA struggled to resolve the controversies apparent on the Listserv but never tackled the underlying reasons for issues Anna Clutterbuck-Cook described in a blog post about shared news links.  She did not name the poster, calling him X, but after I blogged about her post, he and other subscribers discussed her post on A&A.

During his tenure as ARMA president-elect in March 2015, a couple of subscribers on another Listserv also questioned what news links were appropriate.  There, too,I saw little discussion of underlying issues, including the chilling effect of selective, cherry picked, or weaponized news accounts of the recorded words of some officials Records Managers serve.

Things took a different turn on A&A, one of which had a deeper impact.  Members passed up the chance to discuss news, information literacy and disinformation, but some seemed uncomfortable with new graduates who didn’t fit the majority profile. One younger archivist, Jarrett Drake, posted briefly on A&A in 2013 and 2014, showing deep insights on sociological issues.  He later tweeted that he still had nightmares about how a group of white old-timers (and their allies) responded to his well-thought out, insightful postings on A&A about shared news links.  He later left the archival profession.

I had unsubscribed from A&A in the Fall of 2013 but I still read the List on its public facing message website.  As I saw white subscribers react to Jarrett’s posts, I wondered why no SAA leaders stepped in to stand beside him.  Perhaps some subscribers shared private assurances of support.  But that’s not good enough. I explained why in a post about what they don’t teach you in graduate school:

Navigating people issues is essential at work. A well-functioning workplace that doesn’t reward antagonism or bullying has internal resources (both on the management and the labor side) to mitigate and deal with disruptive behaviors. Online, the most difficult situations involve bullying or harassment in professional forums.

Sometimes, as also suggested in some physical bystander training, you move to keep the target from being isolated. You walk over to stand next to them in online space and engage with them on other issues.

This lets them know, in ways that don’t escalate harasser threats against them, that they are not alone in a risk-filled or uncomfortable situation. It may not be enough to keep them from giving up on the group. But they need to see your support–in real time.

If you are job secure, consider spending online capital wisely to help less privileged professionals, especially the marginalized, when you see them harassed or isolated online. Academic studies didn’t prepare me for this; later experiences did.

Those experiences include reading tweets from younger archivists and librarians, and learning from their values.  As @feministlib’s wife, @crowgirl42, tweeted in 2014, we should not be afraid of understanding or confuse it with support or liking.  You’ll see my reply and hers to me at the tweet link.

After SAA closed down the A&A Listserv at the end of 2017, it encouraged archivists to participate in its section listservs.  I already belonged to one about records and for young professionals but added the one for Issues and Advocacy.  I’m interested in how SAA handles advocacy and public policy issues, especially knowledge asymmetry on the part of its writers.

Earlier today, I saw why when we arrange records, we center the individual, source of the richest information about a life, and place news clippings last. But not in the way I expected.

The publication of an article in the Washington Post by reporter Joe Heim set off a flurry of comments on Social media Friday which continues now.  Heim described how he visited the National Archives and records Administration (NARA) and noticed alterations in a display linking a 2017 color photo of the Women’s March to a black and white photo a 1913 march down Pennsylvania Avenue by Suffragists.  He reported accurately that a handful of posters carried by marchers were blurred, in the photo, obscuring references to the President and to anatomical terms (vagina, pussy).

After reading the article, I stayed up all night and into early afternoon on Saturday, reading tweets and providing contextual information.  I explained the nature of the display, which is in a lobby used for children’s activities during Museum Sleepovers.

This morning, when I saw a statement from SAA on the alterations, my heart sank as I read it.  Not because I once was a NARA archivist and now volunteer in its Education and Public Programs Division in retirement.  And know in person, trust, respect and support many of its officials, up and down the ranks, including the Archivist, David Ferriero.  And still do. But because as so often on A&A, the statement drew solely on news clips.

I grew increasingly concerned about the the use of news links within SAA starting in 2018, when I saw saw it issue several statements  based on news stories.  Statements that recommended actions by NARA with Presidential and Congressional records for which there is no basis in law.  I thought back to the approach I had learned as a history grad student, then applied at NARA and as historian at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.  Start with what the law says, what is its scope, what are the criteria, conditions and effect.

SAA’s statement referred to historical records and pointed to its Code of Ethics.  The Code provides guidance on handling archival materials in the care of archival institutions.

Archivists ensure the authenticity and continuing usability of records in their care. They document and protect the unique archival characteristics of records and strive to protect the records’ intellectual and physical integrity from tampering or corruption. Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence. They thoroughly document any actions that may cause changes to the records in their care or raise questions about the records’ authenticity.

Noble words, ones that have guided me throughout my career as well as the actions of many archivists I know at NARA now.  Linking to the Code suggested SAA believes NARA has altered materials in its holdings.  But it has not. The image described by Heim was a Getty photo licensed from outside NARA’s holdings used in a promotional lobby display. You see the one for “Rightfully Hers” at left and for the prior exhibit,”Remembering Vietnam in the same space.

The space is in the west exhibit level elevator lobby and traditionally shows in-house designed promotional displays.  The Vietnam poster is not a Vietnam War era image in NARA’s holdings, but a graphic design produced for promotional and marketing purposes.  This, too, was the intent of using the Pennsylvania Avenue Getty image.

Yes, there is a problem, which Heim’s article illustrates.  The Women’s March photo looks as if it is a historical image from NARA’s holdings, which largely are made up of materials taken in from Federal agencies and departments and from the White House.

Members of the public understandably may believe that if they participate in an important event in Washington, photos of them become part of NARA’s holdings.  Some do, through records management.  NARA acquires them if a Federal agency or department or White House unit placed them within their record keeping system at the time.  But such materials for the Women’s March are not even at NARA yet. That is why images of the Women’s March appear nowhere in the exhibition.

Given the time Federal agencies and departments hold on to permanently valuable records before giving custody and legal title to NARA (customarily 20 to 30 years), you would not see material drawn from archival holdings in an exhibition until 2037 or later.  The President is in charge of records management within the White House.  NARA takes in Presidential Records Act materials when an administration ends, 4 or 8 years after a President takes an oath of office.  I’ve worked on such moves as a NARA employee.

The altered Getty image acquired from outside the government appears solely in the elevator lobby as a promotional display.  But unlike the Vietnam image, it looks like a direct copy of an original historical record accessioned from a government entity by the National Archives.  As a historian, Dr. Karin Wulf, pointed out in Heim’s article, in altering the photo of the march, NARA should have included a label saying so.

I know this is new for NARA.  It usually draws in such cases on archival images, not ones of current events. I believe it should have anticipated the photo being seen as an archival rather than a marketing image (unlike many other promotional displays) and labeled it as an altered photograph.  (The best option would have been to blur no images or forego placing it in a lobby also used for children’s events.)

That some managers did not anticipate why a current image from an outside source needed to be treated as if visitors would see it as historical indicates opportunities to better reconcile mission and mission support practices. To consider and align archival, exhibit, and marketing principles and values, ensuring that the public can trust contextually and at face value what it sees. (This is taken for granted, for good reason, on the other side of the building in the research room.)

After Heim noticed the alterations and wrote his story, NARA acted quickly.  Its officials issued a statement admitting the agency made a mistake and saying the altered photo would be removed and replaced with an unaltered version.

Most importantly, NARA stated, “We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.” Knowing the officials involved, I am confident this will be an honest, integrity based, learning review that will do just that.

So, what about news link culture? It, too, deserves review in how SAA uses it. It’s a source of study for many good librarians and knowledge professionals, whom SAA can draw on. Our insular Listserv days are over. Let’s move ahead and apply archival appraisal and arrangement principles to information gathering, too. Within SAA and outside it.

As @sam_archivists says, there is a divide.  Isn’t it worth doing all we can, to give our successors a chance to improve on our work?  Let’s read the clippings but file them at the back of the series. And look in front of them to help us understand others, unafraid of doing so. Knowing as @Crowgirl42 wisely pointed out, that it need not lead to liking or support (although it can).  And confidently walk ahead, embracing continual learning.

Posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, People issues | 1 Comment

Insta peer review

Change occurred in 2009 in our knowledge professions but people reacted in different ways.  Did you look back at the end of 2019 and pick out the moments and consider how they affected your studies and professional life? How you answer, how you see the significance and causes of the changes, depends on how you see a profession and your position in relation to it as an individual.

In relation to a profession, not just in it because not all who read this are working in the history, archives, records, library, and adjacent positions.  But they’re part of the picture, too.

This is the first of a three-part series about professionalism, educational awe, vocational awe.  It expands on a 2018 post about what you may not have learned in grad school as a historian, archivist, librarian or records manager.  And how best to decide on career goals and where to go or be, to the extent possible. (This may or may not differ from whether or not to accept a particular job, which can reflect economic and financial considerations.) Peer review helps us learn but not just in the sense subject matter experts know it best.

If you’re online, whether you think about it that way or not, you’re doing insta peer review.  You gather and assess information and knowledge and insights about people and workplaces as you engage on or lurk various platforms.  Those assessments can affect where you go to school.  Which knowledge profession or association you join–or not.  Or join and leave.  And where you apply for jobs.

Aptitude, more so than age, affects how we handle informal insta peer review (of others, or ourselves).  For me, 2009 was the year I explored Twitter after its use became the subject of Listserv discussions and blog posts.  I focused on the positive lessons in 2019 in posts about Kate Theimer’s  blog, one looking at ArchivesNext as a gathering place, the other at choosing to learn.

Kate’s blog posts in 2009 and 2010 abut Web 2.0 and Archives 2.0 prepared me for seeing, accepting (quickly or after some thought and learning), and supporting changes. Including ones I’ve seen since 2010 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where I once worked as an employee and now volunteer.  And later at other institutions, such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Some aspects of individual and institutional Social Media use overlap. (Take a look at these thoughtful NARA tips about cultural and situational awareness and how to handle trolls.)

I can’t tell you what led many other knowledge professionals to join Twitter (some never did). For me, seeing reactions to alternative platforms on two Listservs I read, one as a member, the other as a subscriber or lurker, helped me understand diverse choices in information ecosystems. And why (aside from time), some people explore and range freely on their own and others show comfort with conduits and gates.

I realized Twitter offered learning and teaching opportunities that Listservs and even some (but not all) blogs I read did not.  To understand change, you need to consider comfort zones and where people choose to gather.  So after joining Twitter, I also still read two Listservs.

One relied on a neutral, non-participant List administrator responsible to a professional organization which relied on member and community input,  including surveys abut the Listserv.  And guided in the last years of its operation not just by posted terms of participation but by a Code of Conduct.  The other, on which I participated as a subscriber in 2004-2005 and again in 2017-2018, included as its most active List administrator a very frequent forum participant and poster.

The two Listservs offered chances to learn how people navigated knowledge sharing, feedback (to others and about themselves), gatekeeping, change, and rules.  The historical research I had been doing about one of two nonpartisan agencies at which I worked shaped how I saw change, feedback, and participant morale online.  And what to look out for, initially on Listservs and then on Social Media.  I covered some of this in a 2018 post about considering appraisal beyond its technical meaning. I quoted a Federal official (Frank Fee) who wrote in 1979 that

I realized that we were constantly asking our managerial staff to implement changes, and to manage our work in a different way than the way we managed it when we were coming up through the ranks. Yet, we had not spent the time and money to keep our managers up to date on management thoughts and concepts. At the same time, we were hiring a staff that was educated in modern management concepts. As a result, we experienced difficulty in introducing change and getting our managerial staff to accept it.

Many of us know the traditional meaning of peer review, the process by which experts in the subject an author writes about review a draft prior to publication in a professional journal.  I also saw first hand its adoption in a professional culture–the use of external peers to examine how an audit organization does its work.

As you read about diversity, feedback, and change, think about where, if anywhere, you see yourself.  What I describe (all drawn from public information) serves as an introduction not just to me and my work but also what you’ve seen me write on Listservs and Social Media.  Whether you work in an academic, corporate, or governmental setting, you may have experienced or supported similar changes.

Ben Nelson, a colleague and friend at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), where I worked as a historian with some archival duties from 1990 to 2016, leads a periodic audit peer review effort for which the development phase began as a result of an external report issued in 1994.  Ben, pictured in a 1978 GAO Honor Awards brochure, started his career as a staff level auditor in the agency’s Detroit regional office.

At the start of Ben’s career, regional offices in GAO’s Field Operations Division faced changes as headquarters officials sought to open up work processes and, increasingly after 1981, hiring, promotions, and staff assignments. Valeria Gist, another of my GAO policy office friends and colleagues, also saw the impact in another regional office, Boston, early in her career.  You see her in a photo I took days before her retirement in 2007.  (Note the red pen!)

Regional Managers who once had run GAO units throughout the United States with considerable power and autonomy saw their roles reduced in the 1970s. The first oral history interview I worked on when I joined GAO offered insights into change, power and perceived status.  Frank Fee, who served as a Regional Manager; as director of GAO’s Field Operations Division; and as Assistant Comptroller General for Operations, looked in the oral history interview at reactions to change by the Regional Managers.

The phrase that was used at the time was the “supremacy of Washington.” People wanted to hold on to that autonomy because it gave them control over resources, the environment within which they worked, and the stature within the organization on a par with their Washington counterparts.

The introduction at the end of Comptroller General Elmer Staats’s tenure of a horizontal teams approach that linked headquarters and field staff brought increased turmoil as Regional Managers faced reduced roles.  A footnote in the oral history interview I worked on explained that the team approach grew out of the 1977 Task Force on Improving GAO Effectiveness. Team leaders assigned from either headquarters or the field led audit engagements; team members reported to the leader regardless of their permanent organizational location; the team was protected as far as possible from competing demands; and hierarchical levels of review were minimized.

The three former GAO officials interviewed for the regional operations and Field Offices oral history I helped edit were candid abut mistakes and tensions in introducing the teams concept. The shouting matches in meetings among regional and headquarters officials.  The challenges of implementing something which later became the norm in a different way but which could have been done differently at the time. As one noted, GAO wasn’t perfect and never has claimed to be.

Their discussion of what they called minority hiring, promotion and retention reflected more caution, perhaps because of recently settled litigation.  A later interview with another official helped me fill in some research gaps not covered in 1989.  Having the ability to range freely, to walk the hallways and chat with people of all ranks, from interns and new employees up to the head of the agency, shaped how I view change, including in online forums and engagement.

Staats’s successor, Charles Bowsher, came into GAO in 1981 with a vision for agency modernization.  Fee, Assistant Comptroller General for Operations from 1982 to 1986, described the impact among the workforce demographic majority of Bowsher’s effort to ensure that women and racial minorities received equitable treatment in promotions. “We occasionally had some problems when it was perceived that someone was promoted to a GS-13 or a GS14 position in the regions or a GS-14 or a GS-15 position in Washington because the individual was a woman or a minority.”

Mort Myers, whom Comptroller General Bowsher named to serve as Regional Manager in Boston, said that when he arrived in 1983, there were no minority GS-13s or GS-14s in the office. This in a city that saw racial tensions and turmoil over school busing. The white male Regional Managers and Assistant Regional Mangers who had run the GAO office in Boston during the 1960s and 1970s had created a culture in their own images.

During Myers’s tenure, Valeria (Val) Gist became the first African American to receive a promotion to GS 13 in the Boston office in which Bowsher and Fee saw a need for cultural change.  She retired in 2007 after serving as a GS-15 auditor working on national security and defense issues and an adviser in two staff offices (Congressional Relations and Policy).  Ben Nelson would come to Washington from Detroit and rise to senior executive positions in operating divisions and staff offices.  He now is the Managing Director, Audit Policy and Quality Assurance.

Walking the hallways at work and online helped me learn what affects credibility. In 2018, Ben explained to a meeting of international auditors that using resources for peer review doesn’t cost, it pays.  It pays in credibility, which is the currency of audit institutions.  He understands the impact having worked to prepare GAO for peer review, which it first underwent in 1995.

In a report about GAO’s operations and functions for the Congress in 1994 , the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) looked at perceptions of the audit agency’s work.  NAPA found no evidence that GAO has been steering its research toward satisfying particular policy or partisan interests. But it recommended that GAO clarify what it meant by responsiveness. GAO made some semantic distinctions in some areas.  It also issued Congressional Protocols which are available for Hill officials and members of the public to read.

NAPA recommended that GAO commit to a continuing process of regular external peer review of its work. Recognizing that this was consistent with requirements in the Government Auditing Standards it has issued since 1972, GAO began preparation for such reviews.

In 1997, colleagues in my unit, the Office of Policy, reviewed agency policies, procedures, and practices to remove unneeded requirements and streamline audit work. Assistant Comptroller General Brian P. Crowley noted that “peer reviewers will be interested in the people who conduct audits and evaluations, focusing on their qualifications and training as well as agency practices and procedures for recruiting, hiring, and promotion.” This is similar to what historians, archivists, librarians, and records managers do online in insta peer review.

So what broader lessons did I learn from my research?  That learning within organizations, especially by decision makers, requires understanding the past and present.  It depends on the willingness of participants to shed the myth of infallibility (including their own). This can be easier to do do ten years after events occurred, as in the oral history interview, but helps in real time, too.

The importance of understanding a real world where sometimes there are few good options.  And that at other times the path is clear and the lines bright. And that you do the best you can.

That acting as a sole gatekeeper or conduit in person or in online forums can feel disorienting during perceived removal or erosion of power and status. Surveys and openness to candid feedback enhance credibility; unilateral online actions may erode it.  People within an organization or forum or association who benefit or see themselves as losing during change may use a lot of psychic energy to re-calibrate or even to struggle to regain their balance.

That changing a culture long dominated by the majority race and gender, as in GAO during the 1950s and 1960s, requires determination by senior leadership and selection of and placement of officials willing to do what is necessary to enable more equitable actions  (Priorities may ebb and flow as conditions and leaders change. So, too, interest in learning from history.)

I also brought to Listservs and Social Media an interest in how people accustomed to promotions and privileges react to what I often saw as overdue efforts to improve opportunities and contributions for the less privileged.  And the harm in professional forums of dismissing or dehumanizing the less privileged as “the other.”

Willingness to step back, listen, change can make a difference in the workplace and outside it among professional peers.  Insta peer review on Listservs, on Twitter, at blogs, in Facebook groups for archivists, historians, librarians, and records managers, can help you assess career options, not just jobs. Professionalism can have multiple meanings. Yet educational and vocational awe sometimes shields you from workplace challenges you later may face alone.

All of which I’ll cover in my next blog posts, the second and third in this series.

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

Free information

As I introduced Eric Holder to my longtime friend, Bonnie Mulligan, in 2014, I was curious as to how the then-Attorney General would react to meeting a former employee.  I still was in civil service but Bonnie, my contemporary, retired from federal service in 2011.  She began her career working on disclosure review in the National Archives’ declassification division.  Later in the 1970s, she joined the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) staff at the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Holder was at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) not as a speaker, but in the audience, listening and learning.  He joined a packed house for the screening of a 1963 film about the clash between Governor George Wallace and President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy over racial integration of the University of Alabama.

Eric Holder’s wife, Obstetrician and Gynecologist Dr. Sharon Malone, spoke on a panel at NARA following the film screening.  Her late sister, Vivian Malone, was one of two black students whose enrollment at the all-white university Gov. Wallace sought to block in 1963. Wallace defied Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and federal marshals as he stood in the doorway of the university, backing down only when National Guard troops arrived to ensure the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood.

The photo shows my delight at Holder’s reaction as he heard Bonnie explain where she had worked in the Department of Justice, then thanked her for her public service.  A wonderful moment for a friend whose career at NARA and DOJ was honorable and guided by the rule of law.

The photo also shows a mistake I made.  Rather than wearing a suit jacket on a hot summer day, I just put a men’s shirt over a dark short-sleeved women’s shirt.  I like to wear ties, which fit well with the men’s shirts I often wore then (still do).  But the collar of the dark shirt wasn’t suited for staying in place over the tie.  A reminder that records show us as we are, including our miscalculations or mistakes.

After his assassination, the Kennedy family donated John F. Kennedy’s White House records to the National Archives at a time when presidential records were considered personal property.  The official portions of Richard Nixon’s records were the first to be considered government property after he left office, the transition shown in the files of his successor, Gerald R. Ford.

I described the change in the status of Nixon’s records in a September post, “Available to assist.” The title came from a NARA Ford presidential document about the role of archivists in Washington. I had just assisted a researcher, Courtney Taylor, and the quote in the Ford file resonated with me.

While I worked with presidential records as well as federal records during my government career, Bonnie’s work at NARA and DOJ over three decades centered on records from executive agencies and departments.  As did mine, her career spanned the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

You see some of Bonnie’s National Archives declassification unit colleagues with me and Office of Presidential Libraries staff at an awards ceremony in 1979.  At the time I was working on disclosure review of different records under two separate sets of regulations.  One governed donated materials administered under a deed of gift, the other reflected statutory control. Neither had provisions for access under FOIA.

Archivist Bert Rhoads, at right, with National Archives records review award recipients, 1979.

Archivist Bert Rhoads with National Archives’ records review awards recipients, 1979

Such distinctions come naturally to those of us within the federal government. We swear an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and keep the rights of all stakeholders in mind.  But members of the public sometimes learn about records issues from others.  What for us are clear distinctions described using terms of art with specific meanings can become blurred in the process.

When Courtney Taylor asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions about archival work for an article for the Literary Hub, I agreed, glad of the opportunity to discuss these issues.  I’ve extracted from my email and uploaded the responses I sent Courtney Taylor between August 30, 2019 and September 3, 2019.  You don’t see her questions as I don’t know if I’m authorized to share them.  Yes, that’s my archivist vibe.

I focused in the linked responses I sent her on the transition represented in the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act (PRMPA) of 1974, which applied only to Richard Nixon’s records.  A release from Nixon’s records recently had made the news.  I was familiar with the statute, regulations, and change management issues, having worked on them early in my career.

The National Archives has good information on its website about the laws and regulations for presidential and federal records.  I looked during September and October to see if Lithub published anything about archivists’ roles in disclosure review.  When I saw nothing and didn’t hear back from Courtney Taylor, I thought I might use my last response about advice to archivists at my own blog, instead.  You’ll see that in my next post about aligning professional goals and personal values.

In my last blog post, “Legacy,” I examined news reporting and the commendable efforts by library and information science educators such as Lisa Hinchliffe to improve information and news literacy.  (There’s even a look at OK, Boomer.)  Since I’m focused on Fedland, I often write about civic literacy, too.

Archival education is part of the mix and I’m in the middle of drafting a post about the value of knowing the distinctions between different types of work across the records life cycle while considering where to work.  Corporate, academic and government records work share some common characteristics but the workplace ethos can vary. I know the governmental better than the other two as my entire career has been spent in Fedland.  But I’ve caught glimpses of the academic and corporate world on Listservs and Social Media.

Yesterday I discovered that Lithub published on November 21, 2019, an essay, On the Great Secret-Keepers of History, by Courtney Taylor.  This sounded generally like the proposed article for which I had been interviewed but as I read it, I saw no quotes or input from me.  Courtney Taylor focused on FOIA, access, and transparency.  She wrote of a segment of the Nixon tapes administered by NARA under PRMPA that

In 2018, Naftali filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking NARA to re-review the tape; Reagan’s death in 2004 would have eliminated the previous privacy concerns. The complete tape was released online through the Nixon Library and shortly afterward, Naftali wrote a piece for The Atlantic that drew all eyes to its contents.

The release of the full tape raised questions about the power of the privacy exemption to FOIA, which bars researchers from gaining access to documents that would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” These terms remain broadly defined, allowing the exemption to be deployed in a range of circumstances, with varied outcomes for researchers. Nixon’s tapes pose particular challenges to researchers due to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which shifted presidential records from private to public ownership in the wake of Nixon’s resignation; certain Nixon records remained private in the aftermath.

Missing was an explanation that the shift to public ownership of the Nixon records occurred not in 1978 with the PRA but with in 1974 with the PRMPA,which has no provision for researcher access through FOIA.  As a former NARA official, Timothy Naftali knows, as I do, that the National Archives re-reviews previously restricted materials under the PRMPA’s implementing regulations: 36 CFR §1275.52, Periodic review of restrictions. The goal is to see if more information can be released.

While researchers cannot FOIA the Nixon records, which the Lithub article suggests they can, they may appeal existing restrictions under 36 CFR §1275.54.  Dr. Naftali would know that, as do I.  I covered some PRMPA issues in my August response to Courtney Taylor.  I’m a total Fedland nerd, as a Twitter friend once said, and am happy to share such links to regulations, if asked.

Does it matter that FOIA may seem blurred to some readers of the Lithub article, which looks at Nixon records but also at non-archival FOIA review and Federal Records Act materials still held as active records in the executive agencies and departments?  The types of records Bonnie Mulligan worked on for decades at DOJ.  And for which Attorney General Eric Holder and his predecessors issued FOIA application guidance through their subordinates during Bonnie’s career.  Guidance that applies to all of the executive agencies and departments, including the National Archives.

FOIA also is an element in the Presidential Records Act of 1978 but with some differences for archival records from the way it’s applied to still active Federal records held in executive agencies and departments. I’m always ready to point researchers to examples where they can see this on publicly available withdrawal sheets.  Or link to NARA presentations.

In legal issues, appeal rights, and claims processes, or the history of records access, or in my favorite subject, change management, such distinctions may be of interest to historians and other users of records.  Those differences involve your rights as a citizen to government information under distinctly different legal and regulatory structures.  Information about them is freely available online.  You don’t need a gatekeeper, me or any other current or former archivist or historian.

For the regulations governing access to the Nixon materials I cited above, NARA links to govinfo.gov.  The National Archives also livestreams informative forums about the statutes that cover access to archival and operational records and how to use them to request access.  Some presentations include handouts you can download.  I blogged about one such panel session that looked at access and transparency in a post in March 2018 that I called “Empowerment.” My post about researcher empowerment also looked at a forum at which the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, and the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, discussed their roles in the executive and legislative branches, respectively.

Courtney Taylor didn’t quote me or any former disclosure review archivists from NARA but did include remarks from Cassie Findlay, a corporate information governance specialist who works at Gap Inc. Cassie Findlay’s earlier experience was with records in Australia, which is the area in which I remember her occasionally posting on now defunct archives and archivists listservs.

She’s also written some useful pieces on electronic records.  Although her pinned tweet refers to an area she touched in her Lithub quote, it’s outside the scope of my focus here.  My post centers on authorized disclosures by archivists and records professionals rather than such unauthorized disclosures.

The Lithub article didn’t use quotes from Federal, state or local government archivists but includes a response from the National Archives press office.  The official states that NARA is impartial, which fits with the way my team and I worked in the 1980s.   The quote about NARA not making value judgments or interpreting records resonates, reflecting the agency I know now and the culture I saw 43 years ago as a young archivist, as well.  While I was not involved in the later work done in 2000, I knew the archivists who were and regard them, as this 2000 news article also suggests, as honorable people who worked under particular circumstances I described for Lithub.

My volunteer work in retirement enables me to help staff a wide array of education and public programs and forums at NARA.  You can watch most of them live or on demand on the National Archives You tube channel.  And download materials from Know Your Records sessions.

You’re welcome to read my blog posts and my responses to Courtney Taylor’s questions about how archivists handle access.  Archivists often say, “it depends,” and it does.  Working as an academic archivist or a corporate archivist can be quite different from working as a Federal or state archivist.  You see distinctions within broad categories, no two workplaces the same. The web provides us information on the how and why of archival work.  Social Media provides insights into values and ethos, to the extent people are willing to share them.

There are many Maarjas and Bonnies out there who’ve worked across multiple administrations in jobs requiring application of laws, regulations, case law, and precedents.  Look around for them.  If the voice of a Bonnie or Maarja doesn’t resonate for you (these things are highly individual), find knowledge partners whose style (not just collars and ties, ha!) fits your comfort zone.  Some are retirees, as I am, others currently work at the National Archives.  They are there to help you. Freely. And sometimes even joyfully!

If you read Courtney Taylor’s November 21, 2019 Literary Hub article and also made it through my blog post (thank you!) and are interested in Fedland, start by reading the information on NARA’s website. There’s much to explore. If you prefer listening to reading, watch some of the education and Sunshine Week and Know Your Records sessions on the National Archives’ You Tube channel.

And as NARA General Counsel Gary M. Stern (pictured above with a Freedom of Information Act display) said in a forum about access questions: “Come talk to us.”

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

Legacy

Is “OK, boomer” a reaction to a particular perceived attitude?  Or does it reflect sweeping generalizations about people born between 1946 and 1964?  Is there an archives, library, history, and records context for the phrase?

The NBC news site posted a recent article about “OK, boomer” in which Nicole Spector wrote that

If you’re in the baby boomer age range and the term “OK boomer” doesn’t offend you, you’re probably not the type of boomer that the expression is calling out. Remember, this isn’t really about how old you are, this is about your attitude and how receptive you are (or aren’t) to the values and struggles of younger generations.

Spector quoted an expert on generational differences:

“Millennials have faced extraordinary levels of student loan debt only to be told that they need to take unpaid internships or cobble together a living wage with part time work, [and] when we dare to complain, the boomers tell us that in their day, they put in their time and we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” says Caitlin Fisher, author of “The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation.”

This matches my impression of the intent of “OK, boomer.”

Understanding change and evidence is part of information, news, and civic literacy. There’s more to sorting through this than labels reflecting various designations.  Information, news, and civic literacy require reader appraisal, an essential part of archives and history work. Context matters, too. You see this in legacy online forums, including Listservs once dominated by Boomers, and the Social Media platforms where Millennials, Gen X, Boomers gather now.

Boomers came of age in an era when many U.S. viewers watched broadcast television regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). From 1949 to 1987, the FCC’s policies included a Fairness Doctrine for broadcast license holders. It had two components that centered on license holders’ handling of controversial topics: inclusion of community public interest broadcasting and requirements for airing opposing viewpoints.  Civil rights advocates such as Medgar Evers used the Fairness Doctrine to fight against segregationist white nationalist broadcasters for news balance.

The Federal government rescinded the Fairness Doctrine (which applied to broadcast channels not the then new cable networks) in 1987.  The 1990s archives,  records, and history Listserv culture,which lingered into the 21st century, was premised on letting readers and viewers sort through news links about archives and records using individual “fairness doctrines.”

Forums founded in 1989, such as the Archives & Archivists (A&A) Listserv, reflected a culture of sharing news links. The rise in the 1990s of radio, cable tv, and web platforms centered on advocacy, sometimes interpreted as news but not bound by traditional journalistic standards, largely went unexamined in the archives and records Listservs I once followed.  To the extent List subscribers, many of them Baby Bloomers, discussed shared news links, they did so much as members of the public discussed current events outside our professions.

Exchanges sometimes centered on the perceived ideological stance of the content creator of a shared link or the subscriber posting it rather than reliability of evidence.  Over time, the links shared as news reflected a mix of traditional reporting and new media sites, advocacy press releases and op eds.  Online archives and records forums didn’t yet reflect discussions of appraisal of the type internal and external researchers (including historians), the users of corporate, academic, and government archives, then did and still do.

In the online professional forums I followed between 1997 and 2018, Listserv subscribers sometimes simply addressed ideological stances, limiting discussion to assertions that others didn’t like a link because the source represented a particular spot on the political spectrum.  I saw little nonpartisan examination of the purpose of press releases or of commentary links reflecting issue, political, or legal advocacy rather than straight reporting.  Or why goals of airing out issues in public sometimes were not easy to achieve.

In some cases knowledgeable experts (historians, archivists, records managers) could not comment on news links reflecting third party descriptions of their workplaces, leaving error-filled assessments by outsiders as the final word in Listserv archives.  Some employees in corporate settings may have been bound by Non Disclosure Agreements. In the case of shared links with flawed content about academic and government workplaces, subscribers’ adherence to core archival disclosure ethics sometimes precluded the sharing of non-public corrective or rebuttal information useful for sorting out the facts. Respect for an employer’s situation when handling complex issues not covered fully in shared third party links also was a factor for some subscribers.

Discussion of the research methodologies, objectives, and cultures of knowledge focused users of records (istorians, political scientists, genealogists, auditors, inspectors general) was rare on the Boomer-established archives and records management Listservs I followed during their heyday. Also largely missing was in-depth discussion of a central concept in the records life cycle and in news, information, and civic literacy: appraisal.

Did the cultural characteristics of the Archives & Archivists Listserv from 1997 to 2017 reflect common generational values shared by all Boomers?  I would say no.  As a Boomer, I saw some posts that fit “OK, Boomer” and others that did not. General observation and the result of surveys showed people looked for different things from the professional forum and participated in various ways.  Although some subsets of generations shared more common characteristics than others, legacies were as different as those now being shaped by Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z on Social Media.

The freshest perspectives from historians, archivists, librarians and records and information specialists during the transition from Listservs to Social Media came from change agents across generations.  One was Kate Theimer, a younger, non-Boomer A&A subscriber, whose contributions at the ArchivesNext blog between 2007 and 2017 I covered in a post earlier this year (“New Skills, Part I: The Gathering Place”).

Change agents across generations showed new ways of handling knowledge sharing. The Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, my generational contemporary, subscribed to the A&A Listserv early in his tenure.  He responded to one of my Listserv postings in a way that reflected commitment to knowledge and ease with open learning.

From: David Ferriero
Date: September 30, 2010 at 4:27:45 PM EDT
To: Maarja
Subject: re: archives

Maarja,

Thanks for your comments about my latest blog post. Thanks, especially, for the John Taylor history. Have heard lots about him and will now make an effort to reach out to him. Still on a steep learning curve regarding NARA’s history!

David


This email message was written in the Lyris ListManager Web Interface at: http://forums.archivists.org/read/?forum=archives

As the number of active subscribers decreased, signal to noise ratio became an issue for some A&A forum members. (I understand such complaints, having contributed to some of that, especially before starting my own blogs about arcane Fedland issues.)  The comments by A&A List subscribers in 2014 under an essay in which the President of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) decried the forum’s “de-evolution” reflected generational divides in some instances but not others.

SAA de-commissioned the A&A Listserv in 2017.  While its legacy is part of history now, historians, librarians, archivists, and records managers have new opportunities to build learning-based legacies.

Social Media platforms reflect the rise in recent years of historians, librarians, and archivists specializing in history, information, civic and news literacy appraisal.  Among them are historian educators such as Jason Steinhauer of Villanova and librarians such as Lisa Hinchliffe of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Last month I chatted on Twitter with @lisalibrarian, who specializes in news and information literacy.  She introduced me to the phrase “expanding knowledge,” which illustrates evolution from news links shared among members of the general public to specialized insights in archival records in the care of professionals as historical information becomes available over time.

Lisa’s work as a professor and coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science includes guidance on using primary sources.  Lisa Hinchliffe and Chris Prom edited the 2016 SAA publication, Teaching with Primary Sources.  In the Introduction, Lisa described the process of assessing primary sources.

In developing primary source literacy, a learner simultaneously engages at least four vectors of consideration:
• Description: What is this document? What kind of document is it? Who created it? When was it created? Was it personal or public/shared in some way? Are there any attributes (e.g., notarized, postal marks, tears, etc.) that are present? Can I read it?
• Relationship: For what purpose was this document created?
What is the context from which it emerged? To which other documents is it related? Is the context in which I am encountering it the context in which the creator intended? What is unknown about this document?
• Meaning: What sense can I make of this document? Of what does it provide evidence? What interpretative frameworks help to understand this document? What meaning have others attributed to this document? Is the meaning contested?
• Use: How will I use this document in my work? Does it provide supporting evidence for my claims? Does it provide contrary evidence that I need to engage? What is the appropriate way to cite the document?

Her work is practical and centered in context.

The primary source literacy instructor faces a complex and complicated task. Primary source literacy is a multifaceted set of skills and
knowledge. But, responsible educators not only attend to the topic of their instruction, they also develop their instruction in light of the preparation, capacities, and motivations of the learners. As archive, library, and museum educators often teach in the context of other instructors’ classes, there is a need to attend to the intentions and goals of these other educators.

These elements affect news literacy, as well.  As Lisa observed recently on Twitter, there is little incentive to delve into the accuracy of facts and interpretations with which a reader agrees.

In August 2018, I described the chaos surrounding the gradual transition from paper record keeping to electronic record keeping within the Federal government.

Traditional records management relied on secretaries serving as the point of contact for receiving, sending out, and filing paper documents….Until the 1990s, secretaries filed papers based on a retention schedule-linked file plan created by records management staff who relied on unit records liaisons. With the rollout of LANs and issuance of personal computers to employees, in the 1990s individuals increasingly handled their own correspondence. Some printed it out and gave it to secretaries to file. Others read email messages and attachments, acted on them, and deleted them without realizing many were records.

In some places, the traditional records management chain–(1) records officers, (2) unit records liaisons, and (3) secretaries or clerks–bent or broke. Every employee who handled electronic records became part of the third element once represented by a designated few.

Early efforts at training creators and recipients of records to manually declare their status and move them from native applications to electronic records management systems resulted in a change from more granular records retention schedules to “Big Bucket” schedules. These placed records into broad categories with the same disposition (permanent or temporary with the same retention/destruction time period) for groups of records.

This made sense but depended on employees up and down the ranks seeing the value of taking the time out of their busy schedules to learn about, develop comfort with, and follow records guidance once handled before the computer age by unit secretaries.  And seeing themselves in that guidance.  That manual user declaration of records status had varying outcomes for very different reasons led to employer specific solutions by corporate, academic, and governmental policy makers. This illustrates the importance of records professionals understanding the culture and operations of their communities.

Whether we work for universities, corporations, government entities, or with community archives, understanding leadership is essential to success.  This requires self awareness.  A recent Harvard Business Review article examined barriers to effective leadership:  a sense of omnipotence; cultural numbness; and justified neglect.  The writer examined how to avoid cultural numbness:

Leaders who have crossed a line never describe this as a clear choice on that path but as wandering down a muddy road, where there they lost track of what was right and wrong. They describe a process where they became numb to others’ language and behavior and then to their own and lost their sense of objectivity. In essence, their warning bells simply stopped ringing.

So, start looking out for signs of moral capture: those brief moments when you don’t recognize yourself and any other indications that you are subjecting your own personal agency to the deviant norms of the collective. Another regular gut-check you can use involves asking whether you would be comfortable telling a journalist or a judge about what’s going on. . . .

As with omnipotence, it can help to get an outsider’s perspective, turning to a trusted friend or family member, who might be able to detect changes in you that you are not able to see. Also remember to regularly extract yourself from your organization to compare and contrast its culture with others and remind yourself that the rest of the world may not work the same way.

Listservs and Social Media platforms can reflect silos. Avoiding the traps of perceived omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect depends on expanding our comfort zones.  Embracing open learning.  And creating spaces for discussion beyond the deflection and flame wars sometimes seen on news or advocacy site comment boards.

Historian Timothy Burke of Swarthmore asked with a note of resignation in 2010 whether evidence is old fashioned.  But his own blogging and the thoughtful examinations of information, news, and civic literacy I see among historians, archivists and librarians on Twitter tell me the answer is no.  And that we have opportunities to shape legacies that demonstrate the enduring value of literacy by treating it as permanent–not temporary and eligible for destruction–wherever we gather now.

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

Making space for others

An essay by Dr. Robert Greene II about Star Trek and leadership helped me see a path we can follow in the history, archives, and records professions.  He illustrated the article with a photo of  Captain Jean-Luc Picard smiling as he sat in bed, reading a book. As I read “Continuing Mission,” I felt myself relax and realized I was reacting to the lack of noise.

I could savor the words without the tension I felt during other online experiences.  Instead of stress caused by yelling, loud music that threatened to drown out quiet voices, and, at times, roadblocks to where I tried to go, I saw a vision that connected past, present, and future.

Ashley Stevens, the Archives and Research Manager for the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Michigan, indirectly introduced me to Dr. Greene online.  I saw their interactions in tweets that showed up in my timeline and started Following him.  In addition to reading and writing about history, the three of us are fans of the Star Trek series which began on broadcast television in 1966 and has continued in successive new versions inspired by creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

In 2014, Ashley Stevens described at one of her blogs what it was like to meet Nichelle Nichols, who played the communications officer, Lt. Uhura, on the original series. And how her mother, then a teenager, reacted to seeing Uhura’s character on TV.  And why she introduced her daughter to a later version of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

In that moment, in the auditorium listening to Nichelle Nichols, it finally dawned on me: my mother was one of the millions of kids/teenagers inspired by her role.  My mother saw a strong, smart black woman in space on a starship holding her own with all the testosterone on the bridge.  And here she was some 20-odd years later sitting her daughter down to watch DS9 starring Captain Benjamin Sisko, an African American captain in charge of a space station.  I didn’t realize until that moment that my mother was passing along that inspiration.  Her subtle way of saying “Ashley, you can reach for the stars.  Reach as far as you think you can go and then push a little farther.  It’s possible.”

As I looked at the photo of Nichelle Nichols with Ashley Stevens, I heard Uhura’s voice telling Captain James T. Kirk, “Hailing frequencies open.”  It’s 17 years since I sat in the Captain’s chair during a special tour of the Star Trek exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  Dr. Greene’s essay helped me see the impact of the leaders who followed Captain Kirk.  And how much I’ve learned since I sat in a chair that was a prop in an exhibit mockup of a set.

I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I fist watched The Original Series (1966-1969).  Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, half-Vulcan, half-human, stood out for me in the show which creator Gene Roddenberry, a scriptwriter for Westerns earlier in his career, described as Wagon Train to the stars when he developed the original series.  In his essay about Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the starship in the later Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dr. Greene observed,

While the inspiration for The Original Series had been the classic western, with James T. Kirk as the rugged white-hatted cowboy, the casting of British theatre actor Patrick Stewart for The Next Generation changed the framework. In the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, Stewart remembers asking the franchise’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, for guidance. Roddenberry handed him a stack of Horatio Hornblower novels, suggesting a new model of introspection and quiet dignity.  Picard became a man who only fought when necessary, even allowing for his ship to take damage rather than fight back. He was comfortable with Shakespeare and Gilgamesh, using the latter story to forge a friendship with an alien captain from a species that communicated only through metaphor and archetype.

He described what Stewart and screenwriters showed us on STNG and why it matters.

Picard’s complexity reminded millions of viewers during Star Trek: The Next Generation’s heyday that we all contain multitudes. Following in his footsteps, Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine and Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway on Voyager continued to expand the range of Star Trek’s commanding officers. Breaking from Kirk’s more traditional male heroism, Picard’s thoughtful, contemplative example allowed Sisko and Janeway to adopt some of those same traits. Picard’s humanist disposition became part of the Starfleet way. After his tenure as a Starfleet Captain, space opened up for an African American and a woman to succeed him.

The original series included some episodes I still look back on fondly, “Amok Time,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty,” “Whom Gods Destroy,” and “Mirror, Mirror” among them.   I liked the Vulcan philosophy embodied in “Infinite Diversity Infinite Combinations.”   As I grew older and re-watched some of the episodes, I felt frustration at times at the lack of growth in action hero characters such as Captain Kirk.  My reactions reflected being in the workforce and realizing how complex decision making could be.  And what I looked for in colleagues and members of the team, ones I led and ones for whom I worked.

Four years after NBC cancelled the broadcast series, I sat at a typewriter in Washington, reading letters to Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R – TN).  He was Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.  My job included writing responses to citizen letters, signing them with the Senator’s signature with an autopen, and sending them out.

I signed most of the letters with a full signature, others with Howard.  For friends and others for whom using the first name was best, I would place the outgoing letter in the right position for the auto pen to touch the paper, then lift it at the moment it finished Howard so the pen didn’t complete the full signature.

Mail about Watergate was pouring in from citizens throughout the United States, greatly increasing the correspondence load from customary legislative, issue and other constituent mail.  A Star Trek letter caught my eye but that’s all I can say about it. Why?  Because I don’t know if it was preserved in a collection of letters members of the public sent Baker.  And, if so, whether it now is among the materials open for research.  As a historian, I recognized its value when I read it.  As an archivist, I respect best practices and the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

I first met Ashley Stevens at the SAA conference in Washington in 2014 and reconnected with her at the conference in 2018.  Thanks to archivists, historians can read records from ordinary citizens and future megastars such as Leonard Nimoy.  Four years before the premiere of Star Trek TOS, Sandra and Leonard Nimoy sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, protesting above-ground tests of nuclear bombs by the United States and Soviet Union and appealing for children’s right to have clean air to breathe.

Although the original Star Trek never achieved high ratings on broadcast TV during its regular run, it gained a strong following among fans in syndication in the 1970s.  Nimoy used his stardom to support environmental causes, appearing in an advocacy film about chemical hazards in 1979. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the Federal government hired 81 free lance photographers to take photographs reflecting life in urban and rural environmental conditions.  Preserved through Federal records management and retention scheduling, some 15,000 images now are part of the online catalog of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

My earliest archives assignments were with Special Media in circumstances where my colleagues and I acted as pathfinders working under circumstances none of our colleagues had faced.  In an age of electronic records, others have opportunities to act as pathfinders on both sides of the reference desk.   

The telegram Sandra and Leonard Nimoy sent in 1962 now might be sent by electronic mail. Archival associations such as SAA and the Council of State Archivists and the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators and related groups work to preserve electronic records.   I placed this work in historical context in a September 2019 Passport essay for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

NARA officials are creating new paths for carrying out the archives’ mission not because of changes in values or goals, which remain the same, but because the creators of records have embraced new tools for business communications in recent decades, just as they have in the corporate and academic worlds.

I described the challenges but also the opportunities for us all.

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.  NARA has also given us the opportunity to draw on our individual experiences and skills as we embrace exciting chances to face present and future challenges together.

What makes me optimistic we can do this?  The picture of Picard reading James Joyce that Dr. Greene used at the start of his essay.  And that he himself often tweets about reading, as do do many others whose posts catch my eye.  Not so much archival theory, which hasn’t caught up with fast moving events in the complex world in which we work in the public and private sector.  But books about human experience.

For me the answers to how to handle email and technology and change management don’t lie in the examinations of archon power and cultural fever Jacques Derrida described in his 1994 deconstructivist lecture about Archives Fever.  But in walking around our physical and virtual communities. Learning through listening and reading.  Striving to understand ourselves and those around us and what affects their lives and choices.  Even laughing at our own actions.

That’s my favorite photo of AOTUS David S. Ferriero, stepping back on the curb as he, NARA staff and guards laugh after he tried to cross Pennsylvania Avenue for a better view of Pope Francis’s motorcade in 2015.   City security officials yelled at him to get back on the sidewalk.

If you go to AOTUS blog, you’ll see from his virtual bookshelf that David is a big reader who has blogged about the joys and value of reading.  When I help NARA staff events in which he participates, we sometimes exchange book recommendations.  I understood exactly what the English major and Navy psych tech meant, when in a recent Q&A about “Truth, Tweets, and Tomorrows,” Ferriero responded to a question about statutes, “How do you change human nature?

The Picard Management Tips Twitter account shows the enduring appeal of Jean-Luc Picard as a leader unafraid of deep reading and making difficult choices.  In February, I read an essay in the Paris Review about “Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction.” Mairead Small Staid looked at deep reading in the context of a work published a quarter century ago:

“I read books to read myself,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts’s book, which turns twenty-five this year, is composed of fifteen essays on reading, the self, the convergence of the two, and the ways both are threatened by the encroachment of modern technology. As the culture around him underwent the sea change of the internet’s arrival, Birkerts feared that qualities long safeguarded and elevated by print were in danger of erosion: among them privacy, the valuation of individual consciousness, and an awareness of history—not merely the facts of it, but a sense of its continuity, of our place among the centuries and cosmos. “Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience,” he wrote. “It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.

In reading the essay, I found myself thinking about Roddenberry’s vision of a future with room for action hero idealists such as Captain Kirk, supported by a crew that included Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura, and for introspective humanists such as Captain Picard.  The Minnesota poet, critic, and essayist concluded that

Birkerts’s argument (and mine) isn’t that books alleviate loneliness, either: to claim a goal shared by every last app and website is to lose the fight for literature before it starts. No, the power of art—and many books are, still, art, not entertainment—lies in the way it turns us inward and outward, all at once. The communion we seek, scanning titles or turning pages, is not with others—not even the others, living or long dead, who wrote the words we read—but with ourselves. Our finest capacities, too easily forgotten.

Thank you, Dr. Greene, for reminding me of how Captain Picard came to embody a humanist future.  And Ashley for bringing the three of us together, in online space not entirely made up of constant distraction.

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

“Available to assist”

The union label inside the vintage dress has faded over four decades but you still can make out the letters ILGWU.  If you watched broadcast television 40 years ago, you might have seen an outreach campaign by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  What are the lessons for highlighting invisible labor in knowledge professions?

In ads that ran starting in 1975, members of the union chorus sang,

Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress, blouse,
Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
Our wages going to feed the kids, run the house.
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the ILGWU we’re paying our way,
So always look for the union label,
It says we’re able to make it in the USA

In the 1970s and early 1980s, you still could find the ILGWU label in women’s apparel in department stores.  As manufacturers turned increasingly to overseas labor, job opportunities for garment workers in the United States shrank.  In an age of increased imports, the ad campaign put a human face on the unionized workers who made the clothes people such as I bought.

In 1992, I stood in front of a rack in a Washington, DC department store.  I was shopping for gifts to send to relatives in my parents’ newly sovereign homeland.  Since the late 1980s I had been watching on news broadcasts the novel tactics of resistance people used in protests there. Quality mattered in the gifts I boght. So, too, country of origin. So I looked through the labels on winter accessories for ones that showed,”We’re able to make it in the USA.”

A decade earlier, protest tactics in a different European country reached into the heart of Washington, DC. Officials of the International Union of Electrical Workers placed a 24-foot Solidarnorsc (Solidarity) banner on their headquarters building located across across from the Russian embassy in Washington.  The IUEW also supported the sale of buttons and t-shirts to raise money for striking Polish shipyard workers in Gdansk.

An assistant to the AFL-CIO president described to reporters efforts to support the Solidarity labor union as authorities arrested workers and imposed martial law in Poland in December 1981.  I still have the Solidarnorsc button I bought in 1981.  Archival records enable researchers to study different alignments in the foreign policy, domestic labor policy, diplomatic, and cultural contexts.

As jobs disappeared and membership continued to fall from a high reached in the 1950s, the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America discussed merging the unions representing workers making women’s and men’s clothing.  The merger in 1995 resulted in a new Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees – UNITE.

The Kheel Center at Cornell University now holds archival materials about the ILGWU.  They include information on internal governance and external actions. Researchers study labor issues  in different ways. Community sources provide insights into local activities.  Depending on their scope and records management goals, business archives may contain at least partial information on some labor-management issues.  Multiple perspectives make for richer workplace records.

Not everyone who saw the ILGWU ads knew the history of the union formed in 1900. Or the impact of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 147 women and men in 1911. “Look for the Union Label” centered on the present, not the past, by showcasing the human faces of workers.

The “Records of Rights” exhibit at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) places historical initiatives for voting rights, labor rights, civil rights, human rights in context, using information in Federal and Presidential records. Temporary exhibits at NARA, such as “Rightfully Hers,” , add to visitors’ knowledge of past events.

I wore the polyester dress with the cotton ILGWU label I had bought in 1971 at a mid-priced department store to the opening of one such exhibit at the National Archives in 2013.  My guest for the “Documerica:  Searching for the Seventies” reception was an archivist who works in another NARA building in Washington.

The Documerica photography project featured daily life in the environmental context throughout the United States between 1971-1977.  Preserved through Federal records management and retention scheduling, some 15,000 images now are part of the NARA catalog.  They feature photographs by 81 photographers, including ones working in Washington, DC and Texas (below).

At the 2013 exhibit opening, I introduced my guest, Cary McStay, to the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero.  She knew him as the agency head but had never introduced herself to him.

David and I are contemporaries and chatted briefly with Cary about our memories of the 1970s, including the popularity of synthetic fabrics in men’s and women’s clothing back then.  Durable, as my ability to still wear a well-manufactured dress showed, but as I remember, not always comfortable in hot weather!

Much has changed since the 1970s but the basic goals of archives work remain durable. Cary now works with presidential records from the 1970s in the special media unit of NARA’s National Declassification Center (NDC) unit in College Park, MD.  Conditions of creation affect the content of records. including those with whom she and her team work.  Records held by NARA’s Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library provide a real time glimpse of a major transition in record keeping.

On August 9, 1974, the first day of the Ford administration, Jerry L. Jones sent this memorandum to his fellow White House staff:

By custom and tradition, the files of the White House Office belong to the President in whose Administration they are accumulated. It has been the invariable practice, at the end of an Administration, for the outgoing President or his estate to authorize the depository or disposition to be made of such files.

President Taft in his book “Our Chief Magistrate and his Powers,” made the following reference to this practice: “The retiring President takes with him all the correspondence, original and copies, which he carried on during his Administration….”

Jones noted that archivists working in the Office of Presidential Papers “will be available to assist in the collection and segregation of President Nixon’s papers.”  Personal ownership changed to government ownership with the passage of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), which President Ford signed into law on December 19, 1974.

A NARA digitization effort enables anyone to read the file.  Guidance for using White House Central Files matched the intent of existing executive orders. In 1974, White House staff were responsible for ensuring national security classified information was protected but “not restricted excessively.”

NARA archivists such as Cary work to declassify archival records. The NARA catalog contains photographs of some of Cary’s colleagues and predecessors.  Not all are named in the captions created some 15 years ago.  Those of us who work with workplace photos know that photographers often assign general event captions to their work.  Depending on how selected images are used at the time, some names of participants may be included, others not.

Archivists increasingly use online platforms to tap in to the knowledge of the crowd in making materials more accessible and useful.  I’ve recently started adding tags with names to some of the photos of archivists who worked with presidential records 15 years ago.  I met some through my own work as a NARA employee, others through former presidential libraries staff. And some through my late sister, a team leader and supervisory archivist (right photo) in the predecessor unit to Cary’s present work unit.

Historian Samuel Redman recently published an insightful essay about “Deep Hanging Out as Historical Research Methodology: The National  Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.”  He described the impact of work done in relative geographic isolation:

Partly as a result of this situation, over the sustained period I spent there I had the chance to eat with the archivists in the small café in the building and learn more about the collections. I shared with the staff the topics was interested in, and they kindly suggested materials I should research further. It was through this sort of informal discussion that I was told about the Army Medical Museum records housed at the NAA. Truth be told, a seemingly unsophisticated part of my historical research methodology became a sort of “deep hanging out” (a phrase Clifford Geertz used to describe certain ethnographic experiences) in which I engaged as a historian with thoughtful archivists, collections managers, and curators willing to share information about the collections.The experience was a dream.

Redman explained what records showed:

In stark contrast to this comfortable dream-like environment for me as researcher were the gut-wrenching records I found in the NAA. The Army Medical Museum records whispered unsettling details surrounding practices related to collecting human bodies as specimens for a newly organized US Army museum in Washington DC. Many of the skeletons, skulls especially, were later transferred to the Smithsonian.

The blog post included an image of an original note card for a skeleton received by the Army Medical Museum in 1866: “Skeleton of a Sioux Indian, killed by U.S. soldiers May 1864, about twelve miles south of Fort Ridgely, Minn.” Redman added,

Some Native American bodies were eventually returned through the newly created repatriation laws emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s….the microfilm and original documents connected to bone collecting with the Army Medical Museum records inspired further research into the Papers of Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943). Ultimately, the work culminated in my first book Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums.

He noted in conclusion that,

The valuable work of archivists is often overlooked in historical scholarship, the history of anthropology being no different in this regard. Archivists at the NAA became critical to my understanding the Smithsonian’s bone collection and much more at a pivotal time for me personally. Historians are offered rare gifts in the knowledge and experienced shared by archivists. The key is being open to the possibility of discovering something challenging and new.

I thought of how Jerry Jones told Ford’s White House staff that archivists were “available to assist” as I read the end of Redman’s essay.  As durable as polyester (but comfortable in all seasons), archivists in academic, corporate, and government settings remain committed to assisting those who maintain and use records.

Redman reminds us of the value of being open to learning new things. This can occur online or IRL. Kevin Kruse once noted of historians on Twitter,

All too often, I’ve seen senior scholars who use it solely to dash off links to the latest media appearance or review they’ve received. To be sure, I do that too, but that can’t be all you do with it. Your tweets shouldn’t just be press releases. You really need to engage with others, to listen more than you speak. You need address the new questions posed to you (directly or indirectly) more than simply repeating your old answers, and ultimately to respond to the interests of others more than you promote your own. Think of them as your global office hours: keep the door open and your mind too.

Quietly reading blogs or Twitter results in “aha” moments, too.  Connecting the dots and recognizing patterns takes time.  As Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore and one of my favorite bloggers, once noted, “Some good thoughts come from solitude, from the unexpected recesses of the self, from not answering to the last reply or bouncing off of the last link.”

Among other historians I follow on Twitter, T. J. Stiles offers useful insights on sharing the results of research. He went from history graduate school studies to a job in publishing, writing copy, talking to authors, and thinking about “what made each work appealing to readers.” In a recent Q&A in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he described why he thinks of history as telling stories that lead somewhere.  His 2015 book talk illustrates this approach.

Stiles explained in the recent Chronicle article that,

Narrative begins with the intent to make the reader want to keep reading. That requires plot. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge defines plot as raising questions in the mind of the reader and delaying the answers.

Academic writing usually lays out the questions and the answers at the outset, then proceeds to demonstrate. Again, that’s fine for its purpose. But it strands a reader alone, without the happy company of mystery and suspense, the crew who sail every plot forward.

Narrative generally centers on characters. Scholarship is concerned with the conditions of humans; literature is concerned with the human condition. Serious nonfiction narrative can be concerned with both, but it’s hard to pull off without individuals who have intentions, carry out actions, and face consequences.

I’m especially interested in how writers perceive readers. Being the sole historian on staff in one of my two archives and history jobs led me to think more deeply about how to demonstrate the value of history directly and indirectly. You have to balance your academic training and skills with what users need and seek.  So, too, in marketing our professions.

Some of the ILGWU television ads referred to market forces and a decrease in membership. The union song humanized members as contributing products, paying taxes, and supporting their own households.  I had the song in mind when I looked at manufacturing labels before buying Christmas presents in 1992.

The archives, records, library, and history professions depend on market forces, too.  How can we best showcase our “needlework?” Library and information science instructors can address job realities, as I noted in “The Archives Life.” (This very much needs to include the employer and employee perspective.)  And we can develop and use our own leadership skills.  More on that in my next post (stay tuned for a mix of information literacy and Star Trek)!

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Whose realism?

Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America.  Fantasy figures who face fictional challenges different from the ones we do as archivists, historians, librarians, records managers.  But whose mythical world sometimes connects to ours in unexpected ways, reminding us of what it takes to make things happen in real life.

Last summer I helped staff a documentary film screening on a Saturday afternoon at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC.  As I waited to cross Pennsylvania Avenue at the end of my shift, I saw a school bus and old cars parked in front of the research and business entrance of the building.  I had seen on Friday evening how city officials shut down the block for weekend location filming of Wonder Woman 1984.

Security was tighter for the “set” on Saturday than on Friday, when I was able to walk up to the old telephone booth the production company had just placed across the street from NARA. The vintage cars, trucks, school bus, and the telephone booth served as props to make the street look as it might have in 1984.  The National Archives looks much the same on its north side as in the 1980s.  Most movie goers won’t know that it then still had fountains in front of its research entrance.

Social Media and news reports indicated that the production company also filmed scenes with stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington and at the long closed Landmark Mall in suburban Alexandria, Virginia. Production companies now film in the Washington area more frequently than when Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962) featured some scenes filmed on Capitol Hill and the National Mall.  The 1960s brought great changes to the film industry, its studio system,  and perceptions of the market for new types of films as cultural shifts and technological advances enabled a new wave of film making.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of “gritty realism” in U.S. films as changes in equipment and film stock enabled more location shooting than in the past.  In his book, Hollywood in San Francisco:  Location Shooting and the Aesthetics of Urban DeclineJoshua Gleich described gritty realism as a style that “approached cinematic brutalism, where not only cinematic embellishment but even photographic polishing was meticulously avoided.” 

Changes in film stock enabled shooting color film under low light conditions in the 1960s and 1970s in ways not possible previously.  Gleich noted of the period which saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and divisions over the Vietnam War that, “America’s ongoing crises at home and abroad suggested that the visual truth of any city must be an ugly truth.”

In Bullitt (1968), actor Steve McQueen did some of his own stunt driving in a chase scene filmed in San Francisco. The decade that followed featured crime dramas and action films with anti-hero leads as well as a vogue for all-star spectacles about man-made or natural disasters.

Equipment and film stock capabilities limited location shooting by earlier film makers in the 1940s and 1950s.  In one film shot largely on sound stages, director William Wyler and producer Sam Goldwyn cast Harold Russell, a disabled World War II veteran, in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  The opening of the film showed aerial views of Cincinnati, standing in for the Boone City of Wyler’s film, as three veterans returned home after serving in World War II. (I found 1940s views of Cincinnati in NARA’s catalog.) The disabled veteran, a sailor injured when his ship went down, had been a high school athlete.

The film showed the challenges veterans faced as they sought to regain footing economically and socially. Russell, an amputee, was not a professional actor.  A 1945 government documentary film, The Diary of a Sergeant, showed how Russell adapted to use of the prosthetic hooks that replaced both his hands.  Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn saw Russell in the documentary, which led to his selection to play a disabled U.S. Navy veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives. Harold Russell was one of two actors (Fredric March, who played a returning Army Sergeant, the other) who won Academy Awards for The Best Years of Our Lives.

The “gritty realism” of later films such as Bullitt and The French Connection relied on on locations, props, and camera work to depict urban decay.  Both films focus on the actions of anti-hero white male leads and the “bad guys” they pursue. Although largely filmed on sound stages, The Best Years of Our Lives, which retains a high viewer rating on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, reflects a different type of realism.  It looks inwards, focusing on the psychological struggles of male and female characters whose interior lives show in unexpected ways

In one scene a recently demobilized and decorated U.S. Army Air Force Captain gives a few of his belonging to his father and stepmother. (He says they can throw them away, that they don’t mean anything.) The Captain prepares to leave his home town to find a civilian job and to escape personal turmoil.

An earlier scene in the film suggests the veteran may feel some embarrassment about his “wrong side of the tracks” family background.  One of the most memorable scenes occurs after he says goodbye.  His father, an aging alcoholic, sits holding a document in his ramshackle house, a pint of liquor in front of him on the table. He calls out for his wife to come in from the kitchen to join him.

His wife listens silently as her husband reads aloud the citation for the medal the son received for brave actions during World War II. As he reads the father’s voice tells you he is deeply moved.  The glistening eyes of his wife, stepmother to the son, show her reaction. But after he reads the citation reflecting his son’s courage, the father says nothing.  He just remains seated at the table, drawing on his cigarette. His wife quietly goes back to her chores in the kitchen.  The spare focus solely on the words of the citation and the understated performances of actors Roman Bohnen and Gladys George create a moment which online comments show many viewers still find memorable and moving.

Writer Robert Sherwood won an Oscar for his work on The Best Years of Our Lives, a film now regarded as a classic. The struggles of returning veterans and their families to readjust and the challenges of basic human relationships are part of living.  Empathy helps us understand what is unsaid, as in scenes of the disabled sailor with his girl friend and the Air Force veterans’ parents.  Records show a Hollywood screenwriter, Jack Moffitt, complained in 1947 about Sherwood’s work on the film, among several he listed as ideological efforts to make realistic pictures.  Moffitt added “depressing” in parentheses in his complaints about postwar “realism” attributed to alleged Communist influences in Hollywood.

For me, as for many historians and archivists, archives serve to fill in some very human elements about what happened and why.  And take us behind the scenes to reveal depth, texture and complexity about events we initially may have read about in newspapers or glimpsed on screens.  As Navosha Copeland once tweeted, “When I process a collection, I see the many dimensions of a person’s life. It makes me remember that we are all multidimensional persons.”

Five years before Bullitt, which put up him on a path to a top male star in the United States, Steve McQueen starred in The Great Escape, a partially fictional account of an actual event during World War II when Allied prisoners of war held in a Nazi prison camp dug a tunnel for a massive escape attempt.  I first saw the film when I was 12 and read the more historically accurate book (same title, published in 1950) by Paul Brickhill at the same time.  I read a lot about the war in Europe as a youth as my parents had suffered totalitarian oppression there by Nazi and by Soviet forces during World War II.

The action film was a box office success and I enjoyed it as a pre-teen, as many moviegoers did. But as I grew up, I came to understand why New York Times film critics Bosley Crowther wrote of it in 1963 in his review that while based on the framework of a true story, most of the characters in the film are composites. And that “The Great Escape grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It’s a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men.”

In the film, McQueen’s character, a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force, made a dash for freedom on a motorcycle after escaping from the camp.  (The actual escape from the German camp, Stalag Luft III, featured British and European prisoners of war. All American prisoners previously had been transferred to another part of the camp.  Fifty escapees were shot after recapture.  Only three made it to freedom.)  McQueen, known for his love of racing motorcycles and sports cars in real life, did some of his own stunt work for the justifiably famous motorcycle scene, as he later would in car chase scenes in Bullit.  

Records at the National Archives show that during the Johnson administration, McQueen wrote to the director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), offering to help with motorcycle safety initiatives.  McQueen’s motorcycle safety project advanced in 1967 to the early stages of script development with the FHA but the file doesn’t reflect completion.  A citizen-advocate side of McQueen,  now featured at NARA but not in old movie magazines in the 1960s. His military service records (he enlisted at 17) show another.  (He had a chaotic, unstable, home life as a child and teen.) As do state records showing him flashing the peace sign in his 1972 mug shot when arrested (and quickly released on bail) for drunk driving in Alaska.

In a few days, NARA will be holding its annual September Educators Open House. That the National Archives has a robust, needs and user oriented K-12 primary sources program reminds me that there are many ways to use records to learn.  Much has changed since I first visited the National Archives to do research as a grad student, little realizing I would become a Federal historian and an archivist who assisted others there. I used its online catalog throughout August to look for information to use in this essay.  And crowd checked on Twitter about some of the Wonder Woman 1984 prop cars I photographed last year.

Historical records show that a high school student named Dave might have become a K-12 or a  college educator.  His yearbook entry showed his career aspiration as “Teacher.”  But when he started his undergraduate studies, as he once told me, he found the education classes boring.  He later said in public, “I was an education major…I hated every minute of it.”  The university didn’t feel like a good fit for Dave, who described coming from a relatively small high school.  He was candid in his reaction to the mismatch of university and major and aspirations:  “In fact, I spent most of my time in the Museum of Fine Arts or the Isabella Gardner Museum, rather than in class.”

On the job Dave now goes by David, a change that shows in different signature blocks he used in letters to different presidents in his youth.   He’s David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, pictured in his high school yearbook and in a photo I took at the National Archives at a reception in 2011.  You can read David’s “real talk” account of struggling as an education major, then joining the Navy as a Corpsman during the Vietnam War.  (After military service he returned to college, completed undergraduate and graduate degrees, not in Education but in English and information and library science, and taught some classes.)

He explains his obligations as the Archivist to the public in NARA’s “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit:  “These are the real folks, telling the stories from their own perspective. It’s not the government. It’s not us interpreting what they said. And the…records tell the good stuff and the bad stuff.” (Look at the link for what Henry Kissinger said at a NARA Vietnam war event in Austin, Texas.)

On August 4, 2019, Ferriero spoke at the Society of American Archivists conference with Meredith Evans, society president and director of NARA’s Carter Presidential Library.  He emphasized the value of records management, in his present and past jobs.  And the need to listen to users of records and provide opportunities for public participation.  And why curiosity and listening are key elements in finding solutions and tapping in to the talents of staff.

He explained why he never has brought a “posse” with him in coming to new library or archives jobs  (MIT, Duke, New York Public Library, NARA).  He described his “panic” (the same many of us feel in job changes) on realizing the need to learn an unknown institution’s culture and navigate new ways of doing things in leaving MIT for Duke.  As I listened I thought of the relief people feel (shown as I made a photo flub at NARA) when they can admit to a mistake, learn, back up, and try again.

When Wonder Woman 1984 opens in June 2020, I’ll watch for the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th.  For that school bus.  A reminder of how lucky those of us are, who can move a “closed” sign in an archives to “open.” Take down the ropes to a theater on the day of a book lecture.  And provide depth and breadth to historical events, in records “good and bad.”

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