On the record, for the records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making bold connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, someone broke the ice.

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

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

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

President Barack Obama’s iPad

In 2009, as Barack Obama became President of the U.S., he asked about being able to continue using a Smartphone.  White House photographer Pete Souza later pictured him reading briefings on his iPad. Eight years earlier, George W. Bush told reporters he would not use email as he entered the White House in order to protect the privacy of his communications with friends.

On a history website, a professor wrote in 2006 about “The Romance of Email:  Ground Rules.” He advised his academic colleagues to use email only “to establish a meeting time; to set up a mutually convenient moment to speak by telephone about something pressing; to remind a recipient about a looming deadline; or to circulate an agenda for a forthcoming meeting. Avoid it for conveying anything that transcends the mildly contestable.”  He didn’t address the varied impact of technology on archives.

In 2021, use of electronic records is common in academic, corporate and government workplaces. They show us some of what happens. But the human interactions remain the same as in the days of paper records.

When historian Eric Foner spoke in 2015 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) about the U.S. Civil War and struggles during Reconstruction, he observed that historical narratives may seem inevitable to readers when written, but as events unfold, participants often must act decisively and quickly on partial information or in an environment filled with unknowns.  Whether we stand in place, look back, or move forward, we’re creating history.  Not all the barriers we face are physical.  

Throughout my career as a federal archivist, a government historian, and a middle-manager participant in and observer of senior-level decision-making, I have seen people act in just that way.  Even the best among us can only act on what is known at the time.  History provides some perspective but as Foner points out, retrospective analyses of past events often reflect different perspectives.

The meaning of a written or spoken phrase or a sentence may be disputed among researchers. In my paragraph here, for example, does my use of “participant in” refer to my being the decisionmaker about an operational issue within the government? Or someone who provided analysis and historical summaries that others used in making a decision? Or someone who has played both roles, with additional context needed to show which applied?  Unlike in the past, social media now gives us opportunities to explore what others mean when they speak or write.

New information can change how we look at issues. In 2018, David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), observed in an interview about NARA’s “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit:

Eric Foner, in his book Who Owns History, writes, “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.” Our job at the National Archives is to ensure that the public has access to the information they need to do that job of rewriting history. As classified information is declassified, as presidential papers are reviewed and released, as records that have never been researched before are used, that story will continue to be rewritten.

Foner does answer the question, “Who owns history? Everyone and no one—which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving never-ending journey of discovery.” As a librarian and as the archivist of the United States, my job has always been to support that journey.  As a veteran, this journey is personal.

In the April 2019 issue of the Society for Historians of Foreign Relations journal, Passport, archivist Bob Clark shared his perspective on his former employer in “The National Archives Has Lost Its Archival Way.” He expressed concern about Barack Obama’s decision to forgo raising money for a traditional NARA-administered presidential library and museum. The Obama Foundation will build and administer a privately run museum. NARA will hold statutorily the born-digital and paper records of the Obama White House. While access largely will be digital, NARA is working out if, when, and how researchers might have access to paper records in special cases where that is necessary. And how to take in related records from former administration officials.

Actions taken by the National Archives in 2011 and 2012 provide context for why I rebutted some of Bob Clark’s points in my own 2019 SHAFR journal essay.  This started October 27, 2011 at the Berlin Crisis 1961 conference at the National Archives with welcoming remarks by AOTUS David Ferriero. A keynote address by a Georgetown University professor, the late William R. Smyser, preceded panels on how the Berlin Wall divided a city. 

Smyser served in Berlin in 1961 as an assistant to a special advisor to President John F. Kennedy. He drew on his perspective as an academic and a former foreign service officer who witnessed construction of parts of the Berlin Wall. He described driving through the Potsdamer Platz as the last official able to travel freely between sectors during the Cold War, just as the barriers between West and East Berlin went up.

The former foreign service officer discussed the impact on those on the ground who watched events unfold and decision-makers in Washington. None of the officials knew what would happen as they debated options. Smyser’s remarks added texture and context to the newly declassified Kennedy administration records that were made available electronically in 2011. Officials of NARA’s National Declassification Center who worked with equity holders on the records releases also served as event coordinators and helped host the conference. Attendees received CDs with electronic versions of the newly declassified records along with their programs for the conference.

Shortly after the NARA Berlin Crisis 1961 symposium, on November 28, 2011, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on Managing Government Records, focusing on the present and future use of records administered under the Federal Records Act (FRA). The memorandum declared that records transferred to the National Archives under the FRA would “provide the prism through which future generations will understand and learn from our actions and decisions.” It also stressed that efficient management and retrieval methods were essential while records are active:

When records are well managed, agencies can use them to assess the impact of programs, to reduce redundant efforts, to save money, and to share knowledge within and across their organizations. In these ways, proper records management is the backbone of open Government.

Decades of technological advances have transformed agency operations, creating challenges and opportunities for agency records management. Greater reliance on electronic communication and systems has radically increased the volume and diversity of information that agencies must manage. With proper planning, technology can make these records less burdensome to manage and easier to use and share.

President Obama directed the Archivist of the United States and the head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue a Records Management Directive focused on efficiency, accountability, openness, and “transitioning from paper-based records management to electronic records management where feasible.” In August 2012, AOTUS Ferriero and Acting OMB director Jeffrey Zients issued the Managing Government Records Directive (M-18-12) to the heads of federal agencies and departments.

This directive created a much-needed process to modernize technologically and conceptually the handling of temporary and permanently valuable information and records, including email, under the Federal Records Act. Obama’s own official records, as well as those of designated White House Executive Office of the President and other components, would come into the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 as he left office.

The earliest White House use of email dates to the IBM Professional Office System in the 1980s. In some government offices, punch cards or cassette tapes enabled some forms of technologically assisted typing in the 1970s. Microcomputer use came later. The use of Local Area Networks and email became widespread within the federal government in the 1990s. At the same time, White House records managers, whom historians such as Robert Caro know through White House Central Files subject classification markings on carbon copies and original correspondence, explored using technology to enhance filing and retrieval.

By 1990, White House records staff were using optical scanning and CTRACK, an electronic correspondence management system. Since then, electronic records management applications have replaced some government filing cabinets filled with paper files. As changes occurred in records creation, presidential staff and officials in federal agencies depended on records managers and information technology staff to provide ways to retrieve information and records for ongoing government business.

On December 6, 2012, the National Archives posted on its website a November 2012 report to President Obama by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) on “Transforming the Security Classification System.” Recommendations included using technology to aid in the review of national security classified materials and making changes to the culture of security classification.  As I sat at NARA listening to a public briefing about the report, I didn’t pull out a paper notepad.  I used my phone to take notes and share information on Social Media.

The actions NARA and the White House took between 2011 and 2012 have a through line: the use of technology and revision of traditional practices to expand access, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. What stayed with me from the December 2012 PIDB meeting at NARA was the concept of “safe harbor” in cultural change. The PIDB’s Recommendation 6 on decisions by officials with authority to classify material for national security (or not) stated that “agencies should recognize in policy and practice a ‘safe harbor’ protection for classifiers who adhere to rigorous risk management practices and determine in good faith to classify information at a lower level or not at all.”

When Barack Obama left office in January 2017, news reports pointed to the establishment of a traditional NARA-administered presidential library and museum. NARA prepared for that kind of library during a transition that included the preservation of electronic records for future access as well as the transfer of paper records of the type I helped move out of the White House as a National Archives employee in previous decades. But in May 2017, NARA announced a new model for presidential libraries.  The Obama Presidential Library that NARA administers would provide digital access to his statutorily controlled presidential records.

Members of the public later learned that some 95% of Obama’s White House records were electronic. The former president had decided not to build a traditional library to house the small percentage of White House records that weren’t born-digital. However, the private Obama Foundation would administer a museum outside the NARA framework and provide funds for digitization of paper Obama records held by NARA.  

NARA will process the born digital and paper Obama records it holds in one of its facilities under the same statute and regulations used for the records of his predecessors, starting with Ronald Reagan. The electronic filing and retrieval methodologies that served officials while the president was in office will form part of the basis for researcher access to NARA’s digital Obama Presidential Library.

In April 2019, Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for information collaboration, dean of the libraries, and professor of history at Northeastern University, described how the Obama Presidential Library unit within the National Archives is already digital. His essay opened with links to a February New York Times article with a confusing headline (“The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t”) and reactions from historians (Robert Caro) and a Washington Examiner columnist (Phillip Terzian).

Cohen, founding director of the Digital Public Library of America, observed that “the debate about the Obama library exhibits a fundamental confusion. Given its origins and composition, the Obama library is already largely digital. The vast majority of the record his presidency left behind consists not of evocative handwritten notes, printed cable transmissions, and black-and-white photographs, but email, Word documents, and JPEGs. The question now is how to leverage its digital nature to make it maximally useful and used.” 

Context for the virtual federal Obama Presidential Library comes from our own choices and daily actions as well as from history. As Cohen points out, the NARA-administered physical Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum holds some 45 million pages of archival records. 

But that scale pales in comparison with the record of President Obama’s White House: 1.5 billion “pages” in the initial collection, already more than 33 times the size of President Johnson’s library. I use “pages” because the Obama Foundation has noted that “95 percent of the Obama Presidential Records were created digitally and have no paper equivalents.” The email record alone for these eight years is 300 million messages, which NARA . . . estimates amounts to more than a billion printed pages. In addition, millions of other “pages” associated with the Obama administration are word-processing documents, spreadsheets, or PDFs, or were posted on websites, apps, and social media. Much of the photographic and video record is also born-digital. There are also 30 million actual pages on paper, which are currently stored in a suburb near Chicago. Given the likelihood that a decent portion of this paper record actually came from digital files—think about all of the printouts of PDFs, for instance—only a miniscule portion of what we have from Obama’s White House is paper-only.

Presidential and federal records aren’t maintained without structure under the control of the creating workplaces for four or eight or thirty years, then turned over to the National Archives to be transformed into an artificial collection-after-the-fact for researchers to use. They are used for business purposes within a logical structure while still in the custody of the White House and the executive agencies and departments. While researchers won’t see ribbon or carbon copies with the handwritten White House Central Files category markings used on twentieth-century records, the visible parts of the Obama White House recordkeeping structure may provide context and connections for researchers to use and explore.

NARA employees up and down the ranks haven’t lost their way. They are creating new paths for the archives’ mission not because of changes in values or goals, which remain the same, but because of us. Not just Obama using his iPad in the White House but millions of people in many different workplaces (government, academic, corporate, non-profit). Everyone who has changed in recent years how they create records and seek information, at home and at work, is part of this history. 

Let’s create “safe harbors” for places to discuss our perspectives on the issues. Recognize what history teaches us about change. Look for answers with goodwill.  Then boldly move forward to meet present and future archives and history challenges together.

Posted in Archival issues | Leave a comment

Women out in front

In September 2020 a man attacked a women behind the desk in a Daytona Beach library with fists and scissors.  An arrest and criminal investigation followed. News reports said she was expected to recover. The attack was an extreme reaction in a setting where women often are the employees in front line positions in libraries.

At a Bill of Rights Day naturalization ceremony in 2018, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said:  “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York City’s garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? One generation.”  Yet a college dean asked her in the 1950s why she sought to take a man’s place when she applied to Harvard.

Other women with much to offer before and after the 1950s had to forgo college due to structural, cultural, racial, family, or financial barriers.  For some White and BIPOC women, learning to type in high school enabled entry into office jobs throughout the 20th century.  Whether they stayed in “pink collar” jobs or advanced into male dominated professions, their work shows in the creation of some records archivists and historians work with now.  Often unacknowledged, their labor is part of the “Find it in the archives” poster I had in my office.

When we read 20th and 21st century “first in the family” success stories, we see varied circumstances, sacrifices, and support at home.  An Assistant Professor insightfully said of generic criticism of how academic historians view their jobs that for some it truly is a “calling,” especially when their parents never had a chance even to get a primary education. Other conversations about identity may reflect growing up with different expectations, some equal for sons and daughters, others not.

Working with the archival materials of people whose stories make it into university special collections or government repositories can humanize experiences other than your own. As Natosha Copeland once observed, “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.”

This goes beyond content. A thoughtful reader recently observed that one of my online posts led her to think about who typed, filed, and retrieved the records we process or use in archives. Oral history interviews provide insights into the lives of a few such women, often because they later attained higher paying jobs or fame.

Margaret McFarlane described in 1989 how she came to Washington in 1934 to look for a job.  She worked briefly as a clerk at the New Deal Agriculture Adjustment Agency while attending Strayer Business College.  Within a year she moved to a junior clerk-stenographer job at the National Archives, then a newly established Federal agency.  In a 1989 oral history interview, McFarlane described her career as she moved on to study law.

At the Archives, I was fortunate, after a short time in a typing pool, to be assigned to the Office of Administrative Secretary. Thad Page of North Carolina was the chief. He had come from Senator [Josiah W.] Bailey’s office and was responsible for the Archives’ annual reports and its budget justifications. It was then that I think I got a touch of experience in legislation….Occasionally, I substituted as a receptionist in the Archivist’s office.

McFarlane found the Archivist, R. D. W. Connor, a particularly gracious host to visitors, whom she described as librarians, archivists, and legislative branch employees.  She moved up from her clerk position to a junior professional grade at the National Archives, noting “I was fortunate to work on many interesting record collections of World War I from the Shipping Board to Hoover’s Russian relief efforts and the Maritime Commission.”

After attaining her LL.B. and passing the DC bar exam in 1941, McFarlane interviewed with one of her former law professors for a legal job at the Department of Justice.  “He said that I could be hired as a typist in a legal office. To me, that seemed like such a demotion from the professional status that I had earned” working with archival records. She said she went back to her office in the National Archives appreciating her situation there all the more.

In 1942, McFarlane moved on to a paralegal position in another agency, then transferred in 1945 to the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office, where I was historian for a number of years).  She worked on legislative issues in GAO’s Office of General Counsel and became chief of legal reference before retiring in 1971.

GAO published her story in a 1989 group oral history interview, Audit and Legal Services: 1948-1983, A Women’s Perspective. Another interview participant, Geraldine Rubar, a White woman who worked briefly as a teacher, described coming to GAO’s Transportation Division for a job interview in 1943.   (I described what one manager called “race issues” in the division in my last post.) Rubar recounted,

After I told him my background, he asked me what kind of a job I would like. I explained what I thought I could do. I said, “Well, maybe I could be a file clerk.” What he said to me was, “A file clerk with your background?” He went on to say that they had blacks to do that kind of work.

Although Rubar said Blacks in the 1989 interview, her reaction to the interviewer suggests he might have used a racist pejorative.

I had been shaking in my interview up to this point. I got out of my chair and said, “I didn’t come here to hear that kind of language. I’m leaving.” So he said, “Oh, calm down, I didn’t mean to say that.”

Decades after McFarlane took her job at the National Archives, my career, and that of many other women lucky to go to college, also started with jobs as clerk-typists or clerk-stenographers.  Until the 1990s, clerical jobs provided entry level employment to many young women in Washington, DC, and other locations.  I described in my last post how two Black women taught me office work in my first Federal job, as a summer employee at the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

Later, if you wrote to Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. during the Watergate hearings, I’m the person who drafted a response to most issue mail his Senate office received on the topic.  No further review needed after I settled into the job and demonstrated I could be trusted. I typed a reply tailored to the letter’s content, signed it with an autopen, and mailed it. (I used my judgment on full signature for some, lifting the autopen after the Howard for others).

I treasured an incoming letter from a VIP television fan favorite I handled in reply.  But I can’t talk about it because it may not be public.  Not all constituent or issue mail makes it into special collections. So I don’t know if it is in Baker’s records in Tennessee or ever was released by university archivists.

For me, fresh out of college, not yet in grad school, the opportunity to “represent” employers when dealing with the public was part of learning about trust and responsibility in a workplace. That stayed with me after college when I became an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and later worked as a beginning GS-15 pay scale equivalent historian at GAO.

In the late 20th and early 21st century women often chose the descriptive folder titles as they filed clerical work products, the results later seen in container lists in legacy archival finding aids. Some White and BIPOC workers among my Federal colleagues who started as receptionists and typists later became archivists, librarians, records managers, historians, or FOIA officers after finishing college.  How and even whether you see such women’s labor in archival records depends on where you worked and whom you knew. That insights beyond the anecdotal or experiential aren’t readily available can affect perceptions of work throughout the records life cycle but especially at its beginning.

In the 20th century, many women entered knowledge fields in clerical jobs where they had to navigate gender power dynamics.  If you called a Treasury Department office the year I started grad school, I was the then-GS-4 clerk-typist who screened my boss’s calls. I was trained to ask politely, “May I ask who’s calling, please?”

When a man who had a pattern of using power plays often simply replied, “Yes,” I had to figure out how to get around his “joke” and confirm his identity so I could know whether to put the call through. I failed in acting professionally only once, replying, “Thank you, Mr. Yes, I’ll check if he’s in,” hit the Hold (Mute) button, then returned to say of my boss, “He’s not available, may I take a message?”

Oher women have shared similar stories of men reducing their work to so-called jokes. (This can happen online, as well, too often silently observed by bystanders.) Others had the good experiences I had in later jobs as a Federal archivist and agency historian.  NARA’s staff is evenly divided between men and women and we shared various duties equitably during my time as an archivist. For the most part, we worked well together as a team. I can’t speak for academic experiences but have learned from seeing some university employees share their stories online.

Social Media platforms such as Twitter can provide insights into why the perception of female librarians acting as handmaidens to male academics unfamiliar with their professional skills frustrates or angers some library workers.  Archivists, some with history degrees, also face erasure at times, their labor unseen and not included in acknowledgements where a historian at most may mention reference desk staff.

This summer a tweet about access to records and an observation about description demonstrated the impact of lack of awareness of archival labor. An offhand comment by a male historian in a PhD program at an Ivy League school drew a range of reactions from present and former academic archivists and librarians. Some tweets from women reflected expletive filled rage. Their rejection of the patriarchy suggested frustrating experiences in prior jobs in libraries and archives.

The historian largely ignored the tweeted comments from librarians, archivists, and records experts who tagged him or replied to him. Yet understanding cause and effect in human experience is part of working as a historian.  The lack of responses suggested silos or other structural issues more so than women’s varied past or present workplace experiences. Comments from other librarians and archivists who found the historian’s original tweet frustrating but saw opportunities to reach out and better explain how archives work also drew little academic engagement.

Whether pandemic isolation results in withdrawal into familiar online professional and personal communities or reaching out beyond established circles depends on what people need during difficult times.  It’s not the same for everyone.  Using safety valves and sharing frustrations can occur onstage on public platforms or quietly offstage among friends, colleagues, peers.

Historians who Follow archivists and librarians on Twitter can build knowledge bases about invisible labor.  And draw on information as needed, not just when tweets go viral.  Whether book acknowledgements extend beyond the reference desk reflects choices an author navigates from research to publication. Past (and future) face to face contact (rarely possible in person now) can strengthen connections. I first met Luke Nichter, whose latest book includes acknowledgment of archivists, librarians and FOIA staff, online. We later exchanged work insights during the last few years over congenial, enjoyable lunches in Washington restaurants and in the NARA cafeteria.

When your only contact with people is virtual, reading the room is harder and things can go wrong. Having made mistakes online at times during the last 15 years, I’ve come to think of insight-dependent engagement in terms of change management.  You make information available in a way that gives people time and space to consider it.  (I appreciate the people I know IRL who’ve given me that type of space to think things through instead of yelling at me or giving up on me when I’ve stumbled in the past.)

Storytelling is a key part of learning online.  Many members of the public follow the rules but it often falls to women in library front line positions to persuade those with the power to harm them and other users of services to act responsibly. Twitter showcases individual experiences across gender identity, race, economic background, profession. While not universal–we’re all shaped by individual experiences–they open doors into others’ workplaces.

On the other side of the reference desk, following historians and other researchers on Twitter helps archivists, librarians, records managers explore the user community. This matters even more now than in The Before Time. Some researchers are weathering the pandemic better than others. Many are suffering, cut off from resources intellectually, psychologically, financially or otherwise.

Early in my career, I worked with archivist Steve Greene at the National Archives.  Now retired from NARA, Steve is a member of a new archival researchers group.  As I explored the Archival Researchers Association site, I initially took an invitation to “the like minded” to mean it’s for people who see issues the same way, which sounded limiting. But then, in considering Steve’s involvement, I realized it means people working towards the same goals, but from different life experiences.

We don’t always get to share or own our experiences. Sometimes non-practitioners with greater reach than ours define us for the public. In varied settings you may see a wide range of framing, some agenda mandated or driven, some reflecting authentic openness to learning about archivists, librarians, and historians and other users of records.  Let’s look for open doors we can use to connect front line and back room library, archives, clerical, records management, history staff, and those who write about us. The path ahead lies with women such as Dr. Meredith Evans.  My next post shows how!

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

Being present

Photos of George Wallace “standing in the schoolhouse doorway” at the University of Alabama in June 1963 reflect the Civil Rights era in the Jim Crow South.  The segregationist Governor physically demonstrated his opposition to enrollment by two Black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, in the all-white academic institution.

Federal officials played their part in what President John F. Kennedy described that evening in his remarks in Washington as a “moral crisis” as he urged support for upholding the law.  After the President mobilized the National Guard, Wallace stepped aside and the two students entered the university to register for summer classes.

Three decades earlier in Washington, DC, Oscar Priest sought service in the dining area of the U.S. House of Representatives for his aide, a Black man.  As a U.S. legislator, Priest, one of the first Blacks elected to the House in the 20th Century, knew the aides and friends of white Congressmen could dine in the facility.  But his effort to integrate the dining area failed.  Key leaders blocked him from doing what white Congressmen did for their aides and guests.

In his role on the House Accounts Committee, Rep. Lindsay C. Warren of North Carolina said of the House dining facility in 1934 that, “The restaurant has never served negro employees or visitors, nor will it so long as I have anything to do with it.”  Warren began his political career in his state legislature, then served eight terms in the U.S. Congress.

As a state legislator, Warren opposed the 19th Amendment.  Ratification by Tennessee gave white women the vote in August 1920.  An entry on a North Carolina history website noted that “Although in many ways a Progressive, Warren was in some ways an anti-Progressive.”

The Southern lawyer supported New Deal agricultural policies and served briefly as Speaker. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Warren Comptroller General of the United States. As head of the General Accounting Office (GAO), Warren initiated changes in its mission work after World War II. A 2017 GAO public affairs office blog post offers a brief summary of Warren’s career.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Blacks faced racism in commercial enterprises throughout Washington, DC.  Otha Miller, who held a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, came to the nation’s capital from Illinois in 1938.   Miller later told a reporter about going to a haberdasher’s to try to buy shirts.  And to a restaurant to eat lunch.  Staff at the store immediately told Miller he could not shop there.  He ate at a restaurant for a few days but then was barred from dining there. He protested but “whites only” policies remained in effect.

Otha Miller and others like him still are present in your workplaces, whether you work for an academic, corporate, governmental, or non-profit employer.  People who started jobs in the 1970s had chances to talk to and learn from people who started in the 1940s.

If you joined the workforce in 2000, you could walk around and get to know fellow employees who had started in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Valeria Gist.  As work generations overlap, you learn stories passed down by word of mouth.  Oral history interviews reflect some but not all.

In cross-generational conversations, we catch informal, spontaneous glimpses of the lives of those who went before.  This includes the support staff at universities, businesses, and government agencies who preserved the materials researchers see in reference rooms.  And who now ensure preservation of electronic records.  This is separate from but related to whom writers thank when they publish history or political science books.

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), agency historian Jessie Kratz published a series of Black History Month posts in 2016 which included the agency’s history during the 1940s.  Jessie stated that,

Like many government agencies, the National Archives has a checkered past when it comes to hiring and promoting African Americans.

In the early years of the 1930s and 1940s, black employees faced extreme prejudices and were mostly limited to more manual and unskilled behind the scene jobs. Very few African Americans held professional archivist positions, and those who were able to get those jobs were not promoted at the same pace as their white colleagues.

The Civil Rights era saw black employees begin to make greater gains in securing higher profile positions.

The series highlighted employees’ perspectives, drawing on oral history interviews, records, and contemporaneous reporting. Kirsten Dillon looked at the career of genealogical expert James D. Walker, whose later work in the 1970s received laudatory press coverage but who faced hardship and discrimination at the start of his Federal career.

According to Walker, he and other black employees often had supervisors who tried to prevent the promotion of minorities within the Archives. Walker recalled talking to other African American workers who felt they would never be recognized for their work or promoted simply because of their race.

….In every position he held, he conducted himself professionally yet challenged the institutions that he felt could be improved.

I shared Kirsten’s NARA blog post in a knowledge worker forum, noting in my message to the Listserv that “The essay is drawn in part from my longtime friend and former NARA Presidential Libraries colleague Rod Ross’s oral history interview with Walker in 1985.”  I asked, “Are any other employers of librarians, archivists, records managers taking a look back at institutional history and employee issues?”  No one replied but Tweets showed news links on related issues.

At NARA, you meet James Walker and Walter Hill and many others through history and those who knew them. And in the recollections of Walter Hill’s daughter, Alexis Hill, a current NARA employee.

Whether you can research and write about employees’ varied reactions and recollections or just hear them, you can walk the floor in your own places of employment.  I did this at NARA.  And at GAO, where I worked from 1990 to 2016.  One of the voices I heard at GAO was that of Otha Miller, who began work in 1942 at what now is the Government Accountability Office.

His voice is in a lawsuit he filed against GAO.  And the Otha Miller Award established by the GAO chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG).  Analyst George Duncan (pictured) received the Otha Miller Award in 2013.  You see him in photos I took at a GAO BIG event in 2015 when A’Lelia Bundles spoke about Madam C. J. Walker.

In “Persistence Wins Bias Fight” (October 7, 1981) Washington Post reporter Eugene Robinson described Otha Miller’s experiences in Washington in the 1940s.

He went to work as a GS-2 file clerk in an old GAO building on U Street NW where most of the agency’s black employees were assigned. A part of it was called “the plantation” by the black workers. It did not take Miller long to notice that virtually all the blacks were doing clerical work in dead-end GS-1 or GS-2 jobs and always were passed over for promotions.

Miller advocated and agitated for equity throughout his time at GAO.  Robinson reported that the Transportation Division clerk argued for not having traditionally segregated staff Christmas parties, one for white, one for Black employees. (Contextual note from my research as GAO’s historian: GAO’s Postal Accounts Division, which Warren moved to North Carolina during World War II, also reflected recreational segregation. Black GAO Postal Accounts Division employees could not bowl in the white employees’ league.)

Miller’s advocacy played a part in GAO moving its annual golf tournament from a Virginia country club that barred Blacks to a public course.  (Robinson’s article quotes Miller: “and a colored man won first prize, too.”) But promotions within the Transportation Division prior to its transfer from GAO to the executive branch in 1975 remained a challenge for Black employees.

Members of GAO’s Black Caucus picketed outside the GAO headquarters building in 1971.  In 1972, amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended its coverage to Federal employees. Miller filed a class action lawsuit, joined by Hortense Tarrar and by Nestor Calabria, an Asian-American GAO employee.  In 1992, my boss and predecessor as GAO’s historian, Roger Trask, interviewed three former top officials (all white men) of the GAO Transportation Division.

Thomas Sullivan, director of GAO’s Transportation Division from 1962 until 1975, talked in the oral history interview about a conversation in the 1960s with a GAO official about the unit he headed.  He described being called upstairs back then to talk to the Assistant to the Comptroller General.

He was advising me of the problem that I had downstairs. He was referring to the race situation.

I must have looked shocked. I did not know I had a race situation. I had black people that worked for me and I had white people that worked for me and they all seemed happy.

The interview, unfortunately scanned out of order in key places by contractors working for the library in the 1990s, includes references to “outsiders” from Chicago in passages about employees picketing the GAO building in 1971.  But Fred Shafer, Sullivan’s deputy, noted that the Black employees were not asking for “anything more than the opportunity to show that they could do a higher level of work and advance into the higher positions.” Shafer added, “Statistically, the bulk of our low-paid clerical work force was black, and the bulk of our higher paid–and by that I mean a journeyman grade of 8–was white. Those were the technicians.”

In 1981, as Robinson reported, “the government acknowledged — in clipped, emotionless prose — ‘the historic underrepresentation on a percentage basis’ of blacks — and white women — in upper-level jobs at the division.'” The settlement included a $4.2 million payment to 500 present and former GAO employees and non-monetary provisions.

Charles Bowsher, who took charge of GAO in 1981, worked closely with Assistant Comptroller General Francis X. Fee to improve conditions in GAO regional and headquarters offices.  In researching Comptroller General Bowsher’s tenure, I described how Valeria Gist, a Black woman, became the first “minority” auditor promoted to GS-13 in GAO’s Boston region. The Boston office then reflected an old-style, white male-defined but clearly inapproprite management culture.

In talking to Val (whom I featured here earlier), I asked about her experiences working in the 1980s in a city known for clashes over busing and racism.  After leaving Boston, she rose through the ranks to GS-15 level pay and handled important assignments in GAO mission and staff offices in Washington before retiring in 2007.  I included Val’s story in the history of Bowsher’s time at GAO that I wrote during the tenure of the present Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro.

You have similar opportunities to be a listener as a designated or unofficial memory worker in your own workplaces.  Those who went before are present where we work, in work culture, process changes, workers’ memories.  Being present among your colleagues is a choice, regardless of your job function, and one worth considering.

In 2001, when Ron Stroman became GAO Managing Director, Opportunity and Inclusiveness, he worked on the 6th floor of the agency’s headquarters building.  A chance hallway encounter soon after he started 8 years on the job led to a collegial partnership.  This included my doing research with Ron on Lindsay Warren’s time in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the North Carolina legislature. And talking about past and current events

Not everyone is in a position to share memory work with executives such as Ron who ask about the history of workplace issues.  If you’re job-secure (I met Ron two years before I was retirement eligible), consider how you can place the present in the context of the past.  And provide analysis as a historian or research support as a librarian or archivist that helps colleagues do their jobs.

When I joined GAO, many of the librarians and other knowledge workers were BIPOC.  I didn’t know in the 1990s I would have a chance to team up with Ron to talk about history and organizational culture.  (I often stopped by his office randomly, as he did mine.)  But I knew the value of seeking out and hearing the voices of mission and mission support staff as I studied the past.

I was job secure but even if job precarity affects what you feel you can do, you can still walk the floor and listen to colleagues.  Not only are their predecessors present in what is passed on through the years, so are their families and friends.  Listening helps you move beyond your work on catalogs, finding aids, appraisal, review, research, audits and other traditional work assignments.

As you work with Finding Aids as an archivist or historian, remember the support staff who created the foundational items, file names, and file plans.  In my first Federal job, two Black women trained me in office work. (I’m still a shy Introvert, but less camera shy now than at 20.)  Their teaching example showed me the value of asking and answering questions. I carried with me into my later jobs as archivist and Federal historian what I learned about backstage office labor up and down the ranks.

Finding Aids show arrangement and folder lists that reflect creating-office labor which few historians, or even archivists, acknowledge.  Labor that enabled office workers–the first users–to find information, until the 1990s mostly on paper, later increasingly electronic. Pulling then-active records to reference or study their own prior work; preserving correspondence; following file plans created by other support staff.  None warrant erasure, all deserve acknowledgment.

As a historian, archivist or librarian, you can walk physical or virtual workplace hallways.  And look for opportunities to bridge past, present, and future, in ways beyond what you learned in the classroom. And honor those up and down the ranks who went before, still living or now gone.  Even if you don’t know their names.

Thank you, Otha, Claudette, Marie, Herb, John, Valeria, Rick, Ben, Wanda, Delaney, Pat, Orlando, Ethel, Karen, Calvin, Gary, Debbie.

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


When the young Black archivist posted in an online group, his words stood out on a knowledge professionals Listserv initially established in 1989.  So, too, a response from a white, older forum subscriber who rebuked him for the imagery he used.

Until the Society of American Archivists (SAA) shut it down at the end of 2017, some educators sent students to the Archives & Archivists (A&A) Listserv. SAA took administrative responsibility for the forum in 2007 when the last active founding administrator stepped down. The new archivist had been president of his SAA Student Chapter in 2012.

I unsubscribed from the A&A Listserv earlier in 2013 but read the varied reactions to the young Black archivist’s message on its public interface. The exchanges could have happened anywhere–including (prior to 2020 pandemic closures) in a physical workplace.

The people we meet online show us how knowledge work plays out on a practical level. When we engage online, we’re listening to and talking with our potential colleagues. Subordinates. Bosses (on Listervs, usually only up to a middle management level). Bargaining unit peers in unionized workplaces.

If you were online in the 1990s and 2000s, you saw distinct approaches to engagement. Early email discussion lists for historians and knowledge professionals shared similar goals. The A&A List reflected a progressive ideal of discourse, with libertarian elements, that many practitioners had embraced in the 1970s and 1980s.

Boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) often described online discussion forums as town squares where community members could gather, air out professional issues, find resolution, or agree to disagree. Some of the largely white and job secure Boomer and Gen X participants on archives, library, and history Listservs asserted that everyone could join and speak up.

At the same time, then-new online comment boards for traditional print news media reflected a different ethos. Bad faith argument, trolling, whataboutism, and verbal warfare drove out many people who sought good faith discussion of issues. Creating a hostile environment for others became a feature, not a bug, for certain commenters. Demographic data from The Guardian for 2006-2016 showed patterns in who drew the most abuse.

The oldest Boomers were grade school age when James Baldwin saw photos in 1957 of white students in Charlotte, North Carolina, jeering at Dorothy Counts. Counts withdrew from the all-white school after four days. Baldwin wrote to his literary agent of the photos of her harassment, “Some one of us should have been there with her.” And returned to the United States from France, where he had been living since 1948.

Events in the Deep South directly touched the life of Rand Jimerson, a respected archivist, historian, and educator. Around the same time the A&A Listserv started to implode in 2014, Rand published a book, Shattered Glass in Birmingham: My Family’s Fight for Civil Rights, 1961–1964.  His father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961 when he became Director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations.

Rand recounted harassment Norman Jimerson faced for his social justice work and for acting as an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day white supremacists murdered four young girls by bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Norman picked up shattered pieces of stained glass from the windows. Rand described in the book how white classmates cheered in November 1963 when they heard news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

After resubscribing to the Listserv in June 2014, I posted a link about Rand’s book. The A&A Listserv operated under posted Terms of Participation. One provision prohibited purely political posts. A second encouraged subscribers to limit discussions to the purpose and operation of archives and the work of archivists.

Disagreement with people you like and support is a good sign in a physical workplace. (I’ll share my work example in a moment.) But as A&A Listserv participation decreased, self-sorting (including by political stance, when known, or even whom a participant regarded as a friend) stood out more than in the past among remaining members.  That’s not how we are supposed to appraise, accession, catalog, describe, review records for disclosure, and make available materials in libraries and archives.

Increased self-sorting limited students’ exposure to some workplace best practices. Many archives, library, and records jobs depend on analysis and brainstorming. Seeing peers debate problems openly or provide candid, actionable, and useful feedback to superiors as well as subordinates also reduces perceptions of cronyism. Most of all, it encourages accountability. Online displays have limitations, of course. But we need to see glimpses of best practices among the engagement models in professional forums, especially when students look at signature blocks to see where NOT to apply for jobs.

Some forum participants offered insights based on academic study and experience. Others shared links to content by third parties, most of whom were not archivists or librarians. Some of the shared links reflected traditional standards-based journalistic or scholarly content.

With the growth of New Media, Listserv link-shares increasingly also reflected skewed online content by self-designated “reporters” or tendentious commentary by litigators and advocates. As a result, when they clicked on links posted on A&A, some Listserv readers occasionally saw highly partisan content, including some that doxxed or disparaged educators and BIPOC students.

The ideal of a town square obscured understanding archival silences or silences about archives.  Not everyone was in a position to respond directly to content labelled as “news” that started slipping in by a side door through authorial proxy. Recognizing the need for members to discuss the impact of “we’ve always done it this way,” I appreciated the young Black archivist’s use of metaphor and critical theory to explain how people absorb harm.

When an older white subscriber protested as inappropriate a hypothetical scenario the Black archivist used to demonstrate injuries, subscribers split on the surface issue. But no one walked over online to stand next to the newcomer within his skillfully written social science framework.

Unable to resolve content issues in the forum, SAA shut down the List on December 30, 2017. By then the Black archivist who found himself intellectually isolated and rebuked on the Listserv early in his career had left the archives profession. And with him, Benjamin Sisko and Mary Peake.

Natosha Copeland once tweeted that “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.” The way traditional professional forums operate obscures much of the humanity of the people who do memory work within structured or unstructured settings.  We need to recognize their experiences and respect the diverse choices they make as librarians and archivists.  And better connect what is online with physical workplaces.

We benefit from understanding the impact on workplaces of collective bargaining agreements. Or what it’s like to work in at-will positions in up-or-out cultures. Students need to hear about the structural spectrum of public and private sector knowledge jobs before applying for them. And the practical impact of working in jobs with or without meaningful legal and cultural protections.

High student loan debt adds stress as knowledge professionals compete for scarce job openings.  Adjusting for inflation, the cost of an undergraduate degree rose by 213% for public schools and 129% for private schools between 1987 and 2018. Add to that graduate school loan obligations and disparities in salary levels and the picture looks very different for recent grads than for Boomers and some Gen X. The economic and medical impact of the 2020 pandemic (including furloughs, layoffs, and as libraries re-open, virus exposure) adds to job anxieties.

Graduation vests students psychologically as well as financially in choices first made at age 18 as they apply to college, if able. The same is true for educators, mentors, bosses.  We see its impact in how how senior scholars treat junior scholars, seasoned employees engage with students and young professionals, and managers with with job seekers and employees.

In 2015, Stacie Williams expanded on her notes for a panel at the Organization of American Historians conference.  Stacie wrote in “Implications of Archival Labor,” that “We ask people, paid or unpaid, to use culturally biased metadata that benefits our colonialist and Anglo-based organizing systems and paradigms, as Jarrett Drake pointed out in his piece on the limitations of archival description and provenance.”

Stacie looked at this in academic settings:

We ask them to work in spaces that have historically been cruel or closed off to them — especially if we are talking about city-based universities, many of which have contentious relationships and histories with their surrounding communities. And then we ask these students, interns, and volunteers to be grateful for the privilege. We tell them to apply for this privilege and we will bestow on them the honor of accepting it only if they ‘fit in’; as Angela Galvan concludes in her article ‘Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship.’ If they make our gatekeepers comfortable. If they know the right jokes or listen to the right music or watch the right kinds of shows or perform gender identity in a subjectively acceptable way. And we expect little to no criticism for it.

Fobazi Ettarh wrote in January 2018 about “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves.”  Her article and participation in panels opened the door for information science students and practitioners to discuss low pay, burnout, and morale.  And the misuse or abuse in librarianship of concepts of “sacred duty,” professionalism and resilience.

Preparing students and job seekers for job realities, for navigating hostile workplaces or difficult challenges, including taking on increasingly complex responsibilities when promoted, requires resilience by educators, not students.  Instructors should open for discussion some of the issues left out (by intent or by the rules) in the Boomer and Gen X forums they once told students to join.

SAA issued modified A&A Terms of Participation in 2014 and a Code of Conduct for its online and physical space. While I agreed with some changes but not others, my career working in rules-based jobs conditioned me to respect them. Experience with unionized workplaces helped, as well.

Bargaining in a structured legal setting, collectively weighing in on designated issues, representing certain employee interests, forging contracts, agreements, negotiating dispute resolution, requires identifiable cultural competencies. Online professional forums that survey participants’ views don’t mirror agreements within unionized workplaces. But they do reflect processes premised on responsiveness to the group and acknowledgement of a community.

At the other end of the spectrum are online forums or Listservs that rely on the judgment of a single moderator or one or two administrators. Unless they use reliable surveys, such enterprises depend on individual judgment or goodwill. The Powers That Be rely on the online group’s acceptance of their calls as referees.  Members have no access to grievance procedures, formal arbitration or appeal rights available under collectively approved Codes of Conduct.

If educators want to send students to Listervs and other online forums, they need to discuss the psychology and sociology of participation and what leads to silences. It’s right there as in the postings in our current and defunct archives, records, and history forums.

A young supervisory librarian who was active in his library association early in his career noted in 1982,

Librarians in public service who are not involved in the library decision-making process often feel a lack of control over policies and procedures that directly affect the user community; as the visible link between the users and the library, we are often literally ‘caught in the middle,’ explaining or enforcing or circumventing policies in which we have had no input and in which we have no confidence.

When I joined the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as an archives technician, I received as part of my orientation information about our union (AFGE Local 2578). The presence of a union enhances sharing and recognition of multiple perspectives. I came to see how that benefited both management and labor when I was promoted to archivist in my 20s.

In 2013, NARA, where I now volunteer after retiring as a historian, released a draft strategic plan for comment. The manager in charge did not come from a GLAM institution and had been on the job less than a year. Kate Theimer, a change agent and highly respected archival blogger who once had worked at NARA, read her online draft and tweeted that the draft didn’t reflect some concepts she expected.

I’m a big supporter of AOTUS David S. Ferriero’s vision for NARA, as blog readers know. (He’s the author of the comment above from 1982 when he was a young supervisory librarian.) I know him in person, respect and like him, and support his change vision. But I understood what Kate meant.  I agreed with Kate that the new middle-manager’s draft posted for comment would benefit from revision. I was glad to see the NARA union participate in the strategic plan process (not subject to collective bargaining).

Officials of NARA AFGE Council 260 sent a thoughtful letter to Ferriero in 2013 about the draft Strategic Plan. The letter acknowledged staff uncertainty as the agency moved from longstanding work with paper records to increased online access and other initiatives.

Having started as a “‘Rox and box” archives technician, I appreciated the union’s take on archival work. “NARA’s employees believe that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and view their labor, at times tedious and repetitive, to be part of the foundation of our democracy.”

Without the combined efforts (voluntary for top executives, as the union letter noted) of labor and management to identify needed revisions to the draft, I would have struggled to accept some of the plan’s concepts as initially written. Everyone benefited from collaboration. Just as the ability to speak while recognizing others’ experiences and choices to stay in or leave workplaces (no one can tell someone else they chose “wrong”) make a difference in the richness of voices we hear on Twitter and elsewhere online.

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

What was, could have been, can be

Acknowledgement of a veiled death threat prior to a book lecture formed part of the historian’s tweeted thanks on April 29, 2019 to staff and security guards for keeping her safe.

A year later, I saw Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s reaction this month on receiving the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History for They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Holders in the American South.  I read her book after helping staff the talk she gave last year at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

In announcing the selection of They Were Her Property for the prize on April 17, 2020, Nathan Deuel writes in the Los Angeles Times that,

The hardest reading in “They Were Her Property” illustrates the sadism with which white women controlled their captives. They were unafraid to use the threat of bodily harm not just to keep slaves in line but also to squeeze greater profits from them. Out of both necessity and choice, white women could be even more devious than men in the brutal mechanics of corporal punishment and torture.

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

A particularly horrific example in They Were Her Property describes the punishment of eight-year old Henrietta King by the mistress of a southern plantation where the enslaved suffered near starvation.  The grotesque torture, in which the daughter also participated, disfigured her for life for taking a piece of candy from a dresser.

Dr. Jones-Rogers wrote the book (“a very ugly feminist story”) in an accessible style.  She had in mind not just academics but also the general reader.  “I wanted to write a book my mother could read, and she only has a high school education.”

The book lecture in the National Archives’ McGowan Theater last spring offered insights into the archival research process as well as a previously under-explored perspective on history.   It built on her doctoral dissertation, winner of the Lerner-Scott Prize of the Organization of American Historians.

“I just want to thank Doug Swanson for his quick action and the wonderful security officers at the NARA for ensuring that I remained safe during my talk and book signing.”  The April 2019 tweet by Dr. Jones-Rogers adds her own experiences as well as her book talk to history.

With the National Archives building closed temporarily, Swanson and other museum programs colleagues now share video links of archived noon and evening public programs.  Some archives and museum education activities continue virtually.  Others, such as children’s museum sleepovers, have centered on being in the building.

In 2018, Charles Bolden, the first African-American astronaut to serve as Administrator of NASA (July 9, 2009-January 20, 2017), talked to children at NARA about “Spaceship Earth–It’s the Only One We Have!”  Fifty years before Bolden took took charge of NASA, a fictional television series, Star Trek, finished a three year run (1966-1969) on broadcast television.  Among its stars was Leonard Nimoy, who advocated for Planet Earth as a private citizen and later as a famous actor and celebrity.

Star Trek (The Original Series) featured executive producer Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the 23rd Century, embodied for many fans in the concept of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” As played by Nimoy, Mr. Spock, the half Vulcan, half human, science officer of the Enterprise, quickly became a fan favorite.

Memoirs and books about the stars, Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) and George Takei (Lt. Sulu) among them, provide varied perspectives on the show and the later series spinoffs.   Nichols describes viewer reactions to what was called the first inter-racial kiss on U.S. television between her and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.  Nervous about backlash and Southern affiliate stations, NBC executives considered substituting Nimoy’s Spock for Shatner’s “traditional” TV hero lead.

More recently, powerful essays by fans working in knowledge professions, such as Ashley Stevens and Dr. Robert Greene II, have added insights about the original show and successor series.  In “How Ben Sisko Wrestled with American History,” Dr. Greene looks this month at the use of history in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Benjamin Sisko’s relationship to American history is the best example of the complicated story of the American people. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s willingness to tackle this complexity is part not only of that show’s enduring legacy in pushing the boundaries of what Trek would talk about, but also of the larger cultural shift in the 1990s towards greater awareness of America’s history — warts and all.

In “Far Beyond the Stars,” Captain Sisko adopts the persona of writer Benny Russell in a vision about New York City in the 1950s. His experience “represents the lost dream of Black science-fiction fans and writers in the 1950s. Science fiction has always had a diverse fanbase, with some of the earliest science fiction fan clubs being formed in Harlem, New York. But Russell’s struggle to get his story published at Incredible Tales mirrors the real-life lack of diversity amongst most of the science fiction writing club of the 1950s.”

In another episode, “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” Sisko resists going back to Las Vegas in the 1960s.  He argues, “We cannot ignore the truth about the past” about racism in Las Vegas, or America more broadly, in the 1960s.  But his wife-to-be, Kasidy Yates, persuades him to join her and other crew members.

Kasidy’s push-back on this question is interesting to note. She tells Captain Sisko, “Going to Vic’s won’t make us forget who we are or where we come from. It reminds us that we’re no longer bound by any limitations. Except the ones we impose on ourselves.” Kasidy reminds Sisko, and the audience, that the fantasies seen on the holosuites aren’t meant to be taken as real history—and, in fact, show us what could have been in a far better, freer world.

Dr. Greene notes how in “the 1980s and 1990s, films such as Brother From Another Planet (1984), Malcolm X (1992), Glory (1989), and Do The Right Thing (1989), among others, tried to show how America’s complicated and painful relationship to Black history continued to shape the nation throughout its history.”

Looking at what was, what might have been, what can be applies to our professions, too. For me, this starts with Star Trek (The Original Series), which debuted on U.S. broadcast television during the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War.  Its appeal grew after cancellation as the show gained fans in syndication during the 1970s, a period when many citizen activists focused on women’s rights and environmentalism.

Some of the competing dynamics (collaboration, hyper-competitiveness; teamwork; defensiveness) of the Boomer-dominated Archives & Archivists Listserv, which operated from 1989 until decommissioning in 2017, go back to the time when Gene Roddenberry created the first Star Trek series.  What you saw on the Listserv reflected the individual, political, and policy reactions that shaped the forum’s dominant posters in different ways in their youth during the 1960s and 1970s.  It now shows at times in differing selection of avatars (Robert E. Lee; Eleanor Roosevelt; Princess Leia).

In the late 1960s, Washington area high schools featured civics classes, including “Problems of Democracy.” Other local jurisdictions throughout the United States handled civics education in different and varied ways.  That, and many other influences, later shaped online interactions in professional forums

In my school, we used historical context to discuss current events. The Vietnam War.  Voting Rights Act struggles in the South and the aftermath of “Freedom Summer.”  The murder of Dr. Martin Luther King.  And Robert Kennedy.  And the effect on foreign policy of events in Europe, such as the forcible suppression in 1968 by Soviet military and political forces of “Prague Spring” efforts to increase citizen freedoms in subjugated Czechoslovakia.

The Problems of Democracy class focused on structural and human issues and choices.  In my class, this began with assessing and analyzing the content and purpose of news reports we discussed.  And starting to learn in high school that these needed to be filled in later, which to me remains the purpose of records management and archives.

Fiction, including science fiction, helps us understand others as much as does reading history. Centering the human being as an individual within a larger community is key. In a powerful essay about Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dr. Greene observed in 2018 that

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.

Archives offer insights into complexities not covered in traditional journalism’s “first draft of history.”  The researcher of the future who wants to study Leonard Nimoy will need to go to different places, online and physically.  And to understand what shaped not just the man but the collections they study at repositories as different as Boston University and the National Archives and Records Administration.

So, too, what affects acquisition of records for memory work.  Eira Tansey and Maureen Callahan have looked at that in the academic environment. Several NARA blogs have explored accessioning in Fedland, including Records Express and recent candid, illuminating posts at The Text Message by historian-archivist Dr. Greg Bradsher.

In a powerful documentary filmed in 1977, Nimoy takes us through a series of horrific events on an imagined May 19, 1981.  A mythical yet plausible day of lives lost or changed forever because of chemical hazards.  As on-screen narrator, Nimoy urges workplace compliance, for the greater good, with Department of Transportation safety rules and guidance.

Nimoy’s activism centered on a concept of care.  We see that in the purpose of some archives and library work, too. I don’t mean vocational awe, although I’ve touched on it at my blog as something to avoid.

More so the risks and challenges I featured in my last post about front line representatives of galleries, archives, libraries, and museums. And the horrific assassination at the Holocaust Museum which affected people I know.  And why knowledge and memory workers do the work they do.

Work we do not because it is easy, as the slogans professional associations use sometimes suggest. Or as cartoon depictions of practitioners as “super heroes.” But because it is hard.  And finding solutions challenging, much more so than when most Boomers started their careers.

When historian Eric Foner spoke in 2015 at NARA about the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, he observed that historical narratives may seem inevitable to readers as written. But that as events unfold, participants often must act decisively and quickly on partial information or in an environment filled with unknowns.  Foner is right that history doesn’t feel like history while you’re living through it.

Ken Burns once noted that the National Archives makes records available but doesn’t tell researchers how to use them.  (As a NARA retiree, that’s my training, too.) He later experienced that himself during the airing in 2017 of his Vietnam War documentary series, when historians and other viewers offered their reactions, some sharply critical, some laudatory, of his work.

While still editing the documentary, the film-maker discussed in 2016 how he and his team worked.  He described how they “unlocked”nearly every “locked” episode they thought they had completed to add new insights. The same concept guides our work.  We’re privileged to contribute to the sharing of knowledge others can use.  And to provide speakers virtual or physical space to share their insights as as researchers.

In the absence of Roddenberry’s vision for Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, followed by an active, engaged Captain Picard as humanist leader, what happened over time on the Archives & Archivists Listserv and other online forums too often adversely affected potential Captain Siskos (male or female).

I know and have worked with Picards, Siskos, Uhuras.  We can learn from them.  Study the past of our professions.  Consider what might have been.  Identify structural and human issues.  Examine choices.  Create space for others. And work to reduce not only the gatekeepers to our collections.  But to our professions, too.

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

In your care, in our care

Burnout.  That topic “they don’t talk about in grad school.” Whether we work in galleries, libraries, archives, or museums (GLAMs), we deal with burnout (our own or that of others).  Employees. Contractors. And users of services.

Library and archives reference staff. Museum educators. GLAM Social Media employees

Backroom cataloging, preservation, projects and declassification staff. Employees doing systematic or on-demand scanning.

Mitigation doesn’t depend on embracing “vocational awe.” Or saying “we had it tough, that’s the way it is so don’t complain.”  But on finding ways to deal with exhaustion in ways that are realistic but humane, highly individual yet communal.

Where I work (now closed temporarily) anyone can enter the lobby during business hours when the doors are open.  Contract security guards have the most contact with people who enter and leave.  They perform the usual security functions and give directions to visitors.  And ensure everyone follows necessary exit procedures.

During normal operations, I have time to look around as I walk through back offices and public spaces. Working with employees and contract staff during museum events for children and at naturalization ceremonies brings me special joy.

Whether I’m doing routine staffing assignments or working on special events, I thank the guards who keep everyone safe as I walk through the lobby at the end of the work day. Including the ones doing bag checks in the Pennsylvania Avenue lobby. And the security staff stationed at the Special Events door on Constitution Avenue (pictured in NARA photos).

When all goes well (normal interactions), employees and users of services don’t hear much about the guards who work in GLAMs.  But the contract employees out in front know the risks they’re taking.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has headquarters staff in Washington and the Maryland suburbs. A shuttle bus runs once an hour between the Washington, DC building (Archives 1) and College Park (Archives 2).  Shortly before 1:00 p.m. on June 10, 2009, I chatted with friends in the lobby of A2, then boarded the shuttle to ride to A1.

I’ve made many such trips back and forth.  Depending on traffic, it takes about 40 minutes.  As I rode the Shuttle to Archives 1, I read on my phone the news of a horrific assassination that had occurred right before 1 p.m. at another cultural heritage institution on the Mall.

An 88 year old white supremacist had shot Stephen Johns, a Black security guard on duty in the lobby of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.  The Associated Press account included quotes from Johns’s colleagues.  “Bill Parsons, chief of staff at the museum, said Johns and other guards ‘did exactly what they were supposed to do to protect people at the museum.'”

He added, “Never take your guard force and security people for granted.”  AP also reported comments from national and local leaders: “‘We have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance,’ President Barack Obama said in a statement.”

I later learned that Stephen Johns was an employee of the same facilities security company as the husband of one of my friends.  When you go in and out of many Federal office buildings in downtown Washington, you get to know the guards on duty.  And when the timing is right, chat with them as they head out when their work for the day is done.

Over the years I’ve talked to guards who knew Stephen Johns.  About what happened that day in 2009 when he was the first one in the building to meet the visitor who ended his life. And our obligations to each other.

Our employing institutions have people and objects in their care.  The actions contract security guards and GLAM staff take can feel frustrating to visitors.  When we go to other buildings for the first time, we, too, may feel frustrated about unfamiliar or changing procedures and requirements.  It helps to hold on to that and have empathy for first-time visitors to our own buildings.

There are other entrances to archives and museums beyond the physical. Social Media staff open the doors to GLAM institutions virtually. They welcome, provide information, and assist people online. Occasionally they absorb on Twitter or other platforms public anger or frustration expressed to them as representatives of their employer.

Developing online content and understanding user reactions is a relatively new field worth exploring in library and information science classes. The National Archives shared GLAM “Tips for Social Media Success” in 2017, including the value of a second set of eyes before posting certain types of content.

Empathy-centered experience reminds us that sometimes “things happen”– on both sides of the reference or information desk. Any visitor or researcher or contractor or employee (I among them) can have a bad day. The reason may be inadvertent or circumstantial or structural.  At NARA, deliberate malfeasance is rare.

Social Media isn’t a place to adjudicate random allegations about performance issues since they involve legal or statutory rights (staff, contractors, or visitors).  Or sort through conspiracy theories about GLAM institutions or officials.  Hearing these always been part of the job but now can play out in public on Social Media. A good response (if needed) is “Thank you for your feedback.”

Understanding why things happen doesn’t prevent burnout but can help mitigate it.  Early in my career, budget cutbacks led the director of my NARA work unit to ask processing staff to start helping with reference duties.  Those of us who once only did backroom projects work joined the roster of people sharing research room staffing and box pull duties. When I later became a Federal historian, I tried to keep in mind what it was like on both sides of the reference desk.

Good library, archives, or museum managers know burnout can occur in any jobs “where intensive interpersonal contacts are the rule rather than exception.”  A library supervisor once noted in an essay about burnout, “Reference service has an inherent lack of positive feedback, either on how you are performing, or on how satisfied users are with your services.” He acknowledged it becomes “almost impossible to replenish your vitality and energy” through daily work.

To help staff and users, the supervisory librarian looked at why and how burnout occurs. And the importance of letting team members know it can happen to anyone and that you “are not to blame.” As a representative of his employer’s library association, he used his position to bring (or try to bring) workplace issues to management’s attention.  He found that,

Librarians in public service who are not involved in the library decision-making process often feel a lack of control over policies and procedures that directly affect the user community; as the visible link between the users and the library, we are often literally ‘caught in the middle,’ explaining or enforcing or circumventing policies in which we have had no input and in which we have no confidence.

The librarian stressed the importance of letting employees know that they are not alone.  That feeling exhausted and frustrated happens to others, too.  That burned out staff are not “bad” because they “can’t cope.” (So much this.  Much better than focusing on “vocational awe” or descriptions of “resilience” that lack empathy or recognition of workplace realities.)

Self awareness and humility help you focus on the team. The librarian explained that doing a self-inventory helps supervisors understand what motivates themselves and their teams. “It is vital to the individual’s feelings of self-worth that he/she feel an integral part of the organization.”

Adam Grant, an occupational psychologist, later looked at similar mitigation strategies in a New York Times column, “Burnout Isn’t Just in Your Head. It’s in Your Circumstances.” Grant quoted a 2016 Cleveland Clinic study of medical professionals focused on shifting emotions and control.

It turned out that when physicians learned to engage with more empathy, they started hearing patients’ concerns instead of dismissing their complaints, which gave them more control in the conversation. The Cleveland Clinic’s chief experience officer, Adrienne Boissy, told me: “I can’t tell you how many times, over and over and over again, we saw them simply forget to say, ‘I care about you. I’m in this with you. We’re going to figure this out together.”

In 2013, historian Jason Steinhauer spoke about leadership training at the Library of Congress.  Jeff Page, the Chief Financial Officer of the Library of Congress, blogged about his remarks.

Introducing the main theme of his speech, Jason shared a comment from one of the…instructors who had suggested to the participants that “there are only two emotions in this world: Love. And fear.” Jason went on to say that, “Each day, we choose from which to operate.”

It would be three more years before President Barack Obama nominated Carla Hayden to be Librarian of Congress.  By the time the Senate confirmed Dr. Hayden’s nomination, Steinhauer and Page both had left the Library of Congress for other jobs.  While still CFO, Page wrote in 2013 that,

Ego is the place where our conventional, parochial, and self-centered interests reside. When we can’t manage to move beyond what matters most to us personally, how issues affect us, and how they bother us, we become severely limited in our ability to interact effectively in the work place, and in life in general.

Page noted, “When conflict involves people being mean, inappropriate, and disrespectful, operating from a place of love means rising above, taking the high road, not biting the hook, and sitting with your big self.”

Good advice but not always possible or feasible. Some situations are so bad, you have to flee. My Mom was about to start college (she was interested in history and psychology) when totalitarian forces overran her homeland, changing her life forever.  In her new life as a war refugee in the United States, she did some volunteer work in my high school library.

When Mom fell ill in July 2016, I visited her once or twice a day in the hospitals and nursing homes where she spent the last 15 months of her life.  I had just retired from Federal service and had returned to the National Archives as a Volunteer.

The Ring Theory of Comfort places the person most in need of help (in this case my Mom) at the center of the rings.  To protect them, you avoid sharing your own anxieties and worries with the most vulnerable person in the center circle.  To share your experiences, you turn to people in the outer rings. For me that included getting out occasionally for lunch or dinner with longtime family friends.

When I came to NARA to work my staffing assignments, I greeted and bantered with the security guards.  Leaving the building, I thanked them as they checked my bag, which often held books I had bought for Mom at the Archives Store.

I learned how long some of the guards had worked at NARA.  Where they worked before. In some cases, their family background. Hearing that Mom was ill, some guards asked about her at times. So did AOTUS David Ferriero (photo with archivists Dara Baker, Rod Ross, and me at a reception in 2012) and other colleagues staffing NARA education events.

When my NARA shifts ended, I went to the nursing home and showed Mom photos of the National Archives and the Smithsonian gardens.  I did the same for the Certified Nursing Assistants and RNs who helped care for Mom.

The Supervisory Librarian I quoted extensively above?  That was David Ferriero, then at MIT, now Archivist of the United States, writing in 1982 about “Burnout at the Reference Desk.” (I talked to David at a reception in 2014 about why he wrote about burnout.) Ferriero’s background includes service as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman with neuropsychiatric training.  He recognized in his essay the value of library staff meetings where employees could share workplace frustrations within the group (“alright to have those feelings”).  And the need to look out for staff and library users.

Ferriero wrote in 1982 that

Just as it is necessary to know the subject strengths and special reference skills of one’s colleagues, it is just as important to learn about their burnout threshold.  Members of the team must look out for one another and step in when the situation warrants and provide support where appropriate because it is crucial that users not fall victim to the burnout frustrations of the staff.

A month after Mom died, I wrote in “Color Palettes and Frames” that

We benefit when we walk around and talk to people to learn about workers on the loading dock, the archives technician, the library shelver, but also the executive in the corner office. And expand the circle of our concerns.

As Ferriero took office as AOTUS, he discovered there was no program to show NARA’s security guards examples of archival holdings or connect them to the mission of the agency they protect.  He changed that, ensuring guards received orientation briefings and inclusive tours that placed them within the team contributing to the work of the National Archives.

Let’s do that for everyone in our physical and online GLAM workplaces, including them in our care. And creating an ever-expanding team, needed now more than ever, looking out for one another.

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“Our values remain unchanged”

Do Robert Caro’s iconic typewriter and notes of oral history interviews represent how a historian works?  Perhaps for some readers of his books who aren’t trained as or don’t work as historians.  What about historians?  It depends (that classic archivist response fits my historian side, too.)

In February 2019, when Jennifer Schuessler published an article in The New York Times about Barack Obama’s presidential records, an academic archivist saw the consternation many historians expressed in their tweets and tagged me. “You’re needed.” The limited number of clicks allowed non-subscribers meant some reactions reflected reading the article, others seeing the headline and sub-head.

When you work as a historian within the Federal government, as I did during the last 26 years of a 43 year career, you learn to step back and consider “what does the reader need?”  The headline of the Schuessler piece, “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t,” left some readers to fill in parts of the story on their own.  Yet the central point should have been that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) took custody and control of the Obama presidential records as he left office. And that it retains custody and administers them under the Presidential Records Act (1978), the same law that applies to the White House records of Ronald Reagan and his successors.

Doing a Twitter search on the news article helped me identify tweets that missed this point or otherwise suggested concern about the status and future of the Obama records.  I looked at Twitter profiles (and gained new people to Follow) to see the professions of account holders.  I avoided one category of tweets (any which showed a highly partisan political, polemical approach to the issue) but considered others.

I looked not just at the messages but metamessages of tweets. You can’t know  why someone sees an issue as they do.  But sometimes there are clues.  Through trial and error during my career as a NARA archivist and later as a Federal historian, I’ve learned it’s important to respect what you can discern.  But accept that you may misread what publicly shared words say about a person.

I reached some knowledge professionals a year ago but not others.  There was an additional wrinkle involving risk (a situation outside NARA) that I took in parachuting into some Twitter conversations then and later.  I absorbed the risk and outcome (my intuition proved right).

When a representative for the Society for Historians of Foreign Relations (SHAFR) contacted me in 2019, I accepted an opportunity to write a rebuttal to an earlier journal essay about NARA’s Obama Presidential Library.  My article in the September 2019 issue of Passport looked at the Obama records in the context of change management, records management, and statutory controls–the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act. I chose an inclusive title (“Working Together with the National Archives”) and an optimistic conclusion.

We are not facing the crisis that Fred Kaplan foresaw when he wrote, in a 2003 essay for Slate, about “The End of History.” Kaplan predicted recordkeeping chaos…if there no longer were pages to turn in paper file folders. NARA’s ongoing efforts to preserve and make knowledge available provide all of us who care about archives the opportunity to make history together by gathering in “safe harbors” to talk through our perspectives on the issues with goodwill, inside and outside NARA. . .as we embrace exciting chances to face present and future challenges together.

I’ve embraced other opportunities to share information, including as recently as this past week.  When historian Matthew Connelly published an op ed about NARA and Federal and presidential records in the NYT (February 4), I saw an opportunity to share context.  I sent a Letter to the Editor (later published):

Matthew Connelly expresses concern about records deleted within Federal agencies after a set time instead of being transferred into the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Having worked onsite with officials in Federal agencies early in my NARA career to appraise paper records for transfer into the National Archives, I know that some 3% of Federal records warrant designation as historical.

This remains the case with electronic records. As in the past, NARA can reassess federal records cleared for destruction 7, 25, or 75 years after creation as deletion dates near. Presidential records fall under a separate statute.

I’ve worked on several moves of White House records to NARA. Since some 90 to 95% of President Barack Obama’s presidential records were “born digital” (no paper version filed), he and NARA agreed there was no need to construct a separate presidential library building. Rather, NARA employees hold Obama’s records (digital and paper) in its existing facilities for processing under a statute passed in 1978.

My goal was to convey continuity during change.  And to give readers the chance to absorb information and file it away for future reference.  Online and in person, people take in and communicate information differently.

In 2011, I had an opportunity to introduce my former NARA boss, Fred Graboske, to AOTUS David S. Ferriero.  Fred’s words reminded me of a supervisor’s obligation to understand how others communicate rather than demanding they match his or her style.  This works both ways.  If you’re talking to a boss, try to understand their information needs despite  knowledge asymmetry about the world they must navigate.

A photo of me introducing Fred to David (a deliberate pose to help Graboske link past and present), shows me laughing.  Why?  Graboske told Ferriero that I was a challenge to supervise. David replied, “I can well imagine.”

My reaction? “You agreed with Fred and immediately!” The three of us then chatted about how people communicate. Fred and I often ended up in the same place but took different routes to get there. As is David, Fred is a Vietnam war veteran.

Fred and his NARA team faced public defamation and intimidation decades ago in a situation crossing two administrations where offering a defense was difficult. The situation also included the leak (surprising from an unknown archivist) to a Washington power player (seemingly to undermine her) of an internal document written by Acting Archivist Trudy H. Peterson. She deserved better.

I learned from positive examples during my NARA Office of Presidential Libraries career, as well.  Because my team served as pathfinders in handling materials a new way, I came to value empathy in change management. Situational awareness, cultural competence, and continuity matter, too.

The Kennedy quotes I used in my last post (“Who Owns History?”) remind us why historians of the presidency study decision making.  Their work takes us behind the headlines and journalism’s “first draft of history.” The best history books humanize people individually or as members of a group or community.  Reading books by good historians can be like water in a desert, especially when witnessing or enduring dehumanization.

David Ferriero’s Letter to the Editor in response to Connelly’s op ed showed several characteristics of a leader of a knowledge institution. A stewardship obligation to the agency he has headed since November 2009, linking past and present in moving forward.  And awareness that as the agency head, he has people in his care and can speak up for the team.

That team is diverse in opinion and perspectives.  When David undertook a major transformation of NARA, I understood the goal.  As I recently wrote elsewhere,

As to electronic records, the bus left 20 years ago when people in the FRA controlled executive agencies and departments embraced use of electronic records for business activities while NARA still was offering print to file guidance premised on DM/ERMS that sought to replicate the paper filing designated clerks did.

In 2010, NARA finally caught up with and boarded that bus. And sought a better route than available when Eisenhower-era solutions failed Federal passengers travelling during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Where I faltered initially at times in understanding Ferriero’s vision, which I came to support in 2011, was in too readily accepting certain internal NARA assessments from a small group of staff and supervisors.  And reflecting some of them at my old blog.  In considering if I was being unfair, I eventually stepped back and thought, “What might I be missing?” And apologized at my blog to one official and developed a better understanding and appreciation of another. With those actions came greater peace as I realized I could take the time to absorb information, without assuming the roles of judge and jury.

If you look at the online version of David Ferriero’s response to the Connelly op ed, you see the headline and subhead, “The National Archives Responds: the archivist of the United States objects to statements in an Op-Ed criticizing new record-keeping practices.”  What is at issue, and not clear in Connelly’s op ed, isn’t an abandonment of past practices.  But rather that NARA recognizes the need to update practices that remain rooted in traditional principles to match present day realities.

While people inside and outside NARA have debated and continue to discuss how to effect those revisions, the need for change is clear.  I know of no one who creates, receives, or primarily uses electronic records at home or in the office who would argue that 20th century procedures used with paper records remain viable.

David accurately describes the process of revising records control schedules.  My shorter, less effective, Letter made clear that agencies have the option of asking NARA to take a fresh look at temporary designations as destruction dates near.  NARA officials traditionally send out notices to agency records officers that materials are nearing destruction dates.

Records eligible for destruction 20, 30, 75 years from now can be reassessed before destruction to see if a business case can be made for longer retention or even change in status to permanent, eligible for transfer to NARA.  Temporary records do not lie in isolation chambers for 20 years and then automatically self destruct (link 1960s humor warning) without notice to the agencies.

Ferriero also looks at misunderstandings about other records.

State Department permanent records identified by machine learning algorithms will continue to be turned over to us. Further, the overwhelming majority of correspondence of State Department under secretaries is captured in emails, which are permanent records.

NARA will not stop accepting paper records because “it simply doesn’t have any more room for them.” Rather, the Office of Management and Budget and NARA issued Memorandum M-19-21 directing all agencies to transition to electronic records for more efficient and effective electronic recordkeeping. This is a groundbreaking step toward a digital future, in keeping with the way modern records are created and with the expectations of the public and other stakeholders in getting access to their government’s records.

As to presidential libraries, Ferriero states that,

Finally, it is incorrect to say that we do not “plan to maintain any more presidential libraries.” Instead of constructing a new building for us to house Obama administration records and artifacts, the Obama Foundation will fund the digitization of the unclassified paper records. We will store the originals in existing NARA facilities. This enables the creation of a truly digital library when combined with the other 95 percent of the Obama records that were created and remain in electronic form. While this arrangement is different from our other 13 presidential libraries, we have established the Barack Obama Presidential Library, with a dedicated staff to preserve and make accessible the records of the 44th president.

David Ferriero once noted of NARA in a blog post about change and transitions that “our values remain unchanged.” I see it that way, too.  What is different now than a decade ago is how NARA receives feedback.  Early in his tenure, David wrote about “Leading an Open Archives.” I didn’t yet know him in person and brought a lot of wariness, even distrust, to my perceptions of NARA in 2010.  But in learning about Ferriero’s past (including an article he published in 1984 as a supervisory librarian about protecting staff from burnout) and present actions, I came to see these paragraphs as who he is:

As we embrace social media technologies more and more, our work is changing. We’ve been increasing our understanding and use of social media, but now we need to build it into the fabric of the agency. In this new reality, managers and leaders need to understand the power and the limitations of using social media to communicate with employees and the public. Being innovative and agile allows us to respond to the changing environment and to learn new ways of accomplishing our mission at the National Archives.

I encourage each of you to think about this new vision of leadership. Charlene Li describes what’s needed:

Leadership requires a new approach, a new mind-set, and new skills. It isn’t enough to be a good communicator. You must be comfortable with sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships. Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored. Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn. And it is not sufficient to just be humble. You need to seek out opportunities to be humbled each and every day – to be touched as much by the people who complain as by those who say “Thank you.”

Power shows in seeing diverse perceptions of NARA and adjusting information sharing to meet them.  It’s easy to take for granted that values and practices are readily discernible when they may not be.

Limitations lie in knowledge asymmetry, something I hope historians consider as they compare old news reports with the deeper insights archival materials convey in physical and virtual reading rooms.

And opportunities exist for all who care about how to “make history together with NARA” in meeting challenges in good faith.

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Who owns history?

Children made decisions during a museum sleepover scavenger hunt at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) this past weekend as they looked at letters, petitions, posters.  Their goal was to assess what they saw and pick what best fit their interpretation of answers to four questions.

A sticker placed on the sheet of scavenger hunt items marked questions answered accurately.  In their individual correct answers (there was more than one for each question), the children, ages 8 to 12, took ownership of history.

The records researchers use, the insights from participants in events, the lectures educators give, the essays scholars write, all involve decisions.  So, too, the steps along the records life cycle that result in historical information shared in research rooms and increasingly online.  Many of those decisions take place behind the scenes.

For most of the records researchers and museum visitors see at NARA, the decisions start with someone in a business unit in a Federal agency or department or in the White House receiving or creating a record. The Federal Records Act covers the records of executive agencies, the Presidential Records Act most White House units in the Executive Office of the President.

I’ve worked with both records laws during my career as a NARA archivist, visiting agencies to appraise records for permanent retention or eventual destruction and assisting officials in the White House Office of Records Management. Later, as a Federal historian, I used NARA’s holdings to study how the Commission of Fine Arts and planning agencies handled changes in public space in Washington, D.C.  As historians do, I considered who’s in the picture.

Decisions not to write things down also play a part in what scholars study. Archivists refer to these as as “archival silences.”  In a post last March about “Sunshine Week,” I looked at how records come into the National Archives.  What causes archival silences.  And the different ways people gather and share information.  ‘

The best historians serve as models.  But creators of records often react to researchers outside the history profession, some of whose use of records creates a chill.

Archivists don’t distinguish between users of records:  historians, political scientists, genealogists, journalists, employees of advocacy groups, political “oppo researchers,” or private citizens who state no reason for using materials.  Yet all can affect creation of records as I once wrote:

There’s a spectrum in use of archival records from aspirationally objective scholarship to veiled or clear advocacy to simply partisan “opposition research.” Sometimes researchers use records for knowledge. Sometimes for advocacy. Sometimes as an objective historian does. Sometimes as a demagogue does.

As a historian, I think in terms of researchers such as Luke Nichter, Mary Dudziak, Nate Jones, William Burr.  Or open government advocates such as journalist Alexander Howard. . . .  But to understand records creation, it helps to center the person who chooses to memorialize an action (or not).

We historians understand the standards described in “Habits of Mind” by James Grossman and Anthony Grafton and how knowledge construction works.  This shared understanding is visible in the arrangement archivists (many also historians) apply to series in manuscript collections in academic libraries and other repositories.  There’s a reason news clippings and printed matter make up the last series.

How archives acquire materials (personal donation or accession through records management) reflects decisions, some hidden from view, others visible. When I talk about the Federal government’s records life cycle, this is what I mean.

Someone creates a record in an office in the course of their official duties.  If it falls under the Federal Records Act (FRA), it may have have permanent or temporary value.

The National Archives traditionally took in some 3% of paper Federal records as having historical value.  This remains the case with electronic records.

The FRA requires agencies to use a records management process that includes decisions on which records have historical value and which can be destroyed after a set time (sometimes adjusted later as destruction dates near).

NARA’s records analysts work with points of contact (records officers) in the executive branch agencies and departments to appraise records and schedule their disposition (retention or destruction).

NARA’s work with agency officials relies on records officers telling National Archives’ analysts which records business units create in the course of government mission or mission support work.

The creation of records control schedules depends on forthright sharing of information with NARA.  NARA can only take responsibility for records it knows about.

A Federal agency or departmental records officer choosing to tell NARA or not tell NARA that certain records exist represents a key early decision point in the records scheduling process.  (Some of what can go wrong covered in “Truth Bomb.”)

Concealment of the existence of records–either by officials in business units from their internal records officer or by the internal records officer from NARA–places them beyond records disposition scheduling.

Federal agencies and departments hold legal title to and custody (in their own office buildings or in storage buildings or servers suitable for Federal records) of information and data they create until the scheduled time for transfer to NARA or destruction arrives.

The typical agency “hold time” for records scheduled as permanent and eligible for transfer of custody and legal title to NARA is 20 years.  In some cases, NARA approves a longer hold time for agency custody of historical records prior to transfer of custody and legal title.

As long as agencies and departments hold custody and legal title to temporary or permanent records, access to them by scholars, journalists, and other requesters is through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process.

Once NARA takes custody of and legal title to permanent records, it becomes the access point for the materials.  The National Archives does not do data dumps.  Its trained archivists apply pertinent statutes and regulations as they prepare records for public access. Researchers gain access through systematic processing by archivists or requests submitted to NARA under FOIA or the Privacy Act or Mandatory Declassification Review.

NARA does not have declassification authority.  Archivists in its National Declassification Center work with equity holders in the executive agencies or the White House to declassify and release previously national security classified information.  As with records management, NARA is exploring use of technology to improve the process.

The National Archives offers a great deal of this information on its website. (A former Acting Archivist of the U.S. provided some of the context I used in “Truth Bomb“).  There is no step by step decision list of the type I just shared but you can find information about specific processes used in Federal records management and in declassification.  NARA also shares information on Twitter and other Social Media platforms, including its blogs.

Among the blogs I read are are Records Express; the blog for NARA’s Office of Government Information; and AOTUS blog.  The first provides good, reliable information about records management, the second about FOIA and tips for handling difficult conversations.

David S. Ferriero has offered thoughtful, insightful posts since April 2010 at AOTUS blog about open government, open learning, transitions (“our values remain unchanged”), the challenges and turmoil of change management, being an Introvert leader, and his love of reading.  Having seen David, whom I know, like, admire, and respect, react in person to some of my errors and mistakes (photo), I understand his take on responsibility and accountability and change management.

The second photo shows Ferriero at NARA with Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Tommy Kail, whose Hamilton musical describes what historians seek from primary sources:  to be “in the room where it happens.”  Which takes me to Twitter.

At its best, the Social Media platform “opens doors that previously were closed,” as I wrote in a September 2016 post about the Hamilton award ceremony at NARA and its meaning for historians who depend on Federal records managers.  I see challenges there, as well.

The answers to questions are not always right or wrong.  There is room for different perspectives on some historical issues, although others have bright lines. Unlike the children making decisions during the scavenger hunt, you don’t receive stickers as affirmation.  But you see the influence of Likes and Retweets.  Or being ratioed, for those who focus on that.

Follower counts create their own barriers.  It can be challenging for an ordinary tweeter to catch the eye of a star blue check account holder, as I found with a political science professor (Paul Musgrave) when the New York Times published a report on President Barack Obama’s records in February 2019.  Musgrave (who shares a mutual friend with me in Tim Naftali) reacted a year ago to the NYT article with a hot take denigrating Obama’s decision not to build a presidential library.  Paul has over 32,000 Followers, I among them. I don’t think he saw my tweeted response which offered information and context not available in the news report.

To their credit, I’ve made connections with other scholars on Twitter when I’ve treated the platform as what star historian Kevin Kruse describes as “global office hours.”  Or parachuted into scholars’ conversations to engage on archives and history issues.

One such good exchange occurred just days ago.  During a congenial exchange, I was able to share my September 2019 essay about records management and NARA’s Obama Presidential Library in PASSPORT, the journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).

In 2012, Tim Naftali participated in a conference about the Cuban missile crisis.  NARA just had opened an exhibit, “To the Brink:  JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”  My tweets (then still limited to 140 character bursts) reflected my take on the conference panel, which included Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev. His observation in my last tweet has stayed with me as I try to navigate Twitter.

Jack Kennedy Schlossberg: JFK’s grandson believes his greatest asset was understanding of the past. JFK an idealist w/o illusions. #13days

Nick Burns explains how information changes during crisis so what u say must change & why it is wrong for outsiders 2 politicize process.

JFK: must avert crisis w/ confrontations leaving adversaries choice only betw. “humiliating retreat” & war. #13day

N. Burns: Important 2 understand person on other side of the table. JFK–peace highest goal. Don’t demonize the opponents. #13days

N. Burns: Wisdom so important in crises yet u can’t learn it in school. It either comes from life experience or not. [So true] #13days

T. Naftali asks 4 round of applause 4 “the head honcho of it all” @dferriero; #JFK Lib.Dir. T. Putnam, curator S. Bredoff #win #13days

JFK: DDE said “No easy matters will come to you.” Easy ones r settled below. Prez deals w/ most difficult ones.[True 4 other ldrs 2] #13days

JFK there’s such a dif betw those who advise, or speak or legislate and those who must make the decisions. [Indeed] #13days #JFK

Sergei Khrushchev: nowadays we don’t want 2 negotiate w/ enemies only w/ friends. Negotiation w/ friends not negotiation it’s a party #13days

Sergei Khrushchev – not shoot first, then think, but think first, then think again, then not shoot, at all #13days

“Not shoot first, then think, but think first, then think again, then not shoot, at all” works in another context, too.  As one of my favorite history bloggers, Timothy Burke, has noted, “Some good thoughts come from solitude…from not answering to the last reply or bouncing off of the last link.”

I’ve used that quote often at my blog, including in a post about the release of some of the president’s intelligence briefs from the Kennedy administration.  About my experiences working with highly classified records as an employee of NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries. About the letter Abraham Lincoln wrote but never sent.  And Eric Foner’s perspective on Lincoln and history.

When David Ferriero, a Vietnam veteran (U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman) answered questions for the New York Times about NARA’s “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit, he turned to Foner’s take on history.  The January 9, 2018 NYT link to the Q&A no longer works but my quote from it remains:

DF: Eric Foner, in his book “Who Owns History,” writes, “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.” Our job at the National Archives is to ensure that the public has access to the information they need to do that job of rewriting history. As classified information is declassified, as presidential papers are reviewed and released, as records that have never been researched before are used, that story will continue to be rewritten.

Foner does answer the question: “Who owns history? Everyone and no one – which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving never-ending journey of discovery.” As a librarian and as the archivist of the United States, my job has always been to support that journey. As a veteran, this journey is personal.

As children appraising exhibited documents to locate ones that match a scavenger hunt’s criteria, or readers of news sites, or users of records, we bring our values and experiences with us.  And we take ownership of history, in our different ways.  Just as everyone who visits or writes about the National Archives reflects the experiences that shaped their views.

Who owns history?  Everyone and no one.

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