Story telling, telling stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For ensuring I remained safe”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the replies from her Followers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t even know!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

On the record, for the records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making bold connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, someone broke the ice.

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

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

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