Who’s in the picture?

Lin-Manuel Miranda made daring creative choices as he gave voice to the characters in Hamilton who sing about time, perspective, written words, and loss of agency in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” After Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel,  Eliza Hamilton sings of her late husband, “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing.”  She also turns to those who once knew him.  And considers her own legacy.  

Miranda explained at an archives awards event in 2016 (my iPhone photo at right) why he didn’t make the central character a traditional hero. He saw in the Hamilton who is reflected in records and history his confidence at war with his insecurity. Instead of creating a traditionally heroic musical lead, Miranda sought to display Hamilton’s complex, imperfect character, with the contradictions on display, not whitewashed. For Miranda the most interesting archival materials about Hamilton were those that showed his contradictions.

Phil Darius Wallace gave a dramatic reading as Frederick Douglass of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” a year later on the same stage at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The actor’s July 3, 2017 declamation in the McGowan Theater included this passage from the speech Douglass gave in 1852:

The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Historical re-enactors who have studied their characters in the context of history (rather than its myths) make the past more vivid for listeners. Wallace (pictured below) answered questions from the audience based on immersion in biographical details. He placed Douglass’s strength, endurance, and belief in the future downfall of slavery in historical context. 

I’ve helped staff several of Wallace’s appearances at the National Archives.  After one I saw the actor standing on Constitution Avenue talking to people who had attended his performance as he waited for his ride. The wide range of topics and speakers in public programs I help staff keeps me engaged in my own work.  It also gives me new ways to look at the two professions in which I’ve spent my career, archivist, then historian.

On the same stage in Washington where Miranda talked about Hamilton and Wallace about Douglass, a scientist gave me a fresh perspective on historical research earlier this month. Prior to retirement, Dr. Lester Gorelic worked for the National Institutes of Health as a program director. Gorelic, whose academic degrees are in Chemistry, has been a Volunteer/Docent at the National Archives for nearly decade.  After doing research in archival records he became an expert on the two murals (Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution) that artist Barry Faulkner painted in the 1930s for the National Archives.

To a casual observer, the paintings placed in the Rotunda in 1936 may seem like traditional depictions of the Founders.  But there’s a sign of the future in one part of the sky.  And a continuation of the story one level below the Rotunda.   As with the murals, which have undergone expert conservation treatment, what we see and hear depends on the labor of others.

At the beginning of his presentation on the murals on July 2, 2019, Gorelic told listeners they would be hearing two types of information: factual and assembled. And that there would be a Q&A at the end of his talk where he would welcome audience feedback on what he had assembled in his research in records held by the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, NARA, and other repositories.

Because I’ve chatted with Lester in recent years about his work in government service and his interest in history, it was a joy for me to help staff his talk.  Hearing him refer at the start of his lecture to the “factual” and the “assembled,” then inviting audience feedback on the latter, was an “aha” moment.  It gave me useful insights into how a scientist looks at empiricism,  individual choices in the research process, and openness to hearing how others see the issues.

The Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero (with Lester in a photo I took as we chatted after the lecture), gave welcoming remarks.  David knows Lester’s contributions as a docent well–they started work at NARA on the same day! I didn’t meet Lester until 2017 when we worked together to staff an event.  His research resonates for many reasons but also teaches me some good lessons. I’ve done research in some of the same Record Groups (RG 66 and RG 121, Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the Public Buildings Service) as well as in RG 328 (the National Capital Planning Commission).

The men depicted in the paintings held differing views on suffrage, states’ rights, and the role of a central government.  The groupings in the murals suggest their varying geographic and philosophical affinities.   History doesn’t feel like history when you’re living through it, especially revolution.  None of the men depicted in the first mural knew whether the rebellion would succeed or fail when they signed the Declaration of Independence.  It took courage to sign a document which includes a detailed list of grievances against the ruler with authority over them, King George III.

The records Gorelic studied in RG 66 show that the Commissioners did not approve the first studies Faulkner produced. The members of the Commission of Fine Arts who worked with Chairman Charles Moore and Faulkner included Gilmore D. Clarke, Charles A. Coolidge, John M. Howells, Lee Lawrie, Eugene F. Savage, and Egerton Swartwout, “internationally recognized experts in architecture, art, and sculpture.”

You still can see Lee Lawrie’s own artistry in New York City (Atlas at Rockefeller Center) and in Washington (the bronze doors and the owl in the reading room of the Adams building of the Library of Congress). He also is the sculptor who created the two bas-reliefs that flank the G Street entrance to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), formerly the General Accounting Office.  GAO’s graphic artists later adapted the original (at left) for the agency’s publications to reflect the modern workforce, as here in 1991.

On April 25, 1952, The Evening Star described Lawrie’s bas-reliefs in an article that also gives present day readers a glimpse into the period in which the sculptor worked. In an article headlined, “Brief Case Boys Cut in Granite at New GAO Building Entrance,” the Star took note of one figure:

The brief case boys, familiar figures on the Washington scene, have been immortalized in sculpture. One of their number forms part of two sculptured panels flanking the south entrance on G street N.W. of the new General Accounting Office Building. Toting his brief case, he is carved in enduring granite. About 30 figures on the two panels symbolize the various activities of Government on which the GAO rides herd. The man with the brief case symbolizes the business activities of Government and Government’s relations with private business. He is not tagged, however. The observer, therefore, may write his own ticket. The man with the brief case may be regarded as an harassed businessman summoned before a congressional committee. Or a happy businessman with a government contract in the brief case. Or a Government official on his way to a policy-making huddle with other officials.

Records in the National Archives show “huddles” by planning officials and how Barry Faulkner worked to fulfill his government contract while advised by Lawrie and other commissioners.  And the internal debates among design and planning officials about how to link the newly established National Archives with the history it would preserve.  As with Lawrie’s sculpture, the observer is part of the picture, too, in the Rotunda, the surrounding museum spaces, and in the research room on the other side of the building.

Gorelic is scrupulous in reporting the results of his research on how Faulkner worked through those requirements.  He quotes CFA member Howells as noting during a meeting on Faulkner’s first studies, “There was nothing inspiring in the sketches.” Lester provides context for a statement which if used out of context could be seen as merely disparaging.

He notes that “Howells would later explain in a telegram to Moore that the absence of inspiration was primarily ‘due to the general heaviness of the whole interior and the acceptance of a constructed picture cut in two by a central motif or altar. I felt a certain bareness and poverty in the whole conception.’”

The commissioners understood the challenges the Rotunda space presented and discussed how the artist best could showcase his strengths.  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 to his early drafts or “enlarging the scope of the study.” In one study he included Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln in the Declaration panel but deleted them in later studies.

The final version (1936) shows Lincoln’s profile in the shape of a cloud in the sky above Thomas Jefferson’s head in the Declaration panel.  Gorelic notes, “Lincoln becomes covertly integrated into the historic hypothesis of the composition through the slavery issue, an issue expounded in an early Jefferson draft of the Declaration.”

In subsequent years, the National Archives put up temporary exhibits in galleries near the Rotunda about later events, including the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement. A permanent exhibit, “Records of Rights,” opened in 2013 immediately below the Rotunda level in a new ground floor gallery.  It picks up the story of initiatives for women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and labor and employment protections.

In the decades since the National Archives began operations, historians who’ve used its archival holdings have come to its public spaces to discuss their work.  Annette Gordon-Reed (at left) on Thomas Jefferson.  David Blight on Frederick Douglass.   Eric Foner on Reconstruction.   J. Samuel Walker on working as a Federal historian.  Journalists, community activists, elected representatives, participants in events, also have shared their perspectives.

No two speakers I’ve heard at the events I’ve attended or help staff “assemble” their work exactly the same way.  Lester Gorelic tells us what is known about the Faulkner murals, uses conjecture sparingly–and then in a low key way–and is forthright in pointing to what isn’t or cannot be known.  A scientist and former government program manager, he focuses on providing context for past events, examining but not second guessing decision makers.  Readers and listeners have space to assess facts on their own.

The Archivist, David Ferriero, whom I know in person, admire and respect, explained NARA’s mission in an interview about “Remembering Vietnam:”

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.

That mission includes innovators and maintainers. Louis Simon, featured in the story of the Faulkner murals, studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He joined the Office of the Supervising Architect at the Department of Treasury in 1896, then became chief of the engineering division in 1915.  Simon oversaw construction of the Federal Triangle starting in 1933 when he became Supervising Architect of the Public Buildings Service.  Some of the Federal Triangle buildings, including the National Archives, are built over the low lying area where the Tiber Creek once flowed.  Groundwater and mitigating the chances of potential flooding remain issues for many buildings along the Mall.

A few days after Gorelic spoke, torrential rain (coming down at one point at a rate of 5 inches an hour), hit the Washington area.  Water came in to a basement control room in the National Archives through a seal around some cables, resulting in a brief electrical shutdown.  But the self-rising flood barriers I described in “Shipping and Receiving” worked as intended when installed in 2009.  The basement theater where Lester spoke didn’t flood.  And the historical holdings in the building stayed safe.

Facilities manager Tim Edwards, seen left in a picture I took in a conference room corridor at the National Archives in 2014, represents the “roll up your sleeves and deal with what happens” mentality I see up and down the ranks at NARA (right).  Many of my readers probably see it in the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums where they work, as well.  Innovators, maintainers, sometimes both at once.

Lin-Manuel Miranda writes in “The Room Where It Happens” about “having opened doors that previously were closed.” In Hamilton, the line refers to negotiation over differences. But the phrase also describes the core work of the National Archives and Records Administration. And all who work to make accessible others’ voices. In state and municipal archives, historical societies, community archives, corporate archives, academic archives–both on stage and backstage.

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Difficult conversations

Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the first African American to be named the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, explained as he took office his vision for its museums and archives.

“I think the biggest goal of history at the Smithsonian ought to be to help the American public embrace ambiguity to understand that there’s not simple answers to complex questions,” Bunch says. “And if we can help the public become comfortable with wrestling with the shades of gray then we’ve really made a contribution.”

Last month, Beth Py-Lieberman and Brian Wolly looked back at Dr. Bunch’s career as historian, curator, and administrator.

When Bunch got the nod in 2005 to become the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he was staggered by the overwhelming task, noting with characteristic self-effacement in an essay for Smithsonian magazine that all that was left yet to do “was to articulate a vision, hire a staff, find a site, amass a collection where there was none, get a building designed and constructed, ensure that more than $500 million could be raised from private and public sources, ease the apprehension among African-American museums nationwide by demonstrating how all museums would benefit by the creation of NMAAHC, learn to work with one of the most powerful and influential boards of any cultural institution and answer all the arguments—rational and otherwise—that this museum was unnecessary.”

As a longtime Federal employee in Washington, I’ve made countless visits to Smithsonian museums during my work lunch breaks and with family or friends on the weekends.   At the National Museum of American History, I’ve shown visitors the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter where students Ezell A. Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond staged a sit-in in 1960 after being refused service during the Jim Crow era.

The Greensboro Woolworth’s closed in 1993, enabling museum officials to acquire the lunch counter for the Smithsonian exhibit.   Knowledge professionals then largely still got to know each other in person at conferences, professional and social events and through publications, exchanges of letters, and telephone calls.  I also occasionally saw news articles or reports on television that featured historians, librarians, archivists.

Changes in regulatory policy and technological advances in the 1980s and 1990s created new outreach opportunities but also some challenges.   Before becoming an archivist and historian, I worked in one of the agencies which played a part in those changes.  As an undergraduate, I had a summer job at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  The Commission’s permanently valuable records are in Record Group 173 at my later employer, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

From 1949 to 1987, the FCC’s policies included a Fairness Doctrine for broadcast license holders.   It had two components that centered on license holders’ handling of controversial topics:  inclusion of community public interest broadcasting and requirements for airing opposing viewpoints. Until an appeals court decision in 1966, members of the public had little recourse if they believed broadcasters ignored the Fairness Doctrine.  In 2004, Kay Mills, author of Changing the Channels:  The Civil Rights Case that Changed Television, examined why that changed in a two part Prologue series based on FCC records at NARA.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Medgar Evers and other civil rights activists sought Fairness Doctrine inclusion of black perspectives at WLBT, a television station in Jackson, Mississippi, licensed to Lamar Life Broadcasting.  African Americans made up 40% of the station’s audience but Lamar’s editorial perspective was openly segregationist. In 1962 it publicly opposed the admission to the University of Mississippi of a black student, James Meredith.  WLBT, an affiliate of NBC, sometimes cut away from broadcasting the New York City-based national network’s reporting on civil rights issues.

The station, which began licensed operations in 1953 under segregationist manager William Beard,  employed only white staff on and off camera.  Starting in the late 1950s, Medgar Evers, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, sought air time on WLBT to advocate for the hiring of blacks by the station and for equal employment opportunities and public accommodations in Mississippi.  On May 20, 1963,  he finally had a chance to make his case.  Mills wrote that,

A black person in Mississippi “knows about the new free nations in Africa and knows that a Congo native can be a locomotive engineer,” Evers told the TV audience, “but in Jackson he cannot drive a garbage truck.” In Jackson, he added, “there is not a single black police officer, school crossing guard, fireman, clerk, stenographer, or supervisor employed in any city department or in the mayor’s office in other than menial capacities except those who worked at segregated facilities.” Whether Jackson and the state chose to change or not, he said, “the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world.”

A week later, a Molotov cocktail thrown at the carport of Evers’s house sent an ominous message.  On June 12, 1963, an assassin shot Medgar Evers as he came home.  He died within the hour in a local hospital.

The FCC received complaints in the 1960s about WLBT’s lack of Fairness Doctrine balance from Aaron Henry, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) local leader, and other viewers. Black citizens and some white allies formed a group to monitor its programming.  Their request to be heard by the FCC rejected, they went to court.  In 1966, Warren Burger (a future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) handed down the appeals court decision in the WLBT case. Burger found that citizens affected by a broadcaster’s actions deserved a chance to speak in the regulatory process.  Mills wrote that,

Unless broadcast consumers could be heard, the court said, there might be no one to bring a station’s deficiencies to the FCC’s attention. “In order to safeguard the public interest in broadcasting . . . we hold that some ‘audience participation’ must be allowed in license renewal proceedings.”

Charles Evers, brother of Medgar, was among the speakers at the license renewal hearing in Jackson in 1967.  WLBT retained its license but legal challenges continued.  FCC Commissioners Kenneth Cox and Nicholas Johnson wrote in a dissent on Lamar retaining the WLBT license that,

“This case has everything. A racist television station in Mississippi. An offended citizenry that actually takes the expensive and frustrating course of involving itself in the license renewal process. A church as a party. Negroes protesting the programming abuse received by that nearly 50 per cent of the people in the station’s viewing area who are black. A landmark, first-impression decision by the U.S. court of appeals awarding ‘standing’ to such parties. The station’s misrepresentation to the Commission over the years. The Commission’s contortions to keep the public out entirely, then to place upon them an impossible burden of proof, then to reverse long-held precedents and ignore the clear suggestions of the court as to the standards to be applied.”

Burger again ruled for the Jackson citizens in a subsequent appeal in 1969 (“the court had not intended that the members of the public be treated as interlopers”).  Finally, after several groups vied for the license that Lamar would lose,  a group of new owners which included African Americans took charge of WLBT in 1980.

Mills observed that “Aaron Henry, once denied air time himself because of his race, became chairman of the board.”  William Beard, who turned down Medgar Evers’s requests for air time for years before finally acceding weeks before his murder, later used jarring language in describing the license renewal battles.  He said that in 1953 he “gave birth to WLBT” but the license challenges “killed it right in front of me.

Mills concluded that “a critical time in U.S. history during which great social change was occurring, federal regulators had to listen to citizens, not just to broadcasters.”  The FCC discontinued the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. However, individuals have agency in striving to examine past events fairly and including complete evidence and multiple perspectives.  Historian Timothy Burke believes that scholars should be able to make their case but also acknowledge critics and summarize for readers the main objections to their historical analyses.

Technological advances mean online spaces now provide insights into the internal “fairness doctrines” of scholars, those whose work supports the writing of history, and readers of history, too.  Directly and indirectly, people sharing perspectives on web platforms–about history, civics, policies, or politics–tell us what they’ve seen, observed, or experienced. But distinguishing positions from interests isn’t always easy.

I was 21, a history major and junior in college, when I took a summer job as a secretary at the FCC.  I didn’t work in the offices of any of the president-appointed commissioners but with the then Executive Director.  It was my first experience working with a high ranking official with duties in a large organization.

I filed away in my mind what I observed in my undergraduate summer jobs about the range of responsibilities an executive handled and the value of record keeping.  Learning takes time; there are periods of just absorbing what you see and hear.  I didn’t know it then, but those early job experiences sparked my interest in linking history and historiography to management and leadership.

In the spring of 2017, the Librarian of Congress, Carla D. Hayden, gave the keynote address at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference in Baltimore.  A listener tweeted that she said,“Those of us who work for Gov’t can’t always speak our minds – but we *can* listen.”

I wasn’t at ACRL but I had just heard Dr. Hayden in conversation with AOTUS David S. Ferriero at the National Archives a few weeks earlier (my iPhone photo below).  In archives and library jobs, the best executives I know have the ability to listen, along with acceptance of information asymmetry (what others don’t know), including about their own often highly complex work environment.

Capacity can show long before someone reaches the executive ranks.  One of the best, most thoughtful, articles I’ve read by Ferriero is “Burnout at the Reference Desk,” which he wrote in 1982 based on what he was seeing on the job as a Supervisory Librarian.  (The article reflects who David is to this day.) Workplace actions matter in all positions in which people have others in their care, whether as supervisor, manager, executive, or top official.

The authors of a Smithsonian magazine feature about Lonnie Bunch noted that museum director Roger Kennedy taught him about navigating bureaucracies and instilled in him “the tools for leadership.” Those skills came through when  I spoke to Dr. Bunch in 2016 at the National Archives (photo above) about his belief that historical narratives should reflect what people need to learn, not just what they want to see.

Earlier this month I had a chance to chat with Carrie McGuire about “difficult conversations.” Carrie worked for the American Library Association as Director of the Program on Networks before joining the National Archives in March 2010.  I first met her in 2012 when I attended a lunch session about job-related dispute resolution at NARA’s Office of Government Information Services.

Carrie noted of records processing issues that to have a productive conversation with a difficult person, it’s crucial to move him or her away from his or her demands and toward the vulnerabilities he or she most wants to keep hidden. In the follow-up post, Carrie wrote,

In last week’s post, we discussed the difference between positions and interests. In brief, positions are what an angry person presents during a confrontation; interests are the secret, unmet needs that anyone in a dispute may be reluctant to share. We also learned that the only way to move toward a resolution is to discuss those hidden interests; arguing positions will inevitably lead to butting heads.

Acknowledging that difficult conversations occur at work is part of navigating professional spaces.  They also can affect how we talk about history.

Many of us were alive already in 1980 when NAACP activist Aaron Henry was chairman of the board of the company that took charge of WLBT.  For some of us our parents were adults, watching the news on television, when an assassin killed Medgar Evers at a time when President John F. Kennedy used television to report to the nation on civil rights.

How we react to history reflects not just classroom study but our adult experiences and the people who influenced us as children and young adults.   That discussions of history (and sometimes even archives and records) can result in what Timothy Burke calls “declarative sorting” may reflect unrevealed interests behind stated positions.

Unacknowledged interests may show in defensive positions (about a community, a state, a profession or career choices, a religious preference, a partisan identity, or even a fandom) in Twitter threads where someone mocks, scolds, denigrates, fires back replies to others.  Not just on critical issues where taking sides firmly may occur from time to time.  But daily, even on issues such as whether an original movie or a remake is better. Little wonder conversations about history can be difficult in some online settings.

Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAMs) can play to their strengths in their handling of history.  They can present historical and cultural knowledge that adds depth and information to what visitors know or think they know.  The content may challenge people.  But there’s no one present reflexively tweeting angry rebuttals to visitors’ reactions as they read archival records or walk through physical or virtual exhibits.

For those able and willing to do so (individual, of course), space may enable considering and “filing away” complex or discomfiting information about history.  And perhaps even learning about ambiguity.  GLAMs can use psychic space effectively as they strive to show that not all complicated questions have simple answers. And to encourage often difficult but valuable reflections about highly textured history.

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

“What people need to hear”

February 12, 1946.  Sgt. Isaac Woodward, a decorated African American World War II veteran, asks the driver of a Greyhound bus travelling in South Carolina to stop the bus when able so he can relieve himself.  It’s customary for passengers to do that in the days before long distance buses had restrooms aboard.  The driver eventually pulls the bus over but curses at him.  Woodward, still in U.S. Army uniform on his journey home, having been honorably discharged from military service hours before, curses back.  He tells the bus driver he is a man, a human being, just as the white man is.

The white driver flags down police chief Lynwood Shull, who beats Woodward and deliberately blinds him. The next day, a local judge fines Woodward $50. for supposedly being “drunk and disorderly.”  It’s two days before he receives any medical care.

When he finally makes it to a military hospital three weeks later, doctors find Woodward’s temporary amnesia due to the brutal beating is lifting but he is permanently blind.  Horrified by the story, which civil rights activists in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and celebrities such as Orson Welles and Woody Guthrie help publicize, President Harry S. Truman orders the Department of Justice to act on the case.  But an all-white jury in South Carolina acquits Lynwood Shull.

May 14, 1961.  Frances Moultrie Howard looks out from a photograph of a horrific event.  The bus on which she and her fellow Freedom Riders were traveling is in flames, set ablaze by a racist mob after leaving Anniston, Alabama.

In Birmingham, Alabama, riders on a second bus from Anniston are beaten around the same time by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In Nashville, 21-year old John Lewis and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee form a group of volunteers to continue the Freedom Rides. The young volunteer riders include nine black men and women, two white women, and one white man, James Zwerg.

In a history book published in 2007, Raymond Arsenault, a professor of U.S. Southern history, describes the attack on Lewis’s group as their bus  arrives in Montgomery, Alabama.

As the Klansmen unleash their violence, one rider, James Zwerg, draws attention as the only white man in the group. A female Freedom Rider, who manages to escape the mob, watches in horror:

“To Lucretia Collins, who witnessed the beating from the backseat of a departing taxicab, the savagery of [Jim] Zwerg’s attackers was sickening. ‘Some men held him while white women clawed his face with their nails,’ she recalled. “And they held up their little children—children who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old—to claw his face. I had to turn my head because I just couldn’t watch it.’ Eventually Zwerg’s eyes rolled back and his body sagged into unconsciousness. After tossing him over a railing, his attackers went looking for other targets.

Turning to the black Freedom riders huddled near the railing, several of the Klansman rushed forward. The first victim in their path was William Barbee. . . [who] had only a moment to shield his face before the advancing Klansmen unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks that dropped him to the payment. While one Klansman held him down, a second jammed a jagged piece of pipe into his ear, and a third bashed him in the skull with a baseball bat, inflicting permanent damage that shortened his life. Moments later, [John] Lewis went down, struck by a large wooden Coca-Cola crate. ‘I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing,’ he recalled.”

Memoirs, archival photos and textual records, some kept within a professional structure, some randomly preserved and passed down from generation to generation in a home,  trace parts of national, regional, community history. What is preserved, what discarded, what revealed, what obscured, can be part of the story, too.

Using archival sources, including at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), its Truman Presidential Library and in his home state of South Carolina, Federal U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel tells the story of Isaac Woodward’s beating and blinding in a new book, Unexampled Courage.  Judge Gergel spoke abut his research on Woodward, the failed prosecution of Shull, and civil rights activism in the 1940s and 1950s, in a May 21, 2019 book event at the National Archives.

Does Judge Gergel’s name sound familiar? It should. He presided over the trial of terrorist and white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Judge Gergel affirmed the jury’s decision and in January 2016 handed down a death sentence for Dylann Roof’s horrific crime.

I helped staff Judge Gergel’s May 21 book talk, welcoming to the National Archives visitors who wanted to hear Woodward’s story. Among them was Bonnie Mulligan, a retired Freedom of Information Act official and former NARA declassification archivist. She knew Woodward’s story but for others who came to NARA’s McGowan Theater, it was new. Several visitors thanked me and other National Archives officials as they walked out of the theater after Gergel’s lecture.  Some stopped in the archives shop in the lobby to buy his book.

In 2013, John Lewis came to the National Archives to talk about civil rights struggles and the value of the blessed community.  It wasn’t the first time he had been there.  As AOTUS David S. Ferriero noted in welcoming remarks (I was present for the event and chatted briefly with David before it started), Rep. Lewis launched the “Eyewitness” exhibit in 2006.  It featured his testimony about “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when state troopers beat him on the Pettus Bridge during a voting rights march.

In his introductory remarks in June 2013, Ferriero quoted a later comment by the Congressman that it is important for future generations to know the full story of history and that cultural institutions play an important role in this. On stage in NARA’s McGowan Theater, Rep. Lewis spoke with deep emotion of his ancestors who had endured enslavement in America, of the right to vote, and the impact of segregation during his lifetime.

In describing violence and his belief in non-violence, Lewis observed that rhetorical violence has an impact, too.  And he spoke of the value of the steadily burning pilot-light in long term human and civil rights work.  You see him in 2013 on stage and with Darlene McClurkin, a member of the National Archives exhibits staff.

A year later, when I first heard Dr. Lonnie Bunch speak in Washington, eleven years had passed since authorization of a Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).  Then, as in later interviews and speaking appearances, Dr. Bunch talked about the value of looking at history in terms of what people need to hear rather than what they want to hear.  He offered an insightful view of the elements that go into making that possible.  Last week, the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution elected Dr. Bunch to be the Secretary of the Smithsonian, the first African American to take all the Smithsonian’s work into his care.

In July 2016, when I saw Lonnie Bunch at a reception at NARA, I told him his words about what people need to hear resonated with me and that they were foundational for writing good history.  We talked briefly about outreach in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAMs), as well.  I can’t claim to know Dr. Bunch well–we’ve only spoken briefly about history on a few occasions.   But he was gracious in talking to me about his vision for history, reflected in the NMAAHC when it opened to the public in September 2016.

As with many records-related or -dependent professions, non-practitioners sometimes misunderstand some aspects of history and historiography.  In an otherwise insightful 1998 essay about combative, aggressive discourse, kneejerk argumentation and “ritual opposition,” linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote in an aside that

Biographies have metamorphosed into demonographies whose authors don’t just portray their subjects warts and all, but set out to dig up as much dirt as possible, as if the story of a person’s life is contained in the warts, only the warts, and nothing but the warts.

For me it was a jarring generalization, over-simplification, and misunderstanding of historiography despite her insightful work in her own field (linguistics).  In the decade since she wrote her op ed, online platforms have opened up our ability to see how others see and discuss history.   At times elements they might use in one setting (understanding what works well and what does not in order to improve a product or correct flaws) are not evident in another.

In GLAM fields in which I’ve worked (archives, records management, history) and in libraries, as well, our work in serving the public relies on our ability to face facts in our workplaces.  To the extent we can, we should strive to tell colleagues up and down the ranks “what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.”  By that I don’t mean popping off about our personal likes and dislikes.  But understanding at deep levels what happens within our professions and our own workplace cultures, accepting personal responsibility in the jobs for which we get paid, and making the most of our opportunities.

This matters most at the beginning of the records life cycle, where onsite practitioners should understand records creators and act as accountable officers in taking insight-based actions to ensure protection of people, records, and workplaces.  On the archives side, we can strive to negotiate reasonable donor agreements.  And in settings where statutes affect processing and disclosure, apply them judiciously and with integrity, respecting that our colleagues in different settings strive to do so, too.  In history, we do best when we focus on evidence in our work and apply it to what we read online rather than succumbing to “hot takes.” In all these, others–those who came before, those here now, and those who will come after–depend on our actions and choices.

There are many distractions there, including commentaries by outside pundits who don’t understand the records management or archives professions but whose words sometimes circulate widely online.  This can lead to Archives Alarmism, History Hysteria, or Records Management Rubbernecking that undermines the professions.  A good way to avoid this and model professional behavior (and if you want to demonstrate strength, the value of personal responsibility in the workplace) is to think as you read news reports, press releases, commentary or Social Media hot takes, what if I were the accountable officer in this situation?  What would or could I have done to ensure a better outcome?

In 2017, a white man in an information professionals forum exploded with anger at my sharing a link to an interview with Jarrett M. Drake, an African American former archivist who left the field to enter a PhD program at Harvard.  The man said this about the Jim Crow period and the Civil Rights Era when I shared Jarrett’s post: “we had no say in the social decisions and practices of those times, so are we supposed to carry around a burden of guilt for something we have nothing to do with in the past?”

The subscriber’s tirade against Jarrett’s comments and the archivists’ group as a whole enumerated partisan grievances, some based on misinformation, misinterpretation, bad information. If you’re an archivist, librarian, records manager, or historian, you’re going to see that happen at times online. In this case, the outburst occurred in a forum with a Code of Conduct and the administrator locked the thread as his posts became increasingly partisan and what technically can be called “off topic.”

A person focused on airing grievances online may not consider an information vacuum regarding their own job behavior and choices as those are unknown outside their workplace. The records that form one of our sources for understanding history should “tell people what they need to hear” but that requires awareness of bias and human behaviors just as our workplace efforts should.

The joy that comes from seeing someone “get it” can come from unexpected places.  Listen and look for people who discuss records, archives, libraries, and history as elements in their care.  Who recognize the impact of their own choices and actions. Who embrace change and learning and improvement. Most of all, look for how people describe community and consider what is visible to them when they talk about it.  And what they see as connecting the members of that community together.

It isn’t the same for everyone.  And not everyone spells it out.  But even when they don’t, it shines out in serenity in the face of adversity and challenges and perseverance in the face of setbacks.  In the records with which we work.  And for the luckiest among us, in the people we know at home, at work, and in the neighborhoods where we walk and listen.  And talk and learn.

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

Classroom to office: your leadership options

Who can lead?  Students, new professionals, designated leaders, appointed leaders, elected leaders, technical experts with durable (“soft”) skills, community activists.  People we don’t yet know about but who are out there listening, learning, talking, thinking.  Personal choices affect how and if you lead.  Why do I say if?  Because knowing where and whether you want to stay or move on, move up officially or act from where you are, is individual, too.

When I write about leadership, as in my post about “New skills, part 2: Choosing to learn,” I mean the person who’s sitting in a classroom listening (and not just the educator).  The new professional looking for a job.  Or starting their first history, records, archives, library job.  Or the executive in a corner office. This post isn’t about power. It’s about how you see others and handle the situation that you and they are in.

In the classroom, while you don’t control the syllabus, the educator’s goals, or the grading your work receives (except in your interpretation of the course material), you have agency in learning leadership.  When you see and listen to the people around you, consider if the teacher or professor is encouraging discussion, debate, or just argument.

Do you feel comfortable speaking up?  If so, consider who does not and why.  If you don’t feel comfortable, think about who does and why. You’ll be in such positions throughout that history, archives, library, or records management career you hope will be part of your future.

Sometimes, as high school history teacher Patricia Rosof observed two decades ago, the handful of students doing most of the talking in class are not addressing “subtleties, nuances or complexities.” Why? “They want to win the argument — so they must go for the most dramatic statements they can muster. They will not concede an opponent’s point — even if they see its validity — because that would weaken their position.”

Why did I ask you to learn lessons from the people who aren’t reacting in class as you do?  Because you’ll be working with them in the future in person or online.   In insight or solution seeking cultures, leadership based on “this works for me, I’ll use it as a model in the space I control” may result in failure.  Success depends on asking “why doesn’t this work for you?  We’d like to hear your voice in the conversation.”

Leadership is different from management, of course, although you may do some of both in an official or unofficial position in a professional association, workplace, classroom. When you reach the top ranks in an archives, records, or library job, you won’t be managing the nitty-gritty aspects of staff-level employees’ work as you did as a supervisory archivist or librarian. But your policy decisions and ability to spot good or bad managers will affect the work of their subordinates.

As an educator or a council or board member of a professional organization, the online environment you create becomes a part of your unofficial public “resume.” An entrepreneur who participated in a Washington Post leadership series in 2011 observed that to be an effective leader, you have to own your weaknesses. He pointed out that it’s not as if onlookers don’t see them anyway (I agree). So own them. Structural and environmental elements affect the extent to which you are able to do this.  But astute leaders know how to do it, directly or indirectly, when appropriate. Inability to do so is visible, too.

Some associations, groups, sections among the organizations representing historians and Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums (GLAMs) are more opaque than others.  In the online age, the transparency-opacity spectrum is visible in public and generally well known.   However, you have chances to affect perceptions of group values when you run for office in the Society of American Archivists (SAA), historians’ organizations (AHA, OAH, SHFG among them), the Council of State Archivists, ARMA, or the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators.

An open leader can mitigate perceptions of opacity (often seen in buzz about “What are they hiding?  Why is this ‘undiscussable?'”) in a professional association or within a GLAM institution.  (Yes, some associations have non-disclosure requirements but that just means you have to use more skill to become an “architect of trust.”)  A “never wrong” vibe can add to a sense of unreasonable opacity or even affect member trust in an association.

Whether the vibe changes significantly and the extent varies from group to group.  In peer-elected positions supported by professional staff, the “tone at the top” may be natural (not strategic) and inherent in the people in leadership positions at any given time.  How elected association officials handle internal and external controversies can reflect similar choices in institutions where historians, librarians, archivists, and records mangers work. (I’m following many robust debates online about the history, archives, and records job markets right now.)

If you’re lucky to get a job in your field, talk to people around you, including above and below you on the organization chart, about core elements of workplace culture.  External and internal forces always are at play.  Understanding those elements at deep levels is a key part of being an effective official or unofficial leader.

In the office, being a supervisor, manager, executive takes you away from hands on work and into administrative duties (budget, operational, policy making, etc.)  This isn’t for everyone. I appreciate the people, my late twin sister, Eva, a Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) among them, who offer candid explanations of why at certain points in their careers they want to stay in place.  Managing a work unit, supervising its staff, made Eva happy.

As my sister once told me, her position kept her close to the mission work but also taught her what it’s like to have employees in your care.  Eva died in 2002, her potential unknown but her legacy clear.  If you work with certain NARA officials, including Jay Bosanko, whom David Ferriero elevated to senior executive in 2011, you’re working in part with Jay’s former boss, Eva.  And because we were twins, with me as well.

I described Eva’s legacy at NARA in “Welcoming the stranger,” which featured Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright’s contributions.  (It took me time to understand Pam’s contributions but the “aha” moments were joyous.) In “Through the door,” I looked at the supervisor’s duty to de-center, as Eva tried to do because she had stewardship obligations and people in her care.

Eva’s job history had a straight, clear, path.  She worked only in one NARA unit, as a supervisory archivist and team leader, and knew that was where she wanted to be.  I worked at two nonpartisan Federal agencies, as an archivist at NARA and as agency historian at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.  Although I’m an introvert, I’ve loved being able to “walk the floor” and learn about my colleagues.

Regardless of rank, you have options in how you handle learning and knowledge.  Those options are there for everyone, whether you attended the Archives Leadership Institute (ALI) or not (its alumni list includes Pam Wright).   I never attended ALI as I switched careers from archivist to historian (with some archivist and records duties). Much of what I write about here and elsewhere represents “on the job training” (including a two-year unit rotation period at the National Archives) and “walking the hallways” at GAO.

A few ALI alums were active on SAA’s Archives & Archivists Listserv until it was decommissioned on December 30, 2017, others briefly so in earlier years.  Some now are active on Twitter, others once were but less so now.  Many ALI alums to whom I’ve talked point to going through training as a cohort as the highlight of the experience more so than any one session.

That makes sense because what people seek and respond to is so individual. Just as at conferences, the same sessions can’t and won’t appeal to everyone.  The ALI experience also includes practicum projects.  The institute offers some financial assistance but only a small number of leaders and potential leaders can participate in the program.  Depending on your workplace and availability of internal staff development programs (some excellent) and opportunities for self-empowerment, if you’re lucky you may be able to choose similar practicum projects on your own initiative.

What’s my personal, self-initiated, ongoing project?  Recognizing and building connections between historians, records managers, librarians, and archivists.  My informal project covers history but also civic, news and information literacy.  Jesse Wilkins, a military veteran and Information Governance expert who has a scrupulously nonpartisan Social Media presence, tweeted of partisans in 2016, “One of my biggest gripes within RM/IM industry overall – OK when my person does it, a sin when yours does.” Screening out highly polemical writing can help practitioners focus on systemic issues, instead.

I appreciate the training I received in Federal service.  Early in my National Archives’ career, I went through courses in basic archival work and also in archives administration in a nonpartisan setting.  Managers and executives talked to us line-staff about budget issues, internal and external stakeholders, personnel issues, policy making, and strategic planning.

We also did rotational assignments in NARA mission and mission support units.  Some units, such as personnel, now known as the Human Capital Office, required a higher degree of operational confidentiality than others due to personal privacy protections. (We also apply those in processing archival records.) Many core administrative functions are more complex than meets the eye (or the journalist’s keyboard), as you know if you work in GLAM institutions or in the history field.

I’ve seen journalists switch jobs and gain insights into government operations.  Cleve Corlett’s background as a journalist and and staffer on Capitol Hill helped him navigate communications issues effectively when he joined the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office as head of public affairs.  I’ve seen other legislative branch officials, such as David McMillen, make the switch from the Congress, where he was a staffer, back  to the executive branch.

Until his retirement in December 2017, McMillen (pictured with me at NARA in 2012) worked on various assignments at the National Archives, some related to Congressional and public affairs and outreach functions.  He is the author of an informative 2017 NARA Prologue article on transitions.  As circumstances surrounding some of the issues changed after publication,  NARA issued useful updates on its Obama Presidential Library unit in February 2019.  While I would like to have been able to link in public to something like the fact sheet earlier in February 2019, it’s good to have it available now.

Knowing how to parse “hot takes” on Social Media is part of news and information literacy.  If you’re on Twitter, consider following Meg Phillips, pictured last year with me and Arian Ravanbakhsh and Dr. Meredith Evans, director of the NARA Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.  (Dr. Evans is the current SAA president. )  As NARA’s external liaison official, Meg can help you navigate the wide array of historical, archival, policy, and operational information the National Archives has posted online.

During David Ferriero’s tenure as AOTUS, NARA has increased transparency about its mission (an ongoing process, to David’s credit and that of his team). Its website includes a page for job seekers and current employees which lists rank-progressive core, general, and technical competencies.  You can also find standards for NARA units, including ones similar to offices where I learned from good managers early in my career.

For NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries, competencies for GS-14 level employees who report to the Senior Level director of a Presidential Library unit include familiar technical skills.  Among them are archival processing; declassification; reference service; outreach and educational work. The General Competencies focus on broader skills, some also required progressively at other levels.

Problem Solving (Thinks Strategically)

Analyzes and integrates trends and patterns based on diverse information and perspectives to determine the root causes of problems, identify the best course of action, and prioritize efforts. Develops new insights and formulates creative solutions, considering the impact and implications of recommendations in the context of overall goals and objectives. Encourages and engages in the development of innovative ideas to enhance organizational efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity.

Interpersonal skills (builds networks and alliances)

Develops and maintains networks and alliances to share information, promote collaboration, and optimize individual and organizational effectiveness. Values teamwork and encourages and leverages the capabilities and perspectives of all individuals, regardless of background, culture, style, and view. Analyzes own organization to determine key relationships that should be initiated or improved to better meet current or future goals.

For much of my late career, I was a direct report to Senior Executives.  And with that, we enter the corner offices I mentioned earlier.  Seeing how executives navigated complicated issues helped me understand the competencies the Office of Personnel Management developed for such positions.  If you look at the competencies link, you can see the challenging responsibilities that led me to focus as a historian on workplace operations up and down the ranks.

I made some mistakes along the way during my career as an archivist and as a historian but learned from them.  Humility can be daunting to work through, especially for an over-thinker like me.  But it’s worth it in the end.  Opportunities to de-center start in the classroom.  You do what’s necessary to pass the course.  To get that all-too-expensive academic degree.

But you also can pick up skills of your own choosing along the way.  Such as learning the value of “what doesn’t work for you?”  Instead of “this works for me.”  Durable skills for other-centered jobs such as archivist and librarian.  And insight based functions, such as historian. And if you’re open to using them, records manager, as well.  To help serve those now depending on you–and those who will come after, too.

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

New Skills, Part 2: Choosing to learn

In “New Skills, Part 1: The Gathering Place,” I looked at Kate Theimer’s successful forum for knowledge professionals and what made ArchivesNext work so well from 2007 to 2015.  I still hear Kate’s wise exhortation, “Be the change!”  Nostalgia can be personally enjoyable but the best lessons come from understanding what to hold on to or let go.

Where we gather has changed.  But we’re still going to school; looking for jobs; facing workplace challenges; deciding which professional associations, if any, to join.  Considering how to participate in those associations.  Or work on issues we care about without official affiliation.  And for the older generation of knowledge professionals, what to do in retirement.

Durable skills

Nick Inglis, a respected records and information expert, recently shared a link to “These are the most important skills you need to be successful in the modern workplace.” The essay focused on “soft skills,” including empathy, adaptability, and effective communications.  And why they aren’t weak, as  “soft” may suggest.

Power skills, durable skills, human skills, people skills, durable skills, E.Q.: Whatever you want to call them, they’re in big demand now. But, as employers scramble to hire enough high-E.Q. people (including new college grads), and launch massive efforts to instill “power skills” in vast numbers of the employees they’ve already got, one question leaps to mind: Can these skills be taught?

It matters. As companies grapple with digitization, automation, and constant change, creating a culture where people can communicate their ideas is crucial…So are collaboration and creative thinking. . . .

But it’s hard to tell if human skills training helps people change aspects of their personality—being resistant to new experiences, or having tone-deaf social skills, for instance. At the moment, no one has yet come up with a standard way to assess those skills before and after training.

An employee who tries to suppress negative behaviors at work because that is required but displays them with peers in person or online outside supervised space may not have bought into the training.  In my view whether training has a superficial or enduring effect depends on individual motivation.  The essay Nick shared explains how empathy and adaptability in its positive usage (“adaptability” also can be misused to excuse poor workplace cultures and conditions) benefits job seekers and employees in competitive situations.

Participation

Historian Timothy Burke wrote at his blog (Easily Distracted) in October 2018 that,

There seems to be almost no appetite now among public readers for interesting, stylistic or exploratory writing. Readers swarm over everything now, stripping any writing down into a series of declarative flags that sort everyone into teams, affinities, objectives.

Some of this pre-dates Web 2.0 but we can choose our own course.  During the 1990s, some public and private sector employers turned to Deborah Tannen’s books about communications styles.   A commentary she published in 1998 in the Washington Post (“For Argument’s Sake”) illustrates Tannen’s approach.

It is the automatic nature of this response that I am calling into question. This is not to say that passionate opposition and strong verbal attacks are never appropriate. In the words of the Yugoslavian-born poet Charles Simic, “There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language.” What I’m questioning is the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature of approaching almost any issue, problem or public person in an adversarial way.

. . . The pervasiveness of warlike formats and language grows out of, but also gives rise to, an ethic of aggression: We come to value aggressive tactics for their own sake — for the sake of argument.

In my 2018 post about what they don’t teach you in grad school, I looked at why early acculturation in combative debate and “ritual opposition” can be at odds with workplace values. In a seemingly lively classroom, Tannen described how on “closer inspection, you notice that only a few students are participating in the debate; the majority of the class is sitting silently. And the students who are arguing are not addressing subtleties, nuances or complexities of the points they are making or disputing.”

Reading Tannen’s commentary in 1998 led me to offer options such as on- or off-list replies to queries on Listservs.  And for @ or mutual-Follow DM replies on Twitter.   Respecting individual preferences can open the door to wonderful lessons from others.

Workplace competencies

In looking for a job or considering where you might find some measure of satisfaction beyond the much needed paycheck, online interactions can give some sense of what competencies employers seek. This works both ways in employment situations.

Some potential employers check job applicants’ Social Media accounts, especially for certain types of job openings.  But it’s important to note that threat-assessment, risk assessment and “fit” are not the same.  In insightful essays and courageous public remarks, archivist Stacie Williams and librarian April Hathcock have looked at how fit can affect racial and ethnic minorities.

Whether you’re in an online forum or an office, it’s important to understand the intent and purpose of Codes of Conduct and anti-harassment policies.   And not just as designated or appointed “leaders.”  If you feel able, empower yourself to improve for your professional community the physical and online space they are in.

Conflict management “due to competing objectives, limited resources, or differing perspectives” is a leadership competency in many archives and records jobs.  A National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) accountability competency includes developing ways to effect change “in light of failed or delayed….projects.”

Whether we work in academic, corporate, non-profit, or government knowledge profession jobs, we have opportunities to develop reasonable comfort with failure, as Amanda Watson described eloquently in “A kitchen-sink post on failure.” It isn’t always possible to air out everything in public but acknowledging it internally can help with solutions.

And most importantly, “resilience” isn’t about accepting poor working conditions or treatment (much less demanding others suffer because you did). But includes durable non-technical competencies such as accepting negative feedback in a constructive manner and adjusting behavior accordingly.   Leadership potential can show at any level (including students) and affect the online and physical professional spaces where we gather.

Introverts and extroverts

An essay in January 2012 by Susan Cain, author of Quiet, highlighted some challenges in discussing issues in groups.

The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

Essays by Lance Stuchell and Eira Tansey five years ago reminded us of the impact of Twitter echo chambers.  Words that felt bold in large professional forums a decade ago may now draw routine Likes and Retweets in niche groups.  But many discussions in 2012 of interpersonal skills at Archivesnext and New Archivist and in speeches still resonate.

Mark Matienzo looked at the value of socialization in a comment about Kate Theimer’s 2012 blog tips for wanna-be archivists.  Matienzo wrote 7 years ago,

I have serious concerns about the “anti-people” attitude in the profession, because the interpersonal interactions are incredibly vital to what I do. . . .These concerns in particular come from my experience teaching within an online archival education program. I’ve got a very strong opinion that new archivists (or new members of any profession) need a level of socialization that isn’t just possible through online teaching, no matter how interactive.

Lance Stuchell highlighted at New Archivist Kate’s thoughtful post and Matienzo’s insightful comment.  Because I’ve occasionally struggled with misinterpreting what others said online, I observed that,

You make some excellent points. I am a little uneasy, however, by some of the vibe that surrounds the “I can’t believe people still think. . .” Because working successfully…includes understanding why people form mistaken impressions or conclusions you would not….I know when I have a misconception, I cringe when people react by piling on. And respond well to being drawn out [as to] why I formed that view.

I added that

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 in his famous article on caring for your introvert, 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.

Lance’s reply was kind and generous:

I am with you on wanting to avoid belittling people and the desire to provide positive mentorship….I also am hesitant to group people together willy-nilly.

He looked at some stereotypes, then added,

Also, I don’t think it is required to switch who we are as people. We can be introverted and still, as you said, do what’s needed for the job. In fact, I think you are a great example of that. You clearly feel comfortable enough advocating (and not to mention stand up to bullies from time to time) when it is something you feel passionate about. I also bet you did not let your introvertedness (don’t think that is a word) get in the way of your work either. I don’t think it is bad to do things that make us nervous, leaving our comfort zone is good from time to time. I think the bad thing is never pushing yourself, and never trying to grow.

In a 2011 feature in the the Washington Post, Trevor Plante, a supervisory archivist (now a manager) at NARA, observed that

There are definitely two types of personalities at the Archives. We have the introverts that would be very happy being in the stacks, not talking to anyone all day long — just come in and work with the records and not deal with people. The people that tend to be in Reference are the more outgoing types, where literally our jobs are helping people. We are involved with the digging-deeper process. It’s like being a detective, where you start in the most obvious places, and if they’re not finding what they need, then we’re the ones guiding them through and pointing them to different places to check.

Trevor’s use of the verb “help” as he explained his work with members of the public stayed with me.  You see him in NARA’s learning center in 2017.  And with visiting members of the NHL San Jose Sharks at NARA in 2011.  After decades of doing mostly backroom work as an archivist (with occasional research room staffing), then as a historian, I’m still an introvert but find great joy in working with the public in NARA’s Education and Public Programs Division staffing support assignments.

It’s important to understand your own learning style and that of others, which can be very different. Whether online or in person, I do best by observation, which helps me fill in the gaps I find in prescriptive essays or “how to” books.  At the National Archives, as in many archives and libraries, there are more employees who come up introvert on Myers-Briggs Type Indicators than extrovert.  Thoughtful, self-aware extroverts can help us introverts learn by eample the “extrovert skills” that don’t come naturally to us.

One such extrovert is Sam Anthony, Special Assistant to the Archivist of the United States.  He has many friends and admirers among NARA employees and those who knew him in college at UNC and later in the Washington, DC area.   Not only is Sam an extrovert, he has a knack for helping people because he tries to understand them as individuals and put them at ease.

We know that from his work with visitors who range from members of school groups to celebrities.  And his behind the scenes contributions in making things run smoothly.  That takes a lot of skill, insight, anticipation, and (oh, definitely) ability to adjust as events unfold.  I’m not alone in admiring Sam’s fortitude, as well, as he faces challenges in and out of the workplace.

And then there’s that sense of humor.  You see Sam pictured with me in 2012 at a NARA exhibit opening.  And in 2016 at a scheduling meeting with AOTUS David S. Ferriero.  David’s description of taking the Myers-Briggs test at MIT–“I’m not even at that party.  I’m home reading a book!”– matched many archivists who’ve taken the test.  But he’s also right that some things become easier for us over time.

Sam the extrovert did his part at the exhibit opening, suggesting to me that we pose in a way that would lead viewers to ask, “What caused THAT reaction?” Sam held the pose perfectly–he has some theater experience. Me, not so much! You can see that I broke into a laugh as a colleague clicked my camera shutter. A great lesson about not taking yourself too seriously.

Can I get away with sharing a more recent story of Sam taking visiting students through the Rotunda of the National Archives?  And lying on the floor to make them laugh during his history tour as he did indoor “snow angels?”  Talk about thinking in terms of what others need!

Ours to choose

Our careers–if we actually have opportunities to use our academic training (I’ll cover that in another post)–are shaped by many forces.  There’s a lot we can’t control.  But doing the work of understanding ourselves and those with whom we work online and in person? Learning from others?  Powerful.  And enduring!

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

New Skills, Part 1: The Gathering Place

Catching up on Social Media recently, I read Kate Theimer’s Twitter announcement that at the end of April she is closing down her ArchivesNext blog.   I’ve been thinking this month about new skills for a new age.  Her tweet sets the stage for a two-part series at Archival Explorations.

For many of us, ArchivesNext, which was very active from 2007 through 2015, less so since then, was a place to gather and discuss changes in how we handle archives, records, and history.  Kate observed on April 15, 2019 that it was time to move on.  Responding to reactions she noted that “we were all so young” in the blog’s heyday.

Kate brought together people with many different professional backgrounds within the archives, library, information, and knowledge communities.  As at other sites where knowledge and information professionals then gathered, some demographic characteristics were visible in what people shared, others not.

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; Movers and Shakers in Archives Awards;  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.

A decade ago, I commented under one of Kate’s posts that,

I have plenty of experience in trying to communicate complex and arcane archival issues. I say trying because I’ve sometimes failed to get my points across (thanks for helping me see that, Beaver Archivist [Terry Baxter]) or done things in a way I now wish I could do over entirely differently. If people such as I falter individually, and then try to learn from that and do better or at least differently in the future, shouldn’t organizations such as NARA, also?

. . . There’s no better way to close than to quote what T said…”I *love* my colleagues. And not just because archivists are groovy in a far out and happening way. I really do believe that we can make up for each others’ deficiencies – that together we are so much better and stronger than we could ever be individually.”

When I first explored establishing a Twitter account and blog under my identity in 2010, I realized from my earlier online experiences (Listservs, H-Net, the History News Network) that interactions with people we’ve never met and don’t really know can be tricky.   We may push buttons we don’t realize we’re hitting. And have the same done to us.

I was interested to hear how archivists, librarians, historians, and records managers–people with as varied personalities as in our school classrooms and our workplaces–navigated Social Media.  I’d seen a range and spectrum of  behaviors, from the negative (hyper-competitiveness, stereotyping or “othering”) to the positive (good teamwork skills, discernment, and coalition building).  Unlike physical workplaces, there were few guideposts or facilitators.

Kate shared with me online a link to librarian Bobbi Newman’s “The Four Most Valuable Lessons I Learned in 2010.”  Newman covered issues such as admitting that you’re human; trying not to take things too personally; recognizing not everyone fits together well (and recognizing one’s own role).  She added a final lesson using a then-popular phrase on Twitter, “haters gonna hate.”

I filed away the lessons.  Some resonated immediately, others took time.  None of the “end of year” posts I saw during 2010-2011 covered all my questions but I found nuggets of wisdom in many.  And I still look for lessons. Although it’s been years since I read Rosalind Wiseman’s books about Alpha, Beta, and Gamma social hierarchies, a student’s comment in 2017 caught my eye:

There is so much more diversity in social dynamics and circles than [Wiseman] can ever hope to account for, or anyone can hope to account for, without getting to know each and every student personally. There isn’t just a handful of issues that all or most. . . students encounter; everyone tackles different social problems.

I try to remember that online, as well, as I wrote  last Spring in “What they don’t teach you in grad school” and more recently in “Online reflections.”

Different voices

Looking back at ArchivesNext, the comments posted at Kate’s blog rarely devolved into the protracted flame wars seen elsewhere online.   Yet some of the same people had gathered in other spaces with different results.  To me,  how readers viewed Kate and the space she created contributed to the success of her blog.

There were other elements in the mix, as well.  One was the particular time period when her blog flourished (2009-2015), one that saw an exploration of new skills.  And support for openness, teamwork, collaborative efforts. The sense of what could be accomplished and focus on solutions appealed to me and I think many others, as well.

We came from different knowledge specialist backgrounds (academic, corporate, government) but for the most part explored workplace challenges together in a congenial fashion.  Kate engaged with supporters and respectful critics among contributors but ignored the provocations of occasional trolls.   This created a sense of “safe” space. I appreciate that she even gave me the space to think about and recover from some tactical and content mistakes I made in some comments I posted early on.

My read is that many of us who gathered at Kate’s blog had (some of us still do) an authentic commitment to collaborative change.   But what she created also serves as a reminder of the value of a positive central force.

Much of the synergy at ArchivesNext came from examinations of what others were doing well.  Or had opportunities to do better.  And in watching how archival institutions, including NARA (markedly so after November 2009) explored new ways of doing business during a time of rapid change.

Although Kate had worked at NARA during the tenures of Archivists John Carlin and Allen Weinstein, during the first years of ArchivesNext (2007-2008) she only occasionally mentioned the agency.  Her later insights were useful for me, especially when she noted the value of more open communications.  I appreciated her posts in the last decade, which looked at opportunities and challenges at NARA after David S. Ferriero became Archivist of the United States. While many were similar to what other archives faced, others were highly situational.

“It requires courage”

What made the decade when Kate’s blog was most active so exciting?  The potential for moving forward, professionally and personally.  In August 2011 I wrote at my old blog why that appealed to me.

In an article from 1998 that I saved in my files. . . in 2000. . . Christie Tong described 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&L’s. . . you’re putting yourself out there.’

In this case, someone finally 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.

I added,

Tong wrote in 1998 that “We have put a premium in our corporations on intellect (IQ), information, and technical competence, and underestimated the role of trust and emotional intelligence (EQ) in impacting employee productivity and bottom-line results.” She laid out a blueprint for becoming an Architect of Trust. Elements included: (1) Leadership authenticity; (2) Emotional intelligence; (3) Climate building; (4) Walking your talk.

In 2011, when I re-read Tong’s article, then blogged about it, I realized how I’d been waiting to see that online.  That Kate published her book, A Different Kind of Web, days before I wrote that blog post fulfilled part of my decade-long yearning.

So, too, the changes I was seeing in libraries and archives, including Kate’s former employer (and mine), the National Archives.   When the Archivist started AOTUS blog in April 2010, Kate featured his post about Open Government at her blog.  She said Ferriero needed to find another term for the Citizen Archivist concept he discussed in his first blog post, “No Small Change.”

Kate wrote that she strongly objected to the term “Citizen Archivist” and linked at AOTUS blog to her post.  She noted in April 2010,  “The kinds of public participation that I think Ferriero is looking for will produce wonderful results and I applaud it, but I doubt much of it will be a substitute for the work for NARA’s professional archivists.”  As my comments at her blog showed, I somewhat understood the concept but it would take me a while to accept the term and better understand the full meaning of “Citizen Archivist.”

In August 2011, when Kate blogged about her newly published book, I smiled to see the cover.  Foreword by David S. Ferriero.  Much respect and admiration both to David (whom I had gotten to know in person by then) and Kate, whom I would first meet in Washington in 2014.   And toast with champagne when she won the prestigious accolade of SAA Fellow in 2018 for her visionary contributions at ArchivesNext, among other accomplishments.

A different kind of web, indeed.  And not just the web.  How we work and how we represent, as well.  Including now, when the voices of Kate and T and many others I once enjoyed at her blog and on Twitter rarely are heard online any more.

“I see them as people”

The older generation of historians, archivists, and records managers–people some students heard during the first decade of the 21st century would soon retire, perhaps opening up new jobs for them–navigated a different employment situation at the start of their careers than now.  Not only was the economic situation different in the 1970s and 1980s and for many the level of student debt less at the start of their careers than now, there was no social web.  People got to know each other in person, by word of mouth, and through publishing books and articles.

Now with professional colleagues we’ve never met in person, we see vivid pictures of who they are online.  While there are few forums such as ArchivesNext, I still see rich, highly individual, voices on Twitter.  (More on that in Part 2 of this series.)  I’ve learned a great deal about and from people I didn’t yet Follow or know about a decade ago.

What we look for is highly individual.  For me, it’s exemplified by a tweet earlier this month by historian Joanne Freeman.   She tweeted in response to an essay, “As a historian, I really, really don’t see people as ‘compressed social  forces.’  I see them as people.”

Freeman’s tweet reminded me that my online interactions going back to Listservs always have included glimpses into who saw others as people. And who as symbols. The best course is to recognize and appreciate “consanguinity of spirit” when you encounter it. And that people learn at their own pace, as I did at ArchivesNext. Anything more can reflect hubris, as I’ve learned from my mistakes during the time I’ve spent online.

Results not rules

Did everyone who gathered at ArchivesNext during its heyday (2007-2015) learn the same lessons? No, nor should they. This isn’t a “lessons for you” blog post, just a “lessons I learned” essay.

We learn based on our experiences (which may include fears, sorrows, happiness, joy), values, needs, and goals. For me, immersion at ArchivesNext coincided with a time when Ferriero wrote at AOTUS blog about Charlene Li’s exploration of Social Media and Open Leadership.

As your customers and employees become more adept at using social and other emerging technologies, they will push you to be more open, urging you to let go in ways in which you may not be comfortable. Your natural inclination may be to fight this trend, to see it as a fad that you hope will fade and simply go away. It won’t. Not only is this trend inevitable, but it also is going to force you and your organization to be more open than you are today.

A lesson I took to heart in 2010 as I thought about entering the Social Media age was the one Li offered about negative comments. I’d seen criticism of myself on the Twitter backchannel in 2009 and 2010. But a quote from Li that David used at “Leading an Open Archives” at AOTUS blog caught my eye:

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

While I understand why Kate is shutting down ArchivesNext at the end of April, I appreciate the opportunity to remember when “we were all so young.” People of different ages gathered at her blog. I interpret her recent tweet as meaning “young in spirit.” As one of Kate’s older readers, the “openness-enabled” encounters there as elsewhere online and in person helped me see a wider world. And to look forward to “what came next.”

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

Making history

Two conferences in Washington (2011, 2013) on the Cold War and the Berlin Wall brought together historians, archivists, records experts, and past participants in events.  Newly declassified records provided additional insights.  The recollections of participants reminded listeners at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that history doesn’t feel like history when you’re living through it.

Historian Eric Foner offered a similar observation in 2015 when he spoke at NARA about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Asked during the Q&A portion of his book lecture about counter-factuals, Foner responded that history may seem inevitable when written. But that as they unfold, ongoing events can present options and choices (some difficult) to participants in an environment of uncertainty.

While librarians, archivists, records managers, and historians see themselves as information and knowledge professionals, the transition in recent decades from paper to electronic record keeping has provided opportunities to make history, too.  To act as decision makers for a new way of creating and handling records.  And to see how others react to choices made.

Where do information and knowledge professionals learn about what’s happening with libraries, archives, records, history?  News articles, op eds, online forums, Social Media, information and data posted online, in-person conversations and other personal and professional experiences.  And sometimes a combination of elements.

In June 2003, Slate published an essay by Fred Kaplan with the dramatic title, “The End of History.”  Relying in large part on the perspective of a government historian, the late Eduard Mark, Kaplan examined increased reliance on electronic records.  He expressed concern about a seemingly haphazard approach to saving electronic records and transferring the permanently valuable ones to the National Archives and Records Administration.

The problem is not some deliberate plot to conceal or destroy evidence. The problem—and it may seem churlish to say so in an online publication—is the advent of e-mail.

In the old days, before the mid-to-late 1980s, Cabinet officials and their assistants and deputy assistants wrote memos on paper, then handed them to a secretary in a typing pool. The secretary would type it on a sheet of paper backed by two or three carbon sheets, then file the carbons. Periodically, someone from the national archive would stop by with a cart and haul away the carbons for posterity.

Nobody does this today. There are no typing pools to speak of. . . .

Kaplan described retention under the Federal Records Act (FRA) of some born-digital records that crossed the desks of high level officials.  But reported on stories about the deletion of many others by employees unaware they were destroying Federal records.

Reflecting what his sources told him, Kaplan focused on increasing use of PowerPoint presentations.  That’s one element. Depending on where they worked, people in other records creating offices might have focused instead on word processing and spreadsheet applications.

Anecdotal information is just one source for seeing how others see events. The digital age includes records of some such interactions.  Over the years online forums for archivists and records managers reflected practitioners’ experiences as individual professionals described some aspects of their work.  Many asked questions about how others were handling the transition from paper to electronic records.

Within the National Archives, Office of Presidential Libraries employees have worked for decades with White House Central Files (now White House Office of Records Management) staff during presidential transitions.  In a 1990 NARA Career Intern Development System essay, archivist Mark Fischer looked at use of automated tools such as CTRACK in the context of the 1989 transition.  The White House records management office also worked on early document scanning initiatives during 1989-1990.

Although the 1989 move still largely consisted of paper records, transferring born digital records into NARA’s presidential electronic records archive has become a major part of presidential transitions.  The National Archives provides transition guidance for Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act materials.

In 2018, the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, publicly recognized the work during the last transition on electronic records of NARA official Kenneth Hawkins, pictured in the audience in the McGowan Theater.   Regardless of medium of creation, the National Archives remains committed to a mission of preserving, processing, and providing statutory access to historical records.

Information and knowledge professionals outside the government have turned to different sources (some more reliable than others) for impressions of  work with government records.  Shared news links in Web 1.0 email subscription forums between 1998 and 2017 provided journalists’ and litigants’ accounts of record keeping in the White House.  The first use of email in some White House units dated back to the IBM PROFS system in the 1980s.

A session at the 2014 Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference provided an overview of 1989 litigation over the PROFS emails.  Panelists included Gary Stern, NARA General Counsel, and Miriam Nisbet, former NARA director of the Office of Government Information Services.  Meetings of records management associations over the last 20 years have featured presentations by present and former directors of the White House Office of Records Management.

Just as White House records managers adjusted to increasing use of electronic records, so, too, federal records officers. User adoption of technology for doing business in some cases outpaced statutory language and traditional practices.  How records officers adjusted to having individual employees type on their own office computers and send and receive records, rather than the secretaries of old, varied greatly at the time Kaplan wrote his article in 2003.

In the first decade of the 21st century, some government records managers explored Records Management Applications (RMAs) to replace the file folder and box structure previously used during the paper records era. As with paper filing, these reflected how business units operated.  Working with their agencies’ mission staff, records managers sought to ensure retrieval of records needed for ongoing business activities as well as preservation of historical information for transfer to NARA.

In 2007, then NARA Chief Information Officer Martha Morphy pointed to challenges throughout the government in working across business units, including with information technology specialists. Even more so than in the past, finding solutions to record keeping issues depended on good communications internally among records officers, IT personnel, legal counsel, and the users and creators of records.

During the tenure of Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas, Jason Baron of NARA’s Office of General Counsel used the image of email accounts being twigs on organizational trees of knowledge. The focus of his March 2009 presentation at a records managers conference, and call for greater internal collaboration, was electronic discovery for litigation and Freedom of Information Act compliance.

Efforts to modernize Federal records management received an extra boost in November 2009 when David Ferriero became Archivist of the United States.  The President’s November 28, 2011 Memorandum to heads of executive agencies and departments on Managing Government Records focused on adapting to change, economy, efficiency, and ease of use:

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.

During Ferriero’s tenure, NARA has issued insight-based, useful, practical guidance to Federal agencies on managing government records.  Its officials participate in open forums and conferences for records managers, archivists, and historians.   They invite and consider comments from stakeholders.   In response to expressions of public interest, NARA recently revised how it makes available draft records retention schedules and appraisal reports.

Outside the government, records professionals in academic, corporate, and state and local government offices faced a similar need during the last 20 years to adapt to managing born digital records. Online forums and websites provide insights into the guidance, education opportunities, and explorations of best practices offered by professional associations, including ARMA and AIIM.

In the public and private sector, you can trace lessons learned during efforts initially to rely on manual user declaration of records status and transfer into RMAs during the first decade of the 21st century.  And more recent initiatives to explore auto-categorization, predictive coding and technology assisted review. History in the making, online, as records professionals explored  solutions to new ways of doing business.

In 2018, the Society of American Archivists held a joint conference in Washington with the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators and the Council of State Archivists.  Last month, I wrote a post (“To Become Like Living People”) for the SAA records management section blog about the value of preserving institutional knowledge for e-discovery but also to provide historical perspectives on how an employing organization works.

This week, Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, Dean of the Libraries, and Professor of History at Northeastern University, wrote about how the Obama presidential library (a unit within the National Archives) already is digital.  His essay opened with links to a February New York Times article (“The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t”) and reactions by historians (Robert Caro) and a Washington Examiner columnist (Phillip Terzian).

Cohen, founding director of the Digital Public Library of America, observed,

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.

Twitter debates about the February 2019 New York Times article centered mostly on an initiative to digitize and make available in the virtual NARA Obama Presidential Library copies of paper records.  There was a lack of clarity for some readers on the essential point that the National Archives has and will retain custody and statutory control of all the Obama Presidential Records Act materials.

It’s important to consider context for the virtual Federal Obama Presidential Library.  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 (the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) 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.

Cohen sees the operation of a virtual NARA Obama presidential library as a means of democratizing access to archival records.

By simply allowing much wider use—millions more can access a digital collection than an analog one—they enable more questions to be asked and answered, from a broader range of people. Existing presidential libraries make only a small amount of their collections available online. The Clinton Presidential Library, for instance, has only digitized 1 percent of its 78 million printed pages, as scanning is done on a much more gradual basis than the wholesale process proposed by the Obama Foundation. Anyone who cannot travel to Arkansas is thus out of luck. Even with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, a segment of Americans are still without easy access to our online world, but one could imagine presidential digital libraries presented on computers in public libraries to help bridge that remaining divide.

Users of NARA’s digital content can approach it as suits them best, whether they are historians and other scholars or other users. “By starting off as virtual, the Obama library has the potential to rethink how we present, in multiple ways, the vast record of the presidency, to grade schoolers, amateur enthusiasts, casual browsers, and many others.”

In the conclusion of his essay, Cohen looks at what lies ahead.  The need to “take account of the nature of digital records themselves—their challenges, such as their great scale, but also their possibilities, such as their great potential to share a library, democratically, with all.”

Is this so far from what many information and knowledge professionals have been doing for 20 years?  I don’t think so.  We already have a history, some of it public, online, of exploring how to meet challenges in handling the transition from old ways of managing and making paper records available to how best to maintain, preserve, and provide access to electronic records.

Meredith Evans, NARA director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum observed in 2018, “A digital presidential library can. . . .open an educational platform to a global audience. The new path allows NARA to remain true to the agency’s mission. It’s worth a try.”   As Cohen reminds us, the future already is here, shaped by the creators of records.

This may feel like, and is, a big new step.  But it’s a step on a journey many archivists, records experts, and users of archives set out on years ago. Making history in the process, whether we thought about it that way, or not.

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