Women out in front

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

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

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

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

Working with the archival materials of people whose stories make it into university special collections or government repositories can humanize experiences other than your own. As Natosha Copeland once observed, “When I process a collection, I see the many dimensions of a person’s life. It makes me remember that we are all multidimensional persons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natosha Copeland once tweeted that “When I process a collection, I see the many dimensions of a person’s life. It makes me remember that we are all multidimensional persons.” The way traditional professional forums operate obscures much of the humanity of the people who do memory work within structured or unstructured settings.  We need to recognize their experiences and respect the diverse choices they make as librarians and archivists.  And better connect what is online with physical workplaces.

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

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

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

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

Stacie looked at this in academic settings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was, could have been, can be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In your care, in our care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferriero wrote in 1982 that

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our values remain unchanged”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferriero also looks at misunderstandings about other records.

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

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

As to presidential libraries, Ferriero states that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who owns history?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who owns history?  Everyone and no one.

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

Knowledge construction zones

Alteration.  Without notice of revision or withholding.  No one I saw reacting to a news story by a reporter who noticed four blurred signs in a museum lobby photo of the 2017 Women’s March found it an acceptable action.  Nor did I.  Nor does the the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which issued an agency apology on January 18, 2020, the day after Joe Heim’s story appeared in the Washington Post.  NARA put up the unaltered version of the Women’s March photo last Wednesday.

The Post‘s follow-up story on January 23 linked to the blog post from the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, who stepped out in front on January 22, 2020 and apologized forthrightly as the one in charge of an organization should.  Stepping out front is what you would hope your top administrator would do if a controversy involved a project where a team with multiple members, you among them, made many decisions along the way.

I know and respect David Ferriero. As a retiree and NARA volunteer I provide staffing support at public program and education events in which David and other NARA employees participate.  My prior experience as a civil servant has been in the archives side of NARA (processing, including disclosure review) although I also did a cross training assignment in its exhibits branch early in my career.

One of my training supervisors in that assignment was Chris Rudy Smith of the curatorial staff.  You see Chris, NARA exhibit branch director (then about to retire) and a curator in Bruce Guthrie’s photo of philanthropist David Rubenstein at the opening of NARA’s Records Rights exhibit in 2013. Among my current staffing assignments is helping during children’s museum sleepovers, which last year included activities in the elevator lobby with the 2017 Women’s March photo.

The nuanced and forthright wording of the apology David Ferriero posted on NARA’s website (AOTUS blog) did not surprise me. I expected it from David.  His internal notice to NARA staff, which I read the day before he posted the external apology, was much the same.

As promised on January 18, the unaltered photo of the 2017 Women’s March now hangs in the elevator lobby next to a 1913 image from NARA’s holdings.  NARA has started an internal review of its exhibit preparation process and policies and is working with stakeholders to regain their trust.

This weekend, I re-read an essay by historians Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, executive director, American Historical Association, which I first read in 2014.  In “Habits of Mind,” Grossman and Grafton looked at humanities courses; the impact on survey courses of specialization among historians; use of archives; and the process and impact of becoming a historian.

My career has been in Federal civil service. I’ll lave to other readers of “Habits of Mind” assessment of William Deresiewic’s take on young scholars, which differs from my experiences with government historians.  AHA has done good work examining history careers beyond academic jobs.

Grossman and Grafton wrote of archival research that

it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.

This self, moreover, is the student’s own construction. Supervision matters: people new to historical work need advice in framing questions, finding sources, and shaping arguments. In the end, though, historical research is always, and should always be, a bungee jump, a leap into space that hasn’t been mapped or measured. The faculty supervisor straps on the harness and sees to the rope. But the student takes the risk and reaps the rewards. This isn’t just student-centered learning, in which the student’s interests are put first; it’s student defined and student executed, the work of a self-reliant, observant, and creative person.

As I re-read “Habits of Mind” I paused at the description of specialization and boxes.  I’m glad to see many people across generations and professions using Twitter and other Social Media platforms as sites to teach and learn from each other.

Students who come through this routine may be wonderful scholars in the sense that they can skillfully carry out the exercises with which professional historians or literary critics earn their livings. But their journey to the PhD locks them into little boxes, even smaller than those that house their teachers.

Which takes me to Twitter, a platform where I see a broad spectrum of perspectives, some expressed in sweeping generalizations about generations, workplaces, professions, others highly nuanced.  A place Kevin Kruse refers to as online office hours, which is how I used it as I navigated knowledge construction zones a week ago.

When Heim’s story about the National Archives’ “Rightfully Hers” exhibition hit Social Media a week ago Friday, I followed comments about it in my timeline starting around 8 p.m. when I got home.  Some came from people whom I follow, others from their Retweets of people they follow.  Almost all reflected love for and concern, frustration, or anger about the National Archives.

During my all-nighter (I stood down around 1 p.m. on Saturday), I focused on information sharing.  I largely kept myself out of my reply tweets, except in introducing myself as a retired NARA archivist and Federal historian at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) who is familiar with the education and public program activities in the National Archives’ Museum.  I sought to convey that

The altered image was not a part of the “Rightfully Hers” exhibition.  It was a commercial image licensed from Getty used by NARA in a promotional display in an elevator lobby in the Museum.

The National Archives does not yet hold Federal Records Act (FRA) material from the executive departments and agencies or Presidential Records Act (PRA) records from 2017 in its archival holdings.  NARA usually takes in FRA records 20 to 30 years after creation. And four to eight years after the start of an administration for presidential records.  There are no records from 2017 within the exhibition.

Withdrawal or redaction does not occur in FRA or PRA records to which NARA holds legal title without indication to readers or viewers.

That given the above, NARA’s best options in considering using the commercial image of the 2017 Women’s March for a marketing display were: (1) not to use it, as it held no accessioned archival materials yet from 2017 and did not cover it in the exhibition; (2) use it in unaltered form; (3) alter it but indicate to the public it had done so.

Blurring instead some parts of the photo used solely in a promotional or marketing product would not have been my choice, given the photo looked like a historic image from NARA’s archival holdings, although it was not. Modification of images in other promotional displays, such as banners, usually consists of cropping or what clearly are graphic effects.

Photos from NARA’s Flickr album show lobby space used for promotional displays outside the exhibition gallery.

My reach on Twitter is less than that of name historians and journalists (although I hoped some might see others retweet my points) but found it worth the effort.  My tweets reflected my own construction of self as a historian and archivist.   And I learned a little bit about what shaped those to whose tweets I responded.  I had done much the same when a New York Times article by @jennyschuessler drew robust discussions on Twitter about NARA’s Obama Presidential Library.  And published my own Obama records article in a history journal.

I shared additional contextual information online last week, noting that David Ferriero usually isn’t involved in the nitty gritty of curatorial work, that he handles issues commensurate with his rank. But that in one instance, as described in a history article, he was the final decision maker in on one of NARA’s most important and challenging exhibits.  And what I knew about pressure as the exhibit evolved but did not then share in public.

I was prepared for but got only a handful of abusive responses on Twitter and other platforms, some suggesting I lacked integrity, honor, or ethics.  Part of life online and a reminder that people want things to go right, not wrong. I didn’t take the few negative assessments of me personally.

In order to provide contextual information during my all-nighter, I clicked on profiles for unfamiliar accounts to help me reply in a way that might resonate.  As I wrote in my last blog post, I’m grateful for what I learned about improving my word choices and tweeting information on the fly.

I often re-read “Habits of Mind” as it’s one of the best essays I’ve read about being a historian.  It applies as much to Federal historians as to academic historians.  We very much construct our own work.  For me, post-grad school construction occurred at two nonpartisan agencies, NARA and the U.S. Government Accountability Office within an audit and Inspector General culture.

As GAO does in its audit work, I tried to convey information last weekend about criteria, condition, cause and effect beyond the initial news report. This is similar to but different from the traditional journalistic who, what, where, and why. I’m not trained as a social media manager so it definitely was what one of my training coordinators at the National Archives at the start of my career used to call “a valuable learning experience.”

When I joined the National Archives in 1976, the agency had classroom and practicum components in its training program for archivists.  I came in as an archives technician but went through the archivist training program less than a year later.  The two year internal training program included assignments in the policy office, conservation lab, audiovisual records unit, among others, and one that has stayed with me most vividly, in the records management division.

Working as a records analyst, making appraisal decisions by examining records on-site, recommending which records should come into the National Archives as permanent and which could be destroyed by agencies and departments according to a NARA approved schedule taught me how to assess information. I later worked with the White House Office of Records Management as a NARA archivist, as well.  David Ferriero, pictured right in 2017, appreciates the work of NARA’s Chief Records Officer unit.  But the records life cycle is little known outside the National Archives.

Having worked inside and outside the National Archives, I look at its public website from two perspectives.  As someone who knows how the pieces fit together.  But also as someone who turns to it at times to share links outside the NARA or Federal family.  And finds myself creating my own product as I fit many small boxes into a larger box.

Not everyone has opportunities to do cross training assignments in an agency as large as NARA.  To use Grossman’s and Grafton’s framing, to specialize but also have survey-level knowledge.  To study governance in recordsbut also participate in it, as I did as GAO historian.

I’m comfortable drawing on the experiential in providing my perspective on the records life cycle. From transfer of legal custody and title to NARA when 20 years old (with pre-accessioning an option for some electronic records).  To use in education and museum activities which now use wonderful technology not yet available when I worked with Chris in the exhibits branch at NARA 40 years ago.

I wrote in my last blog post about opportunities for professional associations such as SAA to move beyond traditional hierarchies, traditions, and information gathering.  Why when we process manuscript collections as archivists, we make the materials closest to the creator or subject the first series.  And place news clippings last.  I noted the singular news link culture many SAA members relied on in a forum where I urged readers to start instead with the applicable law and regulations, and then ask questions about cause, conditions, effect.

I know this but as I read about the alteration of the image, I thought, where would a reader outside the agency look for context on its work as a whole? What the time lag is in acquiring historical records.  How disclosure review works.  The length of the exhibit design process. NARA has good information on its site but in separate boxes.  As it does an integrity based review of exhibit preparation practices in mission context, it’s worth taking a look at that, as well.  One NARA!

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

Archival arrangement, archival learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, People issues | 2 Comments


Fluency in Spanish was only one of the skills Olga Johnson brought to her role in investigating Iran-Contra in 1987.  Most readers of my blog wouldn’t have recognized the auditor working for the nonpartisan U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) if they passed her on a street back then. Not the way passersby stared when Lt. Col. Oliver North, whose actions investigators scrutinized, walked down 17th Street, N.W. decades ago.

A photo in GAO’s Annual Report for 1987 shows Olga Johnson and colleagues with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D – Hawaii).  I snapped the photo of North as I waited to see a baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles who was signing autographs near Farragut Square.  My office wall at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) between 1982 and 1990 included photos of family, friends, and baseball and hockey players (Os and Caps), not political figures.  It’s not that I didn’t vote but that my politics didn’t define me on the job.

How Johnson and North figuratively crossed paths in Washington points to job and career options for records managers, archivists, librarians.  For educators in archival studies and information science; history; political science, and related fields.  And historians and other researchers.

The story has secret actions, undisclosed money. Marxists, anti-Marxists, rebels, revolutionaries.

Auditors, archivists, records managers, information technology specialists, journalists, advocates, educators.

Representatives of both the major political parties in the United States.  Officials working in the judicial, legislative, and executives branches of the U.S. government.

And countless people, known and unknown, affected directly or indirectly by  their actions.

As the story unfolds below, drawn from public sources, think of whether you see yourself among the characters.  (Some changed roles over time, becoming consultants or television personalities or lobbyists.)  Not just in that setting or time period but earlier or later.  Where would you feel most yourself?  Where would you feel comfortable?  Where uncomfortable?

Electronic records Oliver North created while working in the White House provided insights into a secret initiative to sell U.S. arms to Iran.  He and other U.S. National Security Council (NSC) officials, including National Security Adviser John Poindexter, sought to circumvent a legal funding embargo.  They decided to funnel money from arms sales to Iran to anti-Marxist Contra rebels fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

The Iran-Contra story broke at the end of 1986.  Exposure of the effort led to an Independent Counsel investigation; a review by a presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Texas); and Congressional hearings. The Democratic majority concluded in its report that President Reagan overstepped his executive powers.  Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R–Wyoming), ranking minority member on the investigating committee, rejected that view in a separate report representing GOP members.

When I unexpectedly saw North, who had testified in televised Congressional hearings about his role in Iran-Contra, I was about to enter the Baltimore Orioles store blocks from the White House.  North’s lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, had offices nearby.

The former Reagan White House NSC staffer’s indictment on 16 felony counts in 1988 resulted in conviction on 3 counts in 1989.  A court later vacated North’s conviction based on a technical legal issue centered on the impact of his immunized testimony before the Congress.

News stories about North’s deletion of emails in the proprietary IBM PROFS messaging system used by the National Security Council provided early lessons about electronic records.  But those lessons weren’t the same for all knowledge professionals.

Archival studies professor David A. Wallace looked at some of the issues in 1998 in “Preserving the U.S. Government’s White House Electronic Mail:  Archival Challenges and Policy Implications.”

In April 1985, Poindexter made it possible for North to send him email messages directly, bypassing the normal flow and filtering of email through the NSC’s Executive Secretariat. It was through this unique email communications channel that North and Poindexter were able to secretly conduct their work related to Iran and Nicaragua.

When the diversion of funds from the Iranian arms sales to the Contras became public in November 1986, both North and Poindexter began destroying documents, including email messages, associated with their role in the Affair. Right before they were to become the subjects of intense investigatory scrutiny, North deleted 736 email messages from his user storage area and Poindexter deleted an astounding 5,012 messages. Such deletions are all the more remarkable in light of the fact that each message had to be individually deleted.

While the messages may have been deleted from the live system, they still existed on backup tapes that had been pulled aside by the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) which oversaw management of the PROFS system….These recovered PROFS messages became crucial evidence in the subsequent Congressional and other investigations into the scandal as well as the criminal trials of both North and Poindexter.

….After the initial Iran-Contra investigations in 1986 and 1987, the PROFS system receded back into obscurity. Given what it felt was a clear and sound policy for managing email messages, the government had expected to erase all Reagan-era electronic versions of email messages stored on the PROFS system to free up disk space for the incoming Bush  administration. The accidental discovery of this proposed erasure threw open the NSC’s management of its email to public scrutiny and led to a decade long series of lawsuits that continue up to the present.

After revelations of erasures and attempts to keep records and actions secret, NSC developed for the first time a policy for using and handling email:

It directed staff to store as little information as possible on the email system and to retain only those messages that would be needed for future reference. In the event that a staffer was “tasked for action” via an email message, they were directed to print the message out onto paper and incorporate it into the package they forwarded to their principals. The attitude towards email at this point was that it was merely designed to serve as a surrogate/substitute for “information that would be otherwise handled by phone.”

NSC staff were reminded that email usage was not intended to create official government records, nor was the system itself to be thought of as a formal recordkeeping system. In the odd event that an official record was created via email – if it had “enduring value,” or if it documented agency functions and transactions» — it was to be printed out onto paper and filed or its content was to be “memorialized” in a written memorandum or letter.

As I saw increasing use of LANs and individual employee email accounts in the 1990s, I realized this was an early example of “must” and “should” records management guidance developed within a specific workplace.  Records still largely meant paper items filed by designated staff in physical cabinets.

At the center of the records life cycle is the user of information.  We’ve seen advocacy efforts by professional organizations that focus on the positive outcomes of using records.  These often feature a researcher seeking information about their family or a writer seeking to understand historical events.  That’s the affirming part of working as an archivist, librarian, or researcher.  But there are more difficult aspects, too.  So professionalism requires understanding how users of records see themselves as well as understanding yourself.

The White House records management guidance defined use for, rather than by, employees by focusing on expected outcomes. But did the effort to control actions reflect the scope of situational user behavior?  Seeing corporate, academic and state and local records managers discuss user behavior in online forums over the years suggests prescriptive approaches sometimes fall short.

The best solutions come from understanding the complex spectrum of behavior in business communications in the public and private sector. Effective change requires cultural and situational awareness and empathy for users and creators of records in diverse communities, beyond the traditional. I see opportunities online for Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z to change or enhance the records and archives world in which Boomers worked.

At the time Wallace wrote, the question of which government records statute applied to the NSC still was in litigation. Among the issues in the Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President litigation were technical issues (unique characteristics of electronic messaging as compared to paper printouts) and jurisdiction (whether the NSC’s records fell under the Federal Records Act (FRA) as an agency or the Presidential Records Act (PRA) as an advisory staff.

Wallace looked at the technological challenges as NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries handed off preservation work to archival colleagues in its Center for Electronic Records (CER).  That many presidential libraries staff had national security clearances (as I did) while CER staff did not affected procedures.  Wallace’s account drew on information from the former NARA CER director:

Copying the information on the hard drives was complicated by the fact that the NSC’s removable hard drives were “handcrafted hard drives” not compliant with industry standards. Fortunately for the CER, the NSC had saved one of each of the five different types of personal computers required to load and read these hard drives. In order to retrieve the data off of them the CER had to place the hard drives back into the appropriate personal computer and then output the contents onto industry standard removable hard drives. Backup tapes had their problems as well. Creased tapes had to be ironed, ripped tapes had to be spliced, and tapes with unwanted moisture on them had to be literally baked. There was only a 5 degree Fahrenheit window of opportunity for correctly baking a tape and exceeding that range would cause damage the tape. In order to properly calculate that 5 degree window, the CER had to know the specific chemical makeup of a specific tape based on the manufacturer’s batch number because different batches of the same make of tape could have a different chemistry. In addition, in order to be able to copy a backup tape one needed to know the system configuration at the time that the backup was made in order to properly reload the tape and read it.

I didn’t yet know Olga Johnson when I saw North on 17th Street near the White House in the late 1980s. But after 1990, she was one of my colleagues at GAO (now the U.S. Government Accountability Office). In the annual report issued for 1987 by Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, GAO quoted the Congressional finding that “The confusion, deception, and privatization which marked the Iran Contra Affair were the inevitable products of an attempt to avoid accountability.”

Twelve GAO employees assisted the Congress in its investigations. I recently wrote about their contributions:

In 1987, a select joint congressional committee held hearings onIran-Contra. Led by John Cronin and Louis Zanardi, GAO staff from the Accounting and Financial Management Division and the National Security and International Affairs Division helped track down the $47 million in proceeds from the sale of the weapons to Iran, as well as contributions to the Contras from foreign and private sources.

Cronin visited Switzerland, where he discovered the whereabouts of $10 million contributed to the Contras by the Sultan of Brunei. GAO evaluators Olga Johnson and Jeannette Meixner used their fluency in Spanish to analyze Contra bank records.

To help prepare for the hearings, GAO detailed five staff members from OSI to the House committee investigating Iran-Contra. They examined hundreds of documents from the White House, the NSC, and executive agencies, and provided important assistance to the committee. Testifying before the Congress, NSC director John Poindexter admitted that he had approved the diversion of funds to the Contras.

In Insta Peer Review, I described how GAO’s audit work undergoes periodic peer review.  One of my former colleagues, Ben Nelson, Managing Director, Audit Policy and Quality Assurance, spoke about the process in 2018 at a forum for members of Supreme Audit Institutions.  Ben noted that expending resources on peer review doesn’t cost, it pays.  It pays in credibility, which is the currency of audit institutions.

When you take a paying job as an archivist, librarian, records manager, archival educator, or historian, you receive compensation but also have opportunities to use currency to show who you are.  Currency that demonstrates how you handle (or will handle) your job, how you see your profession, how you see yourself and others.  Many members of the Baby Boomer generation entered their professions in the 1970s, well before the age of Social Media I’ve explored at my blog.  Most handled or still handle online interactions on an ad hoc basis.

The move from Boomer dominated Listservs to Social Media platforms created legacies for archivists, records managers, librarians, historians. Whether you state on a Social Media platform or in an online signature block that you’re not representing your employer or professional organization, you’re still spending or accruing “currency” on the web.

Depending on use, Twitter can create a journal of who you are. An Inouye or Cheney or North type can build a career as a politician or a talk radio or television host. Or selectively work with records in political advocacy, aligning personal goals and professional opportunities.

In other jobs, convincing people on Twitter that you handle records impartially out of the spotlight might be a challenge depending how you share reactions or use information. Not so much your political or ideological beliefs (some archivists, records professionals, and historians are very open about them online).  But reliance on sweeping generalizations, cherry-picking or demagoguery that an Olga Johnson eschewed but some characters in the Iran-Contra story embraced.

For humanists, jobs across the records life cycle require seeing all who depend on them as the diverse individuals they are. But people who read Twitter journals can’t see actual job performance (no way to assess quality) of a history or archives educator, archivist, or records professional accessioning or destroying records.

Olga Johnson, the nonpartisan NARA CER staff, David Wallace, Oliver North handled the spotlight in different ways. Just as we do now — in insta-open records online.

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