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!