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 meany 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 @sam_archivists 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.