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, AfAm 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 employee.

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 work experience has been in Fedland civil service.  I’m leaving to other readers of the article assessment of William Deresiewic 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 the 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 records and 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 methods.  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.  And the singular news link culture many SAA members relied on in a forum where I often 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 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 @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

Insta peer review

Change occurred in 2009 in our knowledge professions but people reacted in different ways.  Did you look back at the end of 2019 and pick out the moments and consider how they affected your studies and professional life? How you answer, how you see the significance and causes of the changes, depends on how you see a profession and your position in relation to it as an individual.

In relation to a profession, not just in it because not all who read this are working in the history, archives, records, library, and adjacent positions.  But they’re part of the picture, too.

This is the first of a three-part series about professionalism, educational awe, vocational awe.  It expands on a 2018 post about what you may not have learned in grad school as a historian, archivist, librarian or records manager.  And how best to decide on career goals and where to go or be, to the extent possible. (This may or may not differ from whether or not to accept a particular job, which can reflect economic and financial considerations.) Peer review helps us learn but not just in the sense subject matter experts know it best.

If you’re online, whether you think about it that way or not, you’re doing insta peer review.  You gather and assess information and knowledge and insights about people and workplaces as you engage on or lurk various platforms.  Those assessments can affect where you go to school.  Which knowledge profession or association you join–or not.  Or join and leave.  And where you apply for jobs.

Aptitude, more so than age, affects how we handle informal insta peer review (of others, or ourselves).  For me, 2009 was the year I explored Twitter after its use became the subject of Listserv discussions and blog posts.  I focused on the positive lessons in 2019 in posts about Kate Theimer’s  blog, one looking at ArchivesNext as a gathering place, the other at choosing to learn.

Kate’s blog posts in 2009 and 2010 abut Web 2.0 and Archives 2.0 prepared me for seeing, accepting (quickly or after some thought and learning), and supporting changes. Including ones I’ve seen since 2010 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where I once worked as an employee and now volunteer.  And later at other institutions, such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Some aspects of individual and institutional Social Media use overlap. (Take a look at these thoughtful NARA tips about cultural and situational awareness and how to handle trolls.)

I can’t tell you what led many other knowledge professionals to join Twitter (some never did). For me, seeing reactions to alternative platforms on two Listservs I read, one as a member, the other as a subscriber or lurker, helped me understand diverse choices in information ecosystems. And why (aside from time), some people explore and range freely on their own and others show comfort with conduits and gates.

I realized Twitter offered learning and teaching opportunities that Listservs and even some (but not all) blogs I read did not.  To understand change, you need to consider comfort zones and where people choose to gather.  So after joining Twitter, I also still read two Listservs.

One relied on a neutral, non-participant List administrator responsible to a professional organization which relied on member and community input,  including surveys abut the Listserv.  And guided in the last years of its operation not just by posted terms of participation but by a Code of Conduct.  The other, on which I participated as a subscriber in 2004-2005 and again in 2017-2018, included as its most active List administrator a very frequent forum participant and poster.

The two Listservs offered chances to learn how people navigated knowledge sharing, feedback (to others and about themselves), gatekeeping, change, and rules.  The historical research I had been doing about one of two nonpartisan agencies at which I worked shaped how I saw change, feedback, and participant morale online.  And what to look out for, initially on Listservs and then on Social Media.  I covered some of this in a 2018 post about considering appraisal beyond its technical meaning. I quoted a Federal official (Frank Fee) who wrote in 1979 that

I realized that we were constantly asking our managerial staff to implement changes, and to manage our work in a different way than the way we managed it when we were coming up through the ranks. Yet, we had not spent the time and money to keep our managers up to date on management thoughts and concepts. At the same time, we were hiring a staff that was educated in modern management concepts. As a result, we experienced difficulty in introducing change and getting our managerial staff to accept it.

Many of us know the traditional meaning of peer review, the process by which experts in the subject an author writes about review a draft prior to publication in a professional journal.  I also saw first hand its adoption in a professional culture–the use of external peers to examine how an audit organization does its work.

As you read about diversity, feedback, and change, think about where, if anywhere, you see yourself.  What I describe (all drawn from public information) serves as an introduction not just to me and my work but also what you’ve seen me write on Listservs and Social Media.  Whether you work in an academic, corporate, or governmental setting, you may have experienced or supported similar changes.

Ben Nelson, a colleague and friend at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), where I worked as a historian with some archival duties from 1990 to 2016, leads a periodic audit peer review effort for which the development phase began as a result of an external report issued in 1994.  Ben, pictured in a 1978 GAO Honor Awards brochure, started his career as a staff level auditor in the agency’s Detroit regional office.

At the start of Ben’s career, regional offices in GAO’s Field Operations Division faced changes as headquarters officials sought to open up work processes and, increasingly after 1981, hiring, promotions, and staff assignments. Valeria Gist, another of my GAO policy office friends and colleagues, also saw the impact in another regional office, Boston, early in her career.  You see her in a photo I took days before her retirement in 2007.  (Note the red pen!)

Regional Managers who once had run GAO units throughout the United States with considerable power and autonomy saw their roles reduced in the 1970s. The first oral history interview I worked on when I joined GAO offered insights into change, power and perceived status.  Frank Fee, who served as a Regional Manager; as director of GAO’s Field Operations Division; and as Assistant Comptroller General for Operations, looked in the oral history interview at reactions to change by the Regional Managers.

The phrase that was used at the time was the “supremacy of Washington.” People wanted to hold on to that autonomy because it gave them control over resources, the environment within which they worked, and the stature within the organization on a par with their Washington counterparts.

The introduction at the end of Comptroller General Elmer Staats’s tenure of a horizontal teams approach that linked headquarters and field staff brought increased turmoil as Regional Managers faced reduced roles.  A footnote in the oral history interview I worked on explained that the team approach grew out of the 1977 Task Force on Improving GAO Effectiveness. Team leaders assigned from either headquarters or the field led audit engagements; team members reported to the leader regardless of their permanent organizational location; the team was protected as far as possible from competing demands; and hierarchical levels of review were minimized.

The three former GAO officials interviewed for the regional operations and Field Offices oral history I helped edit were candid abut mistakes and tensions in introducing the teams concept. The shouting matches in meetings among regional and headquarters officials.  The challenges of implementing something which later became the norm in a different way but which could have been done differently at the time. As one noted, GAO wasn’t perfect and never has claimed to be.

Their discussion of what they called minority hiring, promotion and retention reflected more caution, perhaps because of recently settled litigation.  A later interview with another official helped me fill in some research gaps not covered in 1989.  Having the ability to range freely, to walk the hallways and chat with people of all ranks, from interns and new employees up to the head of the agency, shaped how I view change, including in online forums and engagement.

Staats’s successor, Charles Bowsher, came into GAO in 1981 with a vision for agency modernization.  Fee, Assistant Comptroller General for Operations from 1982 to 1986, described the impact among the workforce demographic majority of Bowsher’s effort to ensure that women and racial minorities received equitable treatment in promotions. “We occasionally had some problems when it was perceived that someone was promoted to a GS-13 or a GS14 position in the regions or a GS-14 or a GS-15 position in Washington because the individual was a woman or a minority.”

Mort Myers, whom Comptroller General Bowsher named to serve as Regional Manager in Boston, said that when he arrived in 1983, there were no minority GS-13s or GS-14s in the office. This in a city that saw racial tensions and turmoil over school busing. The white male Regional Managers and Assistant Regional Mangers who had run the GAO office in Boston during the 1960s and 1970s had created a culture in their own images.

During Myers’s tenure, Valeria (Val) Gist became the first African American to receive a promotion to GS 13 in the Boston office in which Bowsher and Fee saw a need for cultural change.  She retired in 2007 after serving as a GS-15 auditor working on national security and defense issues and an adviser in two staff offices (Congressional Relations and Policy).  Ben Nelson would come to Washington from Detroit and rise to senior executive positions in operating divisions and staff offices.  He now is the Managing Director, Audit Policy and Quality Assurance.

Walking the hallways at work and online helped me learn what affects credibility. In 2018, Ben explained to a meeting of international auditors that using resources for peer review doesn’t cost, it pays.  It pays in credibility, which is the currency of audit institutions.  He understands the impact having worked to prepare GAO for peer review, which it first underwent in 1995.

In a report about GAO’s operations and functions for the Congress in 1994 , the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) looked at perceptions of the audit agency’s work.  NAPA found no evidence that GAO has been steering its research toward satisfying particular policy or partisan interests. But it recommended that GAO clarify what it meant by responsiveness. GAO made some semantic distinctions in some areas.  It also issued Congressional Protocols which are available for Hill officials and members of the public to read.

NAPA recommended that GAO commit to a continuing process of regular external peer review of its work. Recognizing that this was consistent with requirements in the Government Auditing Standards it has issued since 1972, GAO began preparation for such reviews.

In 1997, colleagues in my unit, the Office of Policy, reviewed agency policies, procedures, and practices to remove unneeded requirements and streamline audit work. Assistant Comptroller General Brian P. Crowley noted that “peer reviewers will be interested in the people who conduct audits and evaluations, focusing on their qualifications and training as well as agency practices and procedures for recruiting, hiring, and promotion.” This is similar to what historians, archivists, librarians, and records managers do online in insta peer review.

So what broader lessons did I learn from my research?  That learning within organizations, especially by decision makers, requires understanding the past and present.  It depends on the willingness of participants to shed the myth of infallibility (including their own). This can be easier to do do ten years after events occurred, as in the oral history interview, but helps in real time, too.

The importance of understanding a real world where sometimes there are few good options.  And that at other times the path is clear and the lines bright. And that you do the best you can.

That acting as a sole gatekeeper or conduit in person or in online forums can feel disorienting during perceived removal or erosion of power and status. Surveys and openness to candid feedback enhance credibility; unilateral online actions may erode it.  People within an organization or forum or association who benefit or see themselves as losing during change may use a lot of psychic energy to re-calibrate or even to struggle to regain their balance.

That changing a culture long dominated by the majority race and gender, as in GAO during the 1950s and 1960s, requires determination by senior leadership and selection of and placement of officials willing to do what is necessary to enable more equitable actions  (Priorities may ebb and flow as conditions and leaders change. So, too, interest in learning from history.)

I also brought to Listservs and Social Media an interest in how people accustomed to promotions and privileges react to what I often saw as overdue efforts to improve opportunities and contributions for the less privileged.  And the harm in professional forums of dismissing or dehumanizing the less privileged as “the other.”

Willingness to step back, listen, change can make a difference in the workplace and outside it among professional peers.  Insta peer review on Listservs, on Twitter, at blogs, in Facebook groups for archivists, historians, librarians, and records managers, can help you assess career options, not just jobs. Professionalism can have multiple meanings. Yet educational and vocational awe sometimes shields you from workplace challenges you later may face alone.

All of which I’ll cover in my next blog posts, the second and third in this series.

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

Free information

As I introduced Eric Holder to my longtime friend, Bonnie Mulligan, in 2014, I was curious as to how the then-Attorney General would react to meeting a former employee.  I still was in civil service but Bonnie, my contemporary, retired from federal service in 2011.  She began her career working on disclosure review in the National Archives’ declassification division.  Later in the 1970s, she joined the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) staff at the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Holder was at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) not as a speaker, but in the audience, listening and learning.  He joined a packed house for the screening of a 1963 film about the clash between Governor George Wallace and President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy over racial integration of the University of Alabama.

Eric Holder’s wife, Obstetrician and Gynecologist Dr. Sharon Malone, spoke on a panel at NARA following the film screening.  Her late sister, Vivian Malone, was one of two black students whose enrollment at the all-white university Gov. Wallace sought to block in 1963. Wallace defied Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and federal marshals as he stood in the doorway of the university, backing down only when National Guard troops arrived to ensure the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood.

The photo shows my delight at Holder’s reaction as he heard Bonnie explain where she had worked in the Department of Justice, then thanked her for her public service.  A wonderful moment for a friend whose career at NARA and DOJ was honorable and guided by the rule of law.

The photo also shows a mistake I made.  Rather than wearing a suit jacket on a hot summer day, I just put a men’s shirt over a dark short-sleeved women’s shirt.  I like to wear ties, which fit well with the men’s shirts I often wore then (still do).  But the collar of the dark shirt wasn’t suited for staying in place over the tie.  A reminder that records show us as we are, including our miscalculations or mistakes.

After his assassination, the Kennedy family donated John F. Kennedy’s White House records to the National Archives at a time when presidential records were considered personal property.  The official portions of Richard Nixon’s records were the first to be considered government property after he left office, the transition shown in the files of his successor, Gerald R. Ford.

I described the change in the status of Nixon’s records in a September post, “Available to assist.” The title came from a NARA Ford presidential document about the role of archivists in Washington. I had just assisted a researcher, Courtney Taylor, and the quote in the Ford file resonated with me.

While I worked with presidential records as well as federal records during my government career, Bonnie’s work at NARA and DOJ over three decades centered on records from executive agencies and departments.  As did mine, her career spanned the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

You see some of Bonnie’s National Archives declassification unit colleagues with me and Office of Presidential Libraries staff at an awards ceremony in 1979.  At the time I was working on disclosure review of different records under two separate sets of regulations.  One governed donated materials administered under a deed of gift, the other reflected statutory control. Neither had provisions for access under FOIA.

Archivist Bert Rhoads, at right, with National Archives records review award recipients, 1979.

Archivist Bert Rhoads with National Archives’ records review awards recipients, 1979

Such distinctions come naturally to those of us within the federal government. We swear an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and keep the rights of all stakeholders in mind.  But members of the public sometimes learn about records issues from others.  What for us are clear distinctions described using terms of art with specific meanings can become blurred in the process.

When Courtney Taylor asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions about archival work for an article for the Literary Hub, I agreed, glad of the opportunity to discuss these issues.  I’ve extracted from my email and uploaded the responses I sent Courtney Taylor between August 30, 2019 and September 3, 2019.  You don’t see her questions as I don’t know if I’m authorized to share them.  Yes, that’s my archivist vibe.

I focused in the linked responses I sent her on the transition represented in the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act (PRMPA) of 1974, which applied only to Richard Nixon’s records.  A release from Nixon’s records recently had made the news.  I was familiar with the statute, regulations, and change management issues, having worked on them early in my career.

The National Archives has good information on its website about the laws and regulations for presidential and federal records.  I looked during September and October to see if Lithub published anything about archivists’ roles in disclosure review.  When I saw nothing and didn’t hear back from Courtney Taylor, I thought I might use my last response about advice to archivists at my own blog, instead.  You’ll see that in my next post about aligning professional goals and personal values.

In my last blog post, “Legacy,” I examined news reporting and the commendable efforts by library and information science educators such as Lisa Hinchliffe to improve information and news literacy.  (There’s even a look at OK, Boomer.)  Since I’m focused on Fedland, I often write about civic literacy, too.

Archival education is part of the mix and I’m in the middle of drafting a post about the value of knowing the distinctions between different types of work across the records life cycle while considering where to work.  Corporate, academic and government records work share some common characteristics but the workplace ethos can vary. I know the governmental better than the other two as my entire career has been spent in Fedland.  But I’ve caught glimpses of the academic and corporate world on Listservs and Social Media.

Yesterday I discovered that Lithub published on November 21, 2019, an essay, On the Great Secret-Keepers of History, by Courtney Taylor.  This sounded generally like the proposed article for which I had been interviewed but as I read it, I saw no quotes or input from me.  Courtney Taylor focused on FOIA, access, and transparency.  She wrote of a segment of the Nixon tapes administered by NARA under PRMPA that

In 2018, Naftali filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking NARA to re-review the tape; Reagan’s death in 2004 would have eliminated the previous privacy concerns. The complete tape was released online through the Nixon Library and shortly afterward, Naftali wrote a piece for The Atlantic that drew all eyes to its contents.

The release of the full tape raised questions about the power of the privacy exemption to FOIA, which bars researchers from gaining access to documents that would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” These terms remain broadly defined, allowing the exemption to be deployed in a range of circumstances, with varied outcomes for researchers. Nixon’s tapes pose particular challenges to researchers due to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which shifted presidential records from private to public ownership in the wake of Nixon’s resignation; certain Nixon records remained private in the aftermath.

Missing was an explanation that the shift to public ownership of the Nixon records occurred not in 1978 with the PRA but with in 1974 with the PRMPA,which has no provision for researcher access through FOIA.  As a former NARA official, Timothy Naftali knows, as I do, that the National Archives re-reviews previously restricted materials under the PRMPA’s implementing regulations: 36 CFR §1275.52, Periodic review of restrictions. The goal is to see if more information can be released.

While researchers cannot FOIA the Nixon records, which the Lithub article suggests they can, they may appeal existing restrictions under 36 CFR §1275.54.  Dr. Naftali would know that, as do I.  I covered some PRMPA issues in my August response to Courtney Taylor.  I’m a total Fedland nerd, as a Twitter friend once said, and am happy to share such links to regulations, if asked.

Does it matter that FOIA may seem blurred to some readers of the Lithub article, which looks at Nixon records but also at non-archival FOIA review and Federal Records Act materials still held as active records in the executive agencies and departments?  The types of records Bonnie Mulligan worked on for decades at DOJ.  And for which Attorney General Eric Holder and his predecessors issued FOIA application guidance through their subordinates during Bonnie’s career.  Guidance that applies to all of the executive agencies and departments, including the National Archives.

FOIA also is an element in the Presidential Records Act of 1978 but with some differences for archival records from the way it’s applied to still active Federal records held in executive agencies and departments. I’m always ready to point researchers to examples where they can see this on publicly available withdrawal sheets.  Or link to NARA presentations.

In legal issues, appeal rights, and claims processes, or the history of records access, or in my favorite subject, change management, such distinctions may be of interest to historians and other users of records.  Those differences involve your rights as a citizen to government information under distinctly different legal and regulatory structures.  Information about them is freely available online.  You don’t need a gatekeeper, me or any other current or former archivist or historian.

For the regulations governing access to the Nixon materials I cited above, NARA links to govinfo.gov.  The National Archives also livestreams informative forums about the statutes that cover access to archival and operational records and how to use them to request access.  Some presentations include handouts you can download.  I blogged about one such panel session that looked at access and transparency in a post in March 2018 that I called “Empowerment.” My post about researcher empowerment also looked at a forum at which the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, and the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, discussed their roles in the executive and legislative branches, respectively.

Courtney Taylor didn’t quote me or any former disclosure review archivists from NARA but did include remarks from Cassie Findlay, a corporate information governance specialist who works at Gap Inc. Cassie Findlay’s earlier experience was with records in Australia, which is the area in which I remember her occasionally posting on now defunct archives and archivists listservs.

She’s also written some useful pieces on electronic records.  Although her pinned tweet refers to an area she touched in her Lithub quote, it’s outside the scope of my focus here.  My post centers on authorized disclosures by archivists and records professionals rather than such unauthorized disclosures.

The Lithub article didn’t use quotes from Federal, state or local government archivists but includes a response from the National Archives press office.  The official states that NARA is impartial, which fits with the way my team and I worked in the 1980s.   The quote about NARA not making value judgments or interpreting records resonates, reflecting the agency I know now and the culture I saw 43 years ago as a young archivist, as well.  While I was not involved in the later work done in 2000, I knew the archivists who were and regard them, as this 2000 news article also suggests, as honorable people who worked under particular circumstances I described for Lithub.

My volunteer work in retirement enables me to help staff a wide array of education and public programs and forums at NARA.  You can watch most of them live or on demand on the National Archives You tube channel.  And download materials from Know Your Records sessions.

You’re welcome to read my blog posts and my responses to Courtney Taylor’s questions about how archivists handle access.  Archivists often say, “it depends,” and it does.  Working as an academic archivist or a corporate archivist can be quite different from working as a Federal or state archivist.  You see distinctions within broad categories, no two workplaces the same. The web provides us information on the how and why of archival work.  Social Media provides insights into values and ethos, to the extent people are willing to share them.

There are many Maarjas and Bonnies out there who’ve worked across multiple administrations in jobs requiring application of laws, regulations, case law, and precedents.  Look around for them.  If the voice of a Bonnie or Maarja doesn’t resonate for you (these things are highly individual), find knowledge partners whose style (not just collars and ties, ha!) fits your comfort zone.  Some are retirees, as I am, others currently work at the National Archives.  They are there to help you. Freely. And sometimes even joyfully!

If you read Courtney Taylor’s November 21, 2019 Literary Hub article and also made it through my blog post (thank you!) and are interested in Fedland, start by reading the information on NARA’s website. There’s much to explore. If you prefer listening to reading, watch some of the education and Sunshine Week and Know Your Records sessions on the National Archives’ You Tube channel.

And as NARA General Counsel Gary M. Stern (pictured above with a Freedom of Information Act display) said in a forum about access questions: “Come talk to us.”

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


Is “OK, boomer” a reaction to a particular perceived attitude?  Or does it reflect sweeping generalizations about people born between 1946 and 1964?  Is there an archives, library, history, and records context for the phrase?

The NBC news site posted a recent article about “OK, boomer” in which Nicole Spector wrote that

If you’re in the baby boomer age range and the term “OK boomer” doesn’t offend you, you’re probably not the type of boomer that the expression is calling out. Remember, this isn’t really about how old you are, this is about your attitude and how receptive you are (or aren’t) to the values and struggles of younger generations.

Spector quoted an expert on generational differences:

“Millennials have faced extraordinary levels of student loan debt only to be told that they need to take unpaid internships or cobble together a living wage with part time work, [and] when we dare to complain, the boomers tell us that in their day, they put in their time and we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” says Caitlin Fisher, author of “The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation.”

This matches my impression of the intent of “OK, boomer.”

Understanding change and evidence is part of information, news, and civic literacy. There’s more to sorting through this than labels reflecting various designations.  Information, news, and civic literacy require reader appraisal, an essential part of archives and history work. Context matters, too. You see this in legacy online forums, including Listservs once dominated by Boomers, and the Social Media platforms where Millennials, Gen X, Boomers gather now.

Boomers came of age in an era when many U.S. viewers watched broadcast television regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). From 1949 to 1987, the FCC’s policies included a Fairness Doctrine for broadcast license holders. It had two components that centered on license holders’ handling of controversial topics: inclusion of community public interest broadcasting and requirements for airing opposing viewpoints.  Civil rights advocates such as Medgar Evers used the Fairness Doctrine to fight against segregationist white nationalist broadcasters for news balance.

The Federal government rescinded the Fairness Doctrine (which applied to broadcast channels not the then new cable networks) in 1987.  The 1990s archives,  records, and history Listserv culture,which lingered into the 21st century, was premised on letting readers and viewers sort through news links about archives and records using individual “fairness doctrines.”

Forums founded in 1989, such as the Archives & Archivists (A&A) Listserv, reflected a culture of sharing news links. The rise in the 1990s of radio, cable tv, and web platforms centered on advocacy, sometimes interpreted as news but not bound by traditional journalistic standards, largely went unexamined in the archives and records Listservs I once followed.  To the extent List subscribers, many of them Baby Bloomers, discussed shared news links, they did so much as members of the public discussed current events outside our professions.

Exchanges sometimes centered on the perceived ideological stance of the content creator of a shared link or the subscriber posting it rather than reliability of evidence.  Over time, the links shared as news reflected a mix of traditional reporting and new media sites, advocacy press releases and op eds.  Online archives and records forums didn’t yet reflect discussions of appraisal of the type internal and external researchers (including historians), the users of corporate, academic, and government archives, then did and still do.

In the online professional forums I followed between 1997 and 2018, Listserv subscribers sometimes simply addressed ideological stances, limiting discussion to assertions that others didn’t like a link because the source represented a particular spot on the political spectrum.  I saw little nonpartisan examination of the purpose of press releases or of commentary links reflecting issue, political, or legal advocacy rather than straight reporting.  Or why goals of airing out issues in public sometimes were not easy to achieve.

In some cases knowledgeable experts (historians, archivists, records managers) could not comment on news links reflecting third party descriptions of their workplaces, leaving error-filled assessments by outsiders as the final word in Listserv archives.  Some employees in corporate settings may have been bound by Non Disclosure Agreements. In the case of shared links with flawed content about academic and government workplaces, subscribers’ adherence to core archival disclosure ethics sometimes precluded the sharing of non-public corrective or rebuttal information useful for sorting out the facts. Respect for an employer’s situation when handling complex issues not covered fully in shared third party links also was a factor for some subscribers.

Discussion of the research methodologies, objectives, and cultures of knowledge focused users of records (istorians, political scientists, genealogists, auditors, inspectors general) was rare on the Boomer-established archives and records management Listservs I followed during their heyday. Also largely missing was in-depth discussion of a central concept in the records life cycle and in news, information, and civic literacy: appraisal.

Did the cultural characteristics of the Archives & Archivists Listserv from 1997 to 2017 reflect common generational values shared by all Boomers?  I would say no.  As a Boomer, I saw some posts that fit “OK, Boomer” and others that did not. General observation and the result of surveys showed people looked for different things from the professional forum and participated in various ways.  Although some subsets of generations shared more common characteristics than others, legacies were as different as those now being shaped by Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z on Social Media.

The freshest perspectives from historians, archivists, librarians and records and information specialists during the transition from Listservs to Social Media came from change agents across generations.  One was Kate Theimer, a younger, non-Boomer A&A subscriber, whose contributions at the ArchivesNext blog between 2007 and 2017 I covered in a post earlier this year (“New Skills, Part I: The Gathering Place”).

Change agents across generations showed new ways of handling knowledge sharing. The Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, my generational contemporary, subscribed to the A&A Listserv early in his tenure.  He responded to one of my Listserv postings in a way that reflected commitment to knowledge and ease with open learning.

From: David Ferriero
Date: September 30, 2010 at 4:27:45 PM EDT
To: Maarja
Subject: re: archives


Thanks for your comments about my latest blog post. Thanks, especially, for the John Taylor history. Have heard lots about him and will now make an effort to reach out to him. Still on a steep learning curve regarding NARA’s history!


This email message was written in the Lyris ListManager Web Interface at: http://forums.archivists.org/read/?forum=archives

As the number of active subscribers decreased, signal to noise ratio became an issue for some A&A forum members. (I understand such complaints, having contributed to some of that, especially before starting my own blogs about arcane Fedland issues.)  The comments by A&A List subscribers in 2014 under an essay in which the President of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) decried the forum’s “de-evolution” reflected generational divides in some instances but not others.

SAA de-commissioned the A&A Listserv in 2017.  While its legacy is part of history now, historians, librarians, archivists, and records managers have new opportunities to build learning-based legacies.

Social Media platforms reflect the rise in recent years of historians, librarians, and archivists specializing in history, information, civic and news literacy appraisal.  Among them are historian educators such as Jason Steinhauer of Villanova and librarians such as Lisa Hinchliffe of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Last month I chatted on Twitter with @lisalibrarian, who specializes in news and information literacy.  She introduced me to the phrase “expanding knowledge,” which illustrates evolution from news links shared among members of the general public to specialized insights in archival records in the care of professionals as historical information becomes available over time.

Lisa’s work as a professor and coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science includes guidance on using primary sources.  Lisa Hinchliffe and Chris Prom edited the 2016 SAA publication, Teaching with Primary Sources.  In the Introduction, Lisa described the process of assessing primary sources.

In developing primary source literacy, a learner simultaneously engages at least four vectors of consideration:
• Description: What is this document? What kind of document is it? Who created it? When was it created? Was it personal or public/shared in some way? Are there any attributes (e.g., notarized, postal marks, tears, etc.) that are present? Can I read it?
• Relationship: For what purpose was this document created?
What is the context from which it emerged? To which other documents is it related? Is the context in which I am encountering it the context in which the creator intended? What is unknown about this document?
• Meaning: What sense can I make of this document? Of what does it provide evidence? What interpretative frameworks help to understand this document? What meaning have others attributed to this document? Is the meaning contested?
• Use: How will I use this document in my work? Does it provide supporting evidence for my claims? Does it provide contrary evidence that I need to engage? What is the appropriate way to cite the document?

Her work is practical and centered in context.

The primary source literacy instructor faces a complex and complicated task. Primary source literacy is a multifaceted set of skills and
knowledge. But, responsible educators not only attend to the topic of their instruction, they also develop their instruction in light of the preparation, capacities, and motivations of the learners. As archive, library, and museum educators often teach in the context of other instructors’ classes, there is a need to attend to the intentions and goals of these other educators.

These elements affect news literacy, as well.  As Lisa observed recently on Twitter, there is little incentive to delve into the accuracy of facts and interpretations with which a reader agrees.

In August 2018, I described the chaos surrounding the gradual transition from paper record keeping to electronic record keeping within the Federal government.

Traditional records management relied on secretaries serving as the point of contact for receiving, sending out, and filing paper documents….Until the 1990s, secretaries filed papers based on a retention schedule-linked file plan created by records management staff who relied on unit records liaisons. With the rollout of LANs and issuance of personal computers to employees, in the 1990s individuals increasingly handled their own correspondence. Some printed it out and gave it to secretaries to file. Others read email messages and attachments, acted on them, and deleted them without realizing many were records.

In some places, the traditional records management chain–(1) records officers, (2) unit records liaisons, and (3) secretaries or clerks–bent or broke. Every employee who handled electronic records became part of the third element once represented by a designated few.

Early efforts at training creators and recipients of records to manually declare their status and move them from native applications to electronic records management systems resulted in a change from more granular records retention schedules to “Big Bucket” schedules. These placed records into broad categories with the same disposition (permanent or temporary with the same retention/destruction time period) for groups of records.

This made sense but depended on employees up and down the ranks seeing the value of taking the time out of their busy schedules to learn about, develop comfort with, and follow records guidance once handled before the computer age by unit secretaries.  And seeing themselves in that guidance.  That manual user declaration of records status had varying outcomes for very different reasons led to employer specific solutions by corporate, academic, and governmental policy makers. This illustrates the importance of records professionals understanding the culture and operations of their communities.

Whether we work for universities, corporations, government entities, or with community archives, understanding leadership is essential to success.  This requires self awareness.  A recent Harvard Business Review article examined barriers to effective leadership:  a sense of omnipotence; cultural numbness; and justified neglect.  The writer examined how to avoid cultural numbness:

Leaders who have crossed a line never describe this as a clear choice on that path but as wandering down a muddy road, where there they lost track of what was right and wrong. They describe a process where they became numb to others’ language and behavior and then to their own and lost their sense of objectivity. In essence, their warning bells simply stopped ringing.

So, start looking out for signs of moral capture: those brief moments when you don’t recognize yourself and any other indications that you are subjecting your own personal agency to the deviant norms of the collective. Another regular gut-check you can use involves asking whether you would be comfortable telling a journalist or a judge about what’s going on. . . .

As with omnipotence, it can help to get an outsider’s perspective, turning to a trusted friend or family member, who might be able to detect changes in you that you are not able to see. Also remember to regularly extract yourself from your organization to compare and contrast its culture with others and remind yourself that the rest of the world may not work the same way.

Listservs and Social Media platforms can reflect silos. Avoiding the traps of perceived omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect depends on expanding our comfort zones.  Embracing open learning.  And creating spaces for discussion beyond the deflection and flame wars sometimes seen on news or advocacy site comment boards.

Historian Timothy Burke of Swarthmore asked with a note of resignation in 2010 whether evidence is old fashioned.  But his own blogging and the thoughtful examinations of information, news, and civic literacy I see among historians, archivists and librarians on Twitter tell me the answer is no.  And that we have opportunities to shape legacies that demonstrate the enduring value of literacy by treating it as permanent–not temporary and eligible for destruction–wherever we gather now.

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