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  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:

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

Making space for others

An essay by Dr. Robert Greene II about Star Trek and leadership helped me see a path we can follow in the history, archives, and records professions.  He illustrated the article with a photo of  Captain Jean-Luc Picard smiling as he sat in bed, reading a book. As I read “Continuing Mission,” I felt myself relax and realized I was reacting to the lack of noise.

I could savor the words without the tension I felt during other online experiences.  Instead of stress caused by yelling, loud music that threatened to drown out quiet voices, and, at times, roadblocks to where I tried to go, I saw a vision that connected past, present, and future.

Ashley Stevens, the Archives and Research Manager for the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Michigan, indirectly introduced me to Dr. Greene online.  I saw their interactions in tweets that showed up in my timeline and started Following him.  In addition to reading and writing about history, the three of us are fans of the Star Trek series which began on broadcast television in 1966 and has continued in successive new versions inspired by creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

In 2014, Ashley Stevens described at one of her blogs what it was like to meet Nichelle Nichols, who played the communications officer, Lt. Uhura, on the original series. And how her mother, then a teenager, reacted to seeing Uhura’s character on TV.  And why she introduced her daughter to a later version of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

In that moment, in the auditorium listening to Nichelle Nichols, it finally dawned on me: my mother was one of the millions of kids/teenagers inspired by her role.  My mother saw a strong, smart black woman in space on a starship holding her own with all the testosterone on the bridge.  And here she was some 20-odd years later sitting her daughter down to watch DS9 starring Captain Benjamin Sisko, an African American captain in charge of a space station.  I didn’t realize until that moment that my mother was passing along that inspiration.  Her subtle way of saying “Ashley, you can reach for the stars.  Reach as far as you think you can go and then push a little farther.  It’s possible.”

As I looked at the photo of Nichelle Nichols with Ashley Stevens, I heard Uhura’s voice telling Captain James T. Kirk, “Hailing frequencies open.”  It’s 17 years since I sat in the Captain’s chair during a special tour of the Star Trek exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  Dr. Greene’s essay helped me see the impact of the leaders who followed Captain Kirk.  And how much I’ve learned since I sat in a chair that was a prop in an exhibit mockup of a set.

I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I fist watched The Original Series (1966-1969).  Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, half-Vulcan, half-human, stood out for me in the show which creator Gene Roddenberry, a scriptwriter for Westerns earlier in his career, described as Wagon Train to the stars when he developed the original series.  In his essay about Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the starship in the later Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dr. Greene observed,

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.

The original series included some episodes I still look back on fondly, “Amok Time,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty,” “Whom Gods Destroy,” and “Mirror, Mirror” among them.   I liked the Vulcan philosophy embodied in “Infinite Diversity Infinite Combinations.”   As I grew older and re-watched some of the episodes, I felt frustration at times at the lack of growth in action hero characters such as Captain Kirk.  My reactions reflected being in the workforce and realizing how complex decision making could be.  And what I looked for in colleagues and members of the team, ones I led and ones for whom I worked.

Four years after NBC cancelled the broadcast series, I sat at a typewriter in Washington, reading letters to Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R – TN).  He was Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.  My job included writing responses to citizen letters, signing them with the Senator’s signature with an autopen, and sending them out.

I signed most of the letters with a full signature, others with Howard.  For friends and others for whom using the first name was best, I would place the outgoing letter in the right position for the auto pen to touch the paper, then lift it at the moment it finished Howard so the pen didn’t complete the full signature.

Mail about Watergate was pouring in from citizens throughout the United States, greatly increasing the correspondence load from customary legislative, issue and other constituent mail.  A Star Trek letter caught my eye but that’s all I can say about it. Why?  Because I don’t know if it was preserved in a collection of letters members of the public sent Baker.  And, if so, whether it now is among the materials open for research.  As a historian, I recognized its value when I read it.  As an archivist, I respect best practices and the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

I first met Ashley Stevens at the SAA conference in Washington in 2014 and reconnected with her at the conference in 2018.  Thanks to archivists, historians can read records from ordinary citizens and future megastars such as Leonard Nimoy.  Four years before the premiere of Star Trek TOS, Sandra and Leonard Nimoy sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, protesting above-ground tests of nuclear bombs by the United States and Soviet Union and appealing for children’s right to have clean air to breathe.

Although the original Star Trek never achieved high ratings on broadcast TV during its regular run, it gained a strong following among fans in syndication in the 1970s.  Nimoy used his stardom to support environmental causes, appearing in an advocacy film about chemical hazards in 1979. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the Federal government hired 81 free lance photographers to take photographs reflecting life in urban and rural environmental conditions.  Preserved through Federal records management and retention scheduling, some 15,000 images now are part of the online catalog of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

My earliest archives assignments were with Special Media in circumstances where my colleagues and I acted as pathfinders working under circumstances none of our colleagues had faced.  In an age of electronic records, others have opportunities to act as pathfinders on both sides of the reference desk.   

The telegram Sandra and Leonard Nimoy sent in 1962 now might be sent by electronic mail. Archival associations such as SAA and the Council of State Archivists and the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators and related groups work to preserve electronic records.   I placed this work in historical context in a September 2019 Passport essay for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

NARA officials are creating new paths for carrying out the archives’ mission not because of changes in values or goals, which remain the same, but because the creators of records have embraced new tools for business communications in recent decades, just as they have in the corporate and academic worlds.

I described the challenges but also the opportunities for us all.

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.  NARA has also given us the opportunity to draw on our individual experiences and skills as we embrace exciting chances to face present and future challenges together.

What makes me optimistic we can do this?  The picture of Picard reading James Joyce that Dr. Greene used at the start of his essay.  And that he himself often tweets about reading, as do do many others whose posts catch my eye.  Not so much archival theory, which hasn’t caught up with fast moving events in the complex world in which we work in the public and private sector.  But books about human experience.

For me the answers to how to handle email and technology and change management don’t lie in the examinations of archon power and cultural fever Jacques Derrida described in his 1994 deconstructivist lecture about Archives Fever.  But in walking around our physical and virtual communities. Learning through listening and reading.  Striving to understand ourselves and those around us and what affects their lives and choices.  Even laughing at our own actions.

That’s my favorite photo of AOTUS David S. Ferriero, stepping back on the curb as he, NARA staff and guards laugh after he tried to cross Pennsylvania Avenue for a better view of Pope Francis’s motorcade in 2015.   City security officials yelled at him to get back on the sidewalk.

If you go to AOTUS blog, you’ll see from his virtual bookshelf that David is a big reader who has blogged about the joys and value of reading.  When I help NARA staff events in which he participates, we sometimes exchange book recommendations.  I understood exactly what the English major and Navy psych tech meant, when in a recent Q&A about “Truth, Tweets, and Tomorrows,” Ferriero responded to a question about statutes, “How do you change human nature?

The Picard Management Tips Twitter account shows the enduring appeal of Jean-Luc Picard as a leader unafraid of deep reading and making difficult choices.  In February, I read an essay in the Paris Review about “Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction.” Mairead Small Staid looked at deep reading in the context of a work published a quarter century ago:

“I read books to read myself,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts’s book, which turns twenty-five this year, is composed of fifteen essays on reading, the self, the convergence of the two, and the ways both are threatened by the encroachment of modern technology. As the culture around him underwent the sea change of the internet’s arrival, Birkerts feared that qualities long safeguarded and elevated by print were in danger of erosion: among them privacy, the valuation of individual consciousness, and an awareness of history—not merely the facts of it, but a sense of its continuity, of our place among the centuries and cosmos. “Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience,” he wrote. “It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.

In reading the essay, I found myself thinking about Roddenberry’s vision of a future with room for action hero idealists such as Captain Kirk, supported by a crew that included Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura, and for introspective humanists such as Captain Picard.  The Minnesota poet, critic, and essayist concluded that

Birkerts’s argument (and mine) isn’t that books alleviate loneliness, either: to claim a goal shared by every last app and website is to lose the fight for literature before it starts. No, the power of art—and many books are, still, art, not entertainment—lies in the way it turns us inward and outward, all at once. The communion we seek, scanning titles or turning pages, is not with others—not even the others, living or long dead, who wrote the words we read—but with ourselves. Our finest capacities, too easily forgotten.

Thank you, Dr. Greene, for reminding me of how Captain Picard came to embody a humanist future.  And Ashley for bringing the three of us together, in online space not entirely made up of constant distraction.

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“Available to assist”

The union label inside the vintage dress has faded over four decades but you still can make out the letters ILGWU.  If you watched broadcast television 40 years ago, you might have seen an outreach campaign by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  What are the lessons for highlighting invisible labor in knowledge professions?

In ads that ran starting in 1975, members of the union chorus sang,

Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress, blouse,
Remember somewhere our union’s sewing,
Our wages going to feed the kids, run the house.
We work hard, but who’s complaining?
Thanks to the ILGWU we’re paying our way,
So always look for the union label,
It says we’re able to make it in the USA

In the 1970s and early 1980s, you still could find the ILGWU label in women’s apparel in department stores.  As manufacturers turned increasingly to overseas labor, job opportunities for garment workers in the United States shrank.  In an age of increased imports, the ad campaign put a human face on the unionized workers who made the clothes people such as I bought.

In 1992, I stood in front of a rack in a Washington, DC department store.  I was shopping for gifts to send to relatives in my parents’ newly sovereign homeland.  Since the late 1980s I had been watching on news broadcasts the novel tactics of resistance people used in protests there. Quality mattered in the gifts I boght. So, too, country of origin. So I looked through the labels on winter accessories for ones that showed,”We’re able to make it in the USA.”

A decade earlier, protest tactics in a different European country reached into the heart of Washington, DC. Officials of the International Union of Electrical Workers placed a 24-foot Solidarnorsc (Solidarity) banner on their headquarters building located across across from the Russian embassy in Washington.  The IUEW also supported the sale of buttons and t-shirts to raise money for striking Polish shipyard workers in Gdansk.

An assistant to the AFL-CIO president described to reporters efforts to support the Solidarity labor union as authorities arrested workers and imposed martial law in Poland in December 1981.  I still have the Solidarnorsc button I bought in 1981.  Archival records enable researchers to study different alignments in the foreign policy, domestic labor policy, diplomatic, and cultural contexts.

As jobs disappeared and membership continued to fall from a high reached in the 1950s, the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America discussed merging the unions representing workers making women’s and men’s clothing.  The merger in 1995 resulted in a new Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees – UNITE.

The Kheel Center at Cornell University now holds archival materials about the ILGWU.  They include information on internal governance and external actions. Researchers study labor issues  in different ways. Community sources provide insights into local activities.  Depending on their scope and records management goals, business archives may contain at least partial information on some labor-management issues.  Multiple perspectives make for richer workplace records.

Not everyone who saw the ILGWU ads knew the history of the union formed in 1900. Or the impact of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 147 women and men in 1911. “Look for the Union Label” centered on the present, not the past, by showcasing the human faces of workers.

The “Records of Rights” exhibit at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) places historical initiatives for voting rights, labor rights, civil rights, human rights in context, using information in Federal and Presidential records. Temporary exhibits at NARA, such as “Rightfully Hers,” , add to visitors’ knowledge of past events.

I wore the polyester dress with the cotton ILGWU label I had bought in 1971 at a mid-priced department store to the opening of one such exhibit at the National Archives in 2013.  My guest for the “Documerica:  Searching for the Seventies” reception was an archivist who works in another NARA building in Washington.

The Documerica photography project featured daily life in the environmental context throughout the United States between 1971-1977.  Preserved through Federal records management and retention scheduling, some 15,000 images now are part of the NARA catalog.  They feature photographs by 81 photographers, including ones working in Washington, DC and Texas (below).

At the 2013 exhibit opening, I introduced my guest, Cary McStay, to the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero.  She knew him as the agency head but had never introduced herself to him.

David and I are contemporaries and chatted briefly with Cary about our memories of the 1970s, including the popularity of synthetic fabrics in men’s and women’s clothing back then.  Durable, as my ability to still wear a well-manufactured dress showed, but as I remember, not always comfortable in hot weather!

Much has changed since the 1970s but the basic goals of archives work remain durable. Cary now works with presidential records from the 1970s in the special media unit of NARA’s National Declassification Center (NDC) unit in College Park, MD.  Conditions of creation affect the content of records. including those with whom she and her team work.  Records held by NARA’s Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library provide a real time glimpse of a major transition in record keeping.

On August 9, 1974, the first day of the Ford administration, Jerry L. Jones sent this memorandum to his fellow White House staff:

By custom and tradition, the files of the White House Office belong to the President in whose Administration they are accumulated. It has been the invariable practice, at the end of an Administration, for the outgoing President or his estate to authorize the depository or disposition to be made of such files.

President Taft in his book “Our Chief Magistrate and his Powers,” made the following reference to this practice: “The retiring President takes with him all the correspondence, original and copies, which he carried on during his Administration….”

Jones noted that archivists working in the Office of Presidential Papers “will be available to assist in the collection and segregation of President Nixon’s papers.”  Personal ownership changed to government ownership with the passage of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), which President Ford signed into law on December 19, 1974.

A NARA digitization effort enables anyone to read the file.  Guidance for using White House Central Files matched the intent of existing executive orders. In 1974, White House staff were responsible for ensuring national security classified information was protected but “not restricted excessively.”

NARA archivists such as Cary work to declassify archival records. The NARA catalog contains photographs of some of Cary’s colleagues and predecessors.  Not all are named in the captions created some 15 years ago.  Those of us who work with workplace photos know that photographers often assign general event captions to their work.  Depending on how selected images are used at the time, some names of participants may be included, others not.

Archivists increasingly use online platforms to tap in to the knowledge of the crowd in making materials more accessible and useful.  I’ve recently started adding tags with names to some of the photos of archivists who worked with presidential records 15 years ago.  I met some through my own work as a NARA employee, others through former presidential libraries staff. And some through my late sister, a team leader and supervisory archivist (right photo) in the predecessor unit to Cary’s present work unit.

Historian Samuel Redman recently published an insightful essay about “Deep Hanging Out as Historical Research Methodology: The National  Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.”  He described the impact of work done in relative geographic isolation:

Partly as a result of this situation, over the sustained period I spent there I had the chance to eat with the archivists in the small café in the building and learn more about the collections. I shared with the staff the topics was interested in, and they kindly suggested materials I should research further. It was through this sort of informal discussion that I was told about the Army Medical Museum records housed at the NAA. Truth be told, a seemingly unsophisticated part of my historical research methodology became a sort of “deep hanging out” (a phrase Clifford Geertz used to describe certain ethnographic experiences) in which I engaged as a historian with thoughtful archivists, collections managers, and curators willing to share information about the collections.The experience was a dream.

Redman explained what records showed:

In stark contrast to this comfortable dream-like environment for me as researcher were the gut-wrenching records I found in the NAA. The Army Medical Museum records whispered unsettling details surrounding practices related to collecting human bodies as specimens for a newly organized US Army museum in Washington DC. Many of the skeletons, skulls especially, were later transferred to the Smithsonian.

The blog post included an image of an original note card for a skeleton received by the Army Medical Museum in 1866: “Skeleton of a Sioux Indian, killed by U.S. soldiers May 1864, about twelve miles south of Fort Ridgely, Minn.” Redman added,

Some Native American bodies were eventually returned through the newly created repatriation laws emerging in the late 1980s and early 1990s….the microfilm and original documents connected to bone collecting with the Army Medical Museum records inspired further research into the Papers of Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943). Ultimately, the work culminated in my first book Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums.

He noted in conclusion that,

The valuable work of archivists is often overlooked in historical scholarship, the history of anthropology being no different in this regard. Archivists at the NAA became critical to my understanding the Smithsonian’s bone collection and much more at a pivotal time for me personally. Historians are offered rare gifts in the knowledge and experienced shared by archivists. The key is being open to the possibility of discovering something challenging and new.

I thought of how Jerry Jones told Ford’s White House staff that archivists were “available to assist” as I read the end of Redman’s essay.  As durable as polyester (but comfortable in all seasons), archivists in academic, corporate, and government settings remain committed to assisting those who maintain and use records.

Redman reminds us of the value of being open to learning new things. This can occur online or IRL. Kevin Kruse once noted of historians on Twitter,

All too often, I’ve seen senior scholars who use it solely to dash off links to the latest media appearance or review they’ve received. To be sure, I do that too, but that can’t be all you do with it. Your tweets shouldn’t just be press releases. You really need to engage with others, to listen more than you speak. You need address the new questions posed to you (directly or indirectly) more than simply repeating your old answers, and ultimately to respond to the interests of others more than you promote your own. Think of them as your global office hours: keep the door open and your mind too.

Quietly reading blogs or Twitter results in “aha” moments, too.  Connecting the dots and recognizing patterns takes time.  As Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore and one of my favorite bloggers, once noted, “Some good thoughts come from solitude, from the unexpected recesses of the self, from not answering to the last reply or bouncing off of the last link.”

Among other historians I follow on Twitter, T. J. Stiles offers useful insights on sharing the results of research. He went from history graduate school studies to a job in publishing, writing copy, talking to authors, and thinking about “what made each work appealing to readers.” In a recent Q&A in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he described why he thinks of history as telling stories that lead somewhere.  His 2015 book talk illustrates this approach.

Stiles explained in the recent Chronicle article that,

Narrative begins with the intent to make the reader want to keep reading. That requires plot. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge defines plot as raising questions in the mind of the reader and delaying the answers.

Academic writing usually lays out the questions and the answers at the outset, then proceeds to demonstrate. Again, that’s fine for its purpose. But it strands a reader alone, without the happy company of mystery and suspense, the crew who sail every plot forward.

Narrative generally centers on characters. Scholarship is concerned with the conditions of humans; literature is concerned with the human condition. Serious nonfiction narrative can be concerned with both, but it’s hard to pull off without individuals who have intentions, carry out actions, and face consequences.

I’m especially interested in how writers perceive readers. Being the sole historian on staff in one of my two archives and history jobs led me to think more deeply about how to demonstrate the value of history directly and indirectly. You have to balance your academic training and skills with what users need and seek.  So, too, in marketing our professions.

Some of the ILGWU television ads referred to market forces and a decrease in membership. The union song humanized members as contributing products, paying taxes, and supporting their own households.  I had the song in mind when I looked at manufacturing labels before buying Christmas presents in 1992.

The archives, records, library, and history professions depend on market forces, too.  How can we best showcase our “needlework?” Library and information science instructors can address job realities, as I noted in “The Archives Life.” (This very much needs to include the employer and employee perspective.)  And we can develop and use our own leadership skills.  More on that in my next post (stay tuned for a mix of information literacy and Star Trek)!

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Whose realism?

Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America.  Fantasy figures who face fictional challenges different from the ones we do as archivists, historians, librarians, records managers.  But whose mythical world sometimes connects to ours in unexpected ways, reminding us of what it takes to make things happen in real life.

Last summer I helped staff a documentary film screening on a Saturday afternoon at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC.  As I waited to cross Pennsylvania Avenue at the end of my shift, I saw a school bus and old cars parked in front of the research and business entrance of the building.  I had seen on Friday evening how city officials shut down the block for weekend location filming of Wonder Woman 1984.

Security was tighter for the “set” on Saturday than on Friday, when I was able to walk up to the old telephone booth the production company had just placed across the street from NARA. The vintage cars, trucks, school bus, and the telephone booth served as props to make the street look as it might have in 1984.  The National Archives looks much the same on its north side as in the 1980s.  Most movie goers won’t know that it then still had fountains in front of its research entrance.

Social Media and news reports indicated that the production company also filmed scenes with stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington and at the long closed Landmark Mall in suburban Alexandria, Virginia. Production companies now film in the Washington area more frequently than when Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962) featured some scenes filmed on Capitol Hill and the National Mall.  The 1960s brought great changes to the film industry, its studio system,  and perceptions of the market for new types of films as cultural shifts and technological advances enabled a new wave of film making.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of “gritty realism” in U.S. films as changes in equipment and film stock enabled more location shooting than in the past.  In his book, Hollywood in San Francisco:  Location Shooting and the Aesthetics of Urban DeclineJoshua Gleich described gritty realism as a style that “approached cinematic brutalism, where not only cinematic embellishment but even photographic polishing was meticulously avoided.” 

Changes in film stock enabled shooting color film under low light conditions in the 1960s and 1970s in ways not possible previously.  Gleich noted of the period which saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and divisions over the Vietnam War that, “America’s ongoing crises at home and abroad suggested that the visual truth of any city must be an ugly truth.”

In Bullitt (1968), actor Steve McQueen did some of his own stunt driving in a chase scene filmed in San Francisco. The decade that followed featured crime dramas and action films with anti-hero leads as well as a vogue for all-star spectacles about man-made or natural disasters.

Equipment and film stock capabilities limited location shooting by earlier film makers in the 1940s and 1950s.  In one film shot largely on sound stages, director William Wyler and producer Sam Goldwyn cast Harold Russell, a disabled World War II veteran, in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  The opening of the film showed aerial views of Cincinnati, standing in for the Boone City of Wyler’s film, as three veterans returned home after serving in World War II. (I found 1940s views of Cincinnati in NARA’s catalog.) The disabled veteran, a sailor injured when his ship went down, had been a high school athlete.

The film showed the challenges veterans faced as they sought to regain footing economically and socially. Russell, an amputee, was not a professional actor.  A 1945 government documentary film, The Diary of a Sergeant, showed how Russell adapted to use of the prosthetic hooks that replaced both his hands.  Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn saw Russell in the documentary, which led to his selection to play a disabled U.S. Navy veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives. Harold Russell was one of two actors (Fredric March, who played a returning Army Sergeant, the other) who won Academy Awards for The Best Years of Our Lives.

The “gritty realism” of later films such as Bullitt and The French Connection relied on on locations, props, and camera work to depict urban decay.  Both films focus on the actions of anti-hero white male leads and the “bad guys” they pursue. Although largely filmed on sound stages, The Best Years of Our Lives, which retains a high viewer rating on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, reflects a different type of realism.  It looks inwards, focusing on the psychological struggles of male and female characters whose interior lives show in unexpected ways

In one scene a recently demobilized and decorated U.S. Army Air Force Captain gives a few of his belonging to his father and stepmother. (He says they can throw them away, that they don’t mean anything.) The Captain prepares to leave his home town to find a civilian job and to escape personal turmoil.

An earlier scene in the film suggests the veteran may feel some embarrassment about his “wrong side of the tracks” family background.  One of the most memorable scenes occurs after he says goodbye.  His father, an aging alcoholic, sits holding a document in his ramshackle house, a pint of liquor in front of him on the table. He calls out for his wife to come in from the kitchen to join him.

His wife listens silently as her husband reads aloud the citation for the medal the son received for brave actions during World War II. As he reads the father’s voice tells you he is deeply moved.  The glistening eyes of his wife, stepmother to the son, show her reaction. But after he reads the citation reflecting his son’s courage, the father says nothing.  He just remains seated at the table, drawing on his cigarette. His wife quietly goes back to her chores in the kitchen.  The spare focus solely on the words of the citation and the understated performances of actors Roman Bohnen and Gladys George create a moment which online comments show many viewers still find memorable and moving.

Writer Robert Sherwood won an Oscar for his work on The Best Years of Our Lives, a film now regarded as a classic. The struggles of returning veterans and their families to readjust and the challenges of basic human relationships are part of living.  Empathy helps us understand what is unsaid, as in scenes of the disabled sailor with his girl friend and the Air Force veterans’ parents.  Records show a Hollywood screenwriter, Jack Moffitt, complained in 1947 about Sherwood’s work on the film, among several he listed as ideological efforts to make realistic pictures.  Moffitt added “depressing” in parentheses in his complaints about postwar “realism” attributed to alleged Communist influences in Hollywood.

For me, as for many historians and archivists, archives serve to fill in some very human elements about what happened and why.  And take us behind the scenes to reveal depth, texture and complexity about events we initially may have read about in newspapers or glimpsed on screens.  As Navosha Copeland once tweeted, “When I process a collection, I see the many dimensions of a person’s life. It makes me remember that we are all multidimensional persons.”

Five years before Bullitt, which put up him on a path to a top male star in the United States, Steve McQueen starred in The Great Escape, a partially fictional account of an actual event during World War II when Allied prisoners of war held in a Nazi prison camp dug a tunnel for a massive escape attempt.  I first saw the film when I was 12 and read the more historically accurate book (same title, published in 1950) by Paul Brickhill at the same time.  I read a lot about the war in Europe as a youth as my parents had suffered totalitarian oppression there by Nazi and by Soviet forces during World War II.

The action film was a box office success and I enjoyed it as a pre-teen, as many moviegoers did. But as I grew up, I came to understand why New York Times film critics Bosley Crowther wrote of it in 1963 in his review that while based on the framework of a true story, most of the characters in the film are composites. And that “The Great Escape grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It’s a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men.”

In the film, McQueen’s character, a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force, made a dash for freedom on a motorcycle after escaping from the camp.  (The actual escape from the German camp, Stalag Luft III, featured British and European prisoners of war. All American prisoners previously had been transferred to another part of the camp.  Fifty escapees were shot after recapture.  Only three made it to freedom.)  McQueen, known for his love of racing motorcycles and sports cars in real life, did some of his own stunt work for the justifiably famous motorcycle scene, as he later would in car chase scenes in Bullit.  

Records at the National Archives show that during the Johnson administration, McQueen wrote to the director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), offering to help with motorcycle safety initiatives.  McQueen’s motorcycle safety project advanced in 1967 to the early stages of script development with the FHA but the file doesn’t reflect completion.  A citizen-advocate side of McQueen,  now featured at NARA but not in old movie magazines in the 1960s. His military service records (he enlisted at 17) show another.  (He had a chaotic, unstable, home life as a child and teen.) As do state records showing him flashing the peace sign in his 1972 mug shot when arrested (and quickly released on bail) for drunk driving in Alaska.

In a few days, NARA will be holding its annual September Educators Open House. That the National Archives has a robust, needs and user oriented K-12 primary sources program reminds me that there are many ways to use records to learn.  Much has changed since I first visited the National Archives to do research as a grad student, little realizing I would become a Federal historian and an archivist who assisted others there. I used its online catalog throughout August to look for information to use in this essay.  And crowd checked on Twitter about some of the Wonder Woman 1984 prop cars I photographed last year.

Historical records show that a high school student named Dave might have become a K-12 or a  college educator.  His yearbook entry showed his career aspiration as “Teacher.”  But when he started his undergraduate studies, as he once told me, he found the education classes boring.  He later said in public, “I was an education major…I hated every minute of it.”  The university didn’t feel like a good fit for Dave, who described coming from a relatively small high school.  He was candid in his reaction to the mismatch of university and major and aspirations:  “In fact, I spent most of my time in the Museum of Fine Arts or the Isabella Gardner Museum, rather than in class.”

On the job Dave now goes by David, a change that shows in different signature blocks he used in letters to different presidents in his youth.   He’s David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, pictured in his high school yearbook and in a photo I took at the National Archives at a reception in 2011.  You can read David’s “real talk” account of struggling as an education major, then joining the Navy as a Corpsman during the Vietnam War.  (After military service he returned to college, completed undergraduate and graduate degrees, not in Education but in English and information and library science, and taught some classes.)

He explains his obligations as the Archivist to the public in NARA’s “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit:  “These are the real folks, telling the stories from their own perspective. It’s not the government. It’s not us interpreting what they said. And the…records tell the good stuff and the bad stuff.” (Look at the link for what Henry Kissinger said at a NARA Vietnam war event in Austin, Texas.)

On August 4, 2019, Ferriero spoke at the Society of American Archivists conference with Meredith Evans, society president and director of NARA’s Carter Presidential Library.  He emphasized the value of records management, in his present and past jobs.  And the need to listen to users of records and provide opportunities for public participation.  And why curiosity and listening are key elements in finding solutions and tapping in to the talents of staff.

He explained why he never has brought a “posse” with him in coming to new library or archives jobs  (MIT, Duke, New York Public Library, NARA).  He described his “panic” (the same many of us feel in job changes) on realizing the need to learn an unknown institution’s culture and navigate new ways of doing things in leaving MIT for Duke.  As I listened I thought of the relief people feel (shown as I made a photo flub at NARA) when they can admit to a mistake, learn, back up, and try again.

When Wonder Woman 1984 opens in June 2020, I’ll watch for the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th.  For that school bus.  A reminder of how lucky those of us are, who can move a “closed” sign in an archives to “open.” Take down the ropes to a theater on the day of a book lecture.  And provide depth and breadth to historical events, in records “good and bad.”

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

Who’s in the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The commissioners understood the challenges the Rotunda space presented and discussed how the artist best could showcase his strengths.  Moore asked Faulkner to be more comprehensive.  He suggested that “one of the panels [should] be dedicated to the founders of the Republic and the other to Abraham Lincoln and his time.”  The artist took that to mean adding figures to his early drafts or “enlarging the scope of the study.” In one study he included Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln in the Declaration panel but deleted them in later studies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difficult conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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