A 2007 newspaper feature story about the patrons of the New York Public Library (NYPL) provided me a vivid, very human glimpse of a place I once visited in my youth. An afternoon spent looking at books needed for historical research gave me the data I needed. But I focused solely on my graduate school work during a brief trip to New York City from Washington.
Only later, when I began to work with researchers as an archivist, did I begin to gain insights into libraries and archives as workplaces. How I look at records as a historian from inside, not outside, the government began changing for me, as well.
A feature story such as the one about NYPL doesn’t just convey facts, although accuracy matters. The writer gives the reader a sense of the place and the people in view. The best stories bring together the reporter’s skills and diverse insights offered by knowledgeable people.
Writing about the present and near past as a historian requires similar skills. The written evidence a researcher uses has particular characteristics. How a repository–federal or state archives, presidential library, historical society, special collections unit in an academic library–acquired records provides context during use. So, too, the circumstances under which a writer works.
How researchers parse what they read can affect the outcome of their work. Self- and situational-awareness may mitigate filters and enable open learning.
When archivists speak of “archives power,” they idealize inquiry and desire for knowledge. But outside the ideal of historical scholarship, the information in records may be used selectively for narrower or targeted use–light or dark. Recognizing that is part of information and civic literacy.
Different environmental elements can affect the records life cycle. These include workplace characteristics such as a high-learning, high mistake-tolerant culture with little risk of external tendentious examination or litigation (close to an ideal). Conversely, internally perceived high chances of tendentious external examination of a workplace or litigation may affect records creation and risk assessment. As with Myers-Briggs, there’s a spectrum.
Michael Beschloss touched on this in 2002 when he wrote that “Public figures no longer write the kind of thoughtful, discursive letters and revealing memos that we used to see. People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian.”
Where (if at all) it occurs, how often and why differs. Experienced historians and archivists who work with modern records learn to recognize gaps and silences. But it isn’t always easy for them, or any records-reliant researchers, to accept that ability to parse a record now matters even more than in the past.
Social Media platforms enable people to test theories and interpretation of key records as they work. But sometimes authors (not just but especially journalists) must balance the desire for a “scoop” upon publication against opportunities for hearing about alternate interpretations or overlooked sources.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s Twitter feed demonstrates a highly professional approach to historical inquiry. The prize-winning author of books about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings often faces questions from people who interpret events more speculatively than she does. She states what she knows, explains why historians can only go by known facts and cannot speculate about events or acts (even plausible ones) for which there is no evidence.
Writing about the near past rather than the 18th century doesn’t mean it necessarily is easier to write “The Story.” As “Documenting the Now,” community archives initiatives and records challenges remind us, we need to consider what causes archival silences and how to mitigate them.
In 2014, Keith Donohue of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) wrote in a thoughtful essay at Annotations blog that
“One key task ahead is to help students gain critical thinking skills and basic research techniques when seeking and using historical records in both analog and digital formats. In addition to developing digital literacy, users need to recognize the complexities of archival materials and to locate and effectively use them in a wide range of repositories. A central irony of the age is that the unprecedented access to information requires greater levels of skill and understanding to find the right answers and to ask the next questions.”
A Federal historian recently observed during a panel at the National Archives that it took him years of working in his government agency to understand its culture and ways of doing things. This is where the workplace can provide lessons in striving for open learning from supervisors, managers, executives who use diverse sources, written and oral. For them, embracing continual learning centers on having organizational mission and people in their care.
Institutional records (Federal, state, academic, corporate) by their nature reflect handling of core business. It takes time, effort, perception to fill in the rest. Seeking diverse, even conflicting, perspectives can enhance learning about the culture and environment in which people worked.
Reporters and historians may not always be able to offer deep insights into management and leadership at their most complex. And litigators and political advocates may leave them out for other reasons.
At their best, records only provide some answers. If you’re a manager, executive, top-level administrator or organizational boss, sociology and psychology help you navigate complex issues, ambiguity, and challenging choices.
In 1990, David S. Ferriero, then director of the Humanities Library at MIT, became Associate Director for Public Services for the MIT Libraries. The MIT announcement of his promotion stated, “David brings to his position a wealth of knowledge in public services, extensive knowledge of all aspects of research librarianship, and a deep understanding of the culture, traditions, and inner workings of the Institute and MIT Libraries.”
David knew the job from the ground up, literally, having started as a book shelver in a college co-op job. Ferriero later became Acting Co-Director of MIT Libraries. In 1996, he became University Librarian and Vice-Provost for Library Affairs at Duke University. In 2004, he moved on to become director of New York Public Libraries. Ferriero became the Tenth Archivist of the United States in 2009.
You see David Ferriero standing right as part of the MIT Libraries leadership team in the laughter filled picture at left. And with me and my former boss, Fred Graboske (right) at the National Archives in 2011. I’m laughing because Graboske told Ferriero that I was a challenge to supervise. David replied, “I can well imagine.”
My reaction? “You agreed with Fred and immediately!” The three of us then chatted about how people absorb information and communicate. Fred and I often ended up in the same place but took different routes to get there. As is David, Fred is a Vietnam veteran.
For the lucky among us, light and laughter are part of our careers, along with challenges, but rarely reflected in organizational records. Personal keepsakes (photos show my late sister, Eva, a NARA supervisory archivist) and oral history interviews can enhance understanding of a workplace.
When I first got to know Ferriero through the Archives & Archivists Listserv, to which he then subscribed, I was struck by his reference in 2010 to being on a steep learning curve about NARA’s history. I found such openness early in a tenure very refreshing in so senior an official. David, whom I would meet in person in 2011, once said of learning, “you’re never done.”
Publication “locks down” research. You research, write, publish a blog post, journal essay, book. Listening to post-publication feedback (if you get it) may be hard. (Kate Theimer of Archivesnext taught me a lot about that in blogging.) A supervisor, manager, executive with a flexible learning period can absorb reactions more readily (although this, too, can be difficult) and adjust.
Starting research, changing jobs, connecting with a new community, works best if you are humble about what others know and you may not. In 2013, David Ferriero explained in an IBM Center for Business of Government interview:
“I spent 31 years at MIT, and one of the things that scared me the most about moving to Duke was how would I ever have developed the same level of knowledge about where we came from, you know, our history, in a new environment, but that’s something that has always been important to me. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to former employees, people who have been around for a long time, just to get a sense of where we have come from in order to move forward and to take the best of those lessons from the past and celebrate them and move them forward into planning for the future.”
I most admire historians who admit that they started their research seeing issues one way, only to have their views evolve. Their example helps me accept when it happens on the job, as well. I’ve shifted my professional perspective over time and changed my take on some archives issues.
Consider how we navigate workplace issues–we talk to others. It’s comforting to focus on those whose views match ours. But we need to consider other perspectives, as well. Timothy Burke once said of the obligations of experts that you need to be able summarize critics’ views generously.
It also helps to think about whether others’ experiences (positive, negative) match ours, creating a potential “amen corner.” Or point to what we haven’t considered. “Neural self-hacking” helps us understand ourselves and others. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to embrace chaos, ambiguity, uncertainty while retaining certain values and guiding principles. To be more comfortable saying “I don’t know” than I once was.
When he was a Supervisory Librarian at the MIT Humanities Library in 1982, David Ferriero published an article, “Burnout at the Reference Desk.” He offered no magic solutions, just empathetic assessment and options. His approach was low key, not hyperbolic. He described the symptoms of burnout and the value of self-assessment. “Once you are fairly confident about your own personal inventory, share with your staff what you have learned.”
It was his use of “fairly confident” in his essay that made me relax and continue reading. (I later talked to David about why he wrote the article.) I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about Impostor Syndrome or read advice that left me no place to see myself. (I sometimes walk away from stark binary images in polemical writing, including on Twitter, even when I support a writer’s overall goal.)
David explained in his article what for me is a key to mitigating professional burnout, feeling valued, respected, a part of the group: “It is vital to the individual’s sense of self-worth that he/she feel an integral part of the organization.” Ferriero also wrote that experiencing burnout can be very isolating. And that others can help the person realize it may be circumstantial and that they are not at fault. He offered strategies for recognizing and mitigating burnout: “The team must look out for each other.”
Ferriero once said he sees empathy as a quality in good leaders. In 2014, historians James Grossman and Anthony Grafton also wrote about empathy in “Habits of Mind.”
“Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.
That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question.”
In the workplace and in our writing, how we handle questions and answers tells others who we are. Because records, information, knowledge, are used in so many different ways, I don’t see set templates. What suits a cultural heritage organization (library, archives) may not work as well in another organization. But we can learn from related professions. The reporter who crafts feature stories that illuminate actions and places. The historian who looks at what happened–but acknowledges gaps and what we do not know. And the executive, manager, supervisor, who turns to open learning.