“Did you know my father?” Alexis Hill of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) showed me a photo of Dr. Walter Hill, who died in 2008. A colleague snapped a photo at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference as we shared reminiscences of her father. He was an expert on Federal records about African American history.
Dr. Hill spent some of his career at the Suitland federal records center and Alexis and I talked about what it was like to work outside the main National Archives building. Despite his greater accomplishments, Dr. Hill faced more challenges than I at NARA.
Walter Hill mentored many employees and formed internal and external partnerships after joining the agency’s staff in 1978. Dr. Hill, shown with John Hope Franklin, also taught at Howard University and served as a consultant on the film, Glory.
In 2000, Walter Hill wrote in a NARA publication about “Living with the Hydra: The Documentation of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Federal Records.” He observed of George Washington Williams, one of the first African American scholars to trace the story of the enslaved in 1883, that,
He emerged as perhaps the first historian and writer of the African American experience in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to conclude that slavery poisoned the entire fabric of American society, corrupting its people and laws, setting the nation on a dangerous path to conflict, and damaging the American psyche regarding race.
SAA conference sessions offered insights into public and private sector work. Government documents with which Dr. Hill and later NARA employees worked. Challenges in business archives. Academic special collections I recently described in a post about public controversies. Community archives that require sensitive, culturally aware trust building.
There was serendipity Friday when Paul Lasewicz said hello to Kate Theimer and me in the open lobby bar. Kate’s visionary Archivesnext blog was a gathering place for archivists and records managers from 2007 to 2017. On Thursday, I yelled “woo!” from the back of a huge hall as Kate became a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, with Archivesnext one of her contributions.
Paul’s honest writing about “what being an ethical archivist in the real world means” blends human, technological, and theoretical understanding of archives work. In 2005, Lasewicz shared real talk about business archives on the Archives & Archivists Listserv. He addressed the writer of a Letter to the Editor, a deservedly respected archival educator,
Given your unfamiliarity with the nuances of corporate environments, your cavalier attitude toward offending corporate executives misses the mark. Corporate archivists weren’t concerned with offending the executives – we can be just as cynical about our employers as SAA’s membership. . . .you’ve got some reading to do.
Expressing hope for understanding-based empathy, he pointed to resources about SAA Business Section members. Paul described his work environment, explaining that “nobody – not you, not I, not society – is served if you draw a line in the sand that results in an archives shut down. And no amount of academic scrutiny or pontification will change that elemental characteristic of our world.”
Paul wrote that painting fellow archivists “with a brush dipped in media and political excess is sloppy research and flat out unfair.” He suggested “taking a 360 look at the matter.” I admired his courageous response because he showed respect for the academic critic by suggesting ways to learn about challenges outside his direct experience.
Over the next decade A&A List discourse changed; SAA leaders decommissioned the Listserv last year. As I rode to the SAA conference on Metro on Thursday, a younger passenger leaned across the aisle. He asked, “Are you Maarja?” I said yes.
He said, “I want to thank you for hanging in on the A&A List as long as you did.” I laughed and said, “It was worth doing. Our successors deserve a place to share questions and perspectives freely without fear.”
As a local, I was in and out of the conference venue. I would love to have talked to Rand Jimerson and Sam Winn (a wonderful bus companion to the SAA reception in 2014) about issues I’ve raised in a post about the records life cycle. And I missed connecting with Maureen Callahan whom I first met in 2010 at a wonderful lunch with Bill Cron. No one was less surprised than I at the outstanding work Maureen recently did on a sensitive and user-centered DACS Statement of Principles.
Uses for and users of records should be considered comprehensively, and will vary from repository to repository. Users include not only those outside the repository, but the repository’s own staff. It is imperative that repositories identify, engage and seek to understand the motivations and needs of their users, which may include but are not limited to scholarly production, collection care and control, institutional knowledge, connection to family ties, artistic endeavors, government accountability, justice-seeking endeavors, and symbolic purposes of holding records.
Maureen has been my go-to person online on description issues for years (“I don’t think archivists are just secretaries for dead people”) but especially while she blogged at Chaos->Order (2013-2015).
I delighted in reconnecting (too briefly) with other archivists I last had seen at the same conference site in 2014 (Terry Baxter, Ashley Stevens, Rebecca Goldman, among them). And meeting new ones I’ve been following on Twitter (@ArchivingAmanda @GothArchivist, @christinazamon, @geofhuth, @SnarkivistWien @EDinschel). I especially enjoyed giving Brad Houston a tour of the National Archives’ Museum where I help staff history and civic education events. Great conversation about archives and records!
As I walked to the lobby bar on Friday, I stopped to talk to Dave Mayo (@pobocks) and Rachel Donahue (@sheepeeh). I delighted in meeting Rachel in 2014. Dave and I are Twitter friends who first met on Thursday.
The open lobby was a perfect place to sit with Dave Thursday for nearly an hour and talk about work. Kate Bowers joined us and we talked about technological changes in archives. And the impact of a partial “dark age” that occurred in some places from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
In January 2009, Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate about “The Urgent Need to Fix Federal Archiving Policies.” This followed a 2003 article in which he looked at destruction of electronic records described to him by departmental historian Eduard Mark, who witnessed change on the ground before many archivists did.
Although some of Kaplan’s phrasing seems hyperbolic, he conveyed at the beginning of the Obama administration some of the challenges in handling electronic records. NARA then was in the care of an Acting Archivist, Adrienne Thomas, Allen Weinstein having resigned as Archivist in December 2008.
So what was going on in January 2009? Chaos overwhelmed traditional control in some settings. Creators and recipients had been relying on electronic records in Federal agencies (and in some corporate and academic settings) since the late 1990s. But rarely managing them according to best practices or in some cases even statutes.
Traditional records management relied on secretaries serving as the point of contact for receiving, sending out, and filing paper documents. This system faced extreme stress in the decade before Kaplan published his article in 2009.
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.
Especially after 2005, there were mitigation efforts throughout the records life cycle (creation to accession and access). In more recent years, NARA modified and improved on the Electronic Records Archive developed during the tenures of John Carlin and Allen Weinstein. (This continues–stay tuned!)
Dave Mayo’s tweets provide me valuable insights on programming and academic library issues in which I have no experience. But he also shares wonderful pictures of his dogs and cats. In addition to the books I brought her to read, seeing the pictures helped my late Mother during her final illness.
As I observed of personal and professional caregiving and humanization, our actions affect others:
You can learn about their experiences by talking to them. And as you listen, you see that the person behind the counter, or in the library or archives stacks, or working as an executive in a corner office, is multidimensional. Just as the people whose words are recorded in some archival collections.
And when you speak or write, you can’t anticipate the impact your words may have on others. At their best, ineffably so, as when Stacie [Williams] published essays that touched my heart and helped me better support over the last year, when she needed me most, the Mom whom I love.
One of the executives in a corner office, AOTUS David S. Ferriero, spoke about NARA at a SAA session and at the plenary on Thursday. If you search Twitter for the term “National Archives,” you get a sense of public opinion on current issues on which the National Archives is working. Some reactions are impressionistic or based on lack of knowledge about archival or government operations. Sharing basic facts helps citizens learn more as NARA is transparent about its work.
How members of the public (including my archives, library, and records management colleagues outside Fedland) react varies greatly. I appreciate the questions archivists tweet to me about National Archives’ operations and practices. NARA’s openness in posting updates provides useful links. You see commonalities with fellow information professionals. Federal archivists no more wing it on disclosure and access than the academic and corporate archivists I described in The Archives Life.
As in many archives/library workplaces, the NARA team includes executives, including lawyers, managerial, supervisory, line archives and records staff and mission support employees. That may resonate broadly, whether a reader works in a donor deed of gift or statutory and regulatory environment. There are several statutes and processes in the mix for NARA.
So what has happened since Kaplan wrote about electronic records in January 2009? In July 2009, President Barack Obama nominated David Ferriero to be Archivist. Modernizing records management has been a top priority during David’s tenure. This requires handling human, technological, procedural, legal, and budgetary issues throughout the records life cycle. Including cyber security. The 2012 OMB-NARA Managing Government Records Directive spells out modernization objectives and requirements, including development of a Secure Federal Cloud.
A forward-looking, solution seeking approach showed in all the NARA SAA panels, from agency head through the executive, managerial, and supervisory ranks. I especially appreciated the grace in the consistently classy, nuanced presentations about “here we are, let’s work through this together” with no blame games, much less designated villains or heroes, past or present. And the acknowledgement that records matter, whether their content is good or bad.
If you were present at Thursday’s SAA “Conversation with the Archivist,” you heard David describe records initiatives. He observed that he hardly can read a newspaper these days without seeing an article about Federal records. News reporting brings to NARA’s attention records issues that require examination and appropriate action. In some cases the agencies and departments contact NARA themselves. At Ferriero’s direction, the National Archives now publicly lists news-reported and self-reported agency or departmental unauthorized disposition cases in proactive public disclosure.
Asked about civic responsibility on Thursday, Ferriero made a strong case for embracing citizenship responsibilities by voting and engaging on civic issues. NARA is a nonpartisan agency which works with a wide range of stakeholders.
David, whom I know in person, like, respect, and support, mentioned at the SAA session his background as a U.S. Navy Corpsman (psych tech) during the Vietnam War. As he has explained elsewhere, his work in Vietnam included helping patients suffering from severe psychological stress (some draftees, some volunteers) as well as physical wounds and injuries.
David’s focus on people issues showed in a thoughtful article about reference desk burnout he later wrote as a Supervisory Librarian at MIT. I’ve talked to David about why he wrote the article early in his library career. It remains my go-to article about burnout in archives/library jobs and supervisory responsibilities to people in one’s care. I’ve shared it with many librarians and archivists due to the humane, humble, realistic advice in Ferriero’s other-centered approach.
On Friday, NARA executives spoke at a SAA session on the digital future. Deputy Archivist Debra Wall moderated a panel with NARA Chief Operating Officer William (Jay) Bosanko, Management and Administration executive Micah Cheatham, Chief Records Officer Laurence Brewer, and Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright. Here, too, the approach was practical, with speakers acknowledging challenges. I appreciate former NARA employee Ashley Stevens asking a question about sustainability.
All the sessions with NARA employees, including Courtney Anderson, Beth Cron, and Kristin Albritain, resonated for the same reason–they were work-based, not brag sessions. I couldn’t attend other SAA sessions centered on learning by trial and error, some “off the record.” While we Feds can’t discuss everything we face, I strongly believe in safe space for real talk.
I came away from SAA reminded of essential values in the archives community and specific to the National Archives as well. You see David Ferriero and and Meredith Evans in 2016 at the Carter Presidential Library where Meredith is NARA Director. And as we chatted at SAA after Plenary 1. Meredith became SAA President on Friday.
In his SAA address, David Ferriero gave an overview of where NARA’s activities and an update on issues in the news. The Archivist concluded his speech by addressing online critics of his actions on current access issues. I stood in the back of the hall and joined in the sustained applause as Ferriero said he took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution upon becoming Archivist in 2009.
Ferriero said, “I have upheld that oath, I am upholding that oath, and I will continue to uphold that oath, as long as I am Archivist of the United States.” I nodded with pride and appreciation and joined in the applause.
As I left the conference on Friday, I talked in the lobby with Jay Bosanko, NARA COO. I first met Jay when my twin sister Eva supervised him when he was an archives technician at NARA. As a National Archives’ colleague said after her death in 2002, Eva welcomed all to the workplace but never hesitated to ensure people followed the rules on which continued public trust in the agency depends.
I still hear Eva’s voice at the National Archives in current employees up and down the ranks who understand stewardship obligations. And in their public presentations. As David Ferriero put it so well in November 2016, “Our values remain unchanged.”