A writing workshop in Washington. The speaker in the learning center of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) talks about research and writing. She says that research isn’t always parallel or linear. Nor does it always have one goal. You can take information and use it in many different ways. She notes of research and writing, “Only you have lived your life, had your experiences and gained your perspective. Only you can make certain connections.” The same is true for all visitors to archives, libraries, museums, not just researchers. So what are our responsibilities to communities made up of people with diverse perspectives and experiences?
When you talk to the people who visit the National Archives to do research, see exhibits, participate in education workshops or family day activities, attend conferences or book talks, you learn about their individual interests and goals. And sometimes, as you pause and listen, you get glimpses into the life stories that affect how they look at the past, present, and future.
As I left my NARA office earlier this month and walked across the lobby, I heard three people talking about which way to go. The Constitution Avenue doors of the National Archives had just opened to the public. A docent was on his way but hadn’t arrived in the lobby yet. I asked if I could help the visitors, walked them over to building brochures and explained what was in the public spaces. The visitors thanked me and decided to go to the Rotunda, then return to the “Records of Rights” exhibit in the Rubenstein Gallery.
In 2014, I stood in the same lobby, chatting with historian Luke Nichter after a book lecture in the McGowan Theater. As we talked, in the adjoining Gallery, visitors to the “Records of Rights” exhibit explored documents and images about suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, human rights. An interactive electronic display enabled them to choose individual tags, thus adding, in the moment, their perspectives to the exhibit.
Among the younger historians I know, Luke is well positioned to work in the future with the electronic records, including email, created recently and now. In 2015, Dr. Nichter explained in a thoughtful book review the importance of embracing ambiguity in using fragmentary records, especially ones that reflect unstructured natural conversation. “Too much reliance on any single explanation can result in overly simplistic conclusions.” He pointed to the need for care in navigating ambiguous information.
Recognizing ambiguity in the content of records is separate from personal and professional moral clarity and principled action. Acknowledging ambiguity means you don’t substitute what you wish a record said for what the writer or speaker may have meant. You strive to understand and provide context rather than centering yourself.
Just as in the Rubenstein Gallery, you show respect for readers by stating what is known to have happened but leaving room for them mentally to “add their reaction tags.” They’re going to do so anyway, whether your approach lays out known facts and sustainable conclusions (which is what I prefer). Or veers into the highly speculative or wildly judgmental. If the meaning of a written or spoken statement is unclear, you don’t force fit interpretations the evidence does not support. You refer to the ambiguous information in your narrative as it is without using it to settle a contested issue.
This is similar to auditing standards (“Evidence must be competent, relevant, and sufficient. . . .and must lead a reasonable person to the same position(s) [the auditor] takes”). Such standards are realistic for historians as well as auditors:
To be relevant, factual material must have a logical, sensible relationship to the issue it seeks to prove or disprove. It should make the finding, conclusion, or recommendation convincing and believable. . . . To be sufficient, evidence need not be wholly indisputable but must lead a reasonable person to the same position as taken by [the auditor].
At its most rigorous, use of ambiguous information requires not only careful consideration of records and recognition of archival silences but also scrupulous self-awareness. Having trustworthy friends who can challenge your interpretations of what you read or hear during research strengthens you professionally. Just as in the workplace, showing authentic comfort with well-informed, serious debate online or in person improves analysis.
The students, new professionals, supervisors, managers, executives we follow on Twitter are highly individual. They are no more interchangeable than any other human beings. This applies to users of archives, too, whether they turn to traditional or nontraditional documentation of human experience.
A recent review by historian David Greenberg of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership: In Turbulent Times reminds us of the value of a humanistic approach to writing about others. For me, this applies in the private or public sector, regardless of the rank and visibility of the subject (ad hoc neighborhood or community leader or officially appointed or elected leader).
Greenberg observes that
A booming field of scholarship — or, traditionalists would say, pseudoscholarship — leadership studies is usually taught in schools of business or public administration, geared toward would-be or midcareer executives and often focused on imparting useful lessons to apply in the workplace. Accordingly, much more than in her narrative histories, Goodwin here explicitly takes up the formation of her subjects’ characters and how their most notable qualities equipped them to lead the country during trying times.
Greenberg quotes Goodwin as writing “there was no single path” to leadership. He adds, “This is a historian talking. ” He explains that her book “is most absorbing when Goodwin resists the urge to glean pat lessons or rules from the past and allows herself to savor the stubborn singularity of each moment or personality. While she highlights her subjects’ common traits — preternatural persistence, a surpassing intelligence, a gift for storytelling — it is the differences among them that are most interesting.”
The scholars of recent events whose work I most appreciate rely on careful examination of the subject and self awareness in doing research that involves oral history interviews as well as written evidence. Leaving open the door to communications during research involving living subjects can enable them to ask follow-up questions.
Given time and good faith efforts, a scholar can sort through whether someone interpreted a question in a specific context the questioner didn’t consider or intend, misinterpreted what was asked, evaded answering, or outright lied. (The latter is a serious charge, one not to be made carelessly or in haste.) Forbearance benefits the writer in the long run.
How we make connections in our research is highly individual. As a historian, I’m interested in management as well as leadership, in part because of what I’ve observed during decades working within the government to preserve and make records accessible. The documentation you’re using in research may come from the people affected by policies and choices made by those holding power. Or from policy makers. Those actions occur within a workplace and are worth examining in the context of what we ourselves experience as managers at work.
Memoirs can provide texture to the records we study. I recently read Jo Haldeman’s 2017 book, In the Shadow of the White House. She describes some events reflected in official textual and oral records held in archives. And in oral history interviews government archivist-historians did in the 1980s with her husband, H. R. (Bob) Haldeman. Her perspective from the home, as a family member, as a wife and mother, differs from that of decision makers who held powerful positions. But it adds texture and context and valuable insights into what we know about them. By making connections only she can make, she enables readers to consider them, as well.
Reactive, terse, or oblique email messages may share some of the characteristics of natural conversation. The same is true for the reactions of people affected by actions or events. You see this on Twitter and other platforms that reflect a wide array of voices, some preserved through community focused initiatives such as Documenting the Now. Social Media provides direct access to voices without the selectivity of the journalist and editor who crafted stories scholars later study in newspaper archives.
A panel at this summer’s American Library Association annual meeting looked at “Fake News or Free Speech: Is There a Right to be Misinformed?” Damaso Reyes observed that “The speed at which we are being bombarded with stories claiming to be news has created a world in which a person who is unable to differentiate between true and untrue stories is functionally illiterate. This means that media literacy is as vital as it ever was.”
Panelist Nicole Cooke told listeners that “We constantly encounter information that produces high levels of emotion, which can be a barrier to critical thinking and evaluating the reliability of the information we receive.” Librarians can help readers assess what is reliable and what is not.
In 2017, the National Archives hosted a panel on leadership ethics in its McGowan Theater. The McGowan Forum on Ethics in Journalism featured Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post moderating a panel which included Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard, Amy Hollyfield of the Tampa Bay Times, Nicholas Leeman of Columbia University, and Craig Newmark of Craigslist. AOTUS David Ferriero gave welcoming remarks.
The panelists offered thoughtful observations on the damaging impact of misinformation and the value of traditional journalism. On the obligation to correct errors of fact in reporting. How diminishing resources in local reporting affect sources of news. And on an issue that particularly interests me, the blurring by many members of the public of the difference between fact and opinion. Cost pointed out that individual facts can be used to support overall assertions that are not true. And that countering deterioration in news literacy requires being thoughtful and to thinking things through.
Since 2016, I’ve helped staff nearly a hundred events in the McGowan Theater: author book lectures, documentary film screenings, history conferences, and programs about civics and civic engagement. A month ago, the National Archives hosted a Presidential Sites Summit session on civic education in the McGowan Theater. David Ferriero noted that,
Recent studies demonstrate that two-thirds of Americans can’t name all three branches of the government, yet three of four people can name all Three Stooges. Only 29 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2016 primary election. . . less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court Justice; yet two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the American Idol judges.
An informed citizenry is at the heart of what we do—rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that ensure their rights, hold their government accountable, and tell the story of the nation. However, without a fundamental level of civic literacy, the records that we preserve and make accessible will not be understood or used effectively by the citizens we serve.
To encourage civic literacy, the National Archives has launched a Civic Education page at its Educators site. Paul M. Sparrow, director of the NARA administered Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, referred to the page during the civic education session. He said
The National Archives is in its own way America’s largest civics education consortium. What we are trying to do is create a consolidated resource . . . and we hope over time, it will grow to include other departments, other organizations, to develop important civic education resources.
Civic education through a historical lens helps provide context for what people read in the news or on Social Media. As archivists, librarians, records managers, historians, educators, we can participate, by being open to learning ourselves. That includes reassessing what we think we know. And embracing our own humanity in striving to understand that of others, too.
Asking questions need not be seen as a weakness. Making mistakes and acknowledging them can help us and others learn. Our experiences can set us on a path that takes unexpected turns. Social Media reflects what we thought at the moment. It also can reflect how we change.
A photo of me with David Ferriero in 2011 shows the McGowan Theater lobby where I now help staff events. I’m laughing because I just realized I made a mistake and acknowledged to the Archivist that I had. Even better, the person taking the picture is Arian Ravanbakhsh, records policy manager at NARA. I greatly respect the efforts of David and Arian, both of whom I know, and others on the archives team, to preserve and make available records that provide insights into what happened and how.
The records we preserve in archives show how individual and human are the people affected by the choices of decision makers. And the decision makers, too. The users of records also are highly individual. Civic education gives them tools to assess what they read. The basic framework is an essential part of interpreting records. What researchers do with those tools, and whether they supplement them with more learning, is up to them.
So, too, what we do in the public spaces where we gather. As archivists, records managers, historians, educators. Because only we have lived our own lives. Whatever we seek, wherever we’re headed, we represent ourselves, as no one else can. But we also reflect the people at home and in the community and the workplace whom we know and have known along the way. All the more reason to listen to others. And where we are open to it, to learn from them, as well.