The Cecil County history post shows people lined up in 1924 along U.S. Route 40, Main Street, for a parade in Elkton, Maryland. Until 1941, travelers to Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD, in that area took Route 40 through Elkton’s business district. After the opening of a new dual highway in 1941, old Main Street saw less automobile traffic. A 2016 photo shared on Facebook shows the building that once housed the Howard Hotel. But Main Street is much quieter on a Saturday afternoon than in 1924.
This past summer, many archivists reacted with dismay to an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education by a historian who portrayed them as various “types.” The article drew some protests, most from archivists, a few from historians. At times I also see questions on Listservs administered by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) about relations between historians and archivists. Having worked as both a government archivist with some records management duties and a Federal historian, I’m interested in how records managers, archivists, librarians, and historians learn about each other.
How often do you read a news story or new media commentary or tweet or tweet storm about your profession, workplace, or area of subject expertise, and think, “But that’s not how it works. You’re missing some elements.” Consider that others might react the same way to what you tweet or share online about their professions or workplaces of which you may have partial knowledge, at most. What they feel may be similar to what you feel when others tweet or comment about your workplace.
If you tap into that with empathy (“they missed what I’ve seen, learned and experienced; what am I missing about them?”), you can find ways to connect based on a common desire to be understood and treated with respect. This especially is the case with jobs in the same general group, such as knowledge professionals. The effort starts with giving others the space you’d like for yourself if the situation were reversed. Online open learning has many of the same characteristics as in the physical workplace, community, neighborhood, home. Sharing context helps add texture to the visible aspects of archives, records, and history work. This especially is the case during times of change.
In 1968, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Agency displayed a mockup of a subway car on the White House lawn and on the nearby National Mall. Planning, design, implementation, demographics and budgets affected how the Metrorail system actually operated after the first segment opened in 1976. Historian Zachary Schrag of George Mason University told the story in The Great Society Subway (2006) in the context of the time period. He looked at social issues, urban planning debates, maneuvering by legislators, lobbyists, representatives of commercial interests, Federal and local officials, community activists.
Main Street was US Route 40–until it was not. Bypassing or travelling through a business district is very different than walking in residential neighborhoods. Theory and codified principles and standards for knowledge professionals reflect the design matrix, the mockup, the aspirational. Sharing experiences provides insights into implementation and outcomes affected by diverse elements (some very complex) not all visible from outside.
The people who hold jobs throughout the ranks in our workplaces, from the C-Suite to the loading dock, are highly individual and affected by their temperament and training as well as by past experiences, just as we are. Whether you work as a historian, archivist, librarian, or records manager (especially the latter), decentering your profession helps you see the larger picture.
Why do I say especially the latter for records officers whose work affects what makes it into archives? Internal workplace training models that worked in the days when secretaries filed executives’ paper records require culturally aware adjustment in an age of mobile devices, laptops, and desktop computers as well as changing (sometimes inchoate) perceptions of access to records. Cyber threats, hacking, perceived risk of weaponization of the content of records and other factors affect the records life cycle in ways not seen 30 years ago.
To achieve sustainable success, what the information professional is selling must resonate with the potential buyers (fellow employees up and down the ranks). Taking a holistic, empathetic psychological, sociological, and cultural look at your workplace reduces the chances of public relations disasters. That said, in the public and the private sector, various external forces affect outcomes as well. They need to be acknowledged internally, if only in your own thinking and planning. Admitting their existence doesn’t guarantee success. But at least you understand why others might act as they do.
By empathy, I mean understanding what causes behaviors, not excusing or overlooking them if they don’t fit job requirements. A look at the many process-focused conference sessions, articles, and books I’ve read points to future opportunities to move beyond traditional presentations. To understand not just “what should be” but also developing greater comfort with sharing insights into what affects “what is.”
SAA presently administers a number of Section Listservs as well as an Announcements List. None have moderators but are well served by a clear Code of Conduct. From 2006 through 2017, SAA administered a general Listserv, Archives & Archivists (A&A). An earlier version operated as an unaffiliated archives Listserv from 1993 to 2006. The same early period of online engagement saw the establishment in 1992 of H-Net, described as “an interdisciplinary organization of scholars dedicated to developing the enormous educational potential of the Internet.”
Although I haven’t subscribed, I occasionally look in on the new space where a previously unmoderated records management listserv in which I briefly participated now operates with a moderator. Records management affects the materials that make it into government archives (“Who lives who dies, who tells your story”). As Listservs see less use now, I turn to Twitter to gain insights from the records experts I follow: @jessewilkins @tchernik @JKevinParker @1Gguru @rlayel @nickinglis @piewords.
On old archives and records Listservs, I saw a wide range of staff in academic, corporate, or government institutions with experience in processes, procedures, and technical issues. For me, the most useful information on Listservs came from practitioners willing to share contextually what they had learned on the job.
Most of the Listservs to which I once subscribed offered highways and expressways or public transportation routes with set stops. These took people from home to work and back. But by their nature, they passed by towns, communities, neighborhoods, along the way. As busy professionals, many subscribers knew them as places on highway exit signs or designated public transit stops that they passed on the way to where they were going.
Subscribers got some sense of the places where other knowledge practitioners worked from fragmentary glimpses in Listserv postings. Or in news stories, some more reliable than others, with even the best rarely deep or comprehensive but a good way to see how members of the public see our work. Or new media links. Since then, new platforms have provided opportunities for deeper learning and sharing.
For me, Twitter takes us off the expressways onto Main Streets and more importantly onto side streets in ways the home-and-back commuter routes on most Listservs I’ve seen do not. When we drive around and park or get off at subway stops and walk around, what we see varies depending on which neighborhood we visit and which residences and businesses we enter to see friends or use. That’s why Retweets are so valuable. In signal boosts from people we Follow we see information and insights we might have missed.
Matthew Kirchsenbaum of the Washington Post recently wrote insightfully about Elizabeth Berezin and innovation:
You won’t find her in the index to “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson’s best-selling tome that promises to explain “how a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.” But Evelyn Berezin was a hacker, a genius, a geek and a good business executive to boot. When she died Dec. 8, at age 93, the recognition that eluded her during her lifetime seemed to come all in a rush. Overnight she became famous for the very thing that allows me to do what I am doing right now as I write: Obituaries proclaimed she had invented word processing and built the first true word processor.
He explained that innovation is multi-faceted, draws on combined experiences, and isn’t always recognized while happening.
Gutenberg, like Berezin, was an innovator, but he was also an engineer who drew from different sources to make his own contribution. Berezin, for her part, knew about secretarial work because she understood the experiences of other women, but she also knew about integrated circuits. It was in the overlap between those two that her most famous invention took shape. These are the details that we, too, often lose track of when we fixate on firsts — the mundane but meaningful accidents of lived experience that make real change possible. Sometimes, as with word processing, innovation takes many drafts from many authors.
The online world helps us see some of the drafts in real time. History teaches us that people are multi-dimensional. Records at NARA (including in Presidential Libraries) enable us to see that past actions and choices occurred in richly textured settings with complex elements, including through trial and error, not always recognizable as they occur.
When I worked as a secretary while in college, I used one of the machines Kirschenbaum described to type correspondence with the mail merge capability that Berezin understood my position needed. I also learned how filing choices might affect future access to records. What I saw in a job that helped pay the bills deepened my understanding of the history I studied in grad school. I lacked the engineering insights Berezin had but understood that choices made at the beginning of the records life cycle affect what researchers see in the future.
One of the people I follow on Twitter is Pamela Wright, Chief Innovation Officer at the National Archives. You see me above with Pam (who once worked at NARA with my late sister) at the SAA conference in Washington earlier this year. Pam and her talented team have key roles in opening up knowledge sharing and access to archival holdings. NARA offers various ways to do research and ask questions, including at its History Hub.
It took me a while to understand what the Office of Innovation was doing. Considering “what am I missing, what don’t I know” kept me going until I had several breakthrough “aha” moments in recent years. An unexpected glimpse into how a wide group of users sought information helped me decenter from my privileged position as a historian and see the broader community. And the value of considering where people gather, including Wikipedia.
AOTUS David S. Ferriero, whom I know in person and respect and admire, recently shared a call for scholars of U.S. history to contribute to Wikipedia.
As the National Archives, along with many other organizations, prepares for the 19th Amendment’s centennial we are working hard to increase access to the records we hold around women’s suffrage. One way we are doing this is by collaborating with Wiki Education, a nonprofit focused on empowering people to expand and improve Wikipedia content for the benefit of all. Through this collaboration, Wiki Education is launching a new virtual, immersive training course designed to give participants the skills and practical experience necessary to improve Wikipedia coverage of the history of women’s voting rights in the United States.
This is just one way in which collaborative efforts improve civic literacy and access to information in historical records about the government’s actions. In April 2018, Vietnam War era U.S. Coast Guard veterans participated in a logbook Scan-a-thon in the National Archives’ Innovation Hub in Washington. Historians and participants in past events share perspectives in some of the public programs that I help NARA staff in its McGowan Theater. NARA also offers in-person and online programs for educators.
David Ferrriero (who reads a lot of nonfiction and fiction) once said historian T. J. Stiles provided deep insights into the complex internal and external elements that affected the lives of those he studied. On December 1, 2018, Pam Wright helped me have another “aha” moment when she retweeted a tweet from Stiles.
Pam shared what Stiles tweeted about history: “The biographer’s ethic is pretty much the opposite of social-media culture. You have to seek—& appreciate—contradictions, complexity. You value context. You retain an awareness of the good & bad in someone at the same time. As Brenda Maddox asked, ‘What’s love got to do with it?'”
That Kate Theimer of Archivesnext spoke in 2012 about “the archival divide” at the American Historians Association conference seemed novel then. Kate once tagged me in sharing a link to a quote from Martha Beck: “Your life follows your attention. Wherever you look, you end up going.” Leaving the expressway, getting out of the car or off the train and walking with others in their neighborhoods helps us broaden our perspective.
In 2015, historian Timothy Burke inspired me to write “I Like This Thing,” in which I quoted from an examination of insight and creativity.
A recent column in the Washington Post explains the neuroscience of insight and analysis. “Insight is like a cat. You can’t order it to appear. You can coax it. But you can’t command it. Creativity and insight flows from a particular brain state. And if you can put yourself in this brain state, you will be more likely to have these creative insights.”
The article described the value of going outdoors: “If you can see far and wide, then you can think far and wide.” The same is true online. Let’s get off of the highways and the trains on tracks with designated stops. And walk around. Freely, on our own. And learn and share in community spaces where we hear many voices, not just echoes of our own.