Through the door

December 14, 2018, 8:00 a.m., Washington, D.C.  I took up my assigned post, ready to greet and assist candidates for naturalization who soon would arrive at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  I was wearing a lightweight black coat made in 1940 for my late Mom, who came to the United States as a war refugee and, as did my Dad, became a naturalized U.S. citizen.  As I stood at my post, a contract employee I know from his work for NARA brought over equipment for other staff and National Archives Foundation (NAF) employees to use.  We exchanged nods and smiles in greeting.

The citizenship ceremony started at 10 a.m. in the Rotunda. Among the speakers, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and AOTUS David S. Ferriero. Both spoke movingly about civic obligations, history, and their immigrant parents and grandparents respectively.

Appropriated funds pay the salaries of civil service employees at the National Archives. The contract staff who work in Federal agencies and departments are paid by the company which employs them, based on time worked while facilities under government jurisdiction are open.  At some agencies, civil service employees rely on contract staff to support functions such as IT and records management.

At the National Archives, contract work includes some security services, technical and technological support, janitorial work, building maintenance. If you visit NARA facilities, including the presidential libraries, you feel and see the results of contract staff efforts to keep buildings safe, secure, clean, comfortable, and usable.

In my assignments for NARA’s Education and Public Programs Division, I work with many contract employees.  After the National Archives started doing children’s museum sleepover programs in 2014, Caneil McDonald, then director of special events for NAF, wrote to the company which provides many support services to the agency.

I am writing to tell you what a fantastic job Jason Winston and the entire LB&B team did this weekend during the sleepover. With so much going on, we were all working hard to ensure that the sleepover was a memorable experience for all attendees. It was comforting to know that your team was there making sure that things ran smoothly. Jason is often the person that we turn to when we need immediate assistance. He knows exactly who to call and does his very best to address concerns in a timely and professional manner. On top of that, he is simply a pleasure to work with! I hope your staff knows how much we appreciate their support at each and every event. Without them what we do just would not be possible.

You see Jason, who provides expert audio-visual tech support, with me and two of his LB&B video services colleagues on the Constitution Avenue steps of the National Archives’ Museum in June.  And in the Rotunda with David Ferriero and two LB&B staff in 2016.  As did Caneil and NARA’s facilities supervisor, Tim Edwards, David has shared appreciation with LB&B for the support many team members provide NARA at various events.  In May 2018, Darryl Vines was among the LB&B contract staff receiving thanks during the Archivist’s Achievement Awards Ceremony for supporting an important Obama presidential records move.

When my late sister Eva, a NARA supervisory archivist and team leader, talked about workplace issues, she often mentioned how easy it is to lose sight of others when focused on day-to-day concerns.  And how supervisory staff have opportunities to build bridges up and down the ranks and to place a unit’s work in the context of what others (civil service or contract staff) are doing throughout the agency.   In my view, given the opportunity, anyone with that ability in the mix can be a leader, regardless of rank, career status, position classification or official designation on or off the job.  You see this online, as well.

One of my favorite responses on the Archives & Archivists Listserv came from Lee Stout when he replied to a researcher’s complaints in 2007 about cuts in research room hours at NARA.  She framed her opposition to shortened hours by criticizing the money spent on an Electronic Records Archive, drawing on unnamed internal contacts.  And referring to outreach sessions as “Moscow show trials.”

The reference to what she was hearing reminded me of my struggles throughout my career (even now) to put some information in context.  To understand that what one or two people tell me reflects only those individual perspectives, not a 360 view.  Sometimes I handle it in a way that I look back on and regard as okay, at other times I wish I had done better.  So I was glad to see Lee’s response to the researcher:

On the one hand, I hate to see the Archives cut hours. It affects me personally too, but more importantly, as an archivist dedicated to public service, it’s painful to see this happen anywhere. But my own library has done it as well. Inadequate budgets damage the entire archival process –appraisal, processing, preservation, description, reference service and access all suffer from fiscal constraints.

Lee added that the appropriations and budget allocation process aside, the issues were not as easy to resolve as she asserted. He showed empathy as he shared his experience on the Listserv.

My twin sister was high empathy, a characteristic some experts say can be nurtured (or damaged) at home or child care and pre-K-12 early education.  An educator friend recently told me how some K-12 schools rely on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs aimed at understanding and managing emotions, creating positive partnerships, encouraging recognition of others’ perspectives, empathy, and making decisions.

In addition to being an insightful educator in traditional topics and SEL at his day job, my friend also specializes in strategic analysis and history.  He observed that kindness and empathy don’t guarantee making good decisions.  But they can be an important factor in decision-making when combined with certain cognitive and temperamental elements.

So how would Eva (who died in 2002) have handled her career, had she lived and risen in rank at NARA headquarters, in the field, or at a presidential library?  In impromptu conversations or official meetings about workplace matters or surveys, she would have recognized that people see personnel and mission issues differently.  And that candid conversations, in-group or with supervisors (if trusted), lead to two-way learning.  Open on-the-job discussion is an advantage permanent staff have that not all contractors do.

My favorite description of archives or library staff meetings comes from David Ferriero’s “Burnout at the Reference Desk,” in which he described how to mitigate workplace stress:

 …socialization: a chance to get away from users and the cluttered desk; to exchange pleasantries with the rest of the staff in a relaxed atmosphere; support group–a place where a public service person can vent the frustrations of dealing with problem users and get tips from the group for making the next such encounter less frustrating and the nod from the group that it is alright to have those feelings.

David, whom I know and support, described how supervisors can watch for staff burnout and help or team members can take that on themselves (“the team must look out for each other”). He noted that both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.

My experiences have taught me that the team leader, supervisor, executive can build bridges. Help open doors to operational and cultural insights (not just their own as boss) that may stay with employees even after they leave for another job.  And to future internal advancement, as my sister did for many.

Employee concerns may include promotion potential, the impact of budget freezes, workforce reassignments, heavy workloads, short turnaround assignments, lack of resources.  Sometimes, as early in my career when the National Archives faced severe budget constraints, a manager has few cards to play.  The best turn to offering intangible benefits.

Structural elements affect what a boss can do in some areas. Agencies and departments with greater functional homogeneity in terms of Federal Office of Personnel Management educational requirements and a higher number of senior manager and executive positions than at NARA can offer potential financial benefits that others can’t. Even within different Federal agencies and departments, the number of jobs necessary for operations but with few opportunities to switch into main mission tracks without going back to school can affect morale in some work units more so than others.

As a supervisor, manager, senior level official or executive you consider employee perspectives and strive to improve areas you can control. And use a light touch in selling initiatives.  Keep it real.  But don’t put your thumb on the employees’ feedback scale to add weight, especially negative weight.  Or “poison the well,” especially during times of change.

Lobbying to get your unit’s share of resources, jockeying for position, offering upwards pre-decisional input are pretty standard in organizations.  But if you have questions about the impact of decisions, take them up with superiors or air them out with peers.  If as a boss you have trouble supporting something, don’t signal to subordinates your discontent about an organizational action or policy.  Avoid “negative bonding” choices.

Seeing the bigger picture, understanding your staff but also your colleagues and agency head helps you see context.  You might not be able to share with the team everything you know about internal and external forces.  But an empathetic, inclusive nature helps you decenter and convey context up and down the ranks.

Would Eva handle this perfectly as a top manager or executive, had she reached such ranks?  Some but not all, no human is perfect.  But I know she’d like David Ferriero’s answer to me when I asked how he came to write “Burnout at the Reference Desk,” a humanistic, empathetic look at workplace issues from several perspectives.  And why he believes good leaders relate to what others are experiencing.

If she were here, Eva and I would be talking about some of this as we walked together.  And we’d be exchanging thoughts about the mistakes we’d made, as well, in that cherished safe space twins sometimes form.   I still remember one of her rare postings on the Archives & Archivists Listserv, where she sought to counter a manager’s caustic comments about job applicants. She would use Social Media to chat or lurk as fit best, to listen, share, provide context, show glimpses of herself, represent.  And save some thoughts to share with me and as described above.

In this post, I’m reflecting the influence of a top government auditor I knew in person and studied during my career, Elmer B. Staats.  An executive observed that he worked for good government without hitting people over the head. Raise your hand if getting hit figuratively has led you to have “aha” moments.  Me neither.

As do I, Eva read many memoirs and history books.  We were used to discussing workplace issues candidly, including how we struggled with our decisions or mistakes. So neither of us was drawn to the most extreme version of the 19th century “Great Man” approach to looking at historical figures.  While that approach to writing history has fallen out of favor, you sometimes still see it in individual-centered workplace nostalgia.  “Things were good when he or she was here, etc.” But job issues are never as simple as the presence or absence of a single former colleague.

My workplace experiences have heightened my interest in how people face challenges.  This includes willingness to take the actions that changing times require “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  Especially when there are no easy, immediate payoffs, much less actions to win applause for a star performer standing alone on stage  (Or in Social Media terms, Likes, Shares, Favorites, and Retweets.)

In May 2010, soon after I started my first, anonymous, blog, Archives Matter(s), I wrote  about “A Thirsty Archives.”  I initially was reluctant to write under my own name and adopted a way of writing that obscured my natural style while conveying core principles.  I later shut down most of the blog but left that post and my April 2010 Hackacad post (“Research in the Old and New World of Archives”) visible.  In those two posts from 2010, I looked at change in the worlds of archives, libraries, and history.  I saw that old ways of expressing appreciation for archival labor inside and outside employing organizations would need to change as the gatekeeper model receded.

Since I wrote “Research in the Old and New World of Archives,” I’ve read works and in some cases helped the National Archives staff book lectures by authors who used materials in archives:  Eric Foner, Jeffrey Kimball, Luke Nichter, James Wright, Claire Potter, Michael Koncewicz, Joanne Freeman, David Blight, Michael Beschloss, just a few among them.  I appreciate the thanks they gave reference archivists who helped them at archival facilities.

Michael Beschloss and journalist Cokie Roberts serve as Vice President and Vice Chair of the National Archives Foundation. In speaking to him, I’ve come to see that Beschloss (shown in my photo of a NARA event I helped staff last month) has a deep understanding of archival work as well as history.   So, too, Luke Nichter, whom I met for lunch at the National Archives’ College Park facility in October.

The doors behind us reflect the outside world, including part of the jogging trail where Eva walked during lunch breaks.  Going through them back into the building takes you into the NARA cafeteria where staff of all ranks, contractors, researchers, and other visitors gather. Sis no longer is among them.  But I still remember a colleague’s words:  “Eva took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.”

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Through the door

  1. Happy New Year Maarja, wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

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