Making space for others

An essay by Dr. Robert Greene II about Star Trek and leadership helped me see a path we can follow in the history, archives, and records professions.  He illustrated the article with a photo of  Captain Jean-Luc Picard smiling as he sat in bed, reading a book. As I read “Continuing Mission,” I felt myself relax and realized I was reacting to the lack of noise.

I could savor the words without the tension I felt during other online experiences.  Instead of stress caused by yelling, loud music that threatened to drown out quiet voices, and, at times, roadblocks to where I tried to go, I saw a vision that connected past, present, and future.

Ashley Stevens, the Archives and Research Manager for the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Michigan, indirectly introduced me to Dr. Greene online.  I saw their interactions in tweets that showed up in my timeline and started Following him.  In addition to reading and writing about history, the three of us are fans of the Star Trek series which began on broadcast television in 1966 and has continued in successive new versions inspired by creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

In 2014, Ashley Stevens described at one of her blogs what it was like to meet Nichelle Nichols, who played the communications officer, Lt. Uhura, on the original series. And how her mother, then a teenager, reacted to seeing Uhura’s character on TV.  And why she introduced her daughter to a later version of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

In that moment, in the auditorium listening to Nichelle Nichols, it finally dawned on me: my mother was one of the millions of kids/teenagers inspired by her role.  My mother saw a strong, smart black woman in space on a starship holding her own with all the testosterone on the bridge.  And here she was some 20-odd years later sitting her daughter down to watch DS9 starring Captain Benjamin Sisko, an African American captain in charge of a space station.  I didn’t realize until that moment that my mother was passing along that inspiration.  Her subtle way of saying “Ashley, you can reach for the stars.  Reach as far as you think you can go and then push a little farther.  It’s possible.”

As I looked at the photo of Nichelle Nichols with Ashley Stevens, I heard Uhura’s voice telling Captain James T. Kirk, “Hailing frequencies open.”  It’s 17 years since I sat in the Captain’s chair during a special tour of the Star Trek exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  Dr. Greene’s essay helped me see the impact of the leaders who followed Captain Kirk.  And how much I’ve learned since I sat in a chair that was a prop in an exhibit mockup of a set.

I’ve been a fan of Star Trek since I fist watched The Original Series (1966-1969).  Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, half-Vulcan, half-human, stood out for me in the show which creator Gene Roddenberry, a scriptwriter for Westerns earlier in his career, described as Wagon Train to the stars when he developed the original series.  In his essay about Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the starship in the later Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dr. Greene observed,

While the inspiration for The Original Series had been the classic western, with James T. Kirk as the rugged white-hatted cowboy, the casting of British theatre actor Patrick Stewart for The Next Generation changed the framework. In the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, Stewart remembers asking the franchise’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, for guidance. Roddenberry handed him a stack of Horatio Hornblower novels, suggesting a new model of introspection and quiet dignity.  Picard became a man who only fought when necessary, even allowing for his ship to take damage rather than fight back. He was comfortable with Shakespeare and Gilgamesh, using the latter story to forge a friendship with an alien captain from a species that communicated only through metaphor and archetype.

He described what Stewart and screenwriters showed us on STNG and why it matters.

Picard’s complexity reminded millions of viewers during Star Trek: The Next Generation’s heyday that we all contain multitudes. Following in his footsteps, Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine and Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway on Voyager continued to expand the range of Star Trek’s commanding officers. Breaking from Kirk’s more traditional male heroism, Picard’s thoughtful, contemplative example allowed Sisko and Janeway to adopt some of those same traits. Picard’s humanist disposition became part of the Starfleet way. After his tenure as a Starfleet Captain, space opened up for an African American and a woman to succeed him.

The original series included some episodes I still look back on fondly, “Amok Time,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty,” “Whom Gods Destroy,” and “Mirror, Mirror” among them.   I liked the Vulcan philosophy embodied in “Infinite Diversity Infinite Combinations.”   As I grew older and re-watched some of the episodes, I felt frustration at times at the lack of growth in action hero characters such as Captain Kirk.  My reactions reflected being in the workforce and realizing how complex decision making could be.  And what I looked for in colleagues and members of the team, ones I led and ones for whom I worked.

Four years after NBC cancelled the broadcast series, I sat at a typewriter in Washington, reading letters to Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R – TN).  He was Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities.  My job included writing responses to citizen letters, signing them with the Senator’s signature with an autopen, and sending them out.

I signed most of the letters with a full signature, others with Howard.  For friends and others for whom using the first name was best, I would place the outgoing letter in the right position for the auto pen to touch the paper, then lift it at the moment it finished Howard so the pen didn’t complete the full signature.

Mail about Watergate was pouring in from citizens throughout the United States, greatly increasing the correspondence load from customary legislative, issue and other constituent mail.  A Star Trek letter caught my eye but that’s all I can say about it. Why?  Because I don’t know if it was preserved in a collection of letters members of the public sent Baker.  And, if so, whether it now is among the materials open for research.  As a historian, I recognized its value when I read it.  As an archivist, I respect best practices and the Code of Ethics of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

I first met Ashley Stevens at the SAA conference in Washington in 2014 and reconnected with her at the conference in 2018.  Thanks to archivists, historians can read records from ordinary citizens and future megastars such as Leonard Nimoy.  Four years before the premiere of Star Trek TOS, Sandra and Leonard Nimoy sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, protesting above-ground tests of nuclear bombs by the United States and Soviet Union and appealing for children’s right to have clean air to breathe.

Although the original Star Trek never achieved high ratings on broadcast TV during its regular run, it gained a strong following among fans in syndication in the 1970s.  Nimoy used his stardom to support environmental causes, appearing in an advocacy film about chemical hazards in 1979. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the Federal government hired 81 free lance photographers to take photographs reflecting life in urban and rural environmental conditions.  Preserved through Federal records management and retention scheduling, some 15,000 images now are part of the online catalog of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

My earliest archives assignments were with Special Media in circumstances where my colleagues and I acted as pathfinders working under circumstances none of our colleagues had faced.  In an age of electronic records, others have opportunities to act as pathfinders on both sides of the reference desk.   

The telegram Sandra and Leonard Nimoy sent in 1962 now might be sent by electronic mail. Archival associations such as SAA and the Council of State Archivists and the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators and related groups work to preserve electronic records.   I placed this work in historical context in a September 2019 Passport essay for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

NARA officials are creating new paths for carrying out the archives’ mission not because of changes in values or goals, which remain the same, but because the creators of records have embraced new tools for business communications in recent decades, just as they have in the corporate and academic worlds.

I described the challenges but also the opportunities for us all.

NARA’s ongoing efforts to preserve and make knowledge available provide all of us who care about archives the opportunity to make history together by gathering in “safe harbors” to talk through our perspectives on the issues with goodwill, inside and outside NARA.  NARA has also given us the opportunity to draw on our individual experiences and skills as we embrace exciting chances to face present and future challenges together.

What makes me optimistic we can do this?  The picture of Picard reading James Joyce that Dr. Greene used at the start of his essay.  And that he himself often tweets about reading, as do do many others whose posts catch my eye.  Not so much archival theory, which hasn’t caught up with fast moving events in the complex world in which we work in the public and private sector.  But books about human experience.

For me the answers to how to handle email and technology and change management don’t lie in the examinations of archon power and cultural fever Jacques Derrida described in his 1994 deconstructivist lecture about Archives Fever.  But in walking around our physical and virtual communities. Learning through listening and reading.  Striving to understand ourselves and those around us and what affects their lives and choices.  Even laughing at our own actions.

That’s my favorite photo of AOTUS David S. Ferriero, stepping back on the curb as he, NARA staff and guards laugh after he tried to cross Pennsylvania Avenue for a better view of Pope Francis’s motorcade in 2015.   City security officials yelled at him to get back on the sidewalk.

If you go to AOTUS blog, you’ll see from his virtual bookshelf that David is a big reader who has blogged about the joys and value of reading.  When I help NARA staff events in which he participates, we sometimes exchange book recommendations.  I understood exactly what the English major and Navy psych tech meant, when in a recent Q&A about “Truth, Tweets, and Tomorrows,” Ferriero responded to a question about statutes, “How do you change human nature?

The Picard Management Tips Twitter account shows the enduring appeal of Jean-Luc Picard as a leader unafraid of deep reading and making difficult choices.  In February, I read an essay in the Paris Review about “Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction.” Mairead Small Staid looked at deep reading in the context of a work published a quarter century ago:

“I read books to read myself,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts’s book, which turns twenty-five this year, is composed of fifteen essays on reading, the self, the convergence of the two, and the ways both are threatened by the encroachment of modern technology. As the culture around him underwent the sea change of the internet’s arrival, Birkerts feared that qualities long safeguarded and elevated by print were in danger of erosion: among them privacy, the valuation of individual consciousness, and an awareness of history—not merely the facts of it, but a sense of its continuity, of our place among the centuries and cosmos. “Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience,” he wrote. “It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.

In reading the essay, I found myself thinking about Roddenberry’s vision of a future with room for action hero idealists such as Captain Kirk, supported by a crew that included Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura, and for introspective humanists such as Captain Picard.  The Minnesota poet, critic, and essayist concluded that

Birkerts’s argument (and mine) isn’t that books alleviate loneliness, either: to claim a goal shared by every last app and website is to lose the fight for literature before it starts. No, the power of art—and many books are, still, art, not entertainment—lies in the way it turns us inward and outward, all at once. The communion we seek, scanning titles or turning pages, is not with others—not even the others, living or long dead, who wrote the words we read—but with ourselves. Our finest capacities, too easily forgotten.

Thank you, Dr. Greene, for reminding me of how Captain Picard came to embody a humanist future.  And Ashley for bringing the three of us together, in online space not entirely made up of constant distraction.

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

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