After a visit to the archives by the third-graders with whom he works as archivist for the Gilman School, Steve Ammidown wrote
“No matter the content of our collections, we have the opportunity to inspire the next generation by talking about what we have and what we do. It’s a long game to be sure, but I see the impression I’m making in the eyes (and the many questions) of the students I work with. They will remember archives and archivists. And that’s all I can ask for.”
His post in the “One Year in the Life” series at the Society of American Archivists SNAP Roundtable’s blog included a photo of him showing students an artifact in his archives collection. The purpose of the class visit was to get the boys to think about what they might donate to the archives.
Steve observed that he had a perfect item on hand, football cleats recently donated to the school archives by a former student who had played in a milestone game. Luckily, a teacher’s photo captured the moment.
Steve did not see the expressions on the student’s faces until the teacher later shared the photo. He called it the perfect archivist moment. “Sure, boys are natural hams when a camera comes out, but this was mostly genuine excitement. ”
As I read his post, I thought back to a Tweet that Steve shared last May about third graders being smart and able to “get archives.” Connecting with others is a big part of doing archives right. As Steve showed, we rely on our understanding of others to customize our advocacy efforts. And understanding others requires listening.
I see many different threads in my Twitter feed. Tweets reflecting conference presentations, workplace matters, archival processing, library life, records management issues, educational opportunities offered by professional association accounts, pitches from people marketing products (including organizations and professional associations).
The questions, debates, advice, and marketing pitches reflect how those Tweeting view themselves and others and the work they do. Some scripted and on point. Some tumultuous, even chaotic. The tweets that catch my eye are the ones that come from the heart.
I don’t know Steve in person, only online. I’ve been listening to him and many other archivists, librarians, informational professionals, and historians on Twitter for years. I look to Twitter for many things, including inspiration.
My Social Media connections remind me that we’re connected in so many ways yet also separate, disparate. Together alone, alone together.
But many of the people I follow on Twitter–from Kate Theimer, the archival leader who first taught me about the online Social World, to Maureen Callahan, Jarrett Drake, Rebecca Goldman, Meredith Evans, Sam Winn, Bergis Jules, Ashley Stevens, and so many others–use the platform effectively. To ask questions, share knowledge, give others a boost, advocate. And as Steve wrote in “I want the whole story,” to look for ways to make the archives and library profession better.
A year ago, I featured Steve in a post, “At the heart (archives).” The work we do as archivists and librarians takes place within the educational system, the academy, in corporate settings, within the government, in communities. For many of us, the happiest moments involve sharing knowledge. Part of that happiness comes from knowing that preserving and making knowledge available isn’t always easy. And seeing others work on overcoming those challenges.
We know that in archives and libraries, much of the labor is not visible outside our places of work. AOTUS David S. Ferriero wrote at his blog last week about the tremendous work done by front line and back room workers within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). David, whom I know and admire, shared his appreciation of the National Archives’ staff in a post about the agency’s annual awards ceremony.
“. . . for me every week of the year is Public Service Recognition Week because I am so proud of the work that you all do across our agency in service to the American people. Whether you are redacting pages from a service record in St. Louis, or refiling an IRS return in Lenexa, or helping someone navigate the FOIA process, or connecting someone with their family history, or ensuring that our staff and users are safe, or restoring a deteriorating film, or ensuring the a First Lady’s correspondence is accounted for, or educating a school group about how our government works, or safeguarding NARA holdings from leaks, condensation, and frost problems, or doing any one of the hundreds of tasks the comprise the work of the National Archives—thank you for your passion and commitment to our mission.”
Employees in Washington and NARA locations throughout the United States contribute to what Ferriero calls “the true gift of the work we do.” In the Archivist’s office in the National Archives building, David keeps a small bag filled with limestone rocks from the Lenexa Federal Records Center. For him, it is “a constant reminder of a great staff doing great work for the American public.”
That public is diverse. The people whom NARA’s staff serve include genealogists, military veterans, their family members, and other citizens seeking information from the government, journalists, documentary film makers, academic researchers, students, teachers, professional historians and history buffs.
In my last post, I commended one such film maker, Ken Burns, for his thoughtful comments about historical complexity and diverse perspectives at the Vietnam War Summit. Burns also offered insightful perspectives on history and biography and narrative in his Jefferson Lecture on May 9, 2016 in Washington. His remarks focused on and highlighted life’s complexities.
In his Jefferson Lecture, Burns shared a story of his shame that as a child he turned away from a hug and kiss from an African American housekeeper (of whom he wrote, “I loved Mrs. Jennings’) during his mother’s final illness. Guilt at his action, and his father’s words (“Young man, I am so disappointed in you”) have stayed with him.
That Burns focuses on why people act as they do shows in his documentaries. He spoke in his lecture about competing stylistic approaches to history, finding that they augment rather than replace prior approaches in historiography.
“Each new ‘school of thought’ suggested that there was only one true lens through which that past was to be seen and refracted. They all came up short, of course, like the blind describing only one part of the elephant.
I’m pleased to say that some sanity has been restored in recent years, and we have begun to re-embrace an energized, inclusive narrative that’s able, lo and behold, to sometimes encompass all of those other perspectives. Nevertheless, many of us are still seduced by George Santayana’s famous saying that ‘we are condemned to repeat what we don’t remember.’ It’s a wonderful quote, wonderful quote, poetic even, but it’s just not true, I don’t think. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.’ If he actually did say it—we’re not sure that he did—one of our greatest writers definitely got it right. I have been trying to hear those rhymes and verses, trying to sing our song, for almost forty years.”
Seeing the work of thoughtful researchers such as Burns is part of the archives transcendence I often blog about. But his remarks also remind us of the divisions around us. Burns said that
“We know deep down that we are mortal, that none of us get out of this alive. So to keep that wolf from our cabin door, human beings, we human beings, seek always to find some frame to understand things, to overlay some order on that randomness of events, to find some meaning in it all precisely because of our inevitable mortality. But Ecclesiastes–“there is nothing new under the sun”–may be all that we need to understand, to help us tell and organize our stories. That truth might appear fatalistic or pessimistic, even discouraging—that we’ve made no progress—but it also means that we can often divine in history, and I believe particularly in biography, the way human beings are. Sometimes that human nature is reassuring and inspirational. Sometimes it is unsettling. But it is always useful—and it echoes in our daily life, today; ghosts, haunting ghosts, who may turn out in the end to be our greatest teachers.
Even though so many of us are genuinely sustained by our history and its myriad heroic examples, we also find ourselves today beset by discontinuity and disagreement. We are dialectically preoccupied—red state/blue state, rich/poor, male/female, young/old, black/white, gay/straight, North/South, East/West. We are determined to see things in the simple binary terms that our computer culture revels in, forgetting in the process the complexity that rules our true understanding of family, friendship, faith, and, I would submit, the history of our beloved, complicated country.”
Some stakeholders view our interpretations of our archives and library work much as we do, others very differently. Some people with whom we hope to partner match up well with us, others less so. Even within our archives community, we agree on some issues, disagree on others.
Yet there’s a quality that President Barack Obama pointed to in his Public Service Recognition Week proclamation that describes many who work in the archives field. Not just at NARA, or in Fedland. But outside it, too. David (pictured recently in his office) quoted the President’s words at his blog. The phrase that caught my eye? “Hopeful spirit.”
That’s what keeps me going, and I think many others, as well. I see it in their actions. I’ve mostly worked with adults during my career. But as Steve has, I’ve drawn on artifacts to explain archives to children on annual “Bring your children to work” days.
President Obama’s words recognize the contributions of many people with whom I’ve worked, respect, admire.
“Serving the public is not just a paycheck—it’s contributing to the steady effort to perfect our Union over time so our democracy works for everyone. This week, let us embrace the hopeful spirit that embodies the extraordinary work of our civil servants. It is the same spirit that built America, and because of the hard work of compassionate and determined public servants, it will continue to build us up for generations to come.”
Steve Ammidown describes the work of archivists as a long game. He’s right. We can’t be sure of the impact that we will have on those with whom we work. On school tours. In the research room. In exhibits we curate. With the voices and records we seek to preserve. Through materials we digitize and share online.
As we work through many challenges, Ken Burns’s words remind us of why our work matters. And of the value of being open to change, to listening, to trying to include more voices.
“Memory is imperfect. But its inherent instability allows our past, which we usually see as fixed, to remain as it actually is: malleable, changing not just as new information emerges, but as our own interests, emotions and inclinations change. I believe that history—particularly a complex and nuanced view of it—can be a table around which all of us can have a civil discourse and try to evoke those ‘better angels of our nature.’ My own life’s work—proudly, whole heartedly in the humanities–has in a sense been an attempt to try to summon them.”
I’m proud of those I know in person and online who strive to help new information emerge. Whose life work is sharing knowledge. In academic libraries, in corporate archives, in government archives–in person and online. With all who sit down at the physical or virtual research “table.” To learn from the “haunting ghosts, who may turn out in the end to be our greatest teacher.”