To lift up and make visible

Individual responsibility.  It’s on us to strengthen focus on community–in the archives profession but also in how we work and engage.  And by expanding the stories of human experience, good and bad, recorded in archives.

Although the focus is only one of the issues covered, the title of this essay comes from Stacie Williams’s blog post, “Implications of Archival Labor.”  She points to the way we describe archives in terms evoking “love and passion.”  Sometimes, as she says, that obscures issues such as time and money.

At other times, as for me in much of my recent blogging, the use of such framing stems from a complicated place.  I choose to write from a place of love and hope about a profession whose goals I find transcendent.  That doesn’t mean I haven’t faced discouragement, grappled with professional challenges for which there were no good answers, or seen disturbing things happen.

That may be the case for others, too.  The life journeys of those with whom we engage are not always evident IRL, much less online.

Some of my past experiences with powerful, frightening forces during my archival career have been sobering, lonely, and dark.  I’ve learned from them and moved on.  At times my blogging reflects my experiences in Fedland, which I sometimes reflect on during my evening walks.

Reflecting pool, mallards and Washington Monument, sunset 112515

These days I walk towards the light.  But the past and present show in the complex combination of idealism and realism with which I discuss archives transcendence.  Hoping others do well, wishing them success, is a part of that.

Stacie Williams (@Wribrarian) looked at labor in the context of grant funded projects and the use of poorly paid grad students and unpaid interns and volunteers to process collections and digitize materials.  And asked why the archival community is so bad at advocating for itself.

Some of the issues she raised–digitizing materials, how it is done-are part of managing archives and libraries in a time of change.   She observed that some of the “labor is often times unequal, rooted historically in sexism, racism, ableism, and classism, and that will always present a challenge to the access we hope to provide.”

Contentious relations between universities and the communities can affect work in academic libraries and archives.  So, too, the hidden cost of working among the more privileged.   This passage about acceptance caught my eye in @Wribrarian’s discussion of fit:

“If they know the right jokes or listen to the right music or watch the right kinds of shows or perform gender identity in a subjectively acceptable way. And we expect little to no criticism for it.”

Fit and inability to speak up can have a deep impact, especially on job seekers and those in precarious job situations.  In 2014, I saw how barriers to job insecure participants discussing employment and labor issues led an online archives forum to implode.

Establishing a Code of Conduct (CoC)  expresses the values of a professional association or group.  Some participants learn and adjust their behavior in meaningful ways.  Others go underground.

Establishing safe space through individual action depends on the willingness of people to speak up on behalf of “the unlike,” not just oneself.  This can be indirect or direct.  Because the source of disruptive behaviors is not clear, pointing to and rewarding good behaviors is one option.

In Wild West online space without Codes of Conduct, as IRL, defending the vulnerable can place a speaker in the crossfire.  Some people are more willing to do that for disadvantaged members than others are.

In space with a CoC, participants who “don’t see the problem” may feel a sense of grievance, even persecution, at having to operate within set rules.   Or perceive themselves rather than others as the victim.

Unwritten rules can constrict actions in the workplace or online.  In the worst cases they undermine the values in “vision statements” and other official pronouncements.  Online and IRL, it takes insight, awareness of individual and group dynamics, humility and a lot of work to establish space where diverse voices are welcome in more than name only.

If old conventions don’t fit you, it can be hard to make your voice heard in a “locker room” or “old-boys club” environment.  This especially is the case in settings with towel-snapping status-jockeying putdowns not of individuals but entire professions or classes of people.  Or “othering” as bonding mechanisms.

In other settings, fitting in may require using certain jargon, pandering to a popular or elite subset of the group to be cool, or carefully crafting words to suit the predominant style.

The locker room, the clubhouse, the suite for the elite, the overly buzzword-dependent showcase, all can exact a hidden cost on participants.  And on the group.  Hiding behind masks can limit effective discussion of complex issues and the crafting of solutions.

I limit what I tweet about Fedland but Twitter is my preferred forum for connecting with archivists, librarians, information professionals.  However, as a secure, white, female professional rarely subjected to toxic behavior online, I know it is an easier place for me to engage than for others.  And that some of us go home to different places than others do.

If you’re on Twitter to push product, or don’t have time to listen, you’re not getting the full benefit of it for learning.   As Jarrett Drake observed in a tweet last year about not speaking for others, but letting them choose how, when, where to speak and what they–not you–need to say, sometimes you have to “stfu and listen.”

You see Jarrett at right, with Bergis Jules, at a diversity panel at the Society of American Archivists conference last year.   More recently Jarrett spoke on “RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description” at the Radcliffe Conference on Technology and Archival Processing.  (I’m still thinking through the complex issues he raised and may blog about some in a future post.)

SAA 2015 Bergis Jules, Jarrett Drake

I don’t have good answers for some of the issues that Stacie Williams raises, such as the use of volunteers.  Archivists have discussed unpaid labor off and on in recent years on Twitter and blogs.  As with other complex issues, there’s room for various perspectives.

Lance Stuchell offered insightful comments about interns and volunteers in 2014 in a reflective post about his student and employee experiences.  He also raised tough questions, admirably so, about insularity and our online echo chambers.

I blogged about the use of volunteers in 2012.  Some unpaid labor involves students and job seekers in difficult economic circumstances who do general work similar to what a new hire would do for pay.   A few internships lead to jobs but there is a huge supply and demand imbalance, more so than when I graduated.

In certain volunteering situations, retirees with good pensions assist for free on specific time-dependent projects requiring deep-immersion subject matter knowledge that new hires don’t yet have.   They could return as well-compensated contractors for one, two, or three years.  But they choose to give back as volunteers.

One such person is my longtime friend and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) colleague, Tim Mulligan.  We are pictured last month at the same reception at NARA where I had the joy of meeting Meredith Evans.  I admire Meredith for her public service and for her work with Bergis Jules on “Documenting the Now.”  I admire Tim for his long public service as an archivist-historian and for now giving back to archives as a retiree.

Maarja Krusten, Meredith Evans, 031416tim-and-maarja-reception-nara-rotunda-041416

Promoting online engagement comes with a caveat.  I recognize the effect of information asymmetry.  The higher people are in rank in the archives or library profession, the fewer places they have to be themselves online.  Especially in Washington, in Fedland.  (Although rare, I like seeing people of high rank show glimpses of their human sides online in engaging ways.  I’ve shared at my blog some such stories about people I know and admire.)

Moreover, the elements with which senior officials deal are so complex, the environment so complicated, I’ve rarely if ever seen them covered well, much less fully, in traditional journalism.  (I’ve blogged in earlier posts about the problems with “news” on partisan or tendentious sites.)

Seeing your actions misrepresented or not understood is part of life at the top.  You have fewer peers than those of us at the managerial and the working levels.  But asymmetry affects many others online, too, although not as profoundly.  This makes me value willingness to consider “what don’t I know?” all the more.

In “The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight,” David McRaney wrote at You Are Not So Smart about why and how people wear masks, why they often engage in “othering,” and how groups form, bond, and interact.

“If you haven’t, go watch The Breakfast Club and come back. The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often.”

Social Media adds to this.  Some people are more self-conscious and strategic in use of social media than others.   Some Tweet carefully, others are very spontaneous, at times quite visceral.   We all represent in various ways.

Which leads me to our obligations to others.

Stacie Williams suggests, “Lift up and make visible the employees who do the digital or processing work, allow them to benefit professionally from their labor in the same way that their managers do. This is a field that takes a lot of people to produce the highest level work.”

Recognizing the contributions of colleagues of all ranks and functions applies in change environments more generally, as well.

The tone at the top of an entity–a library, an archives, a museum, a professional association, the people with the most status in online space–is important.  In the best of circumstances, that’s where change and trust building begin.

The vision offered can be inspiring and aspirational.  The challenge is in making it happen.  And that’s where it is on us as much as on the leaders, whether we are members of professional associations, employees on the job, or participants in public forums.

Generosity matters.  And so does realistic optimism.  By that, I mean finding a spot somewhere between Lake Wobegon and the Land of Grumbledore.

I see that spot in the Supervisors Handbook that NARA issued in 2014 and updated in 2015.   I admire its vision.  The advice fits what I’ve seen in effective leaders, managers, supervisors.  In some passages, I can hear the voice of my late sister, Eva, a Supervisory Archivist and Team Leader at NARA.

Eva, Neil, Joe, Jay et al. Dec. 16, 1994

But does the Handbook describe the National Archives as all of it is now?  Of course not.  It’s a guide to where it seeks to be, a travel guide for new supervisors.

Our travel guides work best when we attract diverse people to walk along us.  In 2013, I wrote about “Success As a Pathfinder in Archivesland.”  I pointed to NARA staff perceptions of different cultures and valuations of various functions, some perceived (fairly or not) as elite.

I illustrated the contributions of employees throughout the ranks by using the same photo of the records center that Stacie Williams used in her blog post.  And I wrote about Eva, at whose memorial service a colleague said, “She took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.”  In later posts, I explored the meaning of “the true gift of what we do.”

I often speak of supervisory, managerial and executive responsibilities in terms of having people in your care.  But beyond official Position Descriptions, we all have people in our care.  Let’s use the skills and professional abilities of which we’re so proud not just to promote ourselves, but to lift and make others visible.  To benefit them (and us) now.  And our successors in the future.

Colleagues down the (virtual) hall

Members of my Twitter community sometimes express the value of interacting on the platform, describing it as #onhere.  I was a relatively late adopter, first joining in 2010, but have come to embrace it as my preferred place for interacting with archivists, librarians, records professionals, and historians.

Over time, I’ve been adding to the number and type of people I follow.  Among the newest is Bob Baird (@ARMA_CEO), an official with ARMA International, a well-known records managers professional association.    I’ve also expanded the list of records management professionals I already follow (Cheryl McKinnon, Brad Houston, Eira Tansey, Jesse Wilkins among them), adding John James O’Brien and Don Lueders.

As a historian and former archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), I have a keen interest in (and am vested in) the entire lifecycle of records.   I recognize my NARA background affects my expectations.  You naturally think about colleagues who work on the archives and the records sides and understand each others’ contributions.  (I have four decades of experience working at the nexus of records, archives, and history.)

I’d like to see more archivists and historians take an interest in records management.  Not all archivists–and even fewer historians–are aware of the RM challenges that I spelled out last year in “Truth Bomb.”  That especially is the case if they largely work with older donor restricted (privately controlled) records and have no statutory RM or archival responsibilities that affect the records of the living.

The advice by Nola Weinstein in Vanity Fair’s recent essay, “Twitter Teaches C.E.O.s How to Make Friends and Influence People,” focuses on people in “corner offices” but is useful for others, as well.

“. . . the number-one success Weinstein and her team see from executives on Twitter is when they connect with their own colleagues and employees—explaining the reason behind a particular project or campaign, or highlighting a job well done by one of the company’s teams or offices.”

Authenticity matters on Twitter for people of all ranks, including senior officials.

“‘What I have seen is the most effective leaders are the ones who are out there actually engaging, listening, and tweeting themselves,’ [Weinstein] said.  ‘When your assets are overly polished and produced, it seems inauthentic, and Twitter is a place where authenticity matters.’”

As a historian, I’m geared towards reading between the lines, assessing messages and metamessages.  In some of the older paper records with which I’ve worked, I’ve gotten a sense of the human side of officials by looking at the files they generated in office.

Even news clippings and annotations tell you something about officials’ interests and reactions.   Take for example an executive with a broad functional portfolio but whose archived files reflect a high percentage of reading material and correspondence about leading people, managing a diverse workforce, adjusting to cultural change.   Although long out of office, across time, such metamessages show his or her sensibilities to the academic or government historian.

A predecessor or successor whose files heavily emphasize metrics or analytics to report in press releases and annual reports reflects a different focus in the same job.  Understanding a workplace requires putting together the pieces of a mosaic, especially when a government historian provides policy advice within an agency or department.  Traditionally, historians study the function, the person, the workplace culture.

The richest records enable you to discern the impact of the mission focus of the person and how their own wiring comes into play.  But also the tone at the top.   And the influence of the person in charge of the organization to whom executives report.

Maarja as National Archives employee at OEOB, 1977   Our NARA group White House at picnic 1977

My work as a National Archives employee whose assignments included disclosure review of the Nixon tapes and files gave me a fascinating look at the White House as a workplace.   The first photo shows me in 1977 in what then was called the Old Executive Office Building, wearing a White House complex badge.  I’ve also had opportunities to appraise for permanent or temporary value and help schedule records in executive agencies and at the Office of Management and Budget.

Appraisal recommendation 1979

I’ve learned about the importance of officials knowing at the time they create records what the public reach into them may be while in office and also later.  And when and how records will be transferred into archives.  In Nixon’s case, the rules changed.  He believed he could treat his files and tapes as personal property.  Instead, the government essentially seized them.

In 2014, I shared some advice about federal and presidential records awareness in the context of an ARMA group tour in California.

“Decades of case-law show that an agency can claim a FOIA exemption over certain pre-decisional information. What once was withheld under FOIA in the agency may over time be released by the National Archives—but through disclosure review, not an info dump.   The records hold time — how long the creating agency or department retains legal title prior to signing it over to the National Archives – matters a great deal, as NARA demonstrates in a recent draft bulletin.

Senior officials may nod during a briefing as you explain the ‘should be’ version of records management. If they do not buy in, or feel blindsided by the requirements, they may do what they think is best to protect their interests. And those of the agency head.

. . . .Timing of training matters. So, too, sensitivity to concerns, even fears, that cannot be stated directly. If you think of the creators of records as human beings (‘just like us’) and explain as you train, you can protect them and yourself and your employer from some very ugly trainwrecks.”

Kevin Kruse, Professor of History at Princeton University, recently talked at Process blog about the value of Twitter as “global office hours.”  He observed in a Q&A of advice to colleagues,

“I’d urge them to remember Twitter works best as a conversation. All too often, I’ve seen senior scholars who use it solely to dash off links to the latest media appearance or review they’ve received. To be sure, I do that too, but that can’t be all you do with it. Your tweets shouldn’t just be press releases. You really need to engage with others, to listen more than you speak. You need address the new questions posed to you (directly or indirectly) more than simply repeating your old answers, and ultimately to respond to the interests of others more than you promote your own. Think of them as your global office hours: keep the door open and your mind too.”

My background is as a Federal historian and archivist with duties throughout the records lifecycle.  But for me, as for him as an academic historian, Twitter’s value lies in expanding connections and opportunities to learn about others unlike oneself.  Kruse writes

“. . . .Twitter also helped me move outside my discipline more, as I’ve made new close contacts with scholars working in religion, law, sociology, political science, etc. And at the same time, it’s let me get to know journalists and columnists whose work I’ve long respected, to interact with them online and often to serve as a source for their own work.”

His advice reminded me of what AOTUS David S. Ferriero wrote at his blog in 2010 about “Leading an Open Archives.”  This was shortly before I came to know David in person and to like, respect, and admire him.   I first saw who he was on Social Media, when he quoted Charlene Li.  Ferriero wrote:

“Leadership requires a new approach, a new mind-set, and new skills. It isn’t enough to be a good communicator. You must be comfortable with sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships. Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored. Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn. And it is not sufficient to just be humble. You need to seek out opportunities to be humbled each and every day – to be touched as much by the people who complain as by those who say ‘Thank you.’”

NARA is a leader in the use of Social Media in professional and civic engagement.   Effective public service in archives and libraries depends on comfort in dealing with diverse customers and stakeholders.  We now see some of that online.

david-ferriero-maarja-krusten-nara-a1-social-media-fair-110411 Arian Ravanbakhsh and David Ferriero, Social Media Fair, NARA A1 November 2011

When NARA held a Social Media Fair in 2011, I talked to David Ferriero and to Arian Ravanbakhsh (a records policy expert) about Records Express and other agency blogs.  Arian took the photo of me with David where I’m laughing at a mistake I made.

Willingness to listen and learn from mistakes matters.  So, too, situational awareness.  Social Media offers opportunities for insights into other professions and workplaces.  As do many historians, Kruse points to empathy as a key element–considering how issues look to others.

Given my background working across multiple administrations, I especially appreciate outside experts willing to look at issues systemically and by acknowledging multiple perspectives.  On Twitter, blogs, Listservs,  Mr. or Ms. Pro (Steven Aftergood is an example) has the potential for greater impact in examining archives and records issues than someone perceived by readers or listeners as Mr. or Ms. Partisan or Salesperson.

I recently posted a link, with context, to the Archives & Archivists Listserv about Aftergood’s balanced and thoughtful Secrecy News item about a Department of Defense assessment of frequent FOIA filers.  I offer observations on FOIA, records declassification, records management, and history from time to time on the Listserv.  (I also tried out Recmgmt-L ten years ago but left after about a year.)

I strongly believe we learn best by sharing learned and lived experience, to the extent message discipline permits.  Most of my engagement now occurs on Social Media, which is why Kruse’s thoughtful essay caught my eye.

When I put out a call last week for places where archivists, records managers, and historians could gather, a friend on Twitter suggested Don Lueders’s blog as a site for visionary, insightful thinking about records issues and change.  A recent post caught my eye because Lueders looked forthrightly at records management failures over the last 20 years.  He also shared his strongly felt perspective on choices for ARMA going forward.

I’m not an ARMA member although I’m dependent on the work and actions of some of its members.   Lueders makes an effective case for striving to dispose properly and in a timely manner of temporary records.   And for why RM collapsed in some areas.  He offers his view on why the old ways of handling records haven’t worked.

As a historian, I mostly focus on permanently valuable records.   I understand the effect of increased scrutiny.  Why some government officials say “pick up the phone” rather than going on the record.   Why reticence surrounds so many areas of records creation–and records management realities, as well.

And as I wrote in “Truth Bomb,” why e-discovery is a double-edged sword in selling RM.  One that if not played with exquisite awareness of internal culture can lead some federal officials to react to dehumanization in tendentious reporting on their words by further hiding their humanity.  History’s loss.  Unlike over-retention issues, the chilling effect seems irreversible to me.  Understanding that requires diagnosing internal injuries a patient may not be willing to discuss.

I admire the work archivists such as Maureen Callahan are doing with archival description, metadata, and context.  As I noted in a post about context, this affects records throughout their lifecycle.  It has profound implications in the way some creators of records have reacted to the change from paper to electronic records.

We need to hear more from those employed in hybrid functions, archivist with records management duties as well, to the extent they can offer reality based solutions.  And as I wrote in 2013, we need to be willing to go into the room and talk to The Man who works sitting by the digital fireplace.

And most of all, for those of us who care about knowledge, as well as information and data (very different), we need more bridge building between records managers, archivists, historians.  Even if it is just to better understand the longterm impact of negative and positive incentives and the mixed RM messages I recently wrote about in a post inspired by concerns raised by Cheryl McKinnon and John James O’Brien.

To do this, we need to have global open office hours and to listen and talk to colleagues down the virtual hall.

And in RM and archives, professions that rely on control, to become more comfortable with chaos as part of change.

A wonderful gift of service

“How do you see this?”  And “What do you think?”  Being able to discuss issues comfortably can make a difference in our workplaces.

When you’re exploring new paths on the job, doing archival work no one else has done under those circumstances, who sits beside you in the office matters all the more.  I was lucky.  Around the time this photo was taken of us on the steps of the National Archives in the summer of 1981, that person was Rodney A. Ross.   Rod and I were among a group of National Archives employees who received awards for working on the move of Carter White House records during December 1980-January 1981.

Carter WH Move award photo 1981 with AOTUS Bob Warner

Around the same time, my boss, Fred Graboske, assigned Rod Ross to work with me on a presidential records disclosure review pilot project for which I was Team Leader.   We worked for the Office of Presidential Libraries in secure areas reached by doors with combination locks.  Facilities staff modified one stack area, 15W2, so we could spread out and work individually at desks.  But for this pilot project, I needed someone to join me at a work table.

NARS ca. 1979

WikiXDC_National_Archives_Tour_Hall_-_Stierch Rod Ross 2002

Rod and I discussed principles, best practices, and context as we went through the materials chosen for the pilot.  We largely were in agreement on the archival and historical matters under consideration.  And when we saw any interpretations or issues differently, we sat side by side and talked them through congenially.   When the pilot project concluded, we reported our assessment and conclusions up the chain of command.

I started my job at the National Archives in 1976, Rod in 1977.   The photo shows him with “Introduction to Archives Administration” classmates a year after I took the same training course.  But as Rod often said, he first saw me before he began his archival career.

introduction-to-archives-administration-1979 c

In one of those wonderful Washington moments, Rod and his late wife Clara, pictured below, attended a performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library shortly before he took his job at the National Archives.  They noticed my twin sister, Eva, my Mother and me in line ahead of them, talking amongst ourselves in a foreign language (Estonian).   We wouldn’t actually “meet” until Rod joined the National Archives!

Rod and Clara Ross

When we later became friends as colleagues, I learned that Rod’s family history included relatives from another Baltic nation, Lithuania.   I enjoyed visits with Rod and Clara over the years at their home and mine; wonderful memories of conversations about history and culture.  The photos below show us in 1994. Clara, whose interests included lace making and knitting, made that sweater for Rod!

Maarja, Clara and Rod Ross, December 1994, Maarja's house (2)

NARA Nixon Project group at Maarja's house, December 1994 (2)

Rod Ross, Clara Ross, Mark Fisher, Maarja Krusten, Fynnette Eaton, December 1994

In 2013, I had the pleasure of hearing Rod speak to fellow employees at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) about his genealogical research.  Among those who attended his mid-day talk in the Washington Conference Room was AOTUS David S. Ferriero.   My photo of Rod and David is from an earlier event I attended at the National Archives in 2011.

Rod Ross, David Ferriero NARA A1 105 101911

Rod Ross, David Ferriero, NARA, 2011

Rod Ross, genealogy talk, NARA, A1, Washington Room, 090313

Rod Ross, genealogy talk to NARA colleagues and friends, September 2013

For Rod, as for me early in my career, his official “duty station” was the headquarters building of the National Archives at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.   Rod would become an expert on the history of the design of the building by John Russell Pope and the details of its architecture and construction.  Among the many talks he gave for the public at NARA over the years were ones on the history of the building.

Rod Ross, NARA, 2014

During the 1970s and into the 1980s, our division also maintained an Office of Presidential Papers in what then was the Old Executive Office Building.   In the late 1970s, Rod and I had White House badges as well as our regular National Archives’ ones.   During the Carter administration, we enjoyed attending the White House staff holiday reception; the photo shows us in the Red Room.

Fynnette Eaton, Mike Anderson, Pat Anderson, Maarja Krusten, Rod Ross, Joan Howard, White House, NARA group 1977 (3)

National Archives employees Fynnette Eaton, Maarja Krusten, Joan Howard (front), Mike Anderson, Pat Anderson, Rod Ross (back)

WH Christmas Party invitation 1977

Our early experiences on the job shape how we see our jobs and professions.  I couldn’t have had a better member of the team with whom to work on my assignments in the Office of Presidential Libraries than Rod Ross.   Luck and choices played a part in our careers, as he noted in a comment at my blog in 2011.

“In terms of my vocational choices, an irony is that professionally I’m in almost the exact same spot as where I’d have been had I taken the “other” career choice in 1975. Clara and I married and moved to Washington in 1972. During our first year of married life I had a Ford Foundation dissertation fellowship. In pursing job options, two offers came though within a day of each other in November 1974: a job as an archivist with diplomatic records at the National Archives and a job as a legislative assistant to Congressman-elect Tim L. Hall (D-IL). Being in my 20s, I opted for fame and glory on the Hill, rather than what could have been a life’s career. But Tim was not re-elected. Today I work with legislative records, not diplomatic records. — Of the photos you included, I particularly liked the one of Clara and myself with you and Dick McNeil, taken in 1994 at your home, with my wearing the ski sweater Clara had knit for me in 1973.”

In the 1970s, when staffing and budgets weren’t as tight as they now are, the National Archives had a Career Intern Development System for new archivists  which included two years of rotational training assignments.  We spent time off and on in our home units and in various mission and mission-support units in the Washington area before settling in to work on long-term assignments.

While I stayed in the Office of Presidential Libraries throughout my NARA career, Rod changed assignments several times during his first decade on the job.  As he explained in 2011,

“Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is a favorite of mine, even though the path of my career runs counter to its message. In 1974 I turned down an offer to become an archivist with the National Archives for State Department records to accept the position of legislative assistant to Congressman-Elect Tim L. Hall. Well, Tim was defeated in his re-election quest, which left me out of work. In 1977 I was successful a second time around in joining the National Archives, this time as a GS-6 go-for in the office of the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, notwithstanding my University of Chicago Ph.D. in American History. . . .

For nearly a decade I changed positions frequently, from an archivist’s slot with the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, to a two-year stint in the Old Executive Office Building as part of a two-person office collecting records for the future Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and when that office folded, as an archivist with the Accession and Disposal Branch of the Washington National Records Center in Suitland. From Suitland, I returned to the downtown National Archives Building, first a supervisor with the Library and Printed Archives Branch and then as a reference archivist with what now is known as the Center for Legislative Archives, where I’ve been since 1989.”

At the Center for Legislative Archives, Rod became the go-to person inside and outside NARA for information on Congressional history and records.   He also shared his deep knowledge of legislative records in public programs at the National Archives and other venues.  Rod had a wide network of internal and external contacts, which he drew on to answer research inquiries.

Rod Ross at work as archivistRod Ross and NARA Center for Legislative Archives colleagues

I was thrilled when Rod’s colleague Kris Wilhelm nominated him for a Lifetime Achievement Award which he received at the Archivist’s awards ceremony in 2014.  The commendation beautifully conveyed his contributions to the National Archives:  “For teaching a generation of archivists the meaning of professionalism and public service.”

Rod Ross, NARA Lifetime Achievement Award, 2014

In recent years, I’ve enjoyed talking to Rod at social events and public programs at NARA.  It very much is like Rod to bring guests such as Dara Baker to the receptions in the Archivist’s Reception Room.   In 2012, Dara, a historian, recently had attained a Masters in Library Science from the University of Maryland.  She now is Head Archivist at the Naval War College.  I enjoyed chatting with Rod, David (whom I know and admire) and Dara about her studies at Maryland, where she had heard the Archivist speak.

(c) Bruce Guthrie Dara Baker, Rod Ross, David Ferriero MCARTR_120216_010

Dara Baker, Rod Ross, Maarja Krusten, David Ferriero, NARA, 2012, photo (c) Bruce Guthrie

At a National Archives reception in 2014, I congratulated Rod on his Lifetime Achievement Award.  We chatted about our work together and colleagues and researchers whom he assisted over the years.  As sometimes happens when a valuable employee receives a career honor, Rod told me then several people had asked if he was about to retire.


Maarja Krusten, Rod Ross, National Archives reception, 2014, photo (c) Tony Powell, credit Washington Life

Fortunately for the National Archives, Rod was not ready for retirement yet. Last spring, he recorded a beautiful video for NARA about the meaning of Memorial Day.  But later in 2015, he decided to retire sometime the next year.  So Saturday, April 2, 2016, marked his last day as a paid civil servant.

Many of Rod’s friends at NARA, including David Ferriero and my former colleague, Janet Kennelly, joined in wishing him well at a reception on March 31, 2016.  Other guests included friends from the Illinois State Society and the Lincoln Institute and researchers such as Jonathan Webb Deiss.    The room was filled with warmth.  My favorite moment?  I caught it in an iPhone photo when Kris Wilhelm and Rod embraced at the end of his remarks!

(c) Bruce Guthrie. ROSS_160331_202

Rod Ross, remarks, retirement reception, NARA. Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie.

Kris Wilhelm, Rod Ross, NARA, retirement reception, 033116

Kris Wilhelm, Rod Ross, NARA reception.

David Ferriero, Rod Ross, reeption, 033116 (c) Bruce Guthrie, ROSS_160331_339

David Ferriero, Rod Ross, NARA reception, March 31, 2016. Photo (c) Bruce Guthrie.

(c) Bruce Guthrie. ROSS_160331_455 Maarja's photo of Rod Ross, Jon Deiss, NARA reception for Rod, 033116

(c) Bruce Guthrie. Jim Cassedy, Rod Ross, NARA reception. ROSS_160331_501

James Cassedy made clear whom we were celebrating! (c) Bruce Guthrie.

Darlene McClurkin, Rod Ross, 033116 Bill Davis, Sam Anthony, NARA reception, 033116

For me the reception also was a reunion, a chance to get caught up with many former colleagues.    In Thursday’s joyous moment of celebrating achievement, I had a reminder of happy times in our work together at the National Archives in the 1970s and 1980s.

Maarja, Janet, Rod, Maygene, NARA 033116

Reunion with former colleagues: Maarja Krusten, Janet Kennelly, Rod Ross, Maygene Daniels, Rich Noble in the background. NARA, March 31, 2016.

I often blog here about the transcendent nature of the archival mission:  “the true gift of the work we do.”   When I write about archives at the heart, I’m reflecting what I’ve seen in the people I most respect and admire.  I’ve truly been lucky in who has sat beside me.

On a table in the Washington Conference Room at Rod’s party, we saw a display of photos, gifts for Rod, and expressions of appreciation.   As I picked up a pen to sign the book into which we inserted insta-photos of ourselves, I thought about the title I chose for a post about Rod and Clara in 2011.  “Nothing Hides the Color of the Lights That Shine.”

Rod Ross retirement party, certificate, card, 033116

I thought back to the pilot project we worked on as a team in the National Archives’ building so long ago.  Of the impact on our lives of knowing or being able to work with extraordinary people dedicated to the sharing of knowledge.

Of how I felt whenever I saw that NARA telephone number come up in a voice mail notification when I returned to my desk.  And knew that Rod was working through a research question.  Or checking in about a NARA event.  And that we would have a chance to chat.

Maarja Krusten, Cary McStay, Fred Graboske, Rod Ross, NARA, 080814 IMG_0134 cr r

Rod’s career as an archivist was a wonderful gift of service to many.  How lucky we are that he was willing to share that gift in a building whose history and true meaning he knew and understood so well.

NARA Magnolia 032216

On behalf of so many, Rod, “Thank you for your wonderful gift of service to NARA!”


The student quietly approached the teacher after class.  She sometimes found parts of the day’s lesson confusing.  So she asked questions, privately, to clarify what was being taught.

But as time went on, she realized she should have tried to overcome her reluctance to speak up in the classroom.  And ask her questions while the class was in session.

Why?  Because some other students likely had the same questions.  And sat there silently, as she did, without asking.

By speaking up, displaying what she didn’t know but needed to understand, she would be helping others.  Not just in the knowledge the teacher conveyed in response to questions.  But in letting her classmates know through her example, “You’re not alone.  I need help, too!”

Florence Tan went on to get a BS and MS in Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Business Administration.  She now works at the Goddard Space Flight Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  She is the Electrical Lead Engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory rover (Curiosity).

Last Thursday evening I heard her share the story about asking questions out in the open in the classroom.  Tan offered her observation in answer to an audience question about female students and Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) education.

McGowan Forum, Women in Leadership, NARA, A1 032416

The place?  The McGowan Theater in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  The event?  The 9th Annual McGowan Forum on Women in Leadership.  The theme?  “From the Computer Age to the Digital Age.”

Fittingly, the program at NARA on Thursday included film clips from documentaries about women in technology from the 1940s to the present day.  Among those featured were Grace Hopper (shown below in 1944), Katherine Jonson, and ENIACprogrammers.

GraceHopper-Group ca. 1944, source, Harvard University Archives, used in Future Force article

LT JG Grace Hopper, August 1944, Mark 1 project, photo from Future Force (ONR), courtesy Harvard University Archives

The historical images helped bring to life women’s contributions to computing and technology and the challenges they faced.  How such experiences shape people is very individual.   The advice they offer others, their interpretation of what it takes to succeed, varies.

As often happens, what caught my attention during the program was the importance of asking questions, as well as achievement.  I loved Tan’s comment about being confused, unsure, not knowing something.  And being willing to be open about that so others, too, can learn.   That pointed to someone who early on had an awareness of others, of peers, community, the group.

Florence Tan, Megan Smith, NARA, McGowan, 032416  SAM_Large

Tan’s comments at the National Archives about NASA’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite (above) and the appropriately named rover, Curiosity, intrigued me.  Her profile on the Goddard Space Flight Center’s webpage reflects the same engaging vibe I saw at NARA.  Asked about what she found most interesting and most challenging, she replied:

“Getting all the players and pieces to play together. I love my job because there is a new wrinkle to solve everyday. The job is fun because it is interesting and challenging. The people who support SAM are great co-workers that have many varied interests besides being superb engineers, scientists, and specialists. Contrary to the public view of nerdy engineers and scientists, we have among us accomplished chefs, divers, pilots, lawyer, master woodworkers, kayakers as can be seen by each person’s “favorite things” question. Working with the A-team makes working on SAM and Curiosity is a lot of fun and never boring. . . .

SAM is a complex instrument suite with intricately put together subsystems that are in their own right, just as complex. Building SAM within time and budget (mass, cost, power, volume) constraints and getting everyone to work together is an achievement in human collaboration.”

Most of us don’t work on projects as complex and high profile as the Mars rover.  But there’s a lot to be learned from  the work done by Tan’s team.  Members of the public can use NASA’s Mars Trek and Experience Curiosity to gain insights into the agency’s work.   And learn about a place other than their own!   I especially appreciated hearing Tan and the panelists speak at the National Archives, given NARA’s strong commitment to using technology to improve civic literacy and government.  And to share–and to gain–knowledge.

NASA press release, screenshot, Experince Curiosity, August 2015

That NARA seeks to gain knowledge as well as to share it reflects an effort to build a more open culture.  Curiosity is a part of growth.  So, too, willingness to learn.   This isn’t generational, I’ve seen that capacity in people of all ages.   It shows in the diverse ways that people learn, how they approach information, how they engage.  Some people are visual (video, infographics), some are text oriented (narrative).

On Tuesday, NARA sought input through a Webinar on its next Open Government Plan.  AOTUS David S. Ferriero and NARA executives gave updates on Open Gov initiatives, listened to suggestions from the public, and answered questions.    Recognizing that people engage in different ways, NARA offered several options for submitting suggestions, including its pilot History Hub site, by email to, and by Chat or by telephone during the Webinar.

One of the more intriguing suggestions from the public was developing resources about “Archives 101” for journalists.   I was glad to hear the suggestion mentioned during the webinar by Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright.   For many people, most or all they know about archival and records issues is what they read in the newspapers.  Offering more resources to journalists is a great idea!

My suggestion for the next Open Government Plan, submitted last week via NARA’s pilot History Hub, advocated development of a gateway page for a broad array of stakeholders (educators, partners, researchers, journalists, government officials).  A webpage at which complements existing topical content on the site.  And places in context actions throughout the records lifecycle.

Such a page could include links to additional information on those actions for anyone who wants to “read more about it.”  Part of helping others better understand “the complex present” as well as the past.  Yes, I’m repurposing a phrase from “Habits of Mind,” a thoughtful essay James Grossman and Anthony Grafton published in 2014 about historians.

Last week, I enjoyed seeing the historian’s craft on display when Mitchell Yockelson spoke at NARA about his book, Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I.  Mitch is a highly respected military historian and educator.  As an archival investigator in NARA’s Chief Operating Officer unit, he leads efforts to find and recover lost or stolen archival materials.   You see Mitch with David Ferriero in the first photo that I took at last Tuesday’s book lecture.

AOTUS David S. Ferriero welcomes Mitch Yockelson, NARA A1 McGowan, 032216 Mitch Yockelson, 47 Days, book lecture, NARA A1 McGowan, 032216 1

In an engaging book lecture, Mitch expertly described the challenges faced during World War I by Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing and the American armed forces under his command in France.  Pershing’s leadership enabled untested United States’ troops to defeat more experienced German forces in the  battle of the Meuse-Argonne, a key victory that led to the end of the war.

Book signing, 47 Days, Mitch Yockelson, Tim Mulligan, NARA, A1 032216

Mitch Yockelson, Tim Mulligan, book signing, NARA, 032216

Book signing, 47 Days, Mitch Yockelson, Darlene McClurkin, Bruce Bustard, NARA, A1 032216 2

Mitch Yockelson, Darlene McClurkin, Bruce Bustard, NARA, 032216

As the best historians do, Yockelson skillfully conveyed the complex elements at play.  And what it was like to make decisions and achieve results when events were unfolding and outcomes far from certain.  I was glad to see so many of his colleagues attend the event.   David Ferriero gave opening remarks.  David noted in the introduction that it was Mitch’s birthday!  We had a chance to wish him well in person before the program in the McGowan Theater and at the book signing that followed the lecture.

Book signing, 47 Days, Mitch Yockelson, Maarja Krusten, NARA, A1 032216

Mitch Yockelson, Maarja Krusten, NARA, 032216

When I walked to the entrance of the National Archives’ building last Thursday to attend the reception prior to the technology forum, the afternoon sun highlighted new growth on the trees.  I stopped to admire the view and thought, “how fitting!”

NARA--arriving for reception on 032416

This is a time of change in the archives and records and library professions.  New growth is welcome!  So, too, thinking of the group, as Florence Tan reminded us so eloquently at the McGowan Forum.  If we can nurture both, our present day efforts surely will benefit those who follow.   Worth doing for the future!

Searching, connecting

On Friday, a job seeker who recently attained a graduate degree in a library and information science (LIS) program turned to a Listserv for advice.   As someone interested in jobs in government (local, state, federal), the job seeker asked how to stand out.  And mentioned hearing back in some instances that only military veterans who had applied for some federal jobs had their names referred to the hiring manager.  What we in the Federal environment refer to as “Veterans Preference” in hiring recognizes their prior service to the nation.

You don’t know going in who else is applying for a job in which you’re interested.  Given the number of people graduating from LIS programs, many people often submit applications for the limited number of jobs posted.  So the recent graduate asked on the Listserv what to highlight in submitting applications that would appeal to a hiring manager if they made it that far.

A Library of Congress employee experienced in the hiring process offered thoughtful tips, among them to anticipate what is sought.  This isn’t easy, given the way some questions are worded.

“The most important part of the federal job application process is the qualifying questions and this is where people most often go wrong.  Read the questions carefully and try to anticipate what skills and abilities the institution is looking for.  Do not fall into a trap like a friend of mine once did.  He is an internationally recognized economist and had been recruited by a federal agency for a high level position. As part of the process to bring him on board he had to go through the USAJOBS process.  One of the qualifying questions was about knowledge of economics.  The bubbles were something like a.) Has a Master’s in economics b.) Has a Bachelor’s in economics c.) Has undergraduate coursework in economics d.) None of the above.  The guy, who was totally new to the federal job game, chose d. which was the honest answer.  He had a PhD in Economics, but his Master’s was in another field. His application indicated that he was unqualified for the job he had been recruited for and the agency had to go back and repost the job.  That’s a long way of saying don’t take the questions too literally.  Anticipate what is at root of the question and answer accordingly.”

A good reminder that people perceive issues and interpret wording differently.  And that it’s easy to fall into traps if you’re unfamiliar with the intent as well as the framework of a process.

I offered some advice drawn from my experiences on job application ranking panels and from the competencies that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) lists on its page.  If you’re looking to connect, whether in the job search or professional engagement or advocacy, it helps to look beyond the Position Description for an archivist or librarian job.   To make your pitch in the context of the culture and values of the group you’re trying to reach.

Considering the clues a potential employer such as NARA provides helps in applying for jobs.  And sussing out direct and indirect messages and taking context into account prepares you for working in jobs where cultural competency in heritage and functional differences is useful.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of a cultural competency webinar announcement on Sunday by the Archivists and Archives of Color Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  I saw the announcement posted in several venues, including the Archives & Archivists Listserv, Twitter, and at the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) blog.

When you apply for a job, you might stand out if you discuss technical skills in a practical context.  AOTUS David S. Ferriero looked in a speech in January 2012 at the changing workforce and “what they don’t teach you in library school.”  He explained that at the National Archives,

“. . . we want people who are not stuck in an ivory tower, but can connect archival work with real life experiences.

Technical savvy is a given, to work in a modern archive. And by savvy, I mean not just experience with the latest technologies, but also a sense of excitement about putting those technologies to work.

Next, with all the rapid change going on, today’s archivist must be highly adaptable and able to tolerate ambiguity. If you need a blueprint of what your job going to be like in five years… the Archives isn’t for you.

You also have to be very comfortable with collaboration. Can you ‘play well with others?’ Working with diverse people and a range of organizations is more important than ever in an era of shrinking budgets. And I believe the best way to develop that ability is – not through theory – but hands on experience.

Finally, and this underlies all the other requirements — We’re looking for people with a strong passion for working with people. A customer-driven organization needs a customer-driven staff.”

Some of these are areas where people can demonstrate skills and potential fit in public space (Twitter, blogs, poster sessions and other conference presentations, participation on task forces, etc.)   The core advice offered to executives who tweet (be authentic, be generous, show willingness to accept feedback) works for job seekers, new professionals, and veteran employees of all ranks.  You want to be the person whom others welcome when you walk into professional space, whether it is online or IRL.  Someone like Ashley Stevens.  Or Kate Theimer.  Or David!

group-photo (1)

But engaging online isn’t risk free and can involve some trial and error.  How you assess the risks and potential benefits is highly individual.  One of the risks is facing unanticipated conflict (or worse, especially for women) online.  One of the most sobering articles I read was about a body-positive feminist subjected to severe harassment due to her blogging.  When she asked her harasser why he threatened her, he replied that it was because she was happy.  A reminder to me that I am lucky my focus is on less controversial topics discussed within a safer community I largely know well.  But that shouldn’t happen to anyone.

It took me a longer time than others to join Twitter and to start a blog.  I looked at what made me hesitate in a blog post in January.  Even now, I often write about professional issues and workplace topics but am reticent about other matters, and not just due to “message discipline.”

There is no right way to do this, you have to find your own voice and comfort zone.  And if necessary, recalibrate.  I increasingly focus on positive role models–the best teachers, some of whom I know in person (Ashley, Kate, David), some mostly on Twitter (Jarrett Drake, Eira Tansey).

After seeing AACR’s posting about cultural competency, I posted a query to the A&A Listserv.  I mentioned two essays about engineers.  Paul Wester, former NARA Chief Records Officer, often tweets links to articles about leadership and management.  Paul shared an essay about the “engineer’s lament” last year.  I was struck by the ethical quandaries the engineer described.  And the constraints in facing them in a data-driven workplace.

So I asked Listserv subscribers on Sunday,

“Within an organization, we also need to understand the different acculturation of people working in various functions (program officials, IT, legal, records management, archives, history).  Of course, conditions in Fedland, the academy, and corporations also can very greatly or be misperceived.

The presence or absence of a robust and strongly connected network of workplace partners can make a difference, as some of my posts here about recent records issues show.  Some of the conversations I see on Twitter suggest to me that lone arrangers often feel the impact of workplace isolation.  Not everyone is lucky enough to work in the National Archives, where many people come from the same academic disciplines (history or library and information science).

Do any of your employers offer training or facilitative services on how to bridge workplace and professional functional knowledge and culture gaps?  I’m familiar with Myers Briggs, diversity, and mindfulness training in Fedland, as well as forums on alternative dispute resolution.  But I’m interested in hearing about a more holistic approach to bridging functional knowledge and culture gaps and breaking down some of the professional silos I sometimes see IRL and online.”

And then I thought about my advice on Friday that people use public space to showcase what they offer potential employers.  For the job seeker, this involves putting yourself out there with less of a safety net than on the job in well-functioning workplaces.

You want to show the ability or potential to “play nice with others” and to collaborate and think in terms of the team.  To demonstrate being other-centric, to use the phrase I used in writing last April about David Ferriero’s IMLS Focus Session comments.  He made a strong case then for change in the way LIS programs prepare students for jobs.  (David’s comments caused some buzz on Twitter.  For me, within the Federal workforce, where we face many challenges, what he said last year resonated strongly!)


After I wrote about David’s comments about LIS education last year, I followed up with a post, “Unclassified, Uncategorized.”  Nearly a year later, this still is where I am.  We need to dare to listen, dare to act, in ways that make the path easier for others.  And educators and educator-practitioners need to discuss new paths in the classroom.

“Cultural change requires demonstrating who you are.  This isn’t the age of Father Knows Best.  You can’t manage by press release.  Or educate by diktat.  That doesn’t mean we don’t still see such behaviors out there.  In Fedland.  Archivesland.  And elsewhere.  But more and more people in my circle seem to be accepting, as I do, what Kate Theimer, an inspirational leader, has said.  The future of archives is participatory.  Not just on the mission side but also on the mission support side.

We need to be adaptive, nimble, and committed to continual learning.  Librarianship, archives work, and records management traditionally have required thinking in terms of classification, authorities control, categorization.  Especially records management.  But the human side of working in a library or archives–or any bureaucratic organization!–is and always has been messy and chaotic.

As a manager, you strive to align people with what various jobs require.  To think about organizational needs and wants and how individual employees fit into that.  To take into account what their Myers-Briggs Type Indicators are.   How their past experiences have shaped them.  What their strengths and weaknesses are.  Whether they have particular characteristics (ASD, OCPD) on a behavioral spectrum and if they do, how they best can contribute.

Which is to say, you can’t get the people part right if you’re rigid and controlling.”

Yet as a student, a job-seeker, you’re asked to embrace the chaos of public space  –on Twitter, Listservs–without the supportive facilitating and mediating framework good employers aspire to provide.

The widely varying perspectives of job-seekers and the job-insecure as compared to the job-secure and veteran educator-practitioners were visible in the implosion on A&A that led SAA President Danna Bell to blog in 2014 about the Listserv’s “de-evolution.”  And which resulted in SAA studying Listserv issues and approving  a Code of Conduct and revised Terms of Participation.

A&A has an administrator but no Moderator (a challenging position in any Listserv because doing it well requires facilitative and people skills).  Still, the Code of Conduct and revised terms have created a seemingly safer space than it was in January 2014.

But the Listserv only draws a small number of archivists and librarians.  Others primarily engage elsewhere, on Twitter and blogs.  The same inadvertent misunderstandings or temperamental mismatches (at the most benign) that managers and good human resource officials handle among employees on the job can show up in unregulated space online.

LIS graduate program instructors who ask students to subscribe to Listservs and participate in other online forums can help prepare the way.  They can engage online themselves as their admittedly busy lives permit.

We shouldn’t advise others to do what we ourselves haven’t experienced from more secure, privileged positions!  The most effective leaders among the super busy executives in corner offices are seeing the benefits of Twitter and other platforms for engagement.  Let’s strive to bring that same vibe of continual learning into our professional space, and as instructors, into the classroom, too!

The future of archives is participatory.  And the time to embrace it is now.

Dare to listen

In “Why I Read,” AOTUS David S. Ferriero wrote of reading, “I will sometimes be struck by a thought or use of language that makes me pause, reread, sometimes record, and always savor the moment.”

That resonated for me.  It happens to me at times–with books, blog posts, even with Tweets.  Sometimes I see a phrase on Social Media that makes me stop, take it in, and think about it for days afterwards.  Occasionally, such moments even lead to blog posts here.  Many center on community, inclusion, diversity.

Some ties among members of a group (family, friends, close colleagues) are constant.  Others are fluid.  You see it online.  People come together to share and seek information or promote a cause, move way, come together again, on Twitter and other space in the virtual world.

There’s an ebb and flow to the larger crowd.  I like how we interact with different people at various times.  But we also have our smaller, go-to places.

A recent blog post helped me better understand how our places differ and the value of respecting that.  And a tweet about building relationships naturally, because people are “interesting,” not for strategic reasons, when you “need” them, resonated, as well.  So, too, a quote by Chris Taylor that Dennis Meissner, President of the Society of American Archivists, used in a recent blog post:  “Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice.”

David Ferriero and Ashley Stevens, 072415 courtesy Ashley Stevens Ashley Stevens

In 2014, I discussed relationship-building in a post, “Hailing frequencies open,” which looked at how “in order to communicate well, you first need to make the connection and then keep it open.”  I wrote about Ashley Stevens, then an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  She’s pictured above with David Ferriero at an archives conference at which he spoke last year.

I looked in my 2014 post at what Ashley offers the archival profession but also how we find support in our communities:

“When I feel down about taunts on Twitter from others who ask. . . whether I’m talking about Fedland or the ‘real world,’ seeing public servants share insights into their work lifts my spirits.  Ashley and I enjoy geeking out about history, as I described in a post where I also talked about the contributions of Darren Cole, another NARA employee.  In “Color Palettes: Archives and Records” I thanked Ashley for the insights and honesty which help me stay mission-focused in Washington.”

In the same post, I wrote about words that stay with me, whether I see them in books I read for pleasure, on Social Media, and (occasionally) in official publications:

“What they have in common is insight into the human heart, an essential element in reaching others.  And a fearless beauty of expression.  Such as that which Jarrett M. Drake expressed last night, when he tweeted that he hadn’t eaten since 8 a.m. Friday morning:

“The students fed me. Their words. Their knowledge. Their humanity. It’s enough to feast on, and I am thankful for every bite.”

A tweet like that can lift my spirits so high after a week at work in Washington! And I thanked him for helping me.”

After I published my last blog post about fine brushstrokes, Ashley (who left the agency about a year ago) tweeted that it made her nostalgic for NARA, the good and the bad.   And added that working there left its mark on her.  In a follow-up tweet, Ashley said if she returns to work at the National Archives, it will be with her feet on the ground and her eyes open.  I hope she does return!  She has taught me so much about communications, outreach, and how to succeed as a “people-liking Introvert.”

Ashley Stevens tweet about Nixonara post 030416

Ashley and I share a love of Star Trek.  We have photographs of us wearing costumes based on (or inspired by) characters in the original TV series.  Early in his blogging, David Ferriero wrote about what we can learn from Twitter.  For me, one of the best things about Social Media is seeing what inspires different people.  And catching glimpses of spontaneous human moments in professional space.

Tish Currie @ThisIsArchives aviI was delighted in February to see Netisha (Tish) Currie of NARA tweet a Star Wars photo (“Office Darth!”) from her workplace at Archives 2 in College Park, Maryland.  That she did so not from her personal account but the week she was responsible for the official NARA @ThisIsArchives account made it all the better!

You see Tish, second from the right, in the Archivist’s Reception Room in a picture of me with two of my late sister’s former NARA colleagues (Lisha Penn, Patrice Brown) in 2012.  My twin, Eva, would have loved the whimsy Tish showed in tweeting @ThisIsArchives.

Maarja and NDC group at NARA A1 105 041812

As is the case with many in the archives profession, Eva’s office in NARA’s records declassification unit was filled with historical and pop culture figures.   She loved the archival mission and would have embraced the use of Social Media to share not just information about NARA’s holdings but to represent its culture and values.  And herself and the team, too.  Especially the team!  And she would have found ways to make friends and colleagues laugh.  Eva took the archival mission seriously but not herself!

copy Jay Bosanko, Eva Krusten, Joe Scanlon NARA A21995

Different NARA employees take the @ThisIsArchives account every week.  How they use it varies, depending on the individual, function, time available to tweet, and other factors.  Earlier this year, Michael Pierce did an excellent job demonstrating conservation work with military personnel records in St. Louis.

He shared technical knowledge through well-thought out Twitter text and photographs but also deepened understanding of those who do the work and why it matters.  Three years ago I wrote about Michael’s poignant Prologue blog post in which he shared, “It’s why I do what I do.”

Also in 2016, Michelle Farnsworth tweeted effectively in @ThisIsArchives about the important, painstaking work done by staff in the National Archives’ imaging labs.  Michelle takes photographs of David and staff and visitors, such as the one in the National Archives entrance lobby, below.  She also makes excellent facsimiles of documents for exhibits and presentations.  I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look Michelle shared with us on Twitter of the imaging process.

NARA photo, AOTUS David S. Ferriero, Sam Anthony, Prince Charles, 031815, NARA A1

In the best tweets @ThisIsArchives, Tish Currie and her colleagues at NARA show what goes in to “making access happen” at NARA.   That includes processes and people.  One of my favorite tweets from Tish included a great photo of Archives 2 reference branch chief Rick Peuser, with a light-hearted reference to NARA’s Strategic Plan!

Rick Peuser pic in Tish Currie's ThisIsArchives tweet

I often write about community but the ties that bind people together can be difficult to explain.  They vary due to events, circumstances, and needs that shift back and forth.  Years ago, I exchanged comments with a historian whose path had taken him to the academy while mine had taken me to Fedland.  He and other academic colleagues were discussing in a public forum some issues related to the National Archives.  He reflected the perspective of scholars and how they handle their research, including notes compiled while writing their books.

I pointed out that some very complex elements in the Federal environment affect obligations and how government officials handle their duties.  And that not all the lessons from academic life could be applied as he suggested.  When I asked if he was interested in hearing more about Fedland (to the extent I could share my perspective), he misunderstood.  He took it to mean I was looking for a place where government employees could talk about arcane history, archives, and records issues online.

The history professor suggested a “closed group” on the web where Feds could discuss conditions that affected that work.  But my goal had been to open doors, to share with and to gain insights from academics.  To learn how they viewed issues and to explain how they looked to some of within Fedland.  To examine commonalities and differences.

Our exchange a decade ago was a reminder of how natural it is to look at issues through one’s own experiences.   And why silos can be challenging to break down.

Inside those silos, you sometimes see the effect of “if all you have is a hammer.”  Adding tools to work on solutions requires getting out and seeing what’s available.  This isn’t always easy to do!

A recent article in the New York Times pointed to the advantages of growing up bilingual.  Katherine Kinzler looked at studies which show that even from a young age, children exposed to family members who speak more than one language often make more discerning, empathetic choices than ones who grow up monolingual.   For some, there are cognitive benefits in executive function as well as social ones, stemming from greater ability to assess situations.

Kinzler explained that

“Interpreting someone’s utterance often requires attending not just to its content, but also to the surrounding context. What does a speaker know or not know? What did she intend to convey? Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others: They have to think about who speaks which language to whom, who understands which content, and the times and places in which different languages are spoken.”

As I read Kinzler’s discussion of the social advantage of adopting others’ perspectives, I thought about what James Grossman and Anthony Grafton wrote in 2014 about historians’ “Habits of Mind.”  Of the importance of empathy when you try to understand the past and “the complex present.”   And of studies that show that

“. . . . after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

Just as with the bilingual, practitioners and practitioner-teachers who understand and can speak different “languages” stand out in the rapidly changing world of librarians, archivists, and information professionals.  Kate Theimer is one such person.  I saw nearly a decade ago that she was “golden,” someone who could navigate the technological and the people aspects of archives.  It is fitting that David Ferriero, whom I also know, like, respect and admire, wrote the foreword to a book that Kate published in 2011.

Kate_photo_-_cropped books-in-box-new1 cr

Edmund Morris once observed of writing biographies that

“All characters are going to have areas of secrecy and mystery which just cannot be penetrated. The challenge is to acknowledge this ultimate impossibility of really penetrating into the soul of anybody. And some characters are more mysterious and enigmatic than others.”

This applies in our professional communities, as well.  When we dare to listen, we gain understanding that helps us fill in gaps in our knowledge of others.  But we also need to recognize, try to understand, and accept that there are spaces we don’t fit in with others.   And that it isn’t about us, it’s about them.

Last month, librarian April Hathcock wrote a blog post, “It’s my struggle–give me space.”  She looked at the marginalized and at people

“. . . who hate coming up against exclusive safe spaces to which they are not welcome or invited. Allies who want to fight alongside their marginalized counterparts but only want to do so on their own terms. . . .

The fact is that people from the margins need safe spaces. We need places we can go to laugh, cry, scream, and shout among our own. We need exclusive spaces where we can curse our lot, speak our minds, and then dry our faces and take back up our fighting stances. We need places where we can be weak and vulnerable without being in danger or exposed.”

And she explained what she needs:  “. . . . good allies, true allies, will stand at the gates to the exclusive safe space and wait for me there.”

Not everyone can or is willing to do that.  We sometimes see that in real life and on the web.  In intrusions (including awkward @ mentions on Twitter), in hypercompetitive behavior, in listening that isn’t really listening but just waiting for a pause to rebut the speaker’s or writer’s points.

Which is why those who are willing to wait at the gates truly stand out.  In various contexts, beyond those April Hathcock eloquently describes.  They stand out because they are willing to listen and then step aside.

Words can be beautiful.  But so, too, the discernment and the respect shown in their absence, as others simply dare to listen.  And by so doing, try to learn.

Perspective, pay, paths

As we debate archives, records, and workforce issues on Twitter, I see room for being comfortable with ambiguity, knowledge gaps, chaos.  We should not be afraid of saying, “I don’t know, at least not yet” and “this is my interpretation, what is yours?”  This is where collaborative problem solving and social sensitivity of the type I wrote about in my last blog post can make a difference.  But privilege and opportunity very much are in the mix.

How things look depends on where you stand and what you see.  There are times you want to take a close look at brushwork.  But the crowds moving through a popular art exhibit prevent a close, lingering look.  Yet standing back to take in the longer view can be difficult, too, as visitors keep filing past a painting.

Art show, 022916 2 Art show, 022916 1

I’ve been thinking about brushstrokes and perspective in the archival setting since Sunday when I went to an art exhibit with a longtime friend from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Janet Kennelly, a former colleague in NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries, exhibited her painting at a gallery in the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.

Janet Kennlly, Maarja Krusten, 022816

Later on Sunday, I had a reminder of the privileges and opportunities I’ve had.  I stopped in a bookstore and bought two books. And thought about the number of inquiries I’ve gotten over the last decade from job seekers who’ve reached out to me after seeing me write about archival work within the government.

I’ve shared information about the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) framework for Federal employment.  And about budgets and the appropriation process.  I’ve had opportunities as well to listen and learn and move beyond “back in my day.”

Workforce issues are worth considering from different angles.  Janet and I (pictured below in 1990) worked at the National Archives at a time when serious budget cuts affected the agency.   The unit in which I started a job as a GS-6 archives-technician in December 1976 lost half its staff to a Reduction in Force (RIF) five years later.  Instead of reaching the 100-plus staff members once projected in the 1970s, my unit shrank from a high of some 40 employees to a low in the 20s.

Mark Fischer, Maarja, Janet Kennelly, Paul Guite 1990

Mark Fischer, Maarja Krusten, Janet Kennelly, Paul Guite, NARA, 1990

Still, we mostly enjoyed a good sense of camaraderie.  Excellent managers in the early part of my career helped me learn from good role models.  But NARA’s overall managerial culture was not as good back then as, well, it could have been.  There’s still room for a lot of improvement even now.  But I’m very encouraged by the insightful Supervisors Handbook that AOTUS David S. Ferriero’s team issued in 2014 and updated last year.

In 2011, David, whom I know, like and respect and whose vision for NARA I support, blogged about “Culture and Values.”  He described several elements that go into a good workplace, including “pursuing growth and learning” and “creating fun and a little weirdness.”  I’ve seen the positive impact of both during my own career and also online.

You see my boss, Fred Graboske, about whom I wrote in my last post, wearing a Miami Vice costume for a NARA Halloween contest in 1985.  (He won!) Fred took the photo of me with my blue-hair, Star Trek inspired, costume I use here and as my Twitter avatar.

Fred, NLNP staff, 1985 Halloween party at NARA

Fred Graboske, Dick McNeill, Janet Kennelly, Paul Schmidt, NARA, Halloween party, 1985

Some of the lessons from that time period still apply.  Who is in charge can make a difference.  Intangible benefits can go a long way in helping people keep mission focus.  But I also recognize that in our case, we were quite lucky.  And privileged.

The decent salaries we earned and the fact that we had skills we could use in applying for other jobs made a difference.  The professional staff ranged from GS-6 through GS-14 on the OPM pay scale.  In my part of the office, most of the staff were Archivists (as I was after 1977) who made a decent salary.

NARA employees, Pickett St. leased space, April 1, 1985

As sometimes happens online, the people commenting in 2011 at the “Culture and Values” post focused on other issues than the question raised by the writer (AOTUS).   I joined in with observations about the budgetary impact on my work unit in the 1980s.  As I explained in my last blog post, letting conversations play out naturally provides opportunities for learning.  Anger or frustration at losing control of a thread can shut doors; I liked seeing the seeming embrace of chaos in 2011 that kept them open, instead.

Most of us in my Presidential Libraries unit in the Washington area had enough disposable income in the 1980s that we could enjoy leisure activities such as travel, adding to our home libraries, taking art lessons, going to the theater.  For me, this mostly was classical–symphonies, opera, ballets–but I also went to see David Bowie.

When I saw Janet on Sunday, I wore my Bowie pin as a reminder of good times in the 1980s.  But it’s important to keep these issues in perspective.  When I tweet about the transcendent nature of working in archival jobs, I pause sometimes.  And think of students and present-day job seekers.

Maarja with Janet's painting, 022816 National Gallery of Art, West Building, Fountain, August 2015

I want others to find jobs that are rewarding, financially and psychologically.  But I recognize the economy and workforce are very different than when I started.  I was lucky the National Archives was staffing up for a new presidential records unit.  And to survive two RIFs during my Federal career.  To earn a decent wage.  And to grow up in a middle class family where Sunday visits to museums and art galleries were the norm.  A light-filled, sunny childhood, for the most part.

Some of my reactions to a thread on the Archives & Archivists Listserv in January 2014 about LIS studies, job seekers, and employment reflected what I was seeing on Twitter and other platforms.  We learn best if we walk around in many different venues.

Having a blog enables me to air out some issues here, rather than posting long essay-type Listserv messages.   I posted some such messages on A&A in 2007, when a researcher criticized a reduction in research room hours at NARA.    Sometimes, the outside perspective is quite different from the inside one.  Ideally, both sides can learn from each other, in space that encourages sharing different perspectives.

Citing internal contacts, the researcher noted in 2007 that “since Archivist Weinstein, I was told, plays little or no role in exploring issues/options/consequences of major decisions, but contents himself with casting the final vote on the decisions, the people with the loudest bark in making recommendations tend to be the ones who get what they want.”

She pointed to expenditures on the Electronic Records Archive (ERA), quoting a National Archives source who described it as an initiative “whose staff advocates are the loudest and most inflexible. . . of all NARA [staff] when it comes to fighting for their share of the budget.”

The researcher referred to “Moscow show trial” sessions with researchers.  She stated “that it would be better to take away money from ERA and to preserve research room hours because “THE ELECTRONIC RECORDS WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC FOR MANY YEARS.”

Others, such as Lee Stout, provided a different perspective: “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 process aside, the issues were not as easy to resolve as she asserted.

Then as now, I tried to show what management faces.  I quoted a supervisor who once said:  “If someone asks for more funding for his or her project, I reply that there is a limited amount of money.  And then ask the person what project I should take money away from to meet such needs.”  Complicated when there is a mix of discretionary and mandated mission activities.  And people costs make up so much of an agency’s budget.

In recent years, a NARA employee has linked on A&A from time to time to stories about Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) rankings.  I addressed some of the issues in Viewpoint, when, in another setting, historian Richard Immerman called on NARA to act in 2013.   I appreciated hearing his take on the culture at the Department of State.  But I would like to have seen him try to step into the shoes of NARA officials dealing with different structural scenarios.

Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas testified on July 30, 2009 (transcript here) about a number of NARA issues, including morale surveys.  She said that in her view, if you set aside the regional numbers, the survey scores for people working in the Washington area matched up with other agencies.

I took her comment to mean there was less NARA could do to provide promotion paths in the regions than in the Washington area, where many employees work in higher paid jobs with particular OPM educational requirements.  Adrienne said in off-the-cuff remarks:

“. . . most of the very low rankings came from our regional facilities. And we have, for example, in our Federal Records Centers, which are fairly low paid occupations, they are not exactly intellectually stimulating.    It is people moving boxes in and out and so forth. There is not a whole lot of promotion potential within the Records Center system, and a great deal of the very low scores in terms of job satisfaction came from those regional activities.”

A researcher then shared on a Listserv a link to his blog (no longer available) with his interpretation of the Acting Archivist’s comments.  He expressed surprise at her assertion about career paths.

Opinions vary inside and outside NARA, then as now.  Some of my friends in mid-management ranks at NARA still mention the same structural issue that Adrienne Thomas once raised. (Some staff also mention the turmoil of cultural change.)   These employee tell me that due to the OPM framework, there is more chance of Washington survey numbers continuing to improve than ones in the field.  Their interpretation resonates for me, as did Thomas’s statement in 2009.

As you consider those working as GS-2s or GS-3s moving boxes in a records center, as Thomas described, keep the OPM requirements in mind.  And the different potential for those who come in to NARA on the archives side (at headquarters or in the field) as GS-5 or GS-6 technicians with degrees in hand or nearly completed.  There, with the right college degree and job experience, you have a potential career path.  As slots open up, you may become a GS-7 archives specialist or archivist and advance in rank.

Information from OPM publicly posted at a third-party site shows FY 2010 pay for employees in GS-11 to GS-15 archivist, specialist, and high technical slots at Archives 1 and Archives 2 in Metropolitan Washington ($65,448. to $155,500.).  And that of lower-paid staff in less fulfilling but necessary jobs in some of the records centers, as in St. Louis.

The number of GS-2 and GS-3 employees earning $22,851. to $32,412. a year was much greater as a proportion of the total on-site workforce in St. Louis than at Archives 2 in College Park, MD.  This points to different workplace needs in the records center than with the lower proportion that OPM listed for Archives 2 in FY 2010.  (Seventeen GS-2s and GS-3s out of over 900 employees, on up through the GS-15 and executive ranks, in College Park.)

In theory, lower paid technicians in the regions could apply for jobs with better career paths within the more varied workforce in the Washington area, if they met the OPM requirements.  But that would mean moving.  And going back to school is not feasible for everyone, for various reasons, among them financial considerations.

Context matters in considering workforce issues.  Promotion potential is limited with some types of jobs.  And not all agencies and departments have the warehouse responsibilities that NARA has on its records side.

The next time you read about the survey results, consider being the one with employees in your care.  And what it is like to deal not just with technological and cultural change, but difficult structural and budgetary issues, as well.  Why “back in my day” offers some lessons, but they, too, can be limited and are best considered in context.  And why listening, learning and collaboration matter in finding solutions.