Reading between the lines

The occupiers took over a once-sovereign nation by force; a deal between two larger, more powerful totalitarian countries paved the way for the territorial grab.  Soviet armed forces rolled in.  Deportations of locals–among them members of targeted groups such as government officials, politicians, young leaders of student organizations, high-ranking military officials, bankers, entrepreneurs,  clergymen–soon would follow.  By some estimates, the nation lost 25% of its population during the 1940s due to executions, deportations of men, women, children to camps in Siberia, and, for those who could, to fleeing the country.

est 3 russian troops cr heiki-deportees-vagun_2-www-384x239

Students in the local high school who had been following a curriculum aimed at capitalistic business careers now had to prove their loyalty.    They were ordered into the town square, with other conquered countrymen, to demonstrate support for the new Communist regime.  Their country no longer was theirs.  Nor was their language.  Now they would have to learn and study in Russian.

A young woman refused to take the red arm band held out to her as the compulsory rally was about to begin.  “No, I’m not wearing that.  I refuse!” she exclaimed.  One of the teachers who knew the teenager well from the classroom in freer times was standing nearby.  He understood that her independent streak placed her in jeopardy.

He took the offered red arm band, put it on his own arm, took the young woman by the hand, and marched with her as ordered.  He did what she refused to do, put on the occupier’s armband.  But he also extended his protection to her by association and proximity.  He took it upon himself to do what she would not and save her from punishment.

The teacher chose not to order her to comply, thus giving her psychic space.  But he still found a way to protect her that did not require compromise of her principles in public.  He no more believed in the purpose of the forced rally than she did, of course.

The young woman later escaped her homeland and made her way to the United States, to freedom.  But she had to leave her family behind.  Her father, who had worked in a field related to banking, had been deported to Siberia.  Her mother had to make the wrenching choice of fleeing with her daughter or staying behind in hope that her husband one day would return.

My mother (pictured with me below) recently re-told the story, recounting how she rejected the red arm band and yelled, “I refuse!”  We were talking about motivation and what happens when people are compelled to act against their values and principles.  And about incentives, negative and positive.  And opportunities.

Edla, Maarja, 082015 4 c

These elements matter a great deal.  In management.  And in records management.  And in studying government history.  The three are related, of course.

Mom as a young woman

Before the Soviet occupation, Mom chose to attend a high school that focused on business.  She wanted a practical education that would enable her to enter the workforce easily.  But her natural inclination was towards the humanities (literature, history).

And music.  She played violin in the school orchestra.  That’s Mom in the picture of the orchestra in the late 1930s, second in, right above the conductor’s head.

Mom high schooll orchestra late 1930s

In a situation such as the one she faced in 1940, a way of life changed overnight.  The black velvet coat that she wore in her late teens no longer was safe to wear after Soviet forces took over.  I thought about what my Mom had gone through in her youth, when I wore her vintage coat to a Gala dinner at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2014.  The photo of me with Lisha Penn of NARA shows us in the Rotunda.   The Charters of Freedom on display just a few feet away.  I cherish having had opportunities to work with federal and presidential records that tell the story of a democratic nation.

Rotunda event, NARA Gala, 102814 cr Maarja NARA Gala AI 111913

The stories I heard from my refugee parents had an impact on my worldview.  There are many reasons why I argue against bullying and intimidation in much lesser circumstances than my Mom once faced.  And admire those who show kindness, understanding, and the quality the best historians and archival leaders show–empathy.  And why I am the Gamma Girl, drawn to bridge building, whom I described in my last post.

Here at my blog and in professional spaces, I often advocate for positive rather than negative incentives in affecting human behavior.   And the need to stand up for each other.  And to take into account motivation and what people will respond to and what they will not.  Of understanding what they say but also what they will not or cannot.  Of expanding our understanding of archival silences and human actions and reactions.  The reasons are not always starkly black and white.

My academic training is as a historian.  A link from @LibrarianshipCA retweeted by @CherylMcKinnon recently caught my eye.

“Canada’s Information Commissioners have called on their respective governments to create a legislated duty requiring public entities to document matters related to their deliberations, actions and decisions.

In a joint resolution, information commissioners expressed concerns about the trend towards no records responses to access to information requests. This lack of records weakens Canadians’ right of access and the accountability framework that is the basis of Canada’s access to information laws. Without adequate records, public entities also compromise their ability to make evidence based decisions, fulfill legal obligations, and preserve the historical record.

Canada’s information commissioners have urged governments to create a positive duty for public servants and officials to create full and accurate records of their business activities. This duty must be accompanied by effective oversight and enforcement that ensures Canadians’ right of access to public records remains meaningful and effective.”

On Sunday, Cheryl responded to a link I shared of a thoughtful web posted message about transitory records by John James O’Brien.  She observed, “History is written by the deleter, if you think about it.”

I have.  Much has changed since I started a long career working with records (more here).   Among my records duties have been creating them as a Federal employee.  Appraising their value, considering their short and long term use. Assisting in retention scheduling.  Processing them as an archivist; deciding what can be released to the public and what requires national security or privacy restriction.  Using them in research.


Fifteen years ago, I often turned to a NARA publication, “Documenting Your Public Service.”  The 2000 web publication is available through the Internet Archive; scroll down at the link).  NARA’s team explained to officials whose records fall under the Federal Records Act that

“You and other Government officials have an interest in ensuring that your agency establishes and follows appropriate records creation and maintenance procedures. Good recordkeeping

  • contributes to the smooth operation of your agency’s programs by making the information needed for decision making and operations readily available
  • provides information useful to successor officials and staff for background and analysis, facilitating transitions between Administrations
  • creates a complete record of your official actions that will remain with the agency for future use by agency officials and may later be transferred to the National Archives of the United States as a historical record
  • ensures accountability to the Administration, Congress, and the American people
  • ensures that electronic records, especially those generated by desktop applications, will be available to all authorized personnel
  • protects records from inappropriate and unauthorized access
  • facilitates authorized removal of materials by avoiding the need to separate Federal records from extra copies of records and personal materials when you leave office.”

I admire NARA’s more recent work in these areas as it has adapted to changes by crafting Capstone email solutions and updating guidance (“Inside, Outside Archives“).

Arian Ravanbakhsh, ASAP, NARA, 022615 2

It is up to individual agencies and departments to provide records training to employees.  The pitch used by some federal agency and departmental records officers increasingly centers on legal discovery and “defensible deletion.”  Being able to find and produce records subpoenaed in court litigation or requested in Freedom of Information Act cases. Or point to why they no longer exist.

I rarely see public discussion of e-discovery as a double edged sword in selling records management.  Knowledge Management, a concept some government agencies tried out 15 years ago–I know of none where it worked out as planned–has given way to Information Governance as a selling point.  I understand the technological reasons for that.

My conversations over lunch with records managers at various agencies have pointed to the chilling effect and impairments I mentioned last year in “Truth Bomb.”  Indeed, some Open Government advocates decry a trend in some agencies to keep as little as possible (rejecting NARA’s guidance in some cases).

“’This is an attitude a lot of agencies have taken, actually: that all they’re required to save — and all [that] a lot of them do save — is the final product,’ said Patrice McDermott of ‘All the things that document the work of government are records. … It’s important for accountability, and it’s important for history, for folks to be able to trace the development of a policy and to trace who had their hand in it. The final product isn’t enough.’”

Mixed messages play a part in this.  Records Managers in some agencies and departments advise officials to use email only for innocuous messages.  And to pick up the telephone or set up a meeting if they need to discuss sensitive topics.  Those oral deliberations rarely later result in memorialization.  The Memorandum for the Record and Memorandum of Conversation historians see in records from the 1950s and 1960s are a thing of the past.

PROFS case panel SAA 2014

Reconciling this is complicated.  Anne Weismann, a former Department of Justice (DOJ) official, now is a prominent transparency advocate in Washington.  In 2014, I spoke to her after a session at the Society of American Archivists conference (she’s second from right in the photo).  I said (paraphrasing, there’s no record):

“I see many opposing dynamics in records issues.  Your present role and past role as a DOJ lawyer illustrate them well.  Keep hold of what you say in transparency advocacy but look at it through the lens of your prior role in government.  You receive or send electronic records of sensitive deliberations through email.  Your next step is to declare them record or non-record.

You know the matter at issue is complex and deliberations useful for institutional memory and later for historical research in archives by others.  But if subpoenaed, you fear they may be cherry picked and demagogued to harm your boss, colleagues, agency.  Is the existence of the Federal Records Act sufficient for you to declare it a record?  Are you tempted to call it Transitory?  Or would you delete it as non-record, justifying withholding from the record keeping system by pointing to your understanding of RM guidance you’ve received from colleagues?”

I don’t think anyone had asked her before to try to reconcile her present and past roles. I thought back on our brief talk when I saw that she spoke to records managers at the ARMA conference last year.

John James O’Brien isn’t the first records professional to point to technological mismatches.  He wrote over the weekend

“In Hong Kong, I led a session consisting of about 50/50 senior and junior staff in which text messaging arose. A senior leader declared that this was not an issue affecting the organization. Exchanged glances and body language among the junior staff told another story. By the end of a session with much tentative disclosure, it was clear that junior staff regularly avoided a perceived overly bureaucratic and regimented knowledge management tool through the use of personal devices that enabled getting the job done in a timely and convenient way–and that senior staff were often included but did not perceive themselves to be doing what, in fact, they did almost daily. Decisions were regularly made that were not captured contemporaneously–sometimes at all–in the official systems.”

But as I wrote in “Truth Bomb,” the psychological changes that affect government record keeping rarely draw the attention in professional forums that the technological ones do.

“Insights into the psychology of the C-Suite largely are missing.   The human beings behind the news stories–including records management colleagues and archivists and what they face–are missing.  And the solutions offered–’put people in prison’ or ‘get them to take their medicine’ or ‘here are Information Governance solutions’ or (to use a shorthand term) “Jason Baron”–do not offer a holistic, deep examination of incentives and disincentives.”

Professions adapt to conditions on the ground to stay relevant.  Positive incentives that once resonated with some program officials–documenting agency actions so successor officials can understand what happened and why–receive less attention in RIM forums than in the past.  When I look at the through lines and connect the dots in seemingly disparate news stories, I see the long term impact of their absence.  As a friend in records management observed to me last year, historians will see it in twenty or thirty years.

To understand why, they’ll have to consider not just technology–but psychology, as well.

Finely drawn sketches

I read the #LISMentalHealth Twitter chat as it took place Monday evening.  And I applauded the courage of those speaking out on Twitter and at their blogs.   I thought about the article, “Burnout at the Reference Desk,” that David S. Ferriero published in 1982, long before he took charge of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Much of what he and Kathleen Powers then wrote about managing stress in public service librarianship, “a dynamically interpersonal profession” where reference staff serve the information needs of others, applies today.

I’ve seen from discussing it with others how the advice still resonates in the library and archives professions.  (I’ve also talked to David about how he came to write the article).  Line staff and managers benefit if they seek to understand themselves and colleagues, support each other, and are free to develop coping mechanisms.  (I especially admire the honesty in David’s observation, “it’s much easier to analyze or diagnose someone else’s problem than your own.”)

I also like Ferriero’s recognition that “It is vital to the individual’s sense of self-worth that he/she feel an integral part of the organization.”    That private space away from the users is necessary in order to re-charge.  And that the group needs safe space to talk about workplace issues–as he put it, that “it’s alright to have those feelings.”  When I first wrote about “Burnout at the Reference Desk,” I noted that now some of us gather on Twitter to discuss professional issues.

I was late in joining Twitter.  I looked at it in 2008-2009 but didn’t establish an account until 2010.  In the year or two before then, I clearly was looking for alternatives to the Archives & Archivists Listserv.  I sought a place where people could gather in safe space to chat about archives, records, and history.

My experiences with academic blogs and other professional forums had been mixed.   Although I recognize it is necessary in many work and professional settings, I wasn’t keen on entering a place where, as I put it, you had to suck up to the powers that be.  Or to hide for the most part behind a mask.  Adopting highly ritualized methods of participation that may have suited the majority but were not natural to me.

I explained on the Listserv, on which I still was very active, what I sought before I took the plunge to Twitter.  (Twitter intrigued me but I didn’t think initially that I could do well with the 140 character limit.  Now, I enjoy writing in short bursts.)  What I wrote about Fedland and governmental records issues before joining Twitter applied to academic and corporate settings, as well.

“It would be great if there were a Romulan neutral zone, a blog unaffiliated with any particular person or stance. Where people could gather to discuss issues related to NARA or government records. Where, to use a high school analogy, people could hang out together without regard to who was an Alpha (Queen Bee/Popular Girl), Beta (Wannabe) or Gamma (“I don’t care about popularity, I’m happy off on my own doing my thing, but can’t we all just get along?”). (I’m totally Gamma, obviously, LOL.)

A zone which welcomes. . . people who see Presidents and government officials as neither good nor bad, simply as human beings struggling with difficult challenges. And chewing over what those challenges are. If such a site existed it would cut down on listserv traffic, for those who value limitations on such.

Is such a neutral, topical blog feasible? I couldn’t be owner but might be able to comment in some narrow areas. Or has the world of archives 1.0 and 2.0 become too tricky to navigate, hopelessly fractured and factional, perhaps lacking in good will in some areas, although not in all, more and more unworkable, as I sometimes wonder?”

As you might tell from the reference, I had just recently read Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book about high school cliques, Queen Bees and Wannabees.   I mentioned her book again when I looked at Social Media in terms of high school in January 2014 in a blog post about “Documenting Success and Failures.”

I’ve increasingly come to admire people willing to discuss failure as well as success.  Self-admitted and internally identified, not just IdeaScale outsider-defined.  (Yes, that blog post looked at the pros and cons of using IdeaScale, too.)  And to acknowledge, at least to themselves, weaknesses as well as strengths.  We all do some things well and some things less well.  I’m grateful for the spaces where that reality is welcome.  At least for me, it’s how I best learn.

At first, some of what I saw on Twitter made me hesitate.  Tweets about “all the cool kids are” at this conference, in that forum, in the space the Tweeter found comfortable.  Declarations of doing awesome work.  I’ve never been a cool kid, an Alpha.  Never been a wannabe, either (the Beta).  I’ve always been a Gamma girl–at best!  And my years working with history, archives, and records have had plenty of “what do I do now?” and “why did I do that?” sighs.   And discouragement, uncertainty.  How could I fit in on Twitter?

What made me take the plunge was seeing how @archivesnext, @meau, @adravan, @derangedescribe, and others whose blogs I had come to admire engaged on Twitter.  I tried an anonymous account first, the now defunct @archivesmatters.  I love the fact that when I outed myself as Nixonara some people thought I was @dcpest.

True, I used a gender neutral style as I tweeted about the National Archives, about Washington, about records management, and about archives.  But much as I like him, I definitely wasn’t Jim Cassedy!   Just as with my first blog, I needed the safety of anonymity in social space before I established Nixonara.

The circle of people I followed grew as I saw with whom those I followed engaged.  I found new sources of inspiration, including @k_bubbs, Ashley Stevens (with me below), who helped me online on so many days in Washington while she still worked at NARA!  And who continues to inspire me in her new job in Texas.  And David Ferriero, whom I’ve come to know in person, like and admire.  He’s pictured with Ashley in 2015.  Her tweet about hoping to meet the Big Dude, as I call David, was one of my favorites of the year!

maarja-krusten-and-ashley-stevens-saa-20142c-081514-1 David Ferriero and Ashley Stevens, 072415 courtesy Ashley Stevens

Twitter is highly individual.  Although some people on the A&A Listserv disparaged it in 2014, characterizing it as a place for snark, I saw much more there. As it turned out, there were more brave discussions of “imposter syndrome” and “how do I” and, more importantly, admissions of “why did I do that?” than there were declarations of awesomeness and pointers to the cool kids club.

If you throw paint at community work space with a broad brush, classifying it as snarky, you miss seeing the beauty of works in progress.  The fine lines with which people sketch in pencil.  The erasers they use to revise.  And the quiet courage when they decide “ready to share” as they put out the results of their work.

Being on Twitter has broadened my outlook and strengthened my admiration for librarians and archivists–GLIS students, job seekers, new professionals, seasoned employees, and retirees.  You can see the influence of the community in my blogging, which has changed and broadened its scope since December 2010.    For many reasons, I’m in a much better place than I was five years ago.

The Social World looks different to various people–we don’t interact with exactly the same group.  Twitter provides tremendous opportunities to learn about others.   You can’t really walk in others’ shoes, but you can try to look at issues through their perspective, as an essay at the History News Network notes this week about historians.  Many of us are or work with historians; “Historians Need to Write and Teach With Empathy” is well worth reading.

As I started to write this blog post, I thought, “Should I Google for books about Social Media?”  But then I realized that as much as I’ve liked some of the advice offered by experts such as John Kotter and Cass Sunstein and Daniel Goleman and others I’ve written about here, there is no one answer on how to manage change.    Every group is different in its needs.  Templates don’t work, you have to customize on people and technology issues.  And to embrace the chaos!

My late sister Eva shared my interest in the people side of archives and also in technology.  Sometimes the two interests merged for her at the National Archives in unorthodox ways.  At times, our most valuable training occurs organically and unofficially.  Eva learned a lot just from hanging out with colleagues such as Chuck Hughes, the technology pro in NARA’s records declassification division.   You see her with him and Joe Scanlon, now NARA’s Freedom of Information Act official, in 1996.

Eva with Declass friends 1996

Chuck Hughes, Eva Krusten, Joe Scanlon, NARA, 1996

Yes, the same Chuck Hughes on whose shirt I got lipstick when I hugged him in 2011 (picture below).  And about whom I blogged, fessing up to the mishap, then received a pitch-perfect reference email from the Archivist of the United States (“Wait, AOTUS did what? Just like us‘”).

To: maarja
Sent: 7/15/2011 8:06:58 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time
Subj: Remove Lipstick Stains Removal Tips | Stain Removal | Cleaning

I still remember how Eva told me in 2000 that if you clicked on the red Novell icon in the system tray you could see all the employees at NARA who were signed into the servers.  A good way to gauge who might be in–most people with computers signed into the network as soon as they arrived at work–if you needed to know!   (Did she learn this tip from Chuck? Or from Neil Carmichael?)  I used that one for my office servers for quite some time!


Maarja Krusten, Chuck Hughes, NARA, Archives 2, 2011

I am sure that if Eva still were here, she would love hanging out on Twitter, discussing a wide range of professional issues!  After I first read “Burnout at the Reference Desk” in June 2014, I shared it with a number of librarians and archivists.  Many found it useful although there are ways in which how we do our work has changed.  Technology X.0, People 1.0.    I am lucky to still know in person and on Twitter many people adept at people and technology issues, both.

david-ferriero-si-site cr 2013-04-18-img_1651

AOTUS David S. Ferriero, 2013


NARA, Archives 2, extravaSCANza

The best advice in “Burnout at the Reference Desk” is about self-care–finding coping mechanisms that work.    They are different for everyone.  I’ve most benefited from taking long walks, listening to music, letting my thoughts wander.  And blogging, of course.

David recognized in his article that there is a danger in situations where not everyone understands what burnout is.  “That the sufferer will feel very alone, guilty, and be unaware that is not an isolated problem.”  And in an insight I really like, he writes that “Intentionally or not, other staff members or supervisors may be communicating that they think you are ‘bad’ because you can’t cope.  And at this point, you lack the objectivity to see that perhaps it is the situation and the combination of circumstances, and that you are not totally at fault.”

Working through such issues is one reason I agree with him that the people goal is the most important in strategic plans.  So much can get in the way, especially in large bureaucracies, with their silos, insularity, diverse cultures among work units, competition, or just the wear and tear of daily job demands.

“Just as it is necessary to know the subject strengths and special reference skills of one’s colleagues, it is just as important to learn about their burnout threshold.  Members of the team must look out for one another and step in when the situation warrants and provide support where appropriate because it is crucial that users not fall victim to the burnout frustrations of the staff.”

Not everyone has safe space to speak.  And no two people are alike.  That wasn’t the case even for me–and my late sister and I were twins who both worked at NARA!    Caring for her in her last year was daunting and in many ways, very isolating.   But I now focus on earlier times, before her terminal illness.  I still miss her greatly, I always will.  She is at left in the first photo of us, at right in the second.

Eva and Maarja at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore 1988 Maarja and Eva 1983

One of Eva’s colleagues at NARA said at her memorial service, “Eva took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.”   The Social World enables us to see highly individual accomplishments in the archival and library communities.  To admire fine lines drawn with pencil, the erasures and revisions, the sharing of work.  To learn when to talk.  When to listen.  And to “look out for each other.”  How to recognize the fine lines in individual sketches, revisions, and appreciate what people choose to share.  And to read between the text lines when they do not.

“The sun and the dark”

This past week saw the archival ethos on display in an article about assistance by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to the Ukraine on preserving and making accessible archival records.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv posted in English and also in Ukrainian comments by the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero  (архівіст США Девід Феррієро):

“Ferriero said the biggest ethical responsibility of archivists is to ensure that no bias is brought to the work of collecting records and making them accessible. Archivists must document both sides of history, both ‘the good stories and the bad stories.’”

The article the Embassy posted, “Archivists document a nation’s history–the good and the bad,” describes a commendable effort:

“An accessible archive is an important part of any country with a complex history, including Ukraine. So the United States is working with archivists in Ukraine to preserve the country’s history and make it more accessible to all Ukrainians.

Trudy Peterson, former archivist of the United States, and her peers do not try to hide the difficult times in American history. In fact, the U.S. National Archives collects and preserves government records — from documents and parchment to film and photographs — that tell the nation’s history, including some ignominious moments. That information is made available to all American citizens. ‘It’s all out there for the American public, for the world to make their own decision based on the documentation available to them,’ said current Archivist of the United States David Ferriero.  Peterson and Ferriero recently led discussions with Ukrainian archivists on records management and the role of archives in society.”

Ukrainian is a Slavic language which uses the Cyrillic alphabet.   Having taken two years of a related language, Russian, in college, I picked out David’s name and that of former Acting Archivist Trudy Peterson in the Ukrainian version the Embassy shared.

And then I looked at the auto translation Facebook provided for the update on the U.S. Embassy’s page.  The Social Media site’s automatic translator conveyed David’s comment about ethical obligations–a major element in purpose-driven work–this way.  That archivists must document both sides, “the sun and the dark.”

And I thought of how this, too, fits our archival and civic obligations and the work that we do.  Bringing into the light–making accessible–information that totalitarian regimes never share with their citizens but democratic nations strive to make available.   A mission that for many of us can feel transcendent, in part because it is so challenging.

A through line in many of my blog posts about archival work, outreach, and obligations has been what inspires us, what keeps us going.  And the importance of acting as stewards.  And why we need to support each other.

With a new year, I may return to a project I only worked on sporadically in 2015–a resources page at my blog with basic information about archives and records management.  I see a need for that although I recognize mine very much  is a niche blog.

I first thought about doing it early last year, when I realized how many opinion pieces and even some news reports shared on Twitter and in professional forums misstated or left out key elements in the records life cycle.  Even within Federal agencies and departments, there are knowledge gaps about NARA’s mission and how it does its work.  Filling them in on the fly when addressing emerging issues or handling anomalies can be challenging.

I haven’t completed the resources page.  And I recognized early on that I’m unlikely to get the guest posts that I asked about in several forums last year.  So I put up some of my own posts, of which “Truth Bomb” drew the most attention from readers.   David Ferriero’s thoughtful discussion of records issues during last year’s Society of American Archivists conference inspired me to look at some challenging topics.  So, too, the article Trudy Peterson published about archives and records in 2004.

NARA, June 2015 c

Fortunately, the National Archives has done an excellent job in providing updates (which I’ve shared on the Archives & Archivists Listserv) on issues relating to State Department records.  A reminder that this is not the NARA of old.  One which employed many good people devoted to the archival mission but, as did many federal agencies, had a relatively closed stance.

The volume and scope of the material, unclassified and national security classified, held by an agency such as NARA is enormous.  But that this is so is part of the light, as discussion of records destroyed or at risk due to war, civic upheaval, aggressive acts internally and externally, reminds us.  I was proud to see my longtime friend Tim Mulligan participate at the Wilson Center in 2012 on a panel on records in wartime.  Better to have backlogs than struggle to fill in the gaps in fragmentary records, all that remain of once rich collections disrupted by war or by questionable acts internally in organizations or nations.

Start of Wilson Center panel 022412

My late sister, Eva (with Joe Scanlon at Archives 2), was a supervisory archivist in the National Archives’ records declassification division.   Some of her former colleagues still work in its successor unit at NARA, the National Declassification Center doing work that Chief Operating Officer Jay Bosanko once referred to as “noble, really.”

sunrise A2 mid-1990s

On January 7, the Big Dude, as I call David Ferriero, wrote at his blog about “Releasing what we can, protecting what we must.”  David noted

“I am so pleased, proud, and honored that Sheryl J. Shenberger, Director of our National Declassification Center has been named a Meritorious Executive Presidential Rank Award recipient—the first National Archives and Records Administration executive to be so recognized.

As the inaugural Director of the National Declassification Center, Sheryl is recognized as the Federal Government expert for executing the review, declassification, and release of permanent government records.  Her accomplishments are an example of our commitment to the Administration’s Open Government Initiative.  Her sustained leadership in coordination of the adjudication of multi-equity referrals as well as balancing transparency and openness with the protection of still-sensitive information is extremely important work.”

I first connected with Sheryl online.  I offered comments in 2010 at the new NDC blog, one of several Social Media platforms that NARA uses effectively to share information and to seek input from the public.  Without naming me, the new NDC director quoted at a meeting of the Public Interest Declassification Board in July 2010 comments I had submitted at the blog.  Sheryl said of feedback in her remarks at the PIDB meeting,

But the comment I took most to heart was this one about the use of ‘public input’:

 ‘For better or worse, not all “public input” is equal,” according to the author.   Speaking to us at NDC, the writer continued, “When you use the term “high interest,” are you referring solely to high number (volume) of queries? Or does that also involve the much trickier issue of strongly applied external pressure?  Pressure potentially can come from researchers who demand that maximum resources be assigned to process records that they want released. In an ideal world, complaints and threats to use one’s powerful outside “connections” would have no [effect] on such matters. The quiet, uncomplaining researcher should receive the same treatment as the complainer. Although it isn’t always easy for employees of archival institutions to push back, I hope NARA and other repositories are able to keep such pressure in perspective in deciding how to assess stakeholders’ needs and how best to assign resources.’

That is a fine piece of advice.

For me as that “writer,” yes, I can say that this remains my view!  I very much believe in equitable treatment and consideration of a broad range of stakeholders’ needs.  Since 2010, I’ve attended a number of PIDB meetings in person.  Seeing so much brainpower together in one room, hearing insightful discussion of truly difficult issues, is part of the light I admire in Washington.  That the Board brings together diverse, thoughtful experts is one of its strengths.

2012120613 NARA photo PIDB meeting 120612

In August 2011, I was pleased to hear Jay Bosanko, whom Eva once supervised and mentored, speak at a NARA NDC Open Forum.   Jay offered candid remarks about how he started his career–as an archives technician–and how he learned on the job.  And the value of being open to new ways of doing things.   You see Jay later in 2011 with Earl “Mac” McDonald, Neil Carmichael, David Ferriero, and Sheryl Shenberger at a NARA symposium on the Berlin Crisis 1961.   A particularly impressive scholarly forum which drew on the records we work so hard to bring into the National Archives and work on to make access happen.

Mac, Neil, David, Sheryl, Jay Berlin Crisis 1961 Conference NARA A1 Berlin Crisis 1961 Conference October 2011

It’s easy to become accustomed to and vested in approaches and methods you once developed and templates you previously deployed.  Letting go and taking a fresh look at processes with an open mind can be hard.  It requires certain conditions to work well.    One is the humility to recognize that just because you developed and successfully implemented a process at one time doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant tweaking or revising.   It helps smooth the way if those around you acknowledge your and others’ past work and contributions while looking for ways to move forward.


The Declass unit that Eva worked in with Jay in 1994 is not the same one for which Jay was Executive for Agency Services in 2011 (pictured with me, right) when I visited her old workplace.   Its past work is worthy of respect.  Its ability to adapt and change even more so.

Eva Declass party summer 1990  maarja-jay-nara-a2-071411

Eva and I used to talk about the conditions that help work units and agencies move forward.  As a supervisor, she had an eye for process and people issues, both.    I’m tremendously pleased to see awareness of some of the elements Eva and I talked about long ago incorporated into the thoughtful, insightful Supervisor’s Handbook that Ferriero’s NARA team developed in 2014.

The Handbook matches the vibe in an article David wrote when he was a Supervisory Librarian at MIT.  He looked with sensitivity at the role of the manager and line employee.  And the importance of understanding yourself–your strengths and weaknesses–and others.  And why the team must look out for each other.  I’ve talked to Ferriero about how an employee such as Eva would react to changes at NARA.  She would accept some readily, perhaps struggle with others.  But as a supervisor with people in her care, she would contribute to the mission and do all she could to help her unit and agency colleagues succeed.

So what about my resources page?  Newly re-energized, I’m looking forward to working on it as I have time while continuing to blog about a range of issues.  As did Eva, I believe in looking at people and processes, both.  She would agree with the Big Dude that of NARA’s Strategic Goals, Goal 4, which focuses on the staff, is the most important!  She would like that.

I see sunlight in the sense of purpose archivists show as they work under challenging conditions with official records.  Or empower themselves to walk new paths to fill in archival silences and preserve the voices that share stories of lives different than ours.  Here in the United States.  And in other countries.

The article about the Ukrainian archives reminds me, as do many of the records we seek to preserve and study, how much is at stake throughout the records life cycle.  Even with all our privileges and advantages, we who work in comfort in the United States face discouragement at times.  But as I wrote at year’s end,

“Seeing others shine lights, use their gifts in purpose-driven work, stand up for those who need it, give gifts to the community, as those I’ve written about here today do, is what makes me happy.  Seeing others give back, build for the future, is a wonderful gift.  And yes, sustainability matters, matters a great deal–part of “the true gift of what we do!”

Extra light during the short days of winter.  And inspiration for the year ahead!

Is it not possible?

My holiday post on December 26 featured Jarrett Drake, who used the image of Double Dutch jump rope to illustrate understanding diverse communities.  Last month, @jmddrake shared a link to “Historical Commemoration and the Age of Marble,” a December 6, 2015 essay on The Atlantic site.   I’m interested in change and how we interact with the public and I set aside the essay to blog about in the new year.

Mason B. Williams, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies, looked at “The Age of Marble” in early 20th century historic commemoration in the context of recent campus protests about iconic symbols of white supremacy.  He points to the early 20th century style of commemoration as focused on shared values, not contention.

Williams notes that

“…the Age of Marble produced many of the most iconic images of American civic culture, among them the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the Jefferson Memorial (1943), and Mount Rushmore (1941). These were the years when Treasury put Andrew Jackson’s likeness on the $20 bill (1928), when Yale named one of its new residential colleges for John C. Calhoun (1932), and when Princeton, staking its position as a training ground of the postwar foreign-policy establishment, expanded its school of public and international affairs as a ‘lasting memorial’ to Woodrow Wilson (1948).”

The Great Man approach to history coincided with the Age of Marble in commemoration.  In Williams’s view,

“To understand the commemorative style of the Age of Marble is to appreciate where its weak points are. Built on the idea of fixed and timeless national values, it assumed moral development would be progressive rather than revolutionary; consequently, it has not been flexible enough to accommodate moral and ethical development on the scale of the anti-racism and gender revolutions. Its reliance on racial exclusion was not only an evil in itself; it was also a structural flaw. Built on the artificial consensus made possible by white supremacy, this ideology simply could not survive in a more diverse, pluralistic world. And its ‘great man’ theory of national development squared poorly with how politics actually worked—as historians and social movements alike would soon demonstrate.”

In 1990-1991, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) marked the 200th anniversary of the city of Washington with a temporary exhibit, “Washington:  Behind the Monuments.”  I visited the exhibit several times; it remains one of my favorites.  Bruce Bustard was the chief curator of the exhibit which looked at Washington’s neighborhoods using some 90 documents, 100 photographs, and artifacts displayed in what then was the circular gallery behind the Rotunda.

At this same time, for a history project, I did extensive research in records from the Age of Marble held at NARA and in special collections at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial public library in downtown Washington.  At the National Archives, I drew on Record Group 66, Record Group 121, and Record Group 328, including the aerial photos of an extensive parked car survey of 1930.

The large clusters of government buildings in Washington–in the Federal Triangle area between 6th and 14th Streets, N.W., in the Southwest portion of the city, and in the Northwest Rectangle–did not yet exist in 1922, when the Lincoln Memorial opened.  A few departments and agencies had buildings near the White House and the parkland of the national Mall but many operated out of leased space.

In 1926, officials approved plans for an enormous public works project on a triangle of land along Pennsylvania Avenue between 6th and 15th Streets, NW. There was fierce competition for space in this prime spot and changes along the way.  An early plan showed Federal Triangle buildings for the General Accounting Office, a General Supply Building, an Independent Offices Building, the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, and the National Archives.

The first three quickly fell out of the designs.  The latter now houses records that trace changes in the nation, the city, and the government since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Some document the civil rights struggles that Mason points to as marking the end of the Age of Marble.   But even in the records that show construction of the buildings of official Washington in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, you get glimpses of another Washington.  And why the civil rights struggles occurred.

Downtown congestion played a part in planning for expansion as did ability to acquire land.  After the completion of Federal Triangle, planning officials looked beyond the downtown area at sites to the East and South of the Mall.  In 1935, the chairman of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt in support of a proposal to place a federal building south of the Mall.  He wrote of Willow Tree playground, just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, that “completing the acquisition of this square would clean up one of the worst and most historic slum neighborhoods in Washington.”

WillowT annotated, rev

In the period before World War II, 4-1/2 Street, described as “obnoxious” by the local black civic association, was the border between segregated white and black sections of southwest Washington.  Willow Tree playground stood at 4-1/2 Street on the site of Willow Tree Alley, a block that so symbolized the worst of the slums that there was a campaign to tear down its dwellings in 1913.* (See footnote below for recommended reading).  But the impact of change can be…uneven.

Wikipedia Looking_northeast_over_Southwest_Washington_DC_-_July_1939

“Urban renewal” efforts between 1954 and 1960 removed some of the slums near the Capitol but displaced many lower income residents.  Redevelopment in SW brought new office buildings and high rise apartment buildings (Hubert Humphrey lived in one, the Harbour Square co-op, as did Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell).

Alley dwellings Washington, DC 1934 Library of Congress Harbour Square

If you look at photographs and records from the 1930s and 1940s, you see different signs of segregation–and defined explicit and implicit borders.  Black and white Federal employees who worked in the same division photographed separately, their images filed in different folders.  Or references in employee newsletters to the accomplishments of a “regular” employee bowling league and to a Colored Bowling League (“the boys did well.”)

Willims writes that

“As issues of racial and gender inequality and colonialism gained space in public conversations, reassessments of practically every ‘great’ American political figure followed. These currents changed the meanings of some older icons: The Lincoln Memorial has not looked the same since Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. And they have led to the creation of more inclusive statues and monuments, such as the Memorial to Japanese Patriotism in World War II and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, among others. But only now have these developments produced a full-on attack on the iconography of the Age of Marble.”

Records in the National Archives and in the Library of Congress show, that as Williams writes, history is inherently complex and should not be reduced to “simple inversions.”   President Barack Obama’s December 15, 2015 speech in the Rotunda of the National Archives provides context for the King Memorial and for the Memorial to Japanese Patriotism.

Williams believes that

“Commemorative sites don’t need new personalities alone but new principles, new plans, new ways of thinking about how to bridge the chasm between history, which is inherently complex, and community values, which require a consensus and clarity that neither history nor politics can supply. This is a moment in which marginalized voices are demanding to be part of the national narrative. This is a sign of national strength, not fracture.”

But Andrew Ferguson’s 2014 critique of the National Archives’s “Records of Rights”–an exhibit which reflects that strength–and his complaints about a diminished, less grand visitor experience, remind us that reassessment can meet resistance.

In 1983, David Bowie was doing the rounds, promoting his hit song, “Let’s Dance.”  When he sat down for an interview with Mark Goodman, a VJ on the MTV cable music channel, Bowie asked a question the host found hard to answer.

“It occurred to me that, having watched MTV over the last few months, that it’s a solid enterprise and it’s got a lot going for it,” Bowie said in the interview. “I’m just floored by the fact that there are … so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?”

I loved “Let’s Dance.”   My twin sister and I danced along in our seats in the arena in Landover, MD in August 1983 when we saw Bowie perform it in concert.

Growing up, I was a fan of classical music and still am.  Although I now almost exclusively stick with classical, I made a foray into popular music for a decade from the 1980s and to the mid-1990s.  As was Eva, pictured left, I was drawn to the androgynous “don’t classify or categorize me” vibe and visual style of many of the New Wave musicians as much as by their music.  (My free-spirited style shows in my still wearing men’s shirts, vests, ties.)

New Wave Eva apartment in 1980s Maarja, Deb Edge, Bonnie Mulligan NARA A1, 105, 091213

I had almost no experience listening to rock, R&B, or other popular music on the radio, except in the mid-1960s when I was in middle school and heard it on my friends’ transistor radios.  (I was fan of the Beatles during 1964-1967, mostly through buying their singles and LPs.  The family radio stayed tuned to classical WGMS, by all of our choice.)

In the early 1980s, I sometimes read Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, and other trade journals.  (Eva, who began her job at the National Archives and Records Administration in 1983, papered the inside wall of her office cube with music magazine pictures.  You see Bowie at the lower right.) But because I hadn’t grown up listening to popular music on radio, I hadn’t focused on the reasons for and depth of the problem to which the British star referred on MTV.

Eva's wall 1980s

When Bowie challenged Goodman on MTV, the VJ floundered.  Rob Tannenbaum, author of a book about MTV, observed that the video channel grew out of FM rock radio and “perpetuated the segregated playlists they worked with at radio.”  The Washington Post ran a feature on Bowie’s challenge after news broke overnight of the singer’s death on Sunday.

“Bowie’s exchange with Goodman is recounted in R. Serge Denisoff’s “Inside MTV.” According to the book, Bowie asked: ‘Why are there practically no blacks on the network?’

Goodman, who merely introduced the clips and announced the concert dates, explained, ‘We seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play on MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrowcasting.’ Bowie pressed on. ‘There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t being used on MTV.’

Goodman, placed in the highly uncomfortable position of defending a format totally beyond his control, echoed the company’s demographic policy: ‘We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by … a string of other black faces, or black music.’ He went on, ‘We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we’re a rock-and-roll station.’

The exchange got hotter. Bowie asked: ‘Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?’ The intimidated veejay resorted to the radio analogy, ‘Yeah, but no less so here than in radio.’

The British singer pounced on the reply: ‘Don’t say, “Well, it’s not me, it’s them.” Is it not possible it should be a conviction of the station and of the radio stations to be fair … to make the media more integrated?’”

When I heard of Bowie’s death, I took out the Bowie pin I bought at the concert arena in 1983.  (You see me wearing it in the 1980s when I worked at the National Archives.)  I put on my “Rebel Archives” t-shirt to mark Bowie’s song, “Rebel, Rebel.”  And thought about the impact of “narrowcasting.”  And about our obligations, as information professionals and historians.

Maarja, Bowie pin, archivist,1980s Maarja wearing1983 Bowie Landover concert pin, 011116

MTV’s launch–the safe, middle ground marketing of videos–reminded me of how Fedland bureaucracies traditionally approach change.  Of the limited embrace of new ways I’ve seen over the decades in “Total Quality Management” and “Business Process Re-Engineering.”  Changing processes or techniques.  But not looking deeply at culture and human nature.  Of reluctance to go where Bowie did:  “C-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange).”

And of being left behind, when bolder, more visionary people ask, “Is it not possible?”


*If you’re interested in reading more about Southwest Washington, I recommend  James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 and Keith Melder, “Southwest Washington: Where History Stopped,” in Kathryn Schneider Smith, ed., Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital.

Gifts and the gift

Jarrett Drake LinkedInThe opening sentence caught my eye:  “In graduate school, a professor told me that she decided to choose her discipline based on the people she wanted to argue with for the rest of her career.”   The author–Jarrett M. Drake, one of several archivists recently writing about first-time publishing at the Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Blog.

Rebecca Goldman was a leading force behind the establishment of the SNAP Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).   Archivists, librarians, and Library and Information Science grad students saw the need and made it happen.  I followed the threads on the main SAA Listserv and Social Media which led to her proposal.  I understood why Rebecca lobbied for SNAP.  And why Kate Theimer, one of the most visionary archivists to serve on SAA’s Council, helped supporters of the new Roundtable.

Rebecca Goldman photo_for_snap_blog Kate Theimer LinkedIn photo

Most of the older Listservs which I follow show less engagement now than 15 years ago, when there were fewer platforms for outreach.  I follow the bursts of conversations on the SNAP List, the insightful #snaprt chats on Twitter and thoughtful posts on the Roundtable’s blog.

I usually take time off from work for much of December but not this year.  So it’s nice to have four days off right now.  It’s good to let my thoughts wander, even more so than during the long walks I like to take.  And to catch up on posts such as “[On the Job Training]: The First Publishing Experience (Or, Using Graduate School Work for a Higher Purpose” (December 17, 2015).

In his essay on publishing, Jarrett used a powerful image to explain how he approaches conversations and knowledge sharing (learning, teaching).  I find what he writes applies to publishing and to more informal engagement online and in person, as well:

“To determine my unique contributions to a given conversation, I first research, read, and consider the range of archival literature published on a given topic. This first step allows me to assess accurately the pulse of a conversation and highlight any gaps or absences. The words of journalist Amy Goodman ring relevant: ‘Go where the silence is and say something.’ I often take weeks or months just reading and annotating articles and books that pertain to the conversation I want to enter. This process of assessing the conversation is similar to jumping rope, double dutch style. As a kid, it amazed me how seamlessly other kids could enter the terrifying prospects of two deadly pieces of twisted twine twirling at breakneck speeds. It further amazed me how seamlessly they left and allowed others to enter. Scholarly communication bears resemblance to double dutch. One must study the twirl, the twirlers, and jump in when and where you feel comfortable.”

Having a good sense of self and of others–what you and they bring to professional situations, what to personal ones, when to listen, when to talk, is part of this.  You study the twirl, the twirlers, and learn when to jump in and when to hop out and let other players jump in.

Jarrett’s double dutch image fits the world of archives,  records, and history well.  The twirlers and the jumpers are the participants.  You have to judge the speed right, listen to the cadences of the chants or the beat of the music, watch the movement.

To me, the twirl can mean tone, style, and format.  The scholarly, the governmental, and the political playgrounds and streets are different.  The most skilled players recognize those differences and calibrate accordingly.   You can spot through lines if you look at how people express themselves, in writing and visually.

Anthony Grafton and James Grossman wrote in “Habits of Mind” that a “student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.”  A year before she graduated from high school in 1969 my twin sister Eva sketched anti-Vietnam War protestors.  Her 1968 sketch was impressionistic but not cartoonish.  You can’t tell from how she drew the people then, and later in college in 1970, whether she supported their views or not.

Sketch of antiwar demonstrators by Eva in 1968 cr the-audience-1970-by-eva cr

As it happens, as a teenager Eva supported the war effort although she later came to see the issues as much more complex than when she was in high school.   By drawing the protestors as individual human beings, not caricatures, she showed in high school the same empathy and discernment she later brought to studying history and being a supervisory archivist.  There’s a spectrum among historians, as in other academic disciplines, of course.  Eva always turned to fine strokes, not to thick markers.  You see my late sister (at right on both photos) with me at Christmas 1975 and Christmas 1989, when we both worked for the National Archives.

Maarja and Eva Christmas ca. 1974-1975 Maarja and Eva at Christmas 1989

The workplace requires similar skills to those Jarrett Drake describes.  Ability to read situations well is a gift, an asset; tone deafness a disadvantage.  The best executives and managers recognize leadership skills early on.  With the rise of Social Media, they can pick out emerging leaders even before meeting them.  Lucky employees (this may depend on opportunities, and yes, on privilege) find good mentors who help them thrive.

I say thrive because as does AOTUS David S. Ferriero, I think leadership skills largely are innate.  They can be developed but not really taught.  David observed in 2008 that

“There is a set of interpersonal skills a person has to have to be a good leader, and they can’t really be taught, but after all these years I can tell pretty quickly if someone has them. I look for an individual who truly cares about people, who has good listening skills, who has empathy and is able to understand what people are going through and is genuinely sensitive to the situation. Directness and honesty. And of course, the ability to make decisions.”

And David is right, as he observed in 2012, about the importance in public service archives and library work of discernment in outreach.  “Tailoring the amount, style, and content of messages to the needs of the audience and handling and resolving questions and contrary opinions in a positive and constructive manner.”

The same skills that enable us to navigate “real life” apply in the virtual world.  Part of being effective is understanding silence.  There are times when you go where the silence is and speak up.  And there are times when silence is the gift you give others.  As Jarrett tweeted in June, sometimes you have to “stfu and listen” instead of speaking for, to, or at others.  You let them choose how, when, and where to speak and what they–not you–need to say.

Only some of Twitter’s value shows in analytics.    Sometimes you engage.  There may be no response.  At other times, a tweet leads to a wonderful back and forth.  Others may join in.  I’ve seen that work well with Tweeters–what they learned as they studied the twirl and the twirlers stands out.  And sometimes not.   Yes, that can be complicated as with all group dynamics!  Learning comes through trial and error.

Sometimes you show respect by reading what people you Follow tweet and not replying.   That you nod along and silently think of a powerful series of tweets, “I wish you well,” doesn’t show up in their Mentions.  And sometimes, clicking “Like” doesn’t suit what they are saying about harrowing topics so you do nothing.  But respectful silence while reading is part of building the online relationship.

You’re reading and annotating tweets mentally, preparing to speak later, to stand up for others, to use the concept Jarrett described.  By showing silent respect and listening first, you’re learning who they are.

Jumping in without stumbling on twirling ropes, jumping out of conversations to give others a chance to play, is a skill that some people display more effectively than others.  If you mess up (I have, most of the people I know have from time to time, too) you can learn, adjust.  Learning, calibration are part of effective communications.

A highlight of 2015 for me was seeing Ashley Stevens tweet about meeting David Ferriero.  Two archivists I know in person and admire finally had a chance to meet!   During the time she worked at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Ashley often helped me keep going in Washington.  Her insights, resilience, and candor were a bright spot for me on Social Media.  I’ve often written about her at Nixonara and was glad to see her re-launch her blog this fall.  I’ve added “History Matters” to my blogroll here.

David Ferriero and Ashley Stevens, 072415 courtesy Ashley Stevens ashley-stevens-photo-nichelle-nichols-and-me

Ashley’s recent blog post about “Sustainability:  The Key to Understanding Me,” demonstrates exemplary professional awareness.

“I’m not always the ‘ideas person’ but I can turn that idea into a workable, customizable model.  I think when I realized that, there was an internal sigh of relief.  Sure I have ideas about things but that’s not where I expend my energy.  That’s not my strength.  And, there’s nothing wrong in admitting that.

One of my favorite quotes growing up comes from Irish dramatist  George Bernard Shaw:

‘You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never  were; and I say “Why not?”‘

I mistakenly thought that this ‘why not?’ was my raison d’etre.  Turns out it isn’t.  You have the people that say ‘why not’ but my question is how?”

She called her old blog “Emerging Archivist and Historian Adrift in the Delta Quadrant.”  Since Ashley no longer is an emerging archivist but a seasoned professional, I can see why she changed the title.  But truth be told, many of us feel adrift at times!

Ashley Stevens, Maarja Krusten, SAA 20140814

I know I do–that’s one of many reason I take the long walks I write about here.  Washington can be a complicated place to navigate.  But there are scenes of incredible beauty, if you know where to look.

National Archives, May 2015 Pennsylvania Avenue, May 2015

Ashley writes of happiness and sustainability,

“I look back on my somewhat short career and I think on those things that still exist.  A project I started that paved the way to another project.  Or a social media strategy that is still in use today.  I look back on those things with a sense of pride.  I did that.  And in doing that other people benefit.  If it benefits just me, then I’m not as fulfilled unless others are reaping the benefits.

The question I pose to you dear reader is what makes you happy?  What drives you?

Understand that and you understand the key to who you are.”

I’m considering adding update paragraphs to a handful of my older posts here.  Not revising them–they reflect how I saw things at the time.  But indicating through short notes that I’ve broadened or changed my perspective on some issues as I’ve talked, listened, and learned.  So I’ve marked a few posts for future annotation, a backburner project.

Part of learning is understanding how others see you.

I recently read through the Internet Archive some essays on a site that no longer exists.  Clicking on a link in one post took me to a 2009 Twitter thread the author described as being about someone else.  At the time of actual posting, the thread at the account did show discussion of that person. (I remember reading it in real time). But because of a three-month crawl lag, the archived Wayback Machine link instead shows tweets about me from later in 2009.   I had read those in real time, ouch.  They were a good example of how the Twitter backchannel can point to what we might do differently.

Much has changed since 2009.   I’m at peace and my attention and connections are different than they once were.  My network is wider, more diverse than it was when I was one of the most frequent (essayist) posters on the old Archives and Archivists Listserv.  And what makes me happy reflects those changes and that larger network and greater community.

The most beautiful gift to give others is the ability to look beyond the individual to what will help the larger group succeed.  To step out of oneself.  To listen out, in what is said and what you can intuit, for what others need and want.  To ease their burdens, help them achieve their goals.  To shine a light.

Seeing others shine lights, use their gifts in purpose-driven work, stand up for those who need it, give gifts to the community, as those I’ve written about here today do, is what makes me happy.  Seeing others give back, build for the future, is a wonderful gift.  And yes, sustainability matters, matters a great deal–part of “the true gift of what we do!”

They built this nation

As I read about an unexpected discovery of letters yesterday, I thought of what James Grossman and Anthony Grafton wrote in 2014 in “Habits of Mind.”

“In the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead.”

Not all voices make it into archives.  And some are preserved unexpectedly outside an official repository, as in the Christmas letters by the children of Irish immigrants featured in the New York Times yesterday.  In 1990, Peter Mattaliano discovered two such letters, one from 1905, the other from 1907, during renovation of the chimney in his Hell’s Kitchen home in New York City.  Tucked into the chimney, the two letters remained undiscovered for decades.

The letter young Mary wrote in 1907 asks for nothing specific for herself but asks Santa to remember the less fortunate.

“Dear Santa Claus: I am very glad that you are coming around tonight.  My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.”

P.S. Please do not forget the poor.”

Touched by the family’s “implied poverty” and by Mary’s “stoicism and selflessness,” Mattaliano turned to official records to try to find out more about the children.  The father of the McGann family died in 1904, leaving the mother (also named Mary) as the sole support for the two children.  Mattaliano visited her grave in Flushing, taking with him a small potted tree.  The headstone bears the name of her second husband but not that of Mary.

From the visitors lobby of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) you can walk into the “Records of Rights” exhibit in the Rubenstein Gallery.  It is fitting that the design on the ceiling of the entry lobby evokes the Rotunda above.  President Barack Obama described the immigrant experience when he spoke at the Naturalization Ceremony at the National Archives on December 15, 2015.  And he reminded us of those who came to the United States involuntarily as enslaved people.  A powerful reminder of why we need exhibits such as “Records of Rights.”

Bill of Rights Day Naturalization Ceremony, NARA, Obama, Ferriero 121515

President Obama stood in front of the founding documents and spoke of citizenship and national ideals.

“We celebrate this history, this heritage, as an immigrant nation.  And we are strong enough to acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that we haven’t always lived up to our own ideals.  We haven’t always lived up to these documents.

From the start, Africans were brought here in chains against their will, and then toiled under the whip.  They also built America.  A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, ‘No Irish Need Apply.’  Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s, when JFK had to run, he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.

Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes, and were, for a time, even banned from entering America.  During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps.  We succumbed to fear.  We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values.  We betrayed these documents.”

It is the willingness to acknowledge what we have done well and done badly that resonates with me.  Not whether you approach the founding documents from a grand staircase, as Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard once did and seems to yearn to do still.  He disliked it but I find beauty in the ground level exit that we all now use as we walk out of the building.

National Archives, Constitution Avenue and exhibits exit, 121515 cr

Walking west from the National Archives on Constitution Avenue takes you to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  And then onto Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.  After crossing the Potomac River, you can walk from the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Netherlands Carillon into Arlington Cemetery.

The Marshall Drive entrance to the cemetery takes you into Section 27, where the first burials took place during the Civil War.  I used to live three blocks away and often walked in the Cemetery.  The day I finished graduate research in records at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, I walked home from Capitol Hill, almost 5 miles.  A burst of exuberance at almost having that history degree in hand.

The first member of the United States’ armed forces to be buried at Arlington was William Henry Christman on May 13, 1864.  Robert Poole includes his poignant story in “On Hallowed Ground” (video here.)  Among those buried in Section 27 are 1,500 United States Colored Troops.  James Parks, a former slave born on the Arlington estate, dug some of the graves.  He is buried in Section 15.

Arlington Cemetery, Section 27 121315 IMG_0779

Also buried in Arlington Cemetery are some Contrabands, former enslaved people who escaped or were freed by Union troops.  Some lived in Freedman’s Village, established on the Arlington estate in 1863.  U.S. Colored Troops provided protection to fugitives from former slaveowners.  Historians reportedly do not know the exact location of Freedman’s village but believe the site was somewhere in the southern portion of the Custis-Lee estate.

James Parks died in 1929.  Alley slums then still stood in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.   Independence Avenue still was B Street, SW,  Constitution Avenue was B Street, NW.  I’ll be writing here next month about 4-1/2 Street, SW, described by historians as a border between segregated white and black neighborhoods in the capital city.


Alley dwellings Washington, DC 1934 Library of Congress

Robert Blake, Navy Medal of Honor recipient in 1863, was one of many so-called Contrabands who enlisted and fought on the Union side during the Civil War.   I shared his story in 2012 in “They’re not going anywhere.  They’re Americans.”   The title of my post about the District of Columbia Emancipation Act of 1862 comes from archivist Damani Davis’s account of stories told in records available at NARA.

Last year, I wrote in “I go home to a very different place than you” about a conversation between two National Archives’ employees, a white supervisory archivist and an African-American archives technician.  She listened and learned from him.  I wrote the post about my sister Eva and a colleague after seeing a tweet about discussions of employment and labor issues in an online professional forum.

Eva would have been dismayed to see someone tweet last year of online conversations among archivists, “I want to weep for the future of archives ‘professionals’ & all this ‘diversity privilege’ crap. #shutupandgettowork.”

People have different perspectives and experiences and expectations and political philosophies.  Ideally, we can state where we stand, hope for new insights (shared and gained).  And if nothing else, agree to disagree.  But Ralph Waldo Emerson’s admirable goal–“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted”–is not always easy to attain.

Washington can be a challenging place to work.  But I still have bursts of exuberance where I’ll take long walks, just as I did towards the end of grad school.  Some of the thoughts I later share here form as I’m walking through the city.  I am lucky I can walk in safe neighborhoods and look at scenes of beauty.

My twin sister Eva and I entered college at the same time.  Mom and Dad weren’t sure how paying tuition would work out as we were growing up.  They saved what they could and hoped for the best.  My parents ended up having not to contribute from their savings.  My family was lucky that we got need-based financial aid.

Eva and I were able to pay our undergraduate tuition with scholarship money and low interest loans under the 1958 National Defense Education Act program.  I worked summer jobs during college and took a fulltime job on graduating.  I paid for grad school out of my salary; tuition costs were not as high then as they are now.

Some us are privileged.  We received assistance, financial or otherwise.  We had mentors (and good role models later, if lucky).  We found jobs at a time when the market was different than now for library, archives, and records jobs.   Or we got  breaks that others did not.  We were in the right place at the right time.    We heard about vacancies as they opened, as I did when I came to work at the National Archives in 1976.  We found jobs where we could rise in rank as our responsibilities increased.

How we spend our money and time is individual.  Consider giving back how and when you can.  The models for doing so are out there.

Kate Theimer AHA panel 010314

In 2011, Kate Theimer (at right) marked her birthday month by asking for spontaneous contributions to an unofficial fund to pay registration fees for the Society of American Archivists (SAA) annual conference.  She has repeated the fund raising effort every year since then, helping students and young professionals in need.  A wonderful way to give back.  And yes, I had tears of joy in my eyes in 2014 as I watched Kate receive an overdue SAA Spotlight Award in Washington.

Terry Baxter and Maarja Krusten, SAA, Washington, 081415In 2011, Terry Baxter offered a series of prizes at his blog if archival and records colleagues contributed $1,000. to SAA’s Mosaic Scholarship Fund by August 26.  We did and he shaved off his trademark beard.  I posted a comment at Beaver Archivist blog–“Fab idea! I love stuff like this. Yeah, archivists definitely are groovy in a far out and happening kind of way.”   That’s a quote from Terry in 2009, a wonderful group hug to the community.

In 2015, Jarrett Drake sought volunteers and monetary donations during the SAA conference for an unofficial oral history project, the People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland.   Because archivists came together, we now can learn from interviews of citizens whose stories otherwise might never have been recorded.

And we saw scenes of beauty on Twitter.  “That’s love” @jmddrake tweeted, as he described a man in the neighborhood giving away his umbrella during the oral history project at a Cleveland community center.  Archivists sat outside in the rain, listening to on and off the record stories of the spectrum of police actions (many bad or horrific, some not) in the community.  Jarrett Drake and Bergis Jules also took part in a discussion of “The Secret Life of Records” during the Diversity Forum at the SAA Conference in Cleveland.

SAA 2015 Bergis Jules, Jarrett Drake

There were two conference recordings I most wanted to hear as a #SAALeftBehind.  One was the Diversity Forum.  The other was AOTUS David S. Ferriero speaking about “Challenges and Opportunities” at the National Archives.

I admire and respect David’s candor in the conference session (“Truth Bomb“).  David, whom I know in person, said some things in session 304 that Friday that needed to be said from Washington, and then some (“Contributing #archives style“).   It says a lot that such candor and insights are rare!

But I only caught glimpses on Twitter of the powerful discussion of diversity issues the day before with Jarrett Drake, Bergis Jules, and others.  The vendor didn’t record the Thursday session.   A discussion of silences, gaps, secrets that many of us wanted or needed to hear was lost to history.

Yesterday, @misterBooth tweeted dismay at learning from a SAA fundraising letter that the Mosaic scholarship fund “is entirely depleted.”  The scholarship’s aim is to promote SAA’s Diversity Strategic Priority.  The yearly award goal is, as “SAA and SAA Foundation budgets permit, up to two scholarships of $5,000 each” to minority students in graduate archival programs.

We’re archivists.  We recognize challenges and opportunities.  President Obama said last Wednesday at the National Archives that our nation is a place

“. . . where we can be a part of something bigger.  A place where we can contribute our talents and fulfill our ambitions and secure new opportunity for ourselves and for others.  A place where we can retain pride in our heritage, but where we recognize that we have a common creed. . . [a place]. . . . .where our children know themselves to be a part of this nation, no longer strangers, but the bedrock of this nation, the essence of this nation.”

We.  Not just I and mine.

What better way to give thanks for what we have, than to listen to others.  And learn how to help them join us, financially and through other support, in preserving as much of the nation’s story as we can!


Four years ago, I attended the annual Bill of Rights Day Naturalization Ceremony at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  I messed up a bit because I acted spontaneously.  I simply showed up, cleared security, then told officials in the lobby I was there for the ceremony.  They directed me to a room where they said I could wait.  Others in what turned out to be a holding room were petitioners for citizenship and their families.  After they checked in and received instructions, officials escorted them to the ceremony.

I stayed seated, then got up and asked how I could reach the Rotunda.  “Who are you?” one of the officials asked.  I didn’t know what to say.  Citizen.  Federal employee.  I simply said, “I’m a friend and supporter of the National Archives.”  She told me how to reach the Rotunda.  (This was before I started visiting frequently and learned how to navigate space renovated since I had worked in the building).

David speaking in Rotunda at NARA A1, with Judge Lamberth at right, 121511

I took a seat in the back and watched a deeply moving event at which AOTUS David S. Ferriero gave welcoming remarks and Judge Royce Lamberth presided over the naturalization ceremony.    And I’m glad my awkwardness when I arrived and didn’t express well who I was enabled me to see the petitioners prepare to become citizens.

No two people are alike, of course, we’re shaped by our experiences, whom we’ve known, and our innate characteristics, among other elements.  Even twins, which I was, have shared characteristics and different ones.  My sister, Eva, who died December 16, 2002, loved history and the archival mission.   As NARA employees, we often talked about workplace and people issues.  Our longtime, cherished friend, Tim Mulligan, took the photo of Eva in his office at Archives 2 and of us in 1995.  One characteristic Eva and I shared was not putting on  what for both of us was a mask of gravitas unless we absolutely had to do so!

Evaoffice1995 Maarja and Eva at NARA A2 1995

Eva was more task oriented than I, powering through household chores on the weekend to the point of exhaustion.  I would work on some things, take a break, work some more, take another break.  A mellower approach but one that stretches out getting things done.  Our styles didn’t always mesh when we wanted to go off to do something.  I can still hear Eva saying, “Any time, Maarja!  Let’s go!” as I hurried to finish and head out with her.

Maarja and Eva 1983

As I am, Eva was a people-liking Introvert who cared a great deal about her colleagues.  As a supervisory archivist, she tried to develop employees’ different strengths so they best could contribute and succeed.   I still remember the joy she expressed during one of our walks when she was able to give an employee an exemplary performance review.  She had worked to identify areas where the person could shine–and she succeeded.

Eva thought in terms of “the village” — permanent employees, contractors, everyone who contributed.  And she looked out for the newbies to make sure they did not get left out at social events.

Declass peeps Dec. 16, 1994 celebrating-end-of-ph-i-archives-ii-move-1994-2

Christmas was Eva’s favorite time of year.  She decorated the records declassification area at Archives 2.  And took part in (and often also directed!) party planning.   You see her at Archives 2 in 1994 and with the declassification division director, Jeanne Schauble, in her last full year in Federal service, 2001.

Declass party December 2001 Archives II

An account of the last Christmas party that Eva planned and attended at the National Archives in December 2001 shows how she looked out for others, including her colleagues’ spouses, such as Heidi.  And a new NARA declassification division employee named Pamela Wright.

“Shortly after I sat down, Chuck joined me…Heidi sat near me and Chuck introduced himself to her – she said she had heard a lot about him. I did not realize they had not met. A bit later I was talking with Mary Kay Schmidt and Pamela Wright after Chuck and AJ had gone off, and I decided to involve Heidi in our conversation. (MKS recently rejoined NWMD after being downtown and on detail, PW was hired in the group of archivists this fall when Joe got his job).

. . . .A bit later I circulated, and took some pictures, and by 12:30 I sent Mark and Jeff to get more beer. AJ asked me how things had gone with set up. . . . I told him Ivonne, Mary Kay, Pamela, Meredith, Marina, Richard and Ray had helped set things up. I was checking tables and consolidating newly brought platters, when AJ started MC-ing the ceremonial portion, just as the guys got back with the refilled beer coolers.

AJ named everyone.”

The operations of the declassification team largely remained unseen.  And there was no NDC Blog yet.  But Eva and her colleagues–she also worked on Special Access and FOIA–contributed a great deal to researchers’ understanding of how the Federal government works.   To this day, as NARA declassifies and digitizes Federal records, I look at the declassification stamps to see who worked to make access happen.

Jay Bosanko and Eva Krusten,1995. at NARA A2 Maarja and Jay Bosanko, NARA Gala Dinner, Rotunda, 102815 IMG_0153

One of the colleagues whom Eva mentored, Jay Bosanko, now is Chief Operating Officer of the National Archives.   (You see Jay with Eva in 1995 when he was an archives technician and with me at NARA earlier this Fall.)  In giving an award to Ed Cachine, NARA National Declassification Center employee, Jay said in 2012 that

“the work of the NDC is incredibly important – noble really – and it deserves our very best – we need to stay the course and do what is right, even in the face of immense pressure to deviate.  Ed knows the importance of this and serves as an example for all of us!”

The same is true for all who work to make access happen.  Some of that nobility lies in the equitable nature of the work.  Archivists work to make knowledge available to all.   Not to a favored few.  Or members of a scholarly elite.  But everyone.  They do so knowing that it will be used freely, sometimes as we ourselves might, sometimes very differently.  And accepting that this is what we do here in Washington and throughout the nation.

Earlier this year I thought about putting up a page at my blog with links to resources on how archivists and government information professionals work.  I still may do so.  But watching the livestream of the Naturalization Ceremony at the National Archives yesterday brought together some loose threads for me.

AOTUS David S. Ferriero welcoming remarks, keynote speaker President Obama listening, Naturalization Ceremony, NARA 121515

David Ferriero welcomed the petitioners and talked about the story of the United States of America.  And how that story is told in diverse records, some of which show the journeys to citizenship of countless Americans.  He beautifully linked the past, present, and future, telling the new citizens that their stories now join those of others who came before.  And add to the rich and diverse records held in public trust by NARA.

President Obama speaking at NARA, Bill of Rights Naturalization Ceremony, 121515

President Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the National Archives yesterday after the petitioners took the oath of citizenship.  (NARA staff photographer Jeff Reed took the photo.)  He spoke about values of which I recognized some in my late sister, the child of war refugees.

“We are Americans.  Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do -– especially when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s not convenient.  That’s when it counts. That’s when it matters — not when things are easy, but when things are hard.

The truth is, being an American is hard.  Being part of a democratic government is hard.  Being a citizen is hard.  It is a challenge.  It’s supposed to be.  There’s no respite from our ideals.  All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves — not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.  When it’s tough.  When we’re afraid.”

The President spoke of immigration being our origin story.  He explained,

“Our system of self-government depends on ordinary citizens doing the hard, frustrating but always essential work of citizenship — of being informed.  Of understanding that the government isn’t some distant thing, but is you.”

Those born to immigrant parents–especially those who made wrenching decisions to flee their homeland and leave families behind–often want to give back, to pay it forward, to help others succeed.   After Eva died, then AOTUS John Carlin wrote in a condolence letter sent to my mother and to me that “Eva was as committed a NARA employee as could be found.”

Even during her last year–she knew from the time of her diagnosis in July 2001 that she was terminal–Eva sought to further the agency mission and to help colleagues succeed.  During the last month or so of her life, she would talk to a NARA colleague on the phone.  Or read an email.  And tell me, “I’ll rest a little.  And then see what I can do.”

And soon after that, when I walked to her room, I’d see her at the computer, offering email notes on an unclassified work product.  Or (and this so was Eva at heart) looking over a draft to see how someone best could get a promotion. I’d see her sending advice on how to highlight a colleague’s accomplishments.  She gave a lot of thought to proposed applications for promotion that friends in Declass forwarded to her for review.

“I’ll wait a little” never lasted very long, she wanted to do what she could.

The President is right. Government is not a dehumanized distant thing, it functions for you, due to people who are as human as you are.  And when we enter Federal service, we have opportunities to make it better, to build on the work of our predecessors.  I’ve seen so many people at NARA do that across Democratic and Republican administrations.

NARA, 121515

I’m glad Eva was an officer of the United States.  And a public servant.  Yes, the two go hand in hand in people such as Eva.  Someone who worked on the purpose-driven mission of sharing knowledge of our past–sobering, uplifting, dismaying, inspiring historical events–with her fellow citizens, of the United States, of the world.

Of helping others be informed.  And in her contributions, as so many who went before and who will follow, herself became part of NARA’s story, too.  Part of a beautiful, often noble, team of very different people working together.

We don’t always know how to describe ourselves.  But we do know where we want to go.  And we truly are lucky, when we have good people in our lives who help us on the journey.