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