A hopeful spirit–to build

After a visit to the archives by the third-graders with whom he works as archivist for the Gilman School, Steve Ammidown wrote

“No matter the content of our collections, we have the opportunity to inspire the next generation by talking about what we have and what we do. It’s a long game to be sure, but I see the impression I’m making in the eyes (and the many questions) of the students I work with. They will remember archives and archivists. And that’s all I can ask for.”

His post in the “One Year in the Life” series at the Society of American Archivists SNAP Roundtable’s blog included a photo of him showing students an artifact in his archives collection.    The purpose of the class visit was to get the boys to think about what they might donate to the archives.

Steve AmmidownSteve observed that he had a perfect item on hand, football cleats recently donated to the school archives by a former student who had played in a milestone game.    Luckily, a teacher’s photo captured the moment.

Steve did not see the expressions on the student’s faces until the teacher later shared the photo.  He called it the perfect archivist moment.    “Sure, boys are natural hams when a camera comes out, but this was mostly genuine excitement. ”

As I read his post, I thought back to a Tweet that Steve shared last May about third graders being smart and able to “get archives.”  Connecting with others is a big part of doing archives right.   As Steve showed, we rely on our understanding of others to customize our advocacy efforts.   And understanding others requires listening.

Tweet by Steve Ammidown, May 2015

I see many different threads in my Twitter feed.   Tweets reflecting conference presentations, workplace matters, archival processing, library life, records management issues, educational opportunities offered by professional association accounts, pitches from people marketing products (including organizations and professional associations).

The questions, debates, advice, and marketing pitches reflect how those Tweeting view themselves and others and the work they do.  Some scripted and on point.  Some tumultuous, even chaotic.  The tweets that catch my eye are the ones that come from the heart.

I don’t know Steve in person, only online.   I’ve been listening to him and many other archivists, librarians, informational professionals, and historians on Twitter for years.   I look to Twitter for many things, including inspiration.

My Social Media connections remind me that we’re connected in so many ways yet also separate, disparate.  Together alone, alone together.

But many of the people I follow on Twitter–from Kate Theimer, the archival leader who first taught me about the online Social World, to Maureen Callahan, Jarrett Drake, Rebecca Goldman, Meredith Evans, Sam Winn, Bergis Jules, Ashley Stevens, and so many others–use the platform effectively.  To ask questions, share knowledge, give others a boost, advocate.  And as Steve wrote in “I want the whole story,” to look for ways to make the archives and library profession better.

A year ago, I featured Steve in a post, “At the heart (archives).”   The work we do as archivists and librarians takes place within the educational system, the academy, in corporate settings, within the government, in communities.  For many of us, the happiest moments involve sharing knowledge.  Part of that happiness comes from knowing that preserving and making knowledge available isn’t always easy.  And seeing others work on overcoming those challenges.

We know that in archives and libraries, much of the labor is not visible outside our places of work.  AOTUS David S. Ferriero wrote at his blog last week about the tremendous work done by front line and back room workers within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  David, whom I know and admire, shared his appreciation of the National Archives’ staff in a post about the agency’s annual awards ceremony.

“. . . for me every week of the year is Public Service Recognition Week because I am so proud of the work that you all do across our agency in service to the American people.  Whether you are redacting pages from a service record in St. Louis, or refiling an IRS return in Lenexa, or helping someone navigate the FOIA process, or connecting someone with their family history, or ensuring that our staff and users are safe, or restoring a deteriorating film, or ensuring the a First Lady’s correspondence is accounted for, or educating a school group about how our government works, or safeguarding NARA holdings from leaks, condensation, and frost problems, or doing any one of the hundreds of tasks the comprise the work of the National Archives—thank you for your passion and commitment to our mission.”

Employees in Washington and NARA locations throughout the United States  contribute to what Ferriero calls “the true gift of the work we do.”  In the Archivist’s office in the National Archives building, David keeps a small bag filled with limestone rocks from the Lenexa Federal Records Center.   For him, it is “a constant reminder of a great staff doing great work for the American public.”

NARA 061515 AOTUS office, rocks from Lenexa FRC

That public is diverse.  The people whom NARA’s staff serve include genealogists, military veterans, their family members, and other citizens seeking information from the government, journalists, documentary film makers, academic researchers, students, teachers, professional historians and history buffs.

 Constitution Day family activities at NARA 091715 1797989_10153788186230422_1959521655_n

In my last post, I commended one such film maker, Ken Burns, for his thoughtful comments about historical complexity and diverse perspectives at the Vietnam War Summit.  Burns also offered insightful perspectives on history and biography and narrative in his Jefferson Lecture on May 9, 2016 in Washington.  His remarks focused on and highlighted life’s complexities.

Mark Updegrove, Lynn Novick, Ken Burns, Vietnam War Summit Conference, 042716

In his Jefferson Lecture, Burns shared a story of his shame that as a child he turned away from a hug and kiss from an African American housekeeper (of whom he wrote, “I loved Mrs. Jennings’) during his mother’s final illness.  Guilt at his action, and his father’s words (“Young man, I am so disappointed in you”) have stayed with him.

That Burns focuses on why people act as they do shows in his documentaries.  He spoke in his lecture about competing stylistic approaches to history, finding that they augment rather than replace prior approaches in historiography.

“Each new ‘school of thought’ suggested that there was only one true lens through which that past was to be seen and refracted.  They all came up short, of course, like the blind describing only one part of the elephant.

I’m pleased to say that some sanity has been restored in recent years, and we have begun to re-embrace an energized, inclusive narrative that’s able, lo and behold, to sometimes encompass all of those other perspectives. Nevertheless, many of us are still seduced by George Santayana’s famous saying that ‘we are condemned to repeat what we don’t remember.’  It’s a wonderful quote, wonderful quote, poetic even, but it’s just not true, I don’t think. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.’  If he actually did say it—we’re not sure that he did—one of our greatest writers definitely got it right. I have been trying to hear those rhymes and verses, trying to sing our song, for almost forty years.”

Seeing the work of thoughtful researchers such as Burns is part of the archives transcendence I often blog about.  But his remarks also remind us of the divisions around us.  Burns said that

“We know deep down that we are mortal, that none of us get out of this alive. So to keep that wolf from our cabin door, human beings, we human beings, seek always to find some frame to understand things, to overlay some order on that randomness of events, to find some meaning in it all precisely because of our inevitable mortality. But Ecclesiastes–“there is nothing new under the sun”–may be all that we need to understand, to help us tell and organize our stories. That truth might appear fatalistic or pessimistic, even discouraging—that we’ve made no progress—but it also means that we can often divine in history, and I believe particularly in biography, the way human beings are. Sometimes that human nature is reassuring and inspirational. Sometimes it is unsettling. But it is always useful—and it echoes in our daily life, today; ghosts, haunting ghosts, who may turn out in the end to be our greatest teachers.

Even though so many of us are genuinely sustained by our history and its myriad heroic examples, we also find ourselves today beset by discontinuity and disagreement. We are dialectically preoccupied—red state/blue state, rich/poor, male/female, young/old, black/white, gay/straight, North/South, East/West.  We are determined to see things in the simple binary terms that our computer culture revels in, forgetting in the process the complexity that rules our true understanding of family, friendship, faith, and, I would submit, the history of our beloved, complicated country.”

Some stakeholders view our interpretations of our archives and library work much as we do, others very differently.  Some people with whom we hope to partner match up well with us, others less so.   Even within our archives community, we agree on some issues, disagree on others.

Yet there’s a quality that President Barack Obama pointed to in his Public Service Recognition Week proclamation that describes many who work in the archives field.  Not just at NARA, or in Fedland.  But outside it, too.  David (pictured recently in his office) quoted the President’s words at his blog.  The phrase that caught my eye?  “Hopeful spirit.”

That’s what keeps me going, and I think many others, as well.  I see it in their actions.  I’ve mostly worked with adults during my career.  But as Steve has, I’ve drawn on artifacts to explain archives to children on annual “Bring your children to work” days.

David Ferriero, Lenexa FRC shirt NARA 051116 Ashley Stevens, SAA Poster Session, DC, 081414

Steve Ammidown, Gilman School, May 2015Maarja, archives artifacts, museum room

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

President Obama’s words recognize the contributions of many people with whom I’ve worked, respect, admire.

“Serving the public is not just a paycheck—it’s contributing to the steady effort to perfect our Union over time so our democracy works for everyone.  This week, let us embrace the hopeful spirit that embodies the extraordinary work of our civil servants.  It is the same spirit that built America, and because of the hard work of compassionate and determined public servants, it will continue to build us up for generations to come.”

Steve Ammidown describes the work of archivists as a long game.  He’s right.  We can’t be sure of the impact that we will have on those with whom we work.  On school tours.  In the research room.  In exhibits we curate.   With the voices and records we seek to preserve.  Through materials we digitize and share online.

Records of Rights exhibit, NARA 2014

As we work through many challenges, Ken Burns’s words remind us of why our work matters.  And of the value of being open to change, to listening, to trying to include more voices.

“Memory is imperfect.  But its inherent instability allows our past, which we usually see as fixed, to remain as it actually is: malleable, changing not just as new information emerges, but as our own interests, emotions and inclinations change. I believe that history—particularly a complex and nuanced view of it—can be a table around which all of us can have a civil discourse and try to evoke those ‘better angels of our nature.’  My own life’s work—proudly, whole heartedly in the humanities–has in a sense been an attempt to try to summon them.”

I’m proud of those I know in person and online who strive to help new information emerge.  Whose life work is sharing knowledge.  In academic libraries, in corporate archives, in government archives–in person and online.  With all who sit down at the physical or virtual research “table.”  To learn from the “haunting ghosts, who may turn out in the end to be our greatest teacher.”

Locking, unlocking content

Contraband.  During the Civil War, in addition to its other meanings,  contraband meant certain formerly enslaved people behind Union lines who had escaped or been freed from captivity.

Along with men who served in the U.S. military during the Civil War and later, some 3,800 civilians are buried in Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery.  Among them are “contrabands.”

Arlington Cemetery April 2016 Arlington Cemetery, April 2016

I walked through Section 27 of Arlington Cemetery this past week.  I once lived a few blocks away from its Marshall Drive entrance and sometimes come back to visit my old neighborhood.   Among the American military veterans buried in Section 27 are U.S. Colored Troops.

Arlington Cemetery Section 27, 043016

Some of the headstones for the graves of U.S. Colored Troops date back to the 19th century, such as that of T. H. Chrinefield.  Others have been replaced by new ones, as that of Civil War Medal of Honor recipient James H. Harris.

Grave, Arlington, USCT Harris Medal of Honor U.S. Colored Troops

Last year, I wrote about the cemetery in the context of President Barack Obama’s speech at a Citizenship Ceremony at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on December 15.   The President spoke of ideals and values and what we have done well as a nation and what we have not.   Of enslaved people (“they built this nation”).  And immigrants (my parents are naturalized U.S. citizens).  And how we can learn from history and try to do better.

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about history during recent walks.  And about words and how we use them.  And about narratives and records and listening and learning.  I wasn’t able to attend but listened to the live streams this past week of several panels and events at the Vietnam War Summit at the NARA Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.  (You’ll find C-SPAN3’s May-June broadcast schedule of the conference videos here.)

To lock an episode in a documentary series means determining that you’ve finished preparing its content, film maker Ken Burns explained during a thoughtful panel at the Vietnam War Summit on Wednesday.  (Vietnam veteran AOTUS David S. Ferriero introduced the panel in Austin.)  Burns described the documentary series he has been making about the Vietnam War.  He said he and the team have “unlocked” nearly every “locked” episode so new content could be added.

Burns and co-director Lynn Novick shared a vision for the Vietnam war series that looks at complex issues from multiple perspectives in an effort to encourage “courageous conversations.”   They said they themselves are not scholars–but that they reach out to experts, participants, and others with insights on difficult subjects.

Burns said they listen and learn and re-think and revise.  A wise approach for us historians, archivists, librarians, and information professionals, as well.

In a recent feature in The Guardian on Mary Beard, Zoe Williams wrote of the classics scholar that she believes, “The role of the academic is to make everything less simple.’”  I agree.  Yet I love Twitter, which limits us to 140 character bursts in conversation.  Are those conversations all simple?  No.  Some of them provide insights into very complex issues.  This can be direct or indirect.

During 2013-2014,  some of us on Twitter chatted about why we had held on to our old Listserv subscription as long as we had.   The yearning for a central town square was a part of it for me and it turned out for a few others, as well.

The SAA Archives & Archivists Listserv fit the bill to some extent years ago but the square emptied over time.   A&A never substituted for the place I sought–a meeting place for archivists, librarians, records managers and end users (historians and researchers).  But it once had enough people who crossed or were knowledgeable about diverse roles and functions to make for interesting conversations.

That changed in the last decade or so.  With multiple platforms for engagement, rather than only Listservs, many of the people who once might have walked into a single “town square” started to mingle elsewhere in intersecting circles.   I’m one myself.  I like the constantly moving, occasionally intersecting, circles on Twitter.  It now is my platform of choice.

But whether you go to the square or the circles, there are gaps.  Except when I have lunch with friends in Washington, I rarely hear about records management’s impact on history.  I especially notice the absence of the records management perspective online in conversations about the Freedom of Information Act, the chilling effect, the impact of risk mitigation on institutional memory and knowledge, and #ArchivesSoWhite.  There is little discussion of the complex elements that affect these areas.

Within the government, technological change affects how we handle our obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (which I saw on display in March) and the Federal Records Act. Much has changed since the passage of those statutes in 1966 and 1950.

Gary Stern, Maarja Krusten, NARA Sunshine Week, 031416

Sunshine panel, NARA, 031416

The impact of the computer on creators and users of records is significant but rarely discussed holistically in outside forums.  (Ferriero’s team at NARA, to its great credit, has crafted new policies that take many highly complex elements into account.)  Most of the attention among the people I follow outside NARA is on the technologically challenging issues at the end rather than the beginning of the records life cycle.

When archivists on Twitter discuss inclusion, neutrality, silences, privacy, confidentiality, they usually look at vocabularies, accessioned records or materials in special collections.   Unless they work as archivists with records management responsibilities, they may not consider the impact of those very same elements at the beginning of the records life cycle.  Including on the operational records of a university or corporation.

There no longer is a visible records management presence on A&A, as Brad Houston, Bill Cron, and educators such as Richard Pearce-Moses who once offered useful perspectives and shared practical workplace advice no longer participate.   I felt the loss of RM perspectives on A&A for several years but came to accept it recently as I saw solutions emerge in Washington, instead.

The absence is mirrored by the lack of historian and archival perspective on RECMGMT-L.  That’s separate from ritualistic putdowns of archivists as a profession, already a part of RECMGMT-L when I tried it out for a year.  This was in 2005, when I sought to understand what I foresaw:  the later widespread failure of RMs to get busy executives to manually declare the status of electronic records to replicate the paper filing their assistants once did.

While I fill in some knowledge gaps on A&A, my participation, too, has decreased.  I increasingly focus on change and management. These are areas better suited for blogs and Twitter.  I follow many hashtag conference Tweets in real time or as Storified.

Random Tweets can lead to blog posts, such as Brad Houston’s 2013 essay, “Archives/RM ethics, co-opting, and digital fireplaces.”  Brad and I initially chatted on Twitter about an article describing the destruction of records at the end of the British Empire after World War II.   I appreciate his willingness to blog those issues, which rarely get the attention they deserve.

I recently re-read Brad’s blog post in the context of some of the social justice issues discussed at recent conferences, including at #RadTech, #DPLAfest, and #RUDigitalBlackness.  Brad explained,

“The topic of this post has been percolating around my brain for a while, but it’s really been brought to a head by a few recent things. First was an article in the UK’s Independent newspaper about discovery of a systematic program of document destruction as Britain ended its rule in its former colonies in the 50s and 60s. Second, there was an article from Mark Greene in the latest issue of American Archivist discussing the responsibility (or lack thereof) of the archival community to pursue social justice in the practice of the profession.  . . . I have to admit, though, that the real impetus to writing this post was a twitter conversation with Maarja Krusten that I had earlier this week.”

Brad pulled together these threads as he discussed “breakdown” points in records management, the first and easiest being training and awareness of obligations.  He then turned to one of the biggest challenges:

“The second breakdown point is more insidious, and that is the point where the interest of the records manager differs from the interest of the archivist. A lot of records management positions reside in or adjacent to their organization’s legal departments, particularly in private companies, because a lot of what the records manager does is mitigate risk. In this formulation of the profession, the records manager is looking to identify classes of documents that might cause harm to the organization, and to be aware of any laws that might pertain to retention of those documents. The idea, then, is to prescribe retention periods that have employees holding on to potentially damaging records for as small a time period as possible, then destroying them as soon as practical.”

As I’ve noted, permanent retention of truly historical information about labor, racial, diversity issues can be problematic in universities, corporations, even in government.   I didn’t take Brad’s comment as records managers starting from a point of using “potential damage to employer image” as a criteria in working out retention periods.

Rather, Brad identified an element in the larger operational and cultural environment that can (but does not always) affect records retention.  I later discussed that in my blog post, “Truth Bomb.”

Jarrett M. Drake's article about police records, Katrina

I commend Jarrett M. Drake for writing about problems with destruction and falsification of some police records in New Orleans.  He is one of the few archivists (Brad Houston is another) who looks at records throughout the life cycle.

In the past, I’ve used at my blog a photo of Jarrett with Bergis Jules at a Diversity Forum at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference in 2015.  That photo now is outdated.  I respect the work that Jarrett, Bergis, and others now are doing in educating their fellow archivists about moving beyond such efforts to more meaningful actions.

I also appreciate the good work that people such as Helen Wong Smith are doing with SAA on cultural competency.  But there are limitations in the conversations about diversity and inclusion.  One is how professional associations should react to charges from privileged, white men (or women) that holding an unpopular opinion on policy or social justice issues within a liberal-leaning professional forum results in conservatives’ sense of intimidation.

This is hard to resolve given incomplete or missing evidence and difficulties in separating out simple personality conflicts.  I say associations rather than individuals because I don’t recommend individual off-forum fights; they can be unfair to all and counter-productive.

What we can do as privileged professionals is learn about the long term impact of horrific historical repression and its current real effects.   Speakers at the recent Midwest Archivists Conference offered advice on how to be an ally.

MAC 2016 Session 103 slide

If you are privileged, I don’t recommend appropriating the framing of oppression for yourself in space that includes truly disadvantaged members.   This sometimes is visible in professional space; on Facebook and other Social Media platforms; and on news site comment boxes where people of various political persuasions gather.

As I explained in my last post, the implementation of Codes of Conduct can bring unintended results, such as the privileged painting themselves as victims.   Suggesting study of history helps, but not always.  You can encourage but not compel people to unlock the episodes of their lives and careers and to add newly learned context and perspectives.  And you don’t know past and present influences in their lives.

One of the sessions of this past week’s Vietnam War Summit dealt with “Lessons Learned.”  Former Nebraska Senator and Governor and Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Bob Kerry observed of the 1960s, “Voters do not like to be told that their ideological conclusions are based on the sands of ignorance.”

Willam McRaven, University of Texas System Chancellor and former Commander of United States Special Operations Command talked during the same panel about openness to learning.  In his view, you’re most motivated to learn when there are lives at stake.  He meant that in the sense of commanders and war.  That’s where lessons really matter.

Yet there are lives at stake in a broader sense, too.  Don’t we owe them lifting our eyes from our own shoelaces to look at the lives of others?  And to listen and learn from their experiences?  To seek to understand what has shaped their lives and the lives of those who came before?  And to try to do better?

To lift up and make visible

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting pool, mallards and Washington Monument, sunset 112515

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAA 2015 Bergis Jules, Jarrett Drake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to our obligations to others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colleagues down the (virtual) hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appraisal recommendation 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful gift of service

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

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

Carter WH Move award photo 1981 with AOTUS Bob Warner

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

NARS ca. 1979

WikiXDC_National_Archives_Tour_Hall_-_Stierch Rod Ross 2002

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

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

introduction-to-archives-administration-1979 c

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

Rod and Clara Ross

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

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

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

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

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

Rod Ross, David Ferriero NARA A1 105 101911

Rod Ross, David Ferriero, NARA, 2011

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

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

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

Rod Ross, NARA, 2014

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

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

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

WH Christmas Party invitation 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rod Ross, NARA Lifetime Achievement Award, 2014

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

(c) Bruce Guthrie. ROSS_160331_202

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

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

Kris Wilhelm, Rod Ross, NARA reception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maarja, Janet, Rod, Maygene, NARA 033116

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

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

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

Rod Ross retirement party, certificate, card, 033116

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

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

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

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

NARA Magnolia 032216

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

McGowan Forum, Women in Leadership, NARA, A1 032416

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

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

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

LT JG Grace Hopper, August 1944, Mark 1 project, photo from Future Force (ONR), courtesy Harvard University Archives http://futureforce.navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/06/grace-hopper-and-information-age-invention/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA press release, screenshot, Experince Curiosity, August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Yockelson, Maarja Krusten, NARA, 032216

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

NARA--arriving for reception on 032416

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

Searching, connecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

group-photo (1)

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

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

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

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

So I asked Listserv subscribers on Sunday,

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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