No more guessing (thanks, Big Dude)

Whew, it’s such a relief not to feel like the blonde Barbie in the pictures on the left, thanks to Big Dude (aka U.S. Archivist) David Ferriero’s outreach to me last week.  The photos show the bookcase that was in my late sister Eva’s office in the records declassification unit at Archives II.  She may have been a supervisory archivist and a team leader during her 19 year career at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but Eva definitely wasn’t all business.  She was as quirky and unconventional as I am, hence the mix of action figures and Barbies in front of an iconic LIFE cover of Marilyn Monroe on her bookcase.  I think one of her colleagues (Carmichael?  Scanlon?) rather than Eva probably set up the poses for the figures pictured here.

Eva displayed photos of various friends from her home unit and elsewhere in the National Archives.  (I have different agreements with some of her friends as to whether or not I should use their photos or names here at the blog.  Others I just guess it is ok and use.)  You see on the shelf and below one of my favorite photos of sis, a wonderful image which captures her ebullient personality.   I think she and her colleagues were celebrating her birthday (1996).  Not cropping it to take out the beer bottles, done enough of that with my Nixie pix and some Declass shots that I’ve put up over the last couple of months.  Not going to do that, anymore, ha, Fedland risk aversion be damned.  Done with sanitizing. 

I took the picture of Eva in her office on a visit to Archives II in College Park in 2000 or 2001.  I think I did some research on that outing but I also visited with friends.  Eva always reminded me of how my having left NARA employ put me in the same category as any ordinary researcher, my prior access as a National Archives’ employee to highly sensitive Nixon materials notwithstanding.  She would stroll into the research room to meet me and escort me back to Declass or to Nixon.  She would nonchalantly twirl her National Archives’ badge, which usually hung from a long chain (see picture at left) and smirk at me, “OK, c’mon, let’s go–I’ll take you out of the bobo zone.”  Thanks for the reminder of my loss of building wide privileges, sis, LOL.  (My current federal status and present day clearances were irrelevant as far as my wandering around AII, of course.)

One way to tell how well people get along is to see the extent to which they are willing to joke around with each other.   That Eva’s Declass cohort got along well really shows in the 1996 photo below.  Division director Jeanne Schauble is standing at the far right, arms folded.  Yeah, that’s David Mengel, who rose to become deputy director of the National Declassification Center, right behind Eva, who is, um, striking a pose.  I think the person who took the photo suggested she do that; she always was game for anything a little quirky.  Jay Bosanko, whom the Big Dude just named to head a NARA mega-unit, Agency Services, and Neil Carmichael, now a supervisory archivist in Declass, are in the photo, as well.  

So what about present day NARA?  Well, I had been getting mixed signals from the agency ever since David Ferriero became Archivist of the United States (AOTUS).  On the one hand, I heard him say things such as “yes until no” regarding the agency’s social media efforts.  That sounded pretty cool to me, if it actually could be made to work.  The transparency thing was good, too.  He and other NARA officials started blogging after he took charge.  His own blog has featured some pretty funny items (my favorite is the “caught using a pen in the research room” case file for him from his recent visit to Kansas City.)  I took it as a good sign that people could kid around with the top guy.  I rather liked what he said to staff recently about staying engaged, too.

On the other hand, I had little contact with Ferriero.  He sent me two brief email messages, one last September, which I reproduced last week and a second one which nicely acknowledged my condolences last fall on the death of Jeanne Schauble.  Yet the agency’s stance since I started blogging in December 2010 largely was silence, publicly and privately.  One senior official did send me a very nice, encouraging email after I expressed concern as to whether I still was welcome to comment at AOTUS’ blog this past winter.  But my comments at “Collector in Chief” drew no reactions.  Same with any emails I sent to Ferriero after December 6, 2010, when I launched Nixonara.

All of that changed, big time, after the Big Dude broke out of captivity last Thursday.  So cool — smart, gutsy — and absolutely the right thing to do.  So why the silence prior to that?  Well, reading the tea leaves, I would guess that some advisor or other had strongly encouraged him to remain silent in the face of anything I wrote publicly or directly to him.  That actually has been NARA’s way in the past.  If so, that person’s or those persons’ advice played a part in everything that came spilling out here at Nixonara since December 6, 2010 and especially since March 31, 2011.  Totally the opposite of what the individual(s) who advised Ferriero to avoid me may have wanted to occur, because I have been so very, very candid.  LOL.

I’m really glad the Big Dude understood that avoiding me was not the way to roll and broke free.  Sure, I understand about permanent federal records.  I’m in such a function that some of the ones I create are perm and destined for a record group in NARA eventually, too.   Ferriero’s action in contacting me Thursday, radical as it seems in risk averse Fedland, actually is a great way to model what top officials in the government should be doing.  Creating the records they need to in the conduct of official business, FOIA and discoverable language be damned.   We’re paid to be grown up, responsible public servants, after all.  Heck, that’s what I do although I’ve read enough articles and talked to enough people in Fedland to know that not everyone does.

Silence didn’t serve NARA well in 2009, when a blogger called for Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries Sharon Fawcett’s dismissal.  I understand that the agency was under the direction of an Acting Archivist.  Acting officials sometimes feel more constraints than do Senate confirmed ones.  (Hmm, which reminds me, some rather sobering stories there but can’t share ’em, yet.)  But NARA could have done more then to address the issues publicly rather than leave those of us who spoke up to explain its operations and culture to take bullets from critics.  Although I never worked for Sharon, I talked several years ago to some trusted friends at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project who did.  Based on their input and assessments, I viewed her as someone to defend when the blogger called for her dismissal.  Flying my fair play flag, again, hah.

In terms of outreach, it does seem like a new day at NARA.  I’ve seen public affairs official Susan Cooper post clear and effective comments on the Washington Post’s comment boards under stories about the National Archives.  Smart thing to do — public affairs is handling new media pretty well.   Now that the Big Dude and I are pen pals, LOL, I plan to comment more at NARA’s blogs (watch out guys, at 60 y.o. and with 38 years service, I tend to be pretty flippant)!   Maybe I can encourage more engagement on both sides, who knows. 

The agency has a nice Flickr stream, which even includes some pix from NARA’s past.  The only thing I’d like to see at NARA’s blogs is more pix of people in casual settings, such as some of the ones I’ve posted here from time to time.  I had a heck of a time finding a picture of my fellow rebel, AOTUS Ferriero, to use in my post yesterday.  Didn’t want to use a traditional portrait, although NARA has some nice ones for him.  Didn’t want something in a suit.  Needed something more casual and finally found one, after a bit of searching.  Seriously, photos can humanize NARA peeps.  The short little essays about different employees at the NARA blogs are good–I think the agency should build on that kind of stuff to the extent it can. 

Me, I’ll be out here laughing for a long time at the exquisitely worded way and LOL manner the Big Dude said “no more” to his advisors Thursday morning and followed his instincts with the “not-so-scary truth telling blogger.”  Having done the “all back full!” maneuver to John H. Taylor at the Nixon Foundation’s blog in 2008, I totally got it, right away.  I recognized a fellow risk taker and rebel, oh yeah.   No better way for NARA to gain an advocate in its transparency efforts than to do that to someone with the super complicated baggage I trail, that’s for sure!  Thanks, Big Dude.

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