2 tuff a challenge? (docs in socks ‘n other capers)

In his latest post, the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, put up extracts from his presentation on collection security at last week’s conference of the Society of American Archivists.  Nice summary of the challenges, with an engaging tone that made the issues sound very real.  David takes collection security very, very seriously but he talked about it in typically witty fashion.  I smiled at the part where he wrote that

I knew that this theft thing had become an obsession when at dinner at the Hampshire House restaurant in Boston (if you’ve seen Cheers, it is the real restaurant about [above] the real pub in the opening scenes).  The walls of the restaurant are lined with bookcases.  Across the room, at eye level, I spotted a call number on a spine!  Sure enough.  Stolen from Boston University.  To the embarrassment of my dinner partners, I spent the evening collecting SIX titles  to be returned to various Boston Libraries.”

I can see myself doing just the very same thing, and perhaps embarrassing my dinner partners, as well!  So, too, my late sister, Eva, who was a supervisory archivist in what used to be NARA’s Initial Processing and Declassification Division.  “Declass” now is a part of what I call the strong side of the house in the Big Dude’s NARA, the Agency Services  mega-unit headed by my old friend William “Jay” Bosanko.  I respect and admire Jay and many of Eva’s other friends who started in Declass for their “do the right thing” ethos.

The day after my sister died of cancer on December 16, 2002, one of the agency reviewers who had worked with her wrote me a beautiful letter about her.  Yes, he is the source of the earlier quote I used about her pealing laughter and how she was a people magnet at whose office staff and agency reviewers alike often gathered.  He mentioned that

“Eva really helped us to settle in to our reviewing area, and was always ready to help out with the inevitable problems we would have with new and unfamiliar work rules.  Moreover, she was one of the NARA staff who always made us feel part of the group, rather than barely-tolerated interlopers. Even when we increased our group size to over 20 [agency] people, Eva was always supportive. She didn’t give us a free reign, though; she never hesitated to tell us off (in no uncertain terms, too) if she thought we did something we should not be doing with records or archival procedures. Eva would back down from nobody.”

Of course she wouldn’t back down from anybody.  Mission came first for Eva.  She rolled the same way that I and the best among her friends do.  Protecting the agency’s interests takes priority over looking out for yourself.  If need be, you put yourself in the line of fire.  The photo below shows Eva in her office on her birthday in February 1996.

Yes, you see some of the same photos on the shelf that I’ve displayed here:  Eva and the contract movers during the move to A2 of national security classified records.  Eva and her friends on the staff, including in two three pictures Jay in the red polo  shirt.  The members of the team she supervised.  She was proud of the people with whom she worked.

 

Pride is a big motivator in workplace performance.

The problem is, Washington, or should I say, “Washington,” doesn’t always reward actions taken due to pride in mission and a desire to protect an organization from harm.   Or, most importantly when it comes to Presidential Libraries, also to protect power players themselves from harm.  When my archival cohort tried to get NARA to conform to existing regulations, we were attacked and defamed from inside and outside the agency, both.  That I argued as a member of NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Staff that we should protect Richard Nixon as well as ourselves and act in conformance with our regulations turned out not to be the path to career success at NARA.

I enjoy watching my friends from the early days at the Nixon project, such as Pat Anderson, do well at NARA.  I like and admire Pat and am very happy for her success!  But I often wonder what my career path might have been like, had I, like many of them, left the project before things imploded.    That could have been me showing off  “Cool things at the National Archives” but was not and never will be.  My role vis a vis the National Archives was to be different, very different, from that of many of my former colleagues.  Oddly, I don’t really regret that–someone had to walk that very different path, might as well have been me!  https://nixonara.wordpress.com/2011/05/29/stand-up-and-face-the-enemy/

But what are the larger lessons for NARA?  It is awkward to sit in a meeting with a Senior Executive and to have him tell you, as I testified happened to me, “Don’t shake your head, Maarja.”  And it definitely hurts to be knifed in the back.  And it certainly is very, very sobering to spend years watching as U.S. Archivists keep their distance, until David Ferriero broke that pattern.

To a large extent, what I went through may be what Washington wants me to go through.  If you look at coverage of and discussions of Samuel C. Berger’s theft of documents from the National Archives, several things stand out.  One is the lingering effect of what I call the “but Clinton did” syndrome.  Easier to do finger pointing, left to right and right to left, than to tackle systemic problems.  I observed and participated in some of those discussions in forums such as the Archives & Archivists listserv and the records management listserv.  It is very challenging to get people to deal with such matters in a non-partisan, non-political way.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that NARA’s Office of Inspector General (which does a good job with many aspects of its mission), lacks the means to issue reports on such matters straight up.  The OIG site links to semi-annual reports of its activities, not to incident investigations.  To read what OIG concluded about the disappearance of affirmative action documents in a John Roberts file at the Reagan Presidential Library, I had to go to a left leaning third party site. To read about the Berger case, I had to go to a right leaning third party site.  These are challenging issues to confront.  I know from talking to some people at NARA, including former Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries Sharon Fawcett, that the Berger story actually is more complicated than is known publicly.

I understand the audit and investigative mindset and am very familiar with the thinking that undergirds the Government Auditing Standards.    Inspectors General perform valuable services for departments and agencies.  Yet there are cultural, environmental, and psychological factors that affect issues such as collection security that lie beyond the data-driven approach required by the Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards.

Unfortunately, the good efforts of NARA’s OIG notwithstanding, Washington is ill equipped to examine such issues so as to ensure long term fixes.  They present too tough a challenge for it.  And since we’re about facing facts here at Nixonara, I might as well say it.  There are key components in “Washington” that seem to signal that they don’t want a thorough, solution oriented examination of them.

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