“Some good thoughts come from solitude”

October 9, 2012:  Note for readers reaching this post via the National Declassification Center Blog:  There is nothing in my blog on the subject of the post there.  The pingback results from my discussion of communications by federal agencies of which the NDC blog is merely one mentioned in passing.  Read on if you are interested in my views of federal agencies’ use of Social Media and my assessments of friends and people I know.  But you will find nothing else here.  Just don’t want you to waste your time if you’re expecting anything else.

Is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) so far along in AOTUS David S. Ferriero’s vision of transformation that its officials communicate with magical beams of light?  Of course not.  As much as I support David’s overall vision, I just was having fun at my blog yesterday.  I posted a joking photo after an enjoyable day when I saw the Big Dude and got to tell him how much fun I was having.

I do love the way the way John Russell Pope’s building looks at night.  The secret communications technology I highlighted yesterday showed up because of reflections from street lights, just as on a photo I took from 7th Street, NW to show the Constitution Avenue side of the National Archives.

The building looks beautiful at night, at least to me.  You see it without the beams at left, as it really looks.  I especially like the Pennsylvania Avenue side because that is where I entered for all those years while I worked for the National Archives.  It’s changed over the years, of course.  Just as my own complicated relations with NARA have changed.

As a photo from 1995 shows, when I came to Archives 1 to attend the farewell reception for Acting Archivist Trudy H. Peterson, there once were fountains in front.  It then was five years since I left NARA’s employ.  Eva (at right below) and I both posed sitting by the fountain.  And yes, of course I knew that the windows for the Office of Presidential Libraries were behind me!  I wouldn’t fully establish a joyful reconnection with the agency until after David took charge. There was a wistful quality to my attendance at Trudy’s reception, with great uncertainty as to what lay ahead.


Gaining access to the building was easier then for visitors.  There were no magnetometers or x-ray machines.  And you could wander freely through the hallways leading to the stacks.  Times change, conditions changes, and agencies change to meet them.

I’m still uncertain as to what lies ahead for NARA but I’m not wistful any longer.  I understand and support David’s vision for the agency and his leadership role  in Open Government.  What I don’t know is how different NARA mission components’ efforts will play out in the long term.  Some I have more confidence in right now that others.  The reasons are complicated and related to internal elements, including bureaucratic acculturation.

And then there is Washington.  And, let’s face it, the world outside Washington, too.  Including the “social world.”

How do you solve problems and resolve challenges when to ask for consideration of contingency places you at risk of being overlooked within “the crowd?” How do you craft policies that focus on commonalities but also leave room for customization?   How do you find answers to complicated questions in a capital city that rewards check off the box solutions?  What about political considerations which can lead to demagoguery and posturing rather than honest dialogue in public?

Those are challenges for the National Archives and Records Administration.  I don’t know how it will meet them.  Which is why I’ve been thinking about Tim Burke’s post at Easily Distracted about online voices, community, and sense of self.  In “My books, my selves,” Burke uses his experiences with LibraryThing to examine broader issues of identity and community.

One reason I am uncertain about NARA is that talking to some officials below the agency head level is very different from reading what their functional units display online.  (AOTUS?  The Big Dude definitely is his own best representative, David articulates his vision very effectively.)

Elsewhere in NARA?  Sometimes I feel a real disparity in terms of nuance and recognition of complexity — with physical interaction far better than virtual.  At its best, face to face conversation feels robust and realistic.  Of course, that depends on the individual and his or her rank.  Web voices?  Well, they vary, too.  What complicates it especially is when talking face to face with someone inspires greater confidence than what subordinates push as content on the web.    With some units, I feel a real gap, with others, not much of one, at all.

Burke is honest about his own online presence.  He writes,

“One of the things I talked about with them is an issue I’ve occasionally reflected upon within the blog, which is how the voice that I’ve crafted here is both a treasured accomplishment and a frustrating confinement. I might have an inaccurate understanding of myself and the impression I leave in person, but I often feel like I’m looser, jazzier, more amusing, less pompous, in my daily work as a teacher and colleague than I am as a blogger. But when I try to write in that voice, it comes out snarky, barbed, and maybe altogether too typical in the hurly-burly Punch-and-Judy show of online discourse. So the Man of Reason is what I’ve made myself out to be, and so I’ll largely have to remain.”

I like that type of self awareness.  But of course, even when it exists (which it definitely can), you’ll never see such candor in an official government blog.  That’s not to say there aren’t some good voices.  I’ve previously mentioned that my favorite NARA blog posts are some of his at David’s AOTUS blog and the FOIA Ombudsman’s blog for the Office of Government Information Services.  I’ve read good individual posts at other blogs as well, including at NARAtions and at the National Declassification Center’s blog.  (Speaking of the latter, I enjoyed the latest post by Michael Rhodes.)

At OGIS blog, Carrie McGuire recently put up another winner.  Her post is called “Teamwork brings the past to life” but what she also achieves is bringing the Transformation sensibility to life.  Not every NARA blog has managed to capture an embrace of finding solutions in an often chaotic Fedland world that the FOIA Ombudsman’s blog does so well.  There are many reasons for that, which I’ll skip over.  Here’s what I smiled and nodded to see Carrie write:

“Once the Permanent Records Capture team became aware of these obscure but fascinating records, it quickly organized a team of records analysts, accessions experts, classified records experts and other experts from NARA locations in four states and from CIS. The team includes CIS’s historian.

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of this team, this fascinating group of records is on a path to be declassified, processed, and opened for public research.”

Sensibilities matter.  So does tone.  It can open doors.  Or it can shut them.  Establish open communities.  Or gated communities.

I especially like how Burke acknowledges a yearning for community and search for like minded people but admits there are no twins for most people.  (Even Eva and I, despite being twins and best friends, had some differences!)  Burke observes,

“At some point, in a given space, there is no more novelty, no more unexpected voices. Or the unexpected voices that remain are simply too alien or difficult or repellant: I find my boundaries and no matter how notionally open I might be to their rearrangement, to a continuing traffic across that frontier, I have no desire to remain infinitely open. That feels too much like surrender, like a complete loss of individual distinctiveness.

I think this is one place where I sometimes part company with my friends at Bryn Mawr who are interested not just in studying emergent processes but in deliberately incorporating emergent principles into their own institutional and personal lives. Some of what I have learned and continue to learn by exposure to online community and discussion feels emergent in that sense, but I’m not willing to cast off the line of my boat and just drift anywhere the sea chooses to take me.

One of the things I told the students was that the individual authorship of my voice (even the stilted, sometimes pretentious, always verbose voice of this blog) is also a big priority for me. I don’t see that there’s anything attractive about embracing dialogue so completely that your next thought is always directly produced by the last thought of a dialogic partner, a smothering tit-for-tat. Some good thoughts come from solitude, from the unexpected recesses of the self, from not answering to the last reply or bouncing off of the last link.”

I understand why Fedland touts its achievements the way it does.  Some of that is authentic, some of it is compelled.   Let’s face it, academic bloggers vary greatly in their tone and sensibilities, too.   But Burke manages to speak to me more than most such bloggers.  Perhaps it is because I’m an Introvert who loves to take long walks.  But I think he’s on to something in talking about the “unexpected recesses of the self.”  In a chatty, crowded world where Extroverts outnumber Introverts, it’s nice to get a reminder that solutions and ideas come from many sources.  And that there is no “right” way to do things.  Sometimes the answers will come from the crowd.  And sometimes from within ourselves.  And I’m okay with that.

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