In “A Kitchen-Sink Post on Failure,” Amanda Watson, an opera loving (hooray!) academic librarian looks at failure. Hat tip to @derangedescribe through whom I discovered it on Twitter. When I wrote my blog post on “The Digital Fireplace” on Saturday, I didn’t realize it was the International Day for Failure. But it’s appropriate that my post went up then, rather than on Digital Archives Day, which had been October 12.
Fear of failure and what Watson refers to as Imposter Syndrome drive many decisions on restriction or destruction of records. Image making explains why Presidents and their families and associates were more comfortable with paper trails in the days when they could control who got access. My friend Tim Naftali, who as I did once worked for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), has a thoughtful, classy article up at Slate on how and why the public only recently gained access to some of Robert F. Kennedy’s papers. Some good people worked hard to make that happen. But it took a long time.
While Kennedy was Attorney General, the Federal Records Act (FRA) of 1950 already governed the records of departmental and agency heads and subordinate officials. He served unofficially as a key advisor to his brother, President John F. Kennedy. But any records he created or handled at the Department of Justice should have been controlled by the FRA and come in to the National Archives as federal property. If any such unique records instead ended up as “personal papers,” it represented a failure in federal records management.
Can such failures occur even now? Of course. Especially now, when all it takes is turning to private email accounts or hitting the delete key or laughingly relying on the autodelete process unthinking IT staff have in place to keep an Electronic Records Management System from being populated as the FRA requires.
Amanda’s blog post is a must read. I’ll quote from just a couple of passages that are pertinent in considering why even now — especially now — making records management work so as to enable high levels of civic literacy is so challenging. Consider the following quotes from her blog in the federal environment. Washington. Official Washington. Unofficial Washington.
In 40 years of working here, I’ve had honest useful conversations with people in Unofficial Washington about record keeping. Official Washington? Especially the stuff that fills the cable TV screens and feeds talk radio and Internet chatter? Not so much. Political partisanship and hidden agendas get in the way. Lots of posturing and demagoguery. Few forums for brave, honest examination of tough issues. It’s hard to improve civic literacy in such an environment. Too many people are trapped, willingly or unwillingly. And they have way too many enablers beyond the Beltway, who either are distracted by bright shiny objects or apply situational ethics to discussing many tough record keeping issues.
Can this change? At the margins. In places. Certainly in how some of us communicate. In other places? Capturing deliberative information in record keeping systems? The records NARA most wants to ingest into its Electronic Records Archive? Pre-decisional records? Instead of the polished post-decisonal ones that hide the turmoil that press releases do not cover? Much harder. Because people aren’t wired to reveal “half-baked” ideas. Until recently, our culture has rewarded polish and control, not the revelation of creative chaos.
“In the old days of blogging, the Michael Gormans and Ivan Tribbles of the world would periodically wag a stern finger in academic and library bloggers’ faces: Stop putting half-baked ideas out there where anyone can see them! Stop expressing opinions! Stop being so informal! Stop, for God’s sake, revealing that you are an imperfect human being with (HORRORS!) a personality! Needless to say, the finger-wagging didn’t really stop anyone from using the open, informal, back-and-forth blog format to talk about either the library profession or the academic one. And one of the best things about that format is that it fosters spaces where not every thought is polished within an inch of its life, where messy early-stage thinking gets shared, where failure can be explored in the spirit of doing it better next time.”
As NARA’s Berlin Crisis 1961 and Cuban Missile Crisis conferences reminded me, history unfolds at the top levels of government in an environment of uncertainty. John F. Kennedy frequently got conflicting advice from his advisors. And as former State Department official Nick Burns noted, the first reports of an event are not always accurate. Follow up information sometimes changes how things look. Gen. Anthony Zinni once observed, sometimes there are no good options and you are stuck having to choose between bad ones.
But outside government, political partisans are all too eager to cry flip flop and failure, often cynically so, in my view. And many citizens lap that up. They don’t know how to distinguish “the men from the boys,” as a phrase from a bygone age puts it. Those of us who have our Big Boy and Big Girl pants on understand how complicated life at the top is. A few of us embrace that. Many others fear it and trap themselves in Imposter Syndrome. The core question in records management these days isn’t what the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Inspector General recently looked at, hitting the usual check off the box marks. It’s understanding why and how some officials are trapped in Imposter Syndrome.
Watson covers this beautifully in discussing how she sought to be what she was not in her teaching days. And she turns to Middlemarch to explain the cost.
“It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.”
But in federal records management, you have to reach people who are shivering not just because of their personal sense of selves, but because of the baying they hear outside their windows as they sit in front of their computers. They are afraid of revealing institutionally as well as personally that they are imperfect human beings.