Service, beyond the day

I’ve been thinking a lot about the period of my youth, the 1960s and 1970s, in recent days.  I graduated from high school in 1969, got my first college degree in 1973.  Richard Nixon was President.

A national day of service.  Volunteering.  When I was in high school during the 1960s, volunteerism – organized service – was not a part of the picture the way it is now.

There are many ways to volunteer our time. Not just on a Day of Service, in soup kitchens, food drives, and other efforts.

No two eras are the same.  Nor are any two workplaces, even when professions are related.  Sometimes, it’s hard for busy people to see intricate chains of dependency or how various dots connect.

I value people who show empathy and intellectual curiosity.   We don’t have to “bowl alone.”  Not do we need to be “Together Alone,” as Sherry Turkle puts it, struggling with how to relate to each other, struggling with self-reflection, expecting more from technology and less from each other.   The Internet and Social Media can be used humanistically.

I agree with the advice I once read on leadership, “Networking is so important. You have to look for opportunities to get involved and it’s absolutely critical to get out of your comfort zone.”  Not just engaging with others in similar situations, although that is very important.  Raising consciousness in others matters, too.

We can engage, share experiences, open windows to reveal worlds others haven’t experienced.  Our own.  Those of others.  Through our commitment to the life cycle of records, from creation through providing access to the public.  And to history.  In narratives.  In exhibits.  Civic literacy.  It matters so much.   Yes, those of us lucky enough to be employed are busy with our own careers or jobs.  But we still can set some time aside to reach out, virtually and physically, outside our own workplaces and assigned tasks.

We’re all different due to how we react to parental and peer influence, life experiences, internal wiring. I didn’t vote for George McGovern (Richard Nixon got my vote in 1972).  But I never use the term McGovernik, as Newt Gingrich did to criticize the Clintons.  I respect McGovern, who died last fall.  And I long ago changed to become an Independent, unaffiliated with any political party.

Is it possible to do that with someone for whom you didn’t vote, given the chance?  Of course.  If you’re not inclined to look at things solely through a political prism.  And if you’re empathetic and curious about people.  Time provides perspective, too, for some, although not  for others.  It’s so easy to fall into traps:  self pity, self-justification, defensiveness, legacy burnishing.  Perspective is comforting.   Those who can’t truly avail themselves of it are missing a key tool for coping with life.

I often read myself to sleep.  Right now, I’m reading David Maraniss’s book about Barack Obama’s youth and college days.  It led me to put up a call for deeper discussion of issues about which I care.  That takes knowledge and willingness to listen.  We need more of both.

I tweeted a reply comment about historical perspective Thursday night, as I thought about my parents who fled war torn Europe as displaced persons after World War II.  But I deleted it because it felt too caustic to me.  I tried to think about how the person to whom I was replying might feel and why s/he might have tweeted the original comment.  I decided we just were on “different pages.”

I fell asleep that night thinking about Washington, what people bring to it, and the public memorials around the National Mall.  Among the buildings that house decision makers are memorials to mark World War I (a small, relatively obscure one), World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Capitol on January 17, 2013

I’ve been walking around the city a lot on my lunch breaks, watching the Inaugural preparations, listening to music and thinking.  The closer the date of the Inauguration, the more barriers went up along some of the sidewalks in the area near the Capitol.  I often resist being herded down a chute, intellectually.  You catch some of that in some of my more cryptic tweets although there are many other reasons why I occasionally break my pattern of tweeting cheerful or supportive remarks by going negative.  But I don’t mind not being able to step on and off the curb as I usually do during my walks.  Security.  It’s necessary.

Constitution Avenue January 18, 2013

Engagement can be challenging for me because I sometimes follow my instincts and sometimes over think issues.  Situational awareness is an element in how I go.  You’re seen me recently blog about trust zones, people, and technology.

Last week, I commented on a blog post about a former President, then read follow up comments by others.  Just as I was prepared to join in with follow up to respond to comments from others, the blog author put up a comment which led me to fall silent.

Had there been a lot of stake, I would have acted and commented.  This time, I didn’t.  I’ve based my entire career on issues of evidence and what is and is not supportable in records  But I wasn’t familiar enough with the blog to know why the author responded, without himself knowing what archival materials might or not reveal, as he did.  He was part of a group with which I’m largely unfamiliar so I didn’t know their roles and relationships.

I so highly value situational awareness, I sometimes back away to study a site some more, if I think there are in-group conditions with which I’m not familiar.  Yet I’m very intellectually curious, and fascinated by why people act as they do, how they interact, what binds people together.   Tricky stuff, because some people and groups are easier to read than others.  “What lies beneath” can be pretty complicated!

One of the joys for me of reconnecting with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been getting to know more and more people.  Officials who work at my former employing agency.  Guests I meet at the receptions I attend.  One such guest is Dave Hugel, a former Marine combat photographer who served in Vietnam.

A retired lawyer, Hugel writes a lot about Vietnam these days, a project on which I encouraged him when we chatted at NARA on December 5, 2012.  It was one year to the day since I introduced my former boss at NARA, Vietnam veteran Fred Graboske, to AOTUS David S. Ferriero, at a holiday open house in 2011.

Fred, who after leaving NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project served as Chief Archivist at the Marine Corps Historical Center, is one of many people historian Edward Drea thanked in his book, McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965-1969.  One of the best book lectures I attended at NARA last year was one in which Drea was part of a panel on Robert McNamara.  I still don’t have a good camera but did snap a picture of Graboske and Hugel in October 2012 at NARA.  We had a very interesting conversation.

Fred Graboske, Dave Hugel, October 25, 2012

It turns out we all had known the late Ed Simmons, a Marine Corps General trained in journalism who in retirement worked on history and archival matters.  He was an advisor to me early in my career as a federal historian.  I liked his insightful, practical advice on matters such as to how to get maximum candor from oral history subjects.  Simmons talked about government public relations efforts, knowledge gathering, and how people act individually and in groups.

In November 2012, Hugel published an article in VFW Magazine on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, dedicated 30 years earlier.  (My mother, sister and I attended the dedication ceremony in 1982.)  Hugel’s article includes reflections on visiting the Memorial from Vietnam veterans such as David Ferriero and Peter Pace, among others.  Well worth a read.

Ferriero first saw the memorial in 1983 when he came to Washington for a conference while working in the libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology.  He mentions his service aboard the USS Sanctuary AH-17 at the beginning of his most recent post at AOTUS Blog, about Navy “Deck Logs.”

The collaborative effort with NOAA and that David describes is commendable.  (Check out the site to which he links to see how crowd sourcing is being handled).  That there are pressed flowers between some of the old log books is fascinating and touching.  Given the volume of archival material, it’s going to take some time to get the logs online.  There are a few digital records about the USS Sanctuary out there on other, non-governmental sites.

Gaining insights into the past requires studying records and reminiscences and recollections, both.  That’s one reason I told Dave Hugel I’m glad he’s talking to people and writing about the Vietnam War.  There are a number of sites out there focused on military veterans and their families.  I recently discovered that one of my best friends from my undergraduate days, Deirdre Parke (Holleman), went on to become an attorney in New York specializing in family law, a liaison to The Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. and Executive Director of the Retired Enlisted Association.  I had lost touch with her after we received our B.A. degrees in Washington 1973.

Veterans marching pastNARA, November1988

The photo above shows military veterans marching past the National Archives in 1988, when my late sister and I both still worked for the agency.  Federal service, working in the public sector as a civil servant, is difficult to capture and I’ve seen few insights shared about it online.  Government departments and agencies vary greatly and while there are some common elements, many employees’ experiences are so different.

Understanding how government works in all its components, the military and civil agencies, both, is an important part of civic literacy.  I’d like to see more former employees volunteer their time by sharing their experiences and helping to provide perspective on the Web.    Even within the small group of archivists, records managers and historians with whom I interact in person and on line, I’ve found it challenging to convey the ethos of my generation of archivists and how present and past NARA employees act on their stewardship obligations.

Sometimes, you run in to unexpected reactions.  I remember posting on the Archives & Archivists Listserv about how federal officials, especially in the senior ranks, work very long days and often show great dedication to duty.  I’ve had some bad experiences in federal service, some more recent, some in the past.  But I’ve been lucky to have known and still know some great people.  I mentioned how liking or respecting superiors (or both) leads you to go the extra mile, quietly, not for your own glory or official rewards, but simply to not let them down.

Wanting an endeavor to succeed due to a sense of mission and bonds based on wanting those for and with you work to succeed can be extremely strong motivators.  Instead of thanking me for my insights, a List subscriber harrumphed that her husband works in the private sector and putting in overtime is common.  My point seemingly was lost to filters of which I’m not sure.

Undaunted, I’ve continued writing, at my blog these days more than on Listservs, about federal service as I most respect it, in connection with agencies such as NARA.  I do still participate in other forums, too.  I’d like to put out a call to former federal employees among my readers to think about how they might share their perspectives and experiences by creating web records.  Even taking the time to post comments at others’ blogs–blogs by archivists or historians–is a useful form of engagement.  Any little bit of time volunteered for that is useful and helps heighten awareness.

My mother laughingly observes at times that I hold two jobs, the one by which I support myself and the one I pour my heart into here, writing about NARA.  But rarely do I pull all-nighters.  I write most of my posts over breakfast, although I sometimes start them after coming home from work, only to let them percolate a little overnight.  This one I started on Saturday afternoon, only to wake up Sunday morning knowing how I wanted to go with it.

Why not try it?  I’ve been thinking about that since I saw Archivesnext put up a smart post  about books that might help historians learn about archives and vice versa.  But the federal perspective rarely is captured in such books.  There is so much that academic historians just don’t know about.  Very low levels of situational awareness, in part because they rarely interact on the Web (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) with some of us in public service.

Kate encouraged me on Twitter to “be the change,” to write such a book myself.  Challenging to do while still in federal service, given some of the very complicated things I know and have observed!  But I do believe we definitely need to talk more, to the extent different people, retired and still working, can and are able, about the federal environment as it affects records and history out there.  That there is so much at stake and how destructive ignorance and actions taken due to inadvertence can be is just a starting point.

Situational awareness!  It doesn’t happen on its own.  Yet it is important that people gain insights into public service, given the extent to which they discuss environments with which they are not familiar.  A lot of misconceptions out there, some inadvertent, some perhaps ideological or political.

Working in Washington can be complicated, challenging, sometimes dispiriting, depending on the agency and circumstances.  But it also can be exhilarating, fulfilling, and rewarding to know and work with so many good people.  Or as one of my NARA friends once said of a unit, “noble really.”  Let’s get more of the story out there, not the press release or the version demagogues rely on, but the complex, real world version that shows who people are and why they do what they do.

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