It’s funny how a long tenure in Washington hasn’t knocked out my yearnings for change and improvement in so many areas. My aspirations and my recognition of Washingtonian realities always will be in conflict inside me. Occasionally I show glimpses of that.
I still have that “inner go” that a former Marine said in today’s Washington Post leads to a positivist, can-do spirit. The phrase is Lewis Mumford’s and was the focus of Peter J. Munson’s commentary on defense, defensiveness, risk and innovation. My innate inner go fuels my aspirational side and always will. But I’m also an empiricist–I see examples all around me of what makes the Washington world go ’round. As a result, I sometimes feel uncomfortable that I am “ever the idealist,” as a former supervisor at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) once characterized me.
A year ago, I wrote here about how parts of Washington can be really dark. That there’s an Open Washington and a Hidden Washington. That situational awareness is critically important in order to make things work. And that it’s important to consider contingency and to take into account what you might not know. Most of all, and this is where I probably am hopelessly idealistic, I’ve argued for a humanistic approach to complicated issues. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand why force fits and non-solution solutions are so common, instead. I do. I do.
I’ve called for “deep sea diving” and greater effort to understand issues in depth. For thinking that is not just smart, but very, very brave. Sometimes a single sentence in a news article points to jumping off points for discussions that never occur, as with one buried in an account of digitizing the records of the New York Philharmonic. There are lessons in those discussions that do not occur as much as in ones that do. How many of my readers can spot the sentence that caught my eye in the linked article?
I’m about to have a birthday in a couple of days. People often look back and think things over as they turn a year older. I’ve given some thought to the themes I’ve offered here over the last year and I’ve come to see the light. I think I know now why so much of what I write here has seemed like spitting in to the wind. A very cold wind of late, here in Washington. I’m not taking down any of my blog posts. I’m very comfortable with what I’ve written. And I know there are some people who are strong enough to assess fairly what I’ve said at my blog. But there’s a point where you realize you’ve had your say. It’s time to step back and study what others are saying and to figure out why I’m facing in to the wind, not walking with the wind at my back.
If I’m working towards a better understanding of the present than I had a year ago, what about the future? It was blustery and very chilly outside last night. But I felt warm as I headed out for a long walk after an evening event in “the most important city in the world.” Some of what made me feel good came from NARA. You see one of its newest employees pictured at left. One of my favorite bloggers, Ashley Stevens of the National Archives in Philadelphia, sent out a beautiful, joy filled Friday tweet.
Spent the last half hour geeking out about British history w/ my coworkers. So many Anglophiles, love it.
When I replied that I loved seeing joy and fun spontaneously expressed that way, she offered a beautiful response, generous towards colleagues:
“Their wealth of knowledge is impressive. It was fun to compare notes on what period of Brit history we enjoy.”
So relatable! Some of my happiest moments in the workplace and among friends outside it have been spent geeking out about history. (My academic background includes emphasis on U.S. and European history, both.) If you’re not yet reading Ashley’s blog, consider checking it out, for sure! You’ll see wisdom and joy in lovely combination. Hold on to that thought! I’m coming back to it in a mo.
Earlier in the day, I read an interesting explanation of some of NARA’s initiatives by Darren Cole , an employee whose name I hadn’t seen before. I looked him up in the agency’s online (yay!) directory. He works on web and social media issues. The Storyboard commentary explained that he helped launch “Today’s Document.” I laughed at a reader’s comment about the addictive nature of the NARA Tumblr. There are so many ways to geek out about history! I was reminded of another at day’s end, when @usnatarchives tweeted about a newly launched blog, Rediscovering Black History.
Neil Carmichael’s deputy division director in NARA’s National Declassification Center, Dr. Trichita Chestnut, is one of the bloggers. Her great post on Ida B. Wells-Barnett is here. And Lopez Matthews, with whom I enjoyed chatting last spring, is the administrator who put up her post. The link is to my account (“They’re not going anywhere, they’re Americans”) of an event at NARA last year about the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If only I could have audio recorded my delighted tweet reaction to the news in my feed, you would have heard joyful laughter!
Two of my passions, history and archives, came together yesterday evening. I saw the future of the history profession Friday evening when I attended a reception after a workshop held at the National Archives during the day. Representatives of that future, the graduate students who attended the workshop at Archives 1, shared their views with me over refreshments at the District Chophouse. The workshop centered on how to research federal records held by NARA and was sponsored by the Society for History in the Federal Government.
As you can see from the program, the grad students had opportunities to learn a lot about the National Archives. The Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, welcomed the students. NARA employees and federal historians paired up to offer tips on researching executive, legislative and judicial branch records. It wasn’t all done in a classroom setting, the students got a tour of the vaults and saw some really cool documents. I was touched to hear how they reacted.
I asked the students if the workshop had met their expectations. And if there was anything else they would like to know. I tried to include as many of them in the conversation as I could. I mentioned to them David’s beautiful blog post about “Innies and Outies.” I smiled and noted that I was an Introvert, even shy at times, as many archivists and some historians are. Everyone laughed because I had been laughing so much. I almost (I said almost!) was self conscious in a room that otherwise was pretty quiet as a group made up of established historians and job seeking grad students murmuring over glasses of wine.
I glowed to hear so many of the students praise the NARA participants in the workshop not just for their knowledge but also for the passion and joy in the agency’s mission that came across in their presentations. Represent! So much the NARA I know and love. It didn’t surprise me that the only thing the students said they wished they had heard about at the end was how to get jobs at NARA or in related professions elsewhere in Washington.
I shared some of my views in a spontaneous mini-workshop on the spot at the restaurant. Elevator speeches don’t have to be about yourself and your job, they can be about how others can succeed! I touched on budgetary and bureaucratic issues but mostly talked about some of the elements David had mentioned in his speech a year ago to archival educators.
I talked about what it had been like to panel job applicants while working at NARA. And the qualities I’ve seen in people with whom I’ve worked over the years first as an archivist historian, then as a historian. As I searched for one word of advice, I hit upon it. Authenticity. Your future employer is best served if he or she knows what he or she is getting. To me, the most attractive qualities are quiet confidence in what you’ve learned coupled with the genuine humility that leads to true openness to continued learning. “Still on a steep learning curve.” A rarely seen but brave admission.
What helped me gain, then share, that on the spot insight, “be authentic?” Instead of some of the rote advice I sometimes see out there? The refreshingly uncalculated way the students responded when I asked for their feedback on the workshop. I asked if I could share it with NARA and they said yes. To some extent, I’m doing so at my blog. (But not all! Some of their reactions touch on areas that are a bit complicated to address even in a #longreads blog post.)
What I liked was the fact that I got authentic sounding and spontaneous feedback within the type of insta-comfort zone people sometimes fall into. Their take on the digitization of records, their research needs, reflections on academic advisors and hierarchies and status, the job market, what they sought, all seemed to come from the heart rather than feeling customized for effect. They impressed me by not trying to impress me. I liked that so very much!
I recently started reading Brad Meltzer’s The Inner Circle but have only read a few pages so far. The scene in Meltzer’s book where the archivist holds the doors close button to keep regular riders off of the special elevator used to whisk VIPs on tours caught my eye. As usual, I have different books piled on my nightstand and pick up which ever one suits my mood at the moment. I set the book aside and picked up a biography I hadn’t finished. I’ll return to The Inner Circle, of course. I’m very interested in anything related to NARA.
For my part, I talked to the grad students about what it is like to work in the federal environment. And whom you deal with and how in a broad array of customers and stakeholders. I explained my egalitarian approach, which I brought to my earliest days as a NARA employee. You want to reach the high school student or the freshman in college or the new hire or the genealogist as much as the established scholar or the name journalist or the high ranking official. They may vary in rank but they share status in one areas — they are dependent on you, on how you do your job. Always in the back of my mind!
We discussed engagement, why some academics use dense writing, laughed at bureaucratic Fedland jargon (yes, I said I cringe when I hear officials say they “outreached” to someone). We also talked about Alexandra Lord’s advice on non-traditional history jobs in her columns at Inside Higher Ed.
One of the last things I heard, as I shook hands with one of the students and told her to use my business card to stay in touch? “I love your blue finger nail polish.” I laughed with delight and told her, “David Ferriero commented on my blue nails, too, when he first met me.” Her eyes lit up on hearing that a federal agency head had done that. I paused and talked a little bit about working hard and also having fun. And not being afraid of a little weirdness, even. (With situational awareness, of course.) I do that and then some! Themes David has covered at his blog.
Authenticity. It matters. Represent!