The Underground Railroad and 18 Months of Indecision

In 2016, I started writing the “Fiction through an Archival Lens” column for Archival Outlook. For four glorious (to me) issues, I got to talk about books that spoke to me as an archivist. I submitted a fifth column at the end of November 2016 and soon learned that Archival Outlook was cutting its page budget and that column five would not appear.

Although I understood that Archival Outlook wasn’t able to save space for matters of archives and fiction, I was saddened to lose the column and the venue. I wanted to keep writing it, and I really wanted that last column, about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad to run as I felt it actually said something I hadn’t managed to say before. And then the indecision came . . . . not being sure what to with it (despite helpful suggestions), I just didn’t do anything. And time passed. And passed. So, when Eira said that she’d like to get Reading Archivists up and running again, I knew what I wanted to contribute.

So, anyway, here’s my “time capsule” column five. I haven’t changed anything, although on the rereading, I can see a few changes I would make.


Truths, Lies, and The Underground Railroad                       

Although this is my first column for 2017, I’m writing it as we head into the last month of 2016—a year of transformation and trauma and one that has left a sense of loss in its wake. As an archivist, perhaps one of the most perplexing issues 2016 was the proliferation of fake news stories and people’s willingness to prize beliefs over proven and documented facts. How will we tackle documenting what really (and falsely) happened this past year while separating truth from lies?

One of the best books of 2016—Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad—focuses on truths and lies and seems particularly suited for where we are now. Facts, inventions, and time slips exist side by side in this story of oppression, brutality, and the search for freedom. Accompanying these are questions and assumptions about authenticity and agency, truths and lies.

The book tells the story of Cora, a slave who runs away from a Georgia plantation via the Underground Railroad, depicted as an actual railroad transporting slaves, hopefully toward freedom. As she travels to different states, each one bringing new sights, lessons, and horrors, Cora is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher intent on taking her back to Georgia.

I especially wanted to read The Underground Railroad after hearing Whitehead’s summer 2016 interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, in which he spoke about his research. His use of the Works’ Progress Administration Federal Writers Project oral histories helped him get the details of the slaves’ lives right and made him realize “how much I was going to have to put my protagonist and all her friends through.”

Whitehead also spoke about the runaway slave advertisements in the book, which came from the digitized collections of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although he wrote one of the advertisements, he took the others directly from the collection because “sometimes you can’t compete with the actual historical document.”

Along with its use of historical sources, The Underground Railroad plays with history and its interpretation along with the written word. “Lies” (or counterfactuals) coexist with the truth: the pre-Civil War America of the nineteenth century not only features underground trains, but also skyscrapers and advanced medical programs. One of the book’s most striking themes is how falseness can become the truth. In seemingly “civilized” South Carolina (the reality is sinister and chilling), Cora works in displays at a museum meant to portray American life, depicting a sanitized and inaccurate version of life as a native in “Darkest Africa” and as a slave in a “Typical Day on the Plantation” exhibit. When Cora tells the curator that one exhibit is not authentic, the curator responds that, of course, authenticity is important, but ranks below other concerns.

Cora learns she cannot always recognize the truth as easily as she does when at the museum, but comes to see that all written words and experiences are not equal. She progresses from illiterate to a critical reader. Her early exposure to texts is via recital (another slave can recite the Declaration of Independence). As she learns to read, she learns to question what she reads. After arguing with her protector about what the Bible says about slavery, Cora “blamed the people who wrote it down. People always got things wrong, on purpose as much as by accident.” Just like at the museum. She turns to reading almanacs and loves them largely because they are facts that “couldn’t be shaped into what they were not.” Ridgeway also notes that newspapers present false images of slavery to “impress the fantasy of the happy plantation and the contented slave.”

Cora also visits a library where she reads accounts of slaves, describing the “miseries of their bondage and then their hair-raising escapes. She recognized their stories as their own.” It is here that Cora feels the written word reflects rather than lies to her.

Cora’s struggle to create her own future and escape her past takes her on a multipart journey via the Underground Railroad and to a better understanding of her own identity. As a book to close out 2016, The Underground Railroad serves as a reminder that thinking critically is a tool that can lead to transformation and possibly, a brighter future. And it left me thinking that archivists will indeed spend 2017 doing what we’ve always done, rolling up our sleeves and working to document and preserve the world we live in.





Eira’s 2018 Q1 recommendations

The former EPA administrator who was cited by Congress for withholding records

The former EPA administrator who was cited by Congress for withholding records


Reading Archivists was started by Erin Lawrimore back in 2014 to promote the reading of past SAA presidential addresses. The blog chugged along and acquired more writers, but it’s been dormant for a couple of years…. until now!

So why the revival? I recently quit Twitter after being a faithful and extremely active part of archivist twitter for years. One of my favorite uses of Twitter was to share my thoughts about archives literature, and I need an outlet to continue that.

Erin graciously handed over the blog admin reins to me, and I hope to regenerate more voices here (let me know if you want to contribute). Something I really appreciate about the profession is that so much conversation happens in spaces outside of peer-reviewed academic literature. I’m planning to run a quarterly check-in of different types of articles and literature that resonates with me. Most of this will be archives/records focused, but I read from a lot of library and environmental journals as well, so those recs could pop up if I think they have enough crossover interest. I hope some of these suggestions make you think and get you excited about reading widely as well. Feel free to post links to can’t miss reads in the comments! (BTW, some of these links may be paywalled. If you can’t find an OA PDF through the usual means, let me know)

Tansey test (for excellence in journalism that attributes the work of archives and recordkeeping to the labor of archivists and recordkeeping professionals): I really liked this brief article about a Rutgers archivist who is collecting Women’s March ephemera. First off, it centers the archivist’s role in creating collections. It links to repository resources. And it tells folks how to get involved. Way to go, WHYY reporter Dana DiFilippo!

Future citation champion (recent scholarly work from the field that dazzled me): While framed primarily around librarianship, this recent Lead Pipe article by Fobazi Ettarh explaining and critiquing the notion of vocational awe is excellent. Ettarh traces the religious roots of the idea of librarianship as a vocation, through how vocational awe is weaponized against librarians seeking better working conditions and salaries. I’ve been thinking a lot about how vocational awe is also used to insulate ourselves against self-critique of our own practices. For example, a perennial issue that always crops up whenever I talk about the carbon footprint of digital preservation is someone flipping out saying “BUT WE HAVE TO PRESERVE THE THINGS!!!” Is our work in digital preservation really worth strip-mining mountains? Because the vast majority of computing infrastructure is still powered by fossil fuels. I blame vocational awe for a lot of the resistance archivists have to completely rethinking our ethical obligations within a changing climate.

Sizzling hot take (recent dispatches from the field that I’m not 100% on board with but enjoyed reading anyway): David Bearman recently reviewed the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General’s report on email management practices in American Archivist. Yes, reader, your hunch is correct: said report was prompted by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s, uh, DIY-postcustodial approach to email. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Bearman said here, and it is worth keeping in mind Bearman is notable because he has taken a pretty hard line against archivists as custodians, and has argued archives should only exist as repositories of last resort (for more on this, see his chapter “An Indefensible Bastion” in this report from 1991). I strongly disagree with Bearman writing off the Capstone approach so easily. Yes, Capstone is imperfect. Any blunt tool inherently is. But until automated classification and enforcement is funded at the level it needs to be within NARA to accomplish its mission, I’m not sure what other types of solutions we can reasonably expect them to come up with.

Even as I disagree with Bearman, I really appreciate the inclusion of this review. As a records manager in a large public institution, it is increasingly distressing to me that so few archivists are writing about the crises within public recordkeeping. I know talking about social justice in community archives makes us feel good (“hey look, here’s something we can actually work on that isn’t a completely Sisphyean task!!!”), but goddammit is anyone really paying attention to the very real social justice issues happening every day with the failures in our public recordkeeping institutions? It saddens me that we’re in a world where an inspector general is writing the kind of literature that archivists should be writing, and kudos to Bearman for bringing our attention to it.

Non-archivists who we can learn a lot from (random works from other fields that I’m reading that have significant interest for archivists): “Transparency With(out) Accountability” by Jennifer Shkabatur in Yale Law & Policy Review. Y’ALL THIS WAS SO GOOD AND I WAS SO INTO IT. The rhetoric of transparency through open data projects has been ostensibly to increase public accountability, but the author argues “existing transparency policies do not actually strengthen public accountability.” As someone who has become increasingly skeptical of that old saw of “knowledge is power” (it’s bullshit, if knowledge was actually power, we would have acted on climate change 20 years ago when the first climate models came out, but now New Orleans and Miami are going to drown in my lifetime while former Exxon CEOs continue to live a free life instead of being chained up in maximum security prison), this article was incredible in articulating many of my frustrations with the magical thinking around open data.

Retro records story: DID YOU KNOW current Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch’s* mother, Anne Gorsuch, used to be the head administrator of EPA? Spoiler alert: she sucked. At one point, a bipartisan (how quaint!) group of Congresspeople charged her with contempt for refusing to hand over records (she was the first to receive this illustrious honor) related to EPA’s failure to properly administer Superfund duties. Her response after being cited for contempt of Congress? “What happened tonight, if pursued to its conclusion, wouldn’t do anything. It would not produce the documents, it would not decide the issue of separation of powers. It would only send me to jail for a much-needed rest.”

*shoulda been Garland

Talking Amongst Ourselves: What We’re Reading

“I’ll give you a topic: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Discuss.” Bonus points if you know this SNL skit! Image via Vanity Fair

While we work up to the next themed post here on Reading Archivists, this seems like a good time to talk amongst ourselves. I’ll give you a (very broad) topic: what we’re reading, watching, or listening to that has implications for the archives field, archivists as individual professionals, and even the archival canon.

Personally, I recently attended a compelling panel at my place of work about the religious, political, and ecological implications of Laudato Si, the Pope’s recent writing on climate change. The panelists’ remarks have pushed me to think about what archivists can learn from the document. One of the panelists pointed out that in Laudato Si, Pope Francis providing inspiration for people around the world to take up the cause of climate change; items up to us to find “cures.”

I’ve been thinking about this in two ways:

1. I’ve been more closely following the work of ProjectARCC. Climate change affects collection care as well as our collecting itself. ProjectARCC is split up into four committees:
– Protect, aimed at educating archivists about environmental protections, both preparing for disaster and responding to disasters
– Reduce, which examines strategies for reducing our professional carbon and ecological footprints
– Preserve, working to document the work of climate scientists and activists for future use
– Elevate, using relevant collections to “improve public awareness and understanding of climate change”

ProjectARCC’s work is important in part because it provides a model for multi-pronged approach to effecting real change in and outside the archives. We can think about using the model in our repositories, to capture materials on climate change as well as on other subjects. Which leads to point two…

2. What other issues in the field need a “call to inspiration”? Kathleen Roe’s “Year of Living Dangerously” worked to galvanize outreach, though SAA’s work under her leadership was more directive than Laudato Si or ProjectARCC. I would argue that diversity and inclusivity throughout our profession, particularly in our collections and our colleagues, is another such issue that could benefit from our focus, although work will need to be more extensive and future-thinking than one piece of writing or one year of effort. We’ve already touched on this in the past here on RA, looking at Jimerson’s 2005 presidential address “Embracing the Power of Archives,” and Elizabeth Adkins’ 2007 address, “Our Journey Toward Diversity — and a Call to (More) Action.”

A more recent and non-presidential look at diversity in the field is courtesy of the 2011 article, “Educating for the Archival Multiverse.” (The American Archivist: 2011 Spring/Summer, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 69-101. DOI) The article concludes with an eight-objective model for pluralizing archival education, many of which work in concert. The article sketches out that relationship, but I wish it were made more obvious throughout the article. But the recommendation to encourage multidisciplinarity in the field may in turn foster pluralized doctoral education, which in turn would help to open up archival theory and practice to viewpoints outside the dominant norm and encourage a more pluralized student body. Similarly, if archives programs promote service learning, community engagement may be strengthened; again, leading to less narrow archival theory and practice and a more pluralized student body.

So, what’s on your mind? What do you think of the articles above? What should we join you in reading, listening, and/or watching?

Reading Archivists Looks at Ask a Manager: Twitter Chat—The Bad Employee

Just a reminder that tomorrow, Tuesday July 28 at 8 pm Eastern, I’ll be hosting a twitter chat about the July Reading Archivists discussion, which has focused on a question and follow up that appeared on the Ask A Manager blog. The question involved the original poster wondering whether to tell a friend that he’s probably a bad employee due to his poor work ethic and attitude, and a follow-up that details the friend’s plan to go to library school, thinking it might lead him to a career that was better suited for his personality. During the twitter chat, we’ll discuss about how different personality traits help archivists in their work, how our personalities may have changed as our careers have moved forward, and what qualities managers want to see (or not) in people they supervise. I’ll be hosting from @carynradick using the hashtag #RAaam.

Click on the links below to see the previous posts in this discussion.

See Post 1

See Post 2

Here are some of the questions for discussion

  • Thinking about your career as an archivist, what qualities do you think helped you in your early career and do you feel that these changed as you advanced? Did you consciously make changes to suit new responsibilities and roles?
  • If you’re a student or new archivist, what qualities do you think will help you in the archival profession and as you’ve learned more about the profession, what might you like to develop?
  • If you’re a supervisor, what qualities do you look for in the people you hire or supervise and what qualities do you hope to bring out?
  • What qualities have you seen in colleagues that you would like to develop? What qualities are you telling yourself never to develop (this recent New York Times article comes to mind)?

Feel free to comment here or tweet me about other questions regarding this discussion. Looking forward to Tuesday, July 28 at 8 EST!

Reading Archivists Looks at Ask a Manager: The Bad Employee—part 2

In last week’s post, I linked over to two Ask A Manager posts in which the original poster wrote in to ask how to help a friend she suspected was a bad employee. At the time, the friend worked at a law firm, but a later update indicated that the friend was contemplating going to library school thinking that career path might better suit him. According to the poster, the friend had “no initiative or drive,” got angry when corrected, wasn’t willing to come in early or stay late, which the job sometime required. She also said, He’s also a total introvert and really doesn’t enjoy people. He avoids his office at all costs. He is a horrible networker. Plus, he’s one of those people who thinks he’s the smartest person in the room.

Now a lot of the behaviors the friend demonstrates might be reasonable depending on the circumstances (equating willingness to put in extra hours to being a good worker can be a slippery slope, and not everyone wants to move up). But, she indicates that he has a bad attitude, an inflated sense of his own abilities, and doesn’t like being around people.

The reason I groaned when I read about the plans to go to library school is that I wouldn’t want to work with someone who was arrogant, gave me a hard time regarding fixing mistakes, or was rude to people. I would also never recommend becoming an archivist to someone who showed these qualities because I think there are very few positions out there, if any, that would suit such a person. This led me to think about what personality traits/behaviors are helpful or useful to archivists.

Personally, I find the archival introvert/extrovert issue regarding archivists both fascinating and frustrating. Recent literature, such as Susan Cain’s bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, discuss the value of introverts in the workplace, but I’ve seen the “introverts are lesser” sentiment appear within archival discussions in the last few years. As the previous post mentioned, both have value and, I think, qualities that make for good archivists. I also think both are capable of adjusting their behavior to suit their circumstances.

Based on my experiences, I would say that it’s helpful for archivists to be curious, engaged, pleasant/professional, and willing to take some risks. In my pre-archivist career, I had moments where I thought my attitude shouldn’t affect my prospects as long as I got my work done, but saw my equally mad-as-hell but more “pleasant” colleagues get promoted ahead of me and realized that my “honest” sarcastic/angry responses weren’t helping my “I’m above this job, so promote me already” cause (I also should have been willing to take more risks and look for another job in some situations, but that’s another story).

Having shared some of my own thoughts and experiences, I’d love to hear what others think and have some questions for discussion. Feel free to comment or to participate in the Twitter discussion on July 28, 8 pm Eastern time:

  • Thinking about your career as an archivist, what qualities do you think helped you in your early career and do you feel that these changed as you advanced? Did you consciously make changes to suit new responsibilities and roles?
  • If you’re a student or new archivist, what qualities do you think will help you in the archival profession and as you’ve learned more about the profession, what might you like to develop?
  • If you’re a supervisor, what qualities do you look for in the people you hire or supervise and what qualities do you hope to bring out?
  • What qualities have you seen in colleagues that you would like to develop? What qualities are you telling yourself never to develop (this recent New York Times article comes to mind)?

In writing these posts, I’ve felt that a lot more could be said about the topics touched upon here (what defines “success” for archivists? What roles should supervisors have in “fostering” careers of their workers? What issues do archivists face drawing boundaries between personal and professional life?) What issues would you be interested in exploring? I look forward to seeing your thoughts and mark your calendar for the Twitter discussion on the 28th at 8 pm EST.

Reading Archivists Looks at Ask A Manager: The Bad Employee–part 1

As I mentioned in June’s preview post, I’m a huge fan of Alison Green’s Ask a Manager blog which dispenses advice to readers with common and more unusual work concerns or problems. This week, I’m going to link over to two columns from 2013 (the initial question and the update). Next week, I’ll discuss some of my thoughts on them and ask some discussion questions. I’d like to schedule a Twitter discussion about how different personality traits help archivists in their work, how our personalities may have changed as our careers have moved forward, and what qualities managers want to see (or not) in people they supervise.  I will set a date in next week’s post, but I’m thinking July 27 or 28.

Although AAM has a large librarian/archivist following, the discussion I want to look at is more general. It features a reader who is concerned that her friend has a bad work ethic and attitude and that these likely cost him one job and are about to cost him another.*

my friend is a bad employee — how can I help?

Alison and her readers offered advice, much along the lines of “even if it was your problem to fix, it’s probably not going to be easy.” The poster followed up several months later, indicating she wasn’t really able to help.

update: my friend is a bad employee

The part that especially caught my interest was:

“As it turns out, I think he might have realized that the environment he placed himself in just wasn’t made for his skill set. Last I heard, he is considering going back to grad school to get a masters in library science. While a library might be more fitting, I think some skills are necessary no matter the work setting.”

I definitely shook my head when I read this, and looking at the librarian comment thread which starts with the comment by Emily, which I’m quoting from below, I wasn’t the only one.

As a librarian, may I say “Oh, no!”? I hate it when people think of our profession as a dumping ground for the socially awkward or people who can’t hack it in other fields. What I do requires a huge amount of collaboration, sometimes with people who don’t report to me, which requires extra-hard work and persuasive skills…”

From the original poster’s description, her friend sounds like a bad colleague, period, (and I thought it  unlikely that an archives/library environment would do much to improve this without his making other changes). But, I’ve always wondered what my archivist colleagues might think of the original post and follow up and also thought these two posts might make for an interesting discussion on what personality traits have helped us as archivists, both in tackling the job and moving forward in our careers.

Next week, I’ll offer my perspective on the posts and observations about personality traits and archival careers, and asking some questions for discussion. In the meantime, what was your reaction to the columns, and on learning that the original poster’s “bad employee” friend was thinking about library school?

[*regarding the use of “introverted,” to describe the bad employee, a commenter addresses that introversion is not a quality that makes someone a bad worker and Ask A Manager has had many posts that address introvert/extrovert issues in a way that treats them as personality differences that both have value rather than as negative versus positive qualities. Our discussion can address these issues as well.]

Preview of July Discussion: Reading Archivists looks at Ask A Manager

Any Ask A Manager fans out there? Since I learned about Alison Green’s workplace and job advice blog at a MARAC conference, I suspect I’m not the only one.

Following Eira Tansey’s example of taking Reading Archivists in new directions, I have an Ask A Manager post in mind that I’d like to discuss in July (if you aren’t familiar, most of the posts involve people writing in seeking advice on issues running the gamut from your standard “How do I write a cover letter?” to some really interesting, distressing, and awkward workplace problems). I hope it will spur an interesting discussion about how different personality traits help archivists in their work, how our personalities may have changed as our careers have moved forward, and what qualities managers want to see (or not) in people they supervise.

Stay tuned. The initial post should appear in late June/early July with a Twitter conversation to follow in mid-to-late July.