Archives Month: What Would Ralph Waldo Emerson Do?

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It seems like an appropriate time to try to raise the level of discourse, so I turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American Transcendentalist poet, philosopher, and essayist.  What better text to consider than his 1837 address entitled “The American Scholar,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge.

Emerson reflected on an ancient fable about Man being divided, with each individual specializing in a particular function such as statesman or farmer or soldier.  Amongst these functions is the scholar, and Emerson provided a stark picture of a scholar in a right society versus a degenerate one: “In the right state, he is, Man Thinking.  In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”

Emerson identified three influences on the scholar:

  1. Nature.  In reading this section, it struck me that Emerson could just as easily have been describing an arrangement and description archivist trying to bring order to collections: “since the dawn of history, there has been a constant accumulation and classifying of facts.  But what is classification but the perceiving that these objects are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?”
  2. The past.  Emerson suggested “books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth, — learn the amount of this influence more conveniently, — by considering their value alone.”  Yet he also contended books can be misused when they pin us down and force us to look backward.  He concluded, “genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.”  As argued by so many other writers I’ve previously cited, archivists cannot afford to focus only on the past we are trying to preserve — geniuses also look forward.
  3. Action.  In earlier parts Emerson stressed the importance of an active soul, and he came back to explain, “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential.  Without it, he is not yet man.  Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.  Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty.  Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.  The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action.”  Similarly, I would argue that good archival work cannot be focused merely on research of best practice but must incorporate the doing of work, at whatever level it may grade out.

Emerson then defined the duties of the scholar: “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. . . .  He is the world’s eye.  He is the world’s heart.  He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.”  Seems to me this could be a job description for an archivist!

Emerson concluded, “The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future.  He must be an university of knowledges.”  May we all aspire to be such a scholar for our patrons.


Archives Month: What Would Ben Franklin Do?

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Benjamin Franklin was a writer, printer, inventor, and statesman.  Perhaps most importantly for the focus of this blog, in 1731 he founded the first American lending library — the predecessor to the public library.  He published Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1732-57, and I’ll reflect on some of the proverbs from these publications — all of which have broad applicability but which I’ll try to focus on archival work.

“How few there are who have courage enough to own their Faults, or resolution enough to mend them!”

Admitting fault is a very big ask for most human beings, but in the archival world, we need to find a way to acknowledge our mistakes — be they sins of commission or omission — and immediately set about finding ways to improve our procedures and policies.  Our work is too important to allow for pride (or intransigence) to get in the way of doing things the right way.

“What you would seem to be, be really.”

There’s a lot of talk in the archival world about best practice, but we don’t always practice what we preach.

“To-morrow I’ll reform, the fool does say; To-day itself’s too late; — the wise did yesterday.”

Archival preservation seems to be a long game, which unfortunately sometimes lulls people into thinking that change need only come slowly, but reforms need to be initiated sooner rather than later.

“Hide not your Talents, they for use were made: What’s a Sun-Dial in the Shade?”

Even with all of the conferences and publications out there, I still worry that people are doing great archival work that is not widely known.  We need to keep working on better ways to share greatness.

“Learn of the skilful: He that teaches himself, hath a fool for his master.”

I’ve previously written about the state of archival education, and I worry that the growing demand for graduate education has lulled workplaces into believing that candidates arrive at positions polished enough for any job.  Instead, I think the masters of the field still need to take the lead in passing along their practical wisdom to those new to the field.

“Be always ashamed to catch thyself idle.”

Definitely not archives-specific, but a thought I wish all would embrace!

“You may delay, but Time will not.”

This statement could have originated in a workshop on digital preservation.  Especially with electronic records, there’s no time to craft perfect policies and procedures while the data already in our possession has not been properly protected.

“Forewarn’d, forearm’d.”

I wholeheartedly believe that many of life’s difficulties can be anticipated and, therefore, addressed with planning.  Archivists need to embrace the idea of being proactive rather than reactive.

“Diligence overcomes Difficulties, Sloth makes them.”

Another universal truth — but given the attention to detail required of proficient archivists, this one called to be included.

“Think of three Things — whence you came, where you are going, and to Whom you must account.”

This encompasses three things significant to archivists — history, planning, and accountability.

Lastly, one of Franklin’s 13 virtues — “Order: Let all your things have their places.  Let each part of your business have its time.”

This provides a succinct summation of the work of archival arrangement.

Archives Month: What Would Obama Do?

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For my next foray into new perspectives on archival work, I turn to Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  Obama was a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and a lecturer at the University of Chicago law school.  He served in the Illinois State Senate (1997-2004), the U.S. Senate (2005-9), and since 2009 has served as U.S. President.

There are a number of themes and ideals that Obama emphasized in this address that resonate with the goals of archival work.

  • Hard work and perseverance.  Archivists are no strangers to hard work, but in order to persevere, we must have defined goals in view.  Then just as Obama’s father put in the effort necessary to get a scholarship to study in the U.S., archivists can also focus on accomplishing our stretch goals.
  • Tolerance and diversity.  Obama referred to the diversity of his own background and his parents’ belief in the tolerance of America.  The Society of American Archivists promotes these values through the Statement on Diversity and Inclusion and is planning the 2017 annual conference around the theme of diversity and inclusion.
  • Generosity.  Obama said his parents believed “in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.”  While archives are almost always in search of better funding, at the same time we provide service to our records without question of the financial status of the requestors.
  • Open opportunities.  A lot of archival work focuses on keeping the doors of opportunity open — whether by preserving historical records or by providing access to records to promote transparency.
  • Community, faith, and sacrifice.  No one enters the archival profession seeking fame and fortune, so just as Obama outlined the political service of John Kerry, the same principles of devotion apply to archivists as we serve our communities.

I’ll conclude with a few direct quotations that can stand on their own for inspiration:

  • “That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles.”
  • “For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga.  A belief that we are connected as one people. . . .  It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work.  It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family.  ‘E pluribus unum.’  Out of many, one.”
  • “The audacity of hope!  In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead.”

Archives Month: What Would Coach Cut Do?

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I enjoyed the mental effort last month in comparing the worlds of tennis and archives.  I also find value in looking at issues from unexpected perspectives, so today I want to apply the lessons of football to archival work.  I’ll do so by considering a few tactical points in football that are applicable and (in keeping with my plan for Archives Month) also by reflecting on some quotes from well-known football coaches.

Accountability and Transparency.  I have long been fascinated by the amount of accountability that we require of student-athletes during their games.  With the explosion of cable channels, streaming services, and games on virtually every night of the week, it seems that almost every game is available for mass viewing.  So not only the fans within the stadium but people far and wide know when a player makes a mistake because the referee announces the infraction and identifies the player by number.  I wonder what could happen in the archival world — or in any workplace, for that matter — if we all had to acknowledge our mistakes in such a public way.  I, for one, believe it would lead to better quality work simply out of an effort to avoid the embarrassment of being exposed.  But based on the difficulty I’ve encountered in writing up biographies for the archivists whose writings I’ve reviewed over these years, it seems that the archives world is not very committed to letting the rest of the world know who we are.  The 2002 challenge issued by Michelle Light and Tom Hyry (echoing the suggestion of Terry Cook) for archivists to document ourselves in annotated finding aids so that our subjectivity can be evaluated by researchers has also not been embraced.

Reviews.  Every play in college football is now reviewed in real time, and if a coach feels like the review team needs more time to make an educated decision, he can call a timeout to prevent the next play from occurring before the review is complete.  While archival work doesn’t have the same sort of goal lines as are marked on a football field, I do think there’s value in periodically stopping to review the work that has been done in order to evaluate what has gone well and what still needs improvement (or what may have gone off the rails altogether).

Don’t get behind the chains.  Football commentators speak a language unto themselves, but they all seem to share a similar point about approaching a goal in attainable chunks.  Teams sometimes go for a long pass on first down, hoping for the spectacular result, but more often that not, the play fails and the team loses yardage.  This leaves them behind the ten-yard chain that measures the distance to a first down and makes the next two downs even more challenging if the drive is going to stay alive.  Whereas if the team had executed a play on first down that made a modest gain, they could have much more flexibility in play calling for the following downs.  Similarly, in archival work, it seems that we often hold out hope for the spectacular solution to our backlog or to handling electronic records — rather than simply making slow but steady progress all along.

Clutch players.  This goes for any sport and for any business environment — there’s great value to identifying your clutch players.  These are the people who shine the brightest when all the focus is on their performance.  We also need the people who don’t relish the spotlight but can still turn in a workmanlike performance.  But before a crisis hits, you need to know who can handle the pressure and calmly catch the big pass to keep the drive alive or competently package the deliverables to satisfy the funders.


Bear Bryant

The long-time coach at the University of Alabama (1958-82) offered some sage advice about advancing toward goals and requiring everybody to work hard:

  • “Never quit.  It is the easiest cop-out in the world.  Set a goal and don’t quit until you attain it.  When you do attain it, set another goal, and don’t quit until you reach it.  Never quit.”
  • “We can’t have two standards, one set for the dedicated young men who want to do something ambitious and one set for those who don’t.”

Vince Lombardi

The famous coach of the Green Bay Packers (1959-67) offered numerous snippets about competition, goals, and achieving excellence.  There’s a lot of talk in the archival world about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but I personally like the notion of catching excellence.

  • “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”
  • “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”
  • “If you’ll not settle for anything less than your best, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish in your lives.”
  • “Don’t succumb to excuses.  Go back to the job of making the corrections and forming the habits that will make your goal possible.”
  • “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

Nick Saban

The current coach of the University of Alabama (2007-present) is well-known for his focus on process and for demanding that his players be the best team they can be, no matter the opponent.  Striving for consistency is an apt goal for us all.

  • “Eliminate the clutter and all of the things that are going on outside and focus on the things that you can control with how you go about and take care of your business.”
  • “Process guarantees success.  A good process produces good results.”
  • “What happened yesterday is history.  What happens tomorrow is a mystery.  What we do today makes a difference.”

The last quote challenges archivists, despite our Janus-like tendencies to look at the past and the future, to recognize that we must also make progress in the present.

David Cutcliffe

The current coach at Duke University (2007-present) has led a resurgence of this program.  He is well-known for his tutelage of quarterback stars like Peyton and Eli Manning, and his ability to read people is equally remarkable.  He talks about taking recruits out to dinner and realizing that the kid who can’t make up his mind about what to order is not going to be able to make the quick judgements that are necessary on the playing field.  He actually encourages his quarterbacks to hold the ball no more than 2.8 seconds after the snap — but rather than requiring them to make unreasoned decisions, he prepares them to understand the looks the defense will show so they can process their options quickly and accurately.  Would that archives could operate with such efficiency!  Coach Cut also echoes wisdom that I learned from my grandparents and wish that all could embrace:

  • “The most important lesson to me is to leave a place better than you found it.”

Archives Month: What Would Uncle Terry Do?

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Here’s my plan for Archives Month: I want to take a look at the wisdom of thought leaders outside the archival realm and consider what implications their words might have for the archival profession.

Having spent the weekend in various events commemorating the founding of Duke University, I’ve chosen to begin this endeavor by looking at the farewell speech of Terry Sanford, who served as President of Duke University from 1969-85.  Sanford held various positions before and after his tenure at Duke:

  • special agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation (1941-42)
  • parachute infantry, United States Army (1942-45)
  • lawyer in private practice (1948-60, 1965-69, 1985-86)
  • North Carolina State senator (1953-55)
  • Governor of North Carolina (1961-65)
  • United States Senator (1986-93)

I’ve heard many faculty and alumni speak fondly of the leadership of “Uncle Terry,” and I’ve frequently heard the current President of Duke, Richard Brodhead, make reference to Sanford’s theme of “outrageous ambitions,” but it was not until today that I read the entire address for myself.  Here are the parts that I found just as applicable to archives as to educational institutions:

  • “. . . excellence is not a destination.  It is a spirit; it is a determination; it is a set of personal and institutional values.”  I like the concept that excellence cannot be quantified with a checklist but instead is something that must be embedded in the values of the institution and its people.
  • “. . . the faculty one hundred years from now can tell if we let ourselves become comfortable and let ourselves lose sight of the need for exuberance, for excitement, for outrageous endeavors, for exacting, and painful when necessary, adherence to the basic characteristics of an academic community. . . .  I want to see us set goals beyond our obvious reach.”  I think it’s too easy for archival institutions to look at surveys and see what similar repositories are accomplishing and be satisfied with holding position among the crowd.  I prefer Uncle Terry’s challenge of stretch goals that require exuberance, excitement, and outrageous endeavors.
  • “That is our ultimate mission, not only to seek truth, but to enlarge and perpetuate the search for truth.”  There’s a lot of talk in the archival world about authenticity, though it’s usually in the context of diplomatics and trusted digital repositories.  Sanford made this comment in the context of challenging the University to do a better job of attracting excellent graduate students and faculty, and I believe it applies equally to archives who need to attract “the very best minds” and facilitate the growth of people who will be “leaders of the rising generations.”
  • “The first sentence of our proposed ‘President’s Policy on Human Capital’ says, ‘Every person who works for Duke is responsible for the successful operation of Duke.  Every person who works for Duke is responsible for maintaining the general excellence that is the constant goal of Duke.  Every person who works for Duke is important to Duke; they are all Duke University People.'”  An HR policy that recognizes the importance of the individual in accomplishing the goals of the entire institution seems to be a good step — both holding the individual accountable for maintaining excellence while also creating a climate that values these individuals.
  • “Finally, the stamp of Duke University and it continuing goal ought to be the unrelenting search for excellence in all of its endeavors.”  Admittedly, continuous excellence is very difficult to achieve, but I submit that it must be a goal for archives.  We have no chance to rest on our laurels — backlogs are too large, while social media is a virtually untapped resource for materials.  It also seems like there’s always room for improvement when it comes to making researchers aware of our collections and then making those collections intellectually and physically available to them.

Thanks for indulging me on my Uncle Terry research.  Tune back in next week for another look at words of wisdom through the archival lens.