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.