my latest adventure in university service

Things have been busy. I’ve been doing some proprietary stuff at work that I dare not blog about at this stage and it’s been engaging, almost overwhelming in its scope. Over the past few weeks, however, my time has been increasingly occupied with a type of university-wide strategic planning/prioritization exercise that has been enlightening, to say the least. So perhaps it’s time to talk about it here.

My boss’s boss volunteered me for this extracurricular project. Then out of the clear blue, I got further volunteered to become a team leader. No biggie, I thought, I’ve supervised mission-wide strategic planning for the largest normal embassy overseas (Embassy Cairo) and the largest new-style super embassy (Embassy Baghdad), not to mention heading up the whole Near East Affairs bureau’s Washington effort from a former perch as Regional and Multilateral Affairs office director, so this relatively small university exercise should be a piece of cake. Well, academia is slightly different from diplomacia, I was to learn.

We got our team assignments. First mistake. I referred to a department dean as Dr. Not cool. Second mistake. Somehow, the second director’s name fell off the email request for a site visit of a two director-headed unit. You’d think the co-director would simply cc her colleague. But noooo. So when I tried to clean it up I got slightly slammed. Still no biggie. As my navy colleague would say, I’ve been called worser names by better men. We eventually worked out a schedule for all our team’s site visits, which of course needed to be completed by the end of the month. Again, no biggie. We scheduled a couple on one day and a one on the second day. Then there was the unscheduled AC outage in a week when temperatures were averaging above 90F. Not like 125F dry heat in Baghdad, but humid Washington swamp heat. My office got shut down, but I didn’t get the vacation everybody else got because there was work for this exercise to do. So I moved everything home and kept on pushing.

The fun part was actually making the site visits, learning about other departments and programs on campus. I learned that an HBCU is intimately tied to the community that serves as its host in ways that non-HBCU’s may not be. Whether private or state supported, the linkage is undeniable. Academic programs pop up, spring up like weeds in response to observed needs of the community. And if the community is fractured and silo’d, the college/university that serves it reflects those fractures and siloes in its constitution. There is a lot more to say on this. Later, perhaps.

Across the board there were issues with funding shortfalls and consequent staffing reductions, all the while service requirements increased at a steady tick. I already knew that you can’t do more with less, you can only do less with less, but my Gawd these folks are heroic! They find ways to keep the wheels turning, working longer hours, working weekends, finding ways. And they never forget the community, extending their services out beyond the campus on, in effect, unfunded mandates, while operating on a shoestring budget. The dedication of faculty and staff at HBCU’s is nothing short of phenomenal.

Not gonna mention facilities issues here. But suffice it to say many building are approaching the century mark and need major repairs and restorations for which there is, again, insufficient funding.

In the final round, each team met with other teams doing similar units (some not so similar ones). Each team made its summary presentation, then fielded questions from the other teams. By the end of the third day, we had crossed paths with some teams several times and came to know their thinking on basic issues affecting university life. Of course, there were complaints about the testing instrument, the rubrics from which we developed scoring metrics. Instruments are never perfect, I found myself chiming in, quietly, secretly reflecting on my prior experiences.

My team concluded that the fact that we knew little about the programs we were assessing gave us some degree of objectivity, but that objectivity had a very short half-life once we began comparing the programs to our own, and once we decided that we really had an appreciation for the work that was being accomplished. My team came up with a standard set of questions to gauge the level of information sharing across programs, across departments, and university-wide. The librarian in me ate that up! We discovered that just a small measure of information sharing could result in so much more efficiency and at such small cost.

It’s the first time this university has every attempted a university-wide type of assessment. We look forward to the resulting report, and hopefully a few of us will be around when this happens again five years from now.

p.s. But let this be a cautionary tale: Part One; Part Two; Part Three. And this too.

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it’s been 2 wks since my last confession

Amandla! A Luta Continua!

It’s been a busy two weeks. Making significant headway into the collection I am processing and my boss reminded me much more of it awaits me in the warehouse, so my work is cut out for me. The big boss (Library Director) nominated me to a campus-wide group evaluating priorities in various departments so that should be exciting. After making a cameo appearance in a small meeting which included an old friend, the big boss and I had an exchange about the wealth and richness of material in the collection related to my former profession, for which, of course, by practice and by academic training, I have a unique eye. We’ll see where/how that conversation materializes. A Posse Ad Esse.

I questioned in an e-mail exchange and later on, in a meeting, why we are so fragmented and divided being as small a staff as we are, the big division being between University Archives and Manuscripts/Prints/Photographs. I guess when we were much larger, the division of labor was necessary. But that was then. Now we are 1/5 the size. Territorialism dies hard. Build that wall!

Two afternoons a week (and the occaisional Saturday) I staff the reference desk of the reading room. It’s a great opportunity to interact with researchers and to physically (sometimes very physically) engage with the collections. I am becoming intimately acquainted with the various tripartate divisions of the collection, that is, the manuscripts, the library, and the historic vertical files, and from a cataloging and shelving perspective, those items in the Dewey system, those items in the decolonized Dewey system, and those items in the Library of Congress system. There is a reference assistant who knows the place like the back of his hand, so to speak, and he has been very helpful in my various navigational efforts. As previously mentioned, the “stuff” here, the collections are amazing and it is no small wonder that researchers come here from near and far (and some cases, very far) to examine our resources.

My colleagues are a joy to work with. We hang out in a small break room where we meet for breakfast and lunch and where we compare notes and discuss the latest events on campus and in the archives world. There is also a Keurig coffee machine there, discussed in an earlier post, for which I have a reusable, eco-friendly filter. Coffee is all about the ritual of making it, the actual drinking of it is secondary, as well it should be.

Well, in other, unrelated areas, we are halfway through the August Wilson American Century Cycle and one week into NaPoWriMo. I’m driving home to Greensboro for Easter weekend.

Until the next time, Peace Out!

spring break broke my pattern – new post

Spring break came up so quickly after my start that it slightly altered my attention span. But the beat goes on.

Have already mentioned in previous posts, though one of which bears re-mentioning here. Because black doctors in the South weren’t allowed by law and custom to join state medical societies, they also couldn’t join the national American Medical Association (AMA, nor could they practice in white hospitals, but that is another story). Then, when the AMA wanted to register their organizational opposition to President Truman’s healthcare plan, of course they sought to solicit the support of black doctors, ultimately admitting one black doctor into membership in an attempt to sway the rest. Though it wasn’t successful, their opposition to the Truman program won out once it was weaponized., i.e.,

National healthcare = socialized medicine = collusion with Russian communism.

The Russian collusion song is indeed an old one.

Ultimately, in the 50’s and 60’s racial barriers to AMA membership for practicing physicians began to dissolve.

This collection I am working on is amazing. First of all, this guy must have had several secretaries to keep all this correspondence buzzing back and forth. I mean he was in relentless contact with fellow faculty members, with members of Congress, with leaders of civil rights organizations, with sports and movie celebrities, with his old high school, with his old undergrad. And they with him. And he was an avid newspaper clippings collector. But wait! You know what happens to newsprint after 70 years, and the paste, and the cellophane tape? Ughh, the cellophane tape. So I am very carefully photocopying each article for preservation. All hundreds of them. I can only imagine if they had email and social media in the 40’s . . .

Adventures on the reference desk continue. Of course, I bring my experiences as a reference and instruction librarian to the table (or to the desk). But so far there seems less emphasis institutionally on actually teaching students the process of accessing archival material, and more of just “bringing them the boxes.” I get it that the level of intermediation is slightly different but because of the difference, I would expect researchers to have (or to want to acquire) a greater knowledge of their subject and of the research process, not a lesser one. Additionally, students seem to want to be able to reduce everything in their research to a mobile phone screenshot and there’s not much patience to be had with anything outside of that. I don’t want to sound like a luddite or anything, but I don’t think effective research can be “optimized” to an iPhone or Galaxy screenshot. If you are coming to my research center, bring a laptop (and pencil and paper) or face my wrath!

It appears we are on the verge of both acquiring an important collection and losing a long standing one. Collections are like money in the bank, literally. And money, I learned as an econ undergrad, is a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. So there.

One last, silly thing. The breakroom has a Keurig machine. But I have an ecological problem with the disposable cups that accumulate in the garbage. So I went online and discovered the reusable Keurig cup. I grind my beans, put a scoop or two in the reusable cup, and pack it with my lunch. Works like a charm!

On Spring Break (and jury duty) – reflections on week 3 at Moorland-Spingarn

A classmate and friend warned me about these week-long breaks. I confess they are quite nice for catching up on projects. We are locked out from the Library for spring break but there is plenty to think about.

I spent last week medicating and recuperating from allergies, internal and external I think. I made it to work each day, with my Flonase and antihistamine gel tabs in tow, packed in my lunch box, along with foil wrapped tumeric ginger tea bags that are expressly not to be sold outside of India. How’s that for authenticity?

Early in the week I went with one of the technicians to the on-campus warehouse to retrieve some boxes. He gave me the grand tour. And what a tour it was. We have a lot of stuff.I peeked through some of the boxes and saw some familiar names from my former career, personal papers of diplomats and members of Congress involved with efforts to increase minority foreign service participation. No comment. But amazing find.

I spent two afternoons on the reference desk. That’s where you actually get a feel for the place, the flow of researchers, the materials in demand. And the phone calls. The phone calls! From an alum, “Do you have my MA thesis from 1978?” And from a local newspaper company, “How many issues do you have of an obscure scholarly journal we published in the early 80’s?” Fun stuff.

Worked with volunteers and student workers on a collection we are all jointly processing. Papers, correspondence, publications by a medical school scholar/professor/activist. Amazing content slows down my processing speed, especially when I start seeing connections to my hometown.

The place is so fascinating. There are moments walking through the stacks when I feel filled up with the spirit of the place and sense that i am able to tap into the energies and the efforts poured into it over the years. Now I am a part of that process, of a great work for my people. Can you believe all those psychic and spiritual benefits, and they pay me?

This week, awaiting jury assignment, I am browsing through “Black Bibliophiles and Collectors: Preservers of Black History.” Finally, I am one of them. I know I have died and gone to heaven.

postscript. Starting an online course this week at the Library Juice Academy. Introduction to Special Collections Librarianship. Great so far. Oh, and entering week 2 of my August Wilson study group. Check out our discussions here: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/13/sosme-notes-on-joe-turners-come-and-gone-and-wilsons-4-bs/

2nd week on the new job

Founders Library, which houses the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, was named for the 17 founders of Howard University, one of two universities chartered by the U.S. Congress (the other Congressionally chartered university is Galludet University, also in Washington, DC.).  

The founders include Oliver O. Howard, Charles B. Boynton, Samuel C. Pomeroy, Charles H. Howard, Henry A. Brewster, Benjamin F. Morris, Danforth B. Nichols, William G. Finney, Roswell H. Stevens, Burton C. Cook, E. W. Cushman, James B. Hutchinson, Hiram Barber, E. W. Robinson, W.F. Bascom, J.B. Johnson, and Silas L Loomis.  Additional officers included General George W. Balloch, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, Rev. Byron Sunderland, Rev. D. W. Anderson, Judge Hugh L. Bond, and Rev. J. W. Alvord.  

Quite a distinguished group. Army generals, members of Congress, prominent members of clergy, abolitionists, educators of note.

There was some dispute over whether to create a “normal” school, a theology school or a school of medicine. The charter ultimately specified a “University for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences.”   

Here is a photo of the iconic building (OK, I took this one myself!):

Founders Library – Howard University

Early in the week I worked on a very dusty collection that I had started the previous week. Somewhere along the way I developed a bad cold with a wicked cough, forcing me home early in the day. Twice. My boss had sympathy and transferred me to a cleaner, but denser collection until I recuperated. Flonase, antihistimine, and Nyquil helped.

The second collection was the papers of William Montague Cobb, a famous medical educator and the first black PhD in anthropology, one box of photographs and one box of his papers to start. Amazing documents, especially those on the interrelationship between physicians and the first national healthcare program proposed and supported by President Truman. Without going into too much detail, Truman was quite gung ho about a national health plan for all Americans just after his predecessor had ironed out the Social Security plan. But somewhere in the governmental process, a collusion was made between national medicine, socialized medicine, and the Cold War and the plan was stopped dead in its tracks.

I do wonder if the Clintons consulted with Truman’s work when they tried in the 90’s. And I wonder if the Obama folks studied it when they tried it 14 years later. Or are folks just making the same mistakes over and over again, creating the same wobbly wheel at each instance.

Unfortunately, but certainly a part of the process, I also came across medical papers and ghastly photographs of the Tuskegee experiment, also known as the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” Not in retrospect but while it was going on. And after, mind you, the discovery of antibiotics and their prevalent use during WW2. Really foul stuff.

The contents of the two boxes are all foldered and sorted. I hope we can create a nucleus of organization around which the remaining scores of boxes of material can be arranged and described.

Next week we’ll include a few words about the building’s architecture.

1st week on the new job

If you keep up with me on social media you know I started a new job this week: manuscripts librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. I opened my window back in September and a wind blew this opportunity into my field of vision. I went to their HR site and posted a resume and cover letter, and, long and short of it, got called for an interview in January shortly after returning from our Christmas vacation in Bissau. A week or two later, I got the offer call from HR, but I was in my car driving back from a trip to Woodberry Forest School and reception was spotty. We connected the following day and I asked for a couple of days before deciding to get my affairs in order. I reported in this week for a day of orientation, but of course Monday was a federal holiday and Wednesday was a snow day. So my first week was a short one.

The walk to Founders Library is uphill. That is a metaphor and a reality. My legs take it better than my heart, but each day gets easier. More in a post next week on Howard’s very unique history and just who these founders were.

My boss is the head librarian and curator. She’s been showing me the ropes, taking me to all the secret places where collections are stored. Let me tell you, the place is awesome, the staff is awesome, I am awe-struck by it all. Might be a standard response for week 1. There is a lot of dirty work to be done, sorting through and processsing collections, relocating pallets of boxes, and exploring campus and commercial storage sheds. Next week I’ve been advised to come in with jeans and steel-toed shoes! It goes with the territory, ossos do oficio as my Portuguese-speaking friends would say.

The highlight of week #1 was most certainly the viewing of the Daniel Payne Murray collection. By all appearances, it’s just a wall full of books in a room that has been repurposed several times. But for those who know, Daniel Murray was the leading bibliographer of books written by and about African Americans at the turn of the century (early 1900’s). He began his life in the 1870’s as a waiter in the capital dining room but reached the height of his career as the primary assistant to the Librarian of Congress. Woodrow Wilson, in repayment of a political debt that helped him get elected, pushed through legislation that reversed many of the gains made during Reconstruction, and more specifically to Murray’s career, passed a federal law which said, in effect, no African American would be allowed to supervise a white worker. Murray was demoted, but continued working at the Library of Congress for a total of 52 years. Read more about Murray in an interview I preserved on my LoC Docent blog here.

Here’s an iconic photo from my first week:

And here are some shots from the MSRC reading room:

Returning to CUA – the 11th annual Bridging the Spectrum Symposium

Yesterday I returned to Catholic University for the 11th annual Bridging the Spectrum symposium. It’s my fourth time attending in the six years of my association with CUA. Three times I have presented, either on a panel or as a poster presenter.

Going back to the campus is always like a religious pilgrimage for me. I remember the very first time I visited the campus, back in 2012, to attend an information session for the Library and Information Science graduate program. I remember being struck by the cruxifixes on walls, and by the pro-life campus event announcements on bulletin boards. I thought to myself, “Wow, these folks are serious about their religion.” Then there is the huge colorful dome on top of the cathedral, the Basilica, also known as the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. What an amazing sight that thing is, visible from all points on campus.

Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The campus became a place of refuge for me, a safe harbor from the storm just outside her gates. 2013. But that’s a different story. Maybe even a different blog altogether! Meanwhile, back to the story.

For the morning session, I attended the Information Organization panel discussion. One of the presenters focused on documenting and archiving performance, and though she talked primarily about dance (she is the archivist for a dance company in New York). Of course I applied it to dramatic production and my work with the August Wilson American Century Cycle. A second presenter, from the Library of Congresss, talked about extracting metadata from print-only serials from Africa. The presenter and I had three institutional connections: SOAS, Howard University, and the Library of Congress. Plus my previous experiences in African countries. We had a lot to talk about after the session.

I was a bit late for the afternoon session because I spent too much time talking with poster presenters and old friends after lunch. Many of the posters were quite excellent and I hope they get posted on the CUA website so i can link to them later. The ones that really stood out for me were the following: Rethinking Library Services for First-Generation Students; Creating and Using a Library Diversity Statement; Linking Liszt: Strategies for Improving Acccess to Classical Music in Consumer Platforms; Relieving Library Anxiety: the Application of Relationshhip Marketing to Libraries; Combatting “Fake News” Through Deepening Our Philosophical Roots; and Not Just Bitcoin; Applications of Distributed Databases for the Information Professions.

In the afternoon, I attended the Digital Collections sessions. Interesting presentations, to be sure, but after investing so much psychic energy into the morning sessions and the lunchtime poster session, I was pretty much exhausted. In the closing session, a guy did a parody on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, relating it to work in libraries and archives. He covered the WHOLE poem! You know, as much as I LOVE Edgar Allan Poe, it was just too much!

I ran into an old classmate who has joined forces with her mother to provide archiving and library solutions to associations. It is just the thing I am beginning to do with small marginalized black communities, helping them to preserve their community memories in the form of micro- and mini-historical societies. We had a great conversations and I was able to pick up some tips. Of course, she is making money at it and I barely meet expenses. Ha! Maybe that will change in the new dispensation. I look forward to keeping in touch with them both.

It was great seeing classmates, colleagues, former professors. A successful pilgrimage indeed!