Diplomatics and the Ballot

Today I am going to pull from graduate studies at SOAS (M.A.) and Catholic U (MSLIS) to discuss the topic “Diplomatics and the Ballot” (not to be confused with the Malcolm X speech, The Ballot or the Bullet, a topic for a subsequent blog post).

There is an arcane science known as “diplomatics.” Diplomatics has very little and everything to do with what we think about when we use the similar term, “diplomacy.” So going into that relationship might be a good starting point.

Long long ago in a land far away, conversations and in fact, relationships between what might then be considered “countries” were conducted directly by kings, or often in their place and as their representatives, princes.

There were no foreign ministers or foreign ministries (or, in the US case, State Department). There were no nation-states for that matter, not like we have today. Nationalism and the nation-state would come into existence later. There were empires and potentates, and loose gatherings of people who sometimes spoke the same language.

Those kings and princes would write letters back and forth to their counterparts. These correspondences took the form of the Roman diptych, two plates hinged together whose contents consisted of information conferring certain mutual rights and responsibilities, terms of the deal, so to speak. From here we also get the Greek term, diploo, to double, and the Latin, diploma (doubled), a twice-folded document conferring certain rights and privileges. One might infer here a relationship between diplomacy and “doublespeak,” but that is also a topic for a different blog post. Upon receipt, the correspondence required authentication to verify its source and the chain of its transmission. Over time, this practice of authentication and verification of correspondence became known as “diplomatics.”

The term, “diplomatics,” finds current usage among archivists and librarians as “the analysis of the creation, form, and status of transmission of archival documents or records, and their relationship with the facts represented in them and with their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and communicate their true nature.” The foremost scholar of diplomatics is a Canadian professor, Luciana Duranti, whose writings provided the above definition.

In this age of digital communications, the idea of authenticating and verifying the origin and veracity of transmitted information takes on a new significance.

Which brings us to part two of this talk.

The “ballot” is the instrument we use, the document, that conveys information on our political preference. We vote by “casting” our ballot, a process whose integrity is paramount and even sacred. The voting process in American politics is considered sacrosanct, and is enshrined in American art and literature.

Good Administration. Elihu Vedder, Library of Congress

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The mural to the left shows a young student, on his way to class, casting his ballot.

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Corrupt Legislation, Elihu Vedder, Library of Congress

The mural to the right depicts the voting urn in a state of disrepair and disregard, laying down on its side, with the ballots strewn on the ground, while the rich cat places money on the scale to tip it.

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In addition to being a very special document conveying information, the ballot is also a type of written contract establishing the relationship between the voters and their elected representatives. I am fond of saying a ballot is not a third grade Valentine’s Day card. It is a type of diploma, conferring the will of the voters and the responsibilities of elected officials in its exchange. As such, the chain of transmission of the ballot is almost as sacrosanct as the ballot itself. It must be authenticable and verifiable. Enough said.

However, and I must pause to mention, the one place where the vote, at least the popular vote for the Presidency, is not enshrined, is the U.S. Constitution. Originally, state legislatures elected members to Congress and the Electoral College elected the President. Later the Constitution was amended to allow for popular election of members of Congress. The popular vote was purely a local thing to elect local and statewide officials. But it was always considered sacred, special, and the integrity of its process, to be protected and preserved at all costs.

Today, we have technologies to protect the integrity of documents and we have visual clues to protect the validity of currency. But we don’t protect the ballot. And we should be able to, but we don’t. I vote electronically for the leadership of my professional association, AFSA. I go online, register, get a special password, and cast my electronic ballot and it is all above board, safe, and verifiable. But for something much more consequential, national politics, we have a process that lacks integrity, and whose instruments are neither verifiable nor authenticable. Instead, we have ballot harvesting, ballot counterfeiting, ballot box stuffing, and various other forms of document spoilage (we won’t go here into programmable voting machines that switch votes or weigh the aggregated outcome according to an algorithm) that break down the integrity of the process. This breakdown practically ensures loss of integrity in the relationship between the rights of the voters, the responsibilities of elected officials, and the promise of a fair and safe process.

I don’t know what’s next. Legend has it that a young boy approached Benjamin Franklin on the steps of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia (of all places, given the rampant practice of voter fraud in that once special city) and asked him, as he departed the convention, “What do we have, Mr. Franklin?” Franklin responded, “We have a Republic, if we can keep it.” As I wrote in an earlier blog post, and paraphrasing the poet Etheridge Knight, “I guess we goofed up the whole thing after all.” The Republic appears to be lost, the dream of the founding fathers, toast. It is historic to witness it all, to be here as this history is being made. But it is nothing to brag about.

Here is the Knight poem, from Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54239/the-sun-came

The Sun Came

By Etheridge Knight

                                                        And if sun comes
                                                        How shall we greet him?
                                                                    —Gwen Brooks

The sun came, Miss Brooks,—
After all the night years.
He came spitting fire from his lips.
And we flipped—We goofed the whole thing.
It looks like our ears were not equipped
For the fierce hammering.

And now the Sun has gone, has bled red,
Weeping behind the hills.
Again the night shadows form.
But beneath the placid face a storm rages.
The rays of Red have pierced the deep, have struck
The core. We cannot sleep.
The shadows sing: Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcolm.
The darkness ain’t like before.

The Sun came, Miss Brooks.
And we goofed the whole thing.
I think.
(Though ain’t no vision visited my cell.)

Etheridge Knight, “The Sun Came” from The Essential Etheridge Knight. Copyright © 1986 by Etheridge Knight. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260.  Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.
Source: The Essential Etheridge Knight (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986)

p.s. PA Voter Analysis Report — https://www.scribd.com/document/484579782/PA-2020-Voter-Analysis-Report

p.s. MI Voter Analysis Report — https://www.scribd.com/document/486098384/Michigan-Vote-Analysis

Merze Tate presentation at A Splendid Wake, November 8, 2020

Biography.

Merze Tate, historian and international relations theorist, was born in rural Michigan in 1905. She attended Western Michigan, Columbia, Oxford U and the Geneva School of International Studies before completing her PhD at Radcliffe/Harvard. She was the first American American woman to attend both Western Michigan and Oxford University.

Her areas of expertise were disarmament, diplomatic history in the Pacific, and decolonization. She published several bestselling academic textbooks in these areas.

Tate began her teaching career in Indianapolis high schools, got her first college faculty appointment at Barber Scotia College in North Carolina, moved on to Bennett College for Women in my hometown, Greensboro, North Carolina, where she served as department chair for four years, and transferred to Morgan State in Baltimore where she taught for one year (and where she composed the poem we will read today). In 1942 she came to Howard, where she taught for 35 years, until her retirement in 1977. Tate died in 1996. She was 91 years old.

Tate was a leading US scholar in the burgeoning field of international relations theory. Mentored and championed by Hans Morgenthau, considered by many the father of political realism in international relations theory, Tate achieved national fame as a scholar though she never received the recognition to which she should have been entitled from her colleagues and administrators at Howard University. She published several books in her specialty areas, the sales of which enabled her to endow hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships at the colleges she attended and where she taught.

Today’s poem and Merze Tate’s lasting contribution to IR theory.

Traditional IR theory is realpolitik, which is to say, simply, strong countries do what they want and weaker countries adapt, i.e., do what they must to survive.

Post WW2, theorists split among two groups, the realpolitik realists, and the liberal internationalists who believed that international and multilateral institutions like the UN and the WTO could preserve peace through the imposition of international systems with checks and balances. Later, a more 1960-ish idea purported the Democratic Peace, that modern democracies would never go to war with one another, so the goal should be to spread and support democratic governance among nations.

Tate, in the 1950’s and as a result of her studies and research, came up with a much more advanced theory for world peace, way ahead of its time, and much more applicable to the modern, networked age in which we find ourselves today. Tate’s idea was that information symmetry, preserving access to information about weapon capabilities, strategic intentions, and geopolitical aspirations, across all national boundaries, could and would prevent potential enemies from actually going to war.

Sorry for this long but necessary introduction. Here is the Merze Tate poem, found in her papers at Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, that encapsulates her theory of international peace.

If I Knew You and You Knew Me

If I knew you and you knew me,
‘Tis seldom we would disagree:
But, never having yet clasped hand
Both often fail to understand
That each intends to do what’s right
And treat each other “honor bright.”
How little to complain there’d be
If I knew you and you knew me.

Then let no doubting thoughts abide
Of firm good faith on either side.
Living ourselves, let others live;
But any time you come my way,
That you will call I hope and pray;
Then face to face we each shall see
And I’ll know you and you’ll know me.

I wrote in my notes when I discovered the poem,

“Merze Tate, a political science and history professor at Howard back in the day with a Harvard PhD and a stack of best selling textbooks on diplomatic history and IR theory could have held court any day of the week with top thinkers on asymmetric information, moral hazard, and adverse selection. In her paper she left us this little poem that distills it all to its pure essence.”

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My bio notes. In addition to a 21-year career as a foreign service officer, I studied international studies and diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), national security studies at the Army War College and foreign politics, international relations and the national interest as an MIT Seminar XXI fellow at MIT Center for International Studies. After retiring I changed course and completed an MSLIS (Library and Information Science) at Catholic University.

postscript #3 deserves its own post – #thatdarnarticle

postscript #3. I am re-reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I try to read at least a chapter each night but some times sleep overcomes me. Capt Ahab hated that whale because he had lost a foot to it in a previous encounter. He hated the “whiteness” of the whale and over time he internalized that hatred until it became a part of his personality. Because that is what intense hatred does. He blamed everything that went awry on that white whale, Moby Dick. But did that solve any of his problems?

There is this tendency to blame “whiteness” for all our ills. It’s a tendency that is magnified in these times of political polarization where Trump has become our “white whale.” I remember in my MSLIS program studying Jimerson and the social justice in archives ideas, alongside opposing views. But it was a much calmer time and nobody went beserk about it. But back to the subject at hand, “whiteness.”

As I told my colleagues over coffee, we can’t blame white people for everything bad in the world. It gives them too much credit and denies us our own sense of, and indeed, practice of agency. Same whether it comes from white voices or from black voices. In fact, it may be a bit disingenuous coming from white voices who simultaneously may be the not-so-silent beneficiaries of the very practices they profess to condemn. End of postscript #3.

#thatdarnarticle – the Frank Boles article that wasn’t at #saa19

I began “To Everything There Is A Season” on my morning commute to Moorland-Spingarn Research Center yesterday where I work as manuscripts librarian. Moorland-Spingarn is arguably the #1 respository for African American (and African) history and culture, so perhaps we have an institutional bias. The center includes a library (where I am undertaking a major shelf-reading and weeding project), a manuscripts division (where i serve proudly as a processing archivist), a prints and photographs division, a museum, and the University Archives.

I took the short route to work, as I normally do on my morning commute, so I barely penetrated the article. But I got into it enough to raise it (and all the accompanying bruhaha on listservs and on Twitter) as a point of discussion at our regular 8 o’clock staff coffee gathering.

One of my colleagues had skimmed the article but promised to give it a second look. Several had seen the uproar on Twitter and various listservs. We each decided to go back and read the whole article before giving it a full discussion. Meanwhile, I also thought it might be useful to bring in one of our colleagues who was not at the coffee meeting but freshly returned from SAA19 in Austin, so I sent to the full group an email.

At the end of the day I took the long route home, several stops on the Green/Yellow Line, followed by several stops on the Orange/Blue/Silver Line, affording me time to read the whole article and the expansive notes (I so love reading the notes!).

Let’s begin with a quick and dirty summation of the abstract (that I would dare to guess most readers never go beyond). There is a humdinger that isn’t even buried there. It’s right up front, in fact, and I really dig that kind of honesty and forthrightness. Boles cites the following three ideas: “that archivists should create a universal record of human activity;” that “social justice should inform archival decisions;” and that”archivists have a “professional obligation . . . . to work toward a more equitable future but also toward a moral one.” Then he posits that these ideas are “generally not helpful to archivists.”

OK. I am still onboard. I find nothing personally objectionable with his analysis or his conclusion. We can’t all be keepers of a universal record. Who has staff or funding to cover the whole world? We cover our small piece of it, and we try to do it with both accuracy and precision, but still we fall short, and we have backlogs in processing and in cataloging. As far as possible, we err on the side of a complete record of our subjects. Social justice, insofar as it can be defined in the time periods we cover (i.e., from antebellum abolition movements to current times), is not our primary consideration. As the young folks say, it is what it is. Finally, I think it is safe to say our first and foremost professional obligation is to provide resources to researchers, faculty and students to aid them in their studies and in their future careers. Many of them, as many students have at this historic HBCU, will help directly to build that more equitable and moral future. We are here to set them properly on the path with a few tools they can use to process information.

And that’s just the abstract. But you see where I am coming from.

Here are a few points I underlined in the text of the article:

“Local autonomy and unique archival missions define the purpose of the profession better that assumptions of universal documentation . . .”

“Archives, in the opinion of the archival community, have been and remain underfunded.”

“More troubling that the issue of money is archivists’ inability to define what they would do if given all the resources they might want.”

Archivists cannot create Ham’s social mirror that includes 1) who and what we are seeking to document; 2) a comprehensive accounting of the records of humanity (all of it), and 3) agreement on what a representative record is.

The explanation of slavery, Prohibition, and abortion and the shifting sands of what constitutes social justice in each case, either contemporaneously or after the fact. (This part of the article goes on and on and can probably use some editing.)

I love the question, “. . . . how will archivists operating in real time decide what constitutes social justice?”

“Converting an archives into the moral preserve of the presiding archivist would violate existing norms of professionalism.”

And a new German word! Fingerspitzenfuhl, appraising records via an intuitive sense of knowing what to save.

The dog whistle-ness of the “if whiteness is normative” statement. We have had enough of that in the political sphere, of silly name-calling to score points, like calling voters “deplorable” or calling opponents “criminals” and “racists.”

I read the Jimerson and the Greene articles in my MSLIS program but I don’t remember the George article. Need to go back and check that out, especially the concept of “privilege.”

I agree with the direction of Boles thinking on the profession. i.e., if you want to save the world, get a job with a non-profit whose mission is to save the world. Many of them exist. But don’t try to use the archivists profession to somehow find and exhibit your expression of that impulse. (That section of the article can also use some editing.)

“Social justice is not a core archival value.”

Just highlights. Our colleague from Moorland-Spingarn who attended SAA19 told us that the article was at the top of the agenda for one of the section meetings he had planned to attend and that emotions regarding the article ran high. But the meeting was cancelled in advance so the discussion never happened. That’s too bad that free speech and free discussion were both not allowed. I’ll have to get more details, but from here, it sounds a bit heavy handed by the planners. I have seen similar heavy-handedness in comments on ARCAN-L, and while I have never lived in a totalitarian environment (though I worked in a government agency that was run like one), I have great respect for those who have and lived to tell about it. In the most recent submission to the Canadian list I read:

A group of activists keep calling for killing the freedom of scientific debate and more generally the freedom of speech for the sake of “greater good” (e.g. that nice “inclusiveness” that excludes everyone with the opposing view, and a bit grey-ish “diversity”) – and of course it’s them and only them who are qualified, by self-appointment, to judge, sentence and execute!

Been there, seen that in Russian science until maybe the beginning of 1970s. So far the West called that kind of conduct “totalitarian” 🙂 I remember some of those times, as well as several other cases worldwide, and I know exactly to which place this “yellow brick road” leads. You can have either science or safe space, but not both.

Of course, we want to have both at the same time. Perhaps that is our “privilege” speaking?

Again, there is a lot to capture from the notes. This discussion, though prohibited at SAA19, should and must continue.

ICYMI, here is a link to the Boles article.

postscript. I was surprised to learn (as I am rather new to this profession in this, my third career) that some notable archivists (of color, dare I say it) refuse to associate with SAA or take part in its activities because of overriding impulses toward universalism and diversity that have the unintended consequence of marginalizing the very people they profess to seek to include. i wrote about this in an earlier radlibchat post here.

postscript #2. Folks in my coffee group were OK with the article until reaching the adverse position Boles took on the Ramirez article, “Being Assumed Not to Be: A Critique of Whiteness as an Archival Imperative.” I haven’t read the whole Ramirez yet, but I came out agreeing with the position Boles took. We agreed in the coffee group to disagree, pending of course, my read of the entire Ramirez article.

I have encountered my share of racism in my 30-odd years of work, but it has never seemed productive to me or to my ends to descend into name calling, to, as my colleague here says, call a spade a spade (which can in itself be considered racist if you are sensitive to those things). End of postscript #2.

postscript #3. I am re-reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I try to read at least a chapter each night but some times sleep overcomes me. Capt Ahab hated that whale because he had lost a foot to it in a previous encounter. He hated the “whiteness” of the whale and over time he internalized that hatred until it became a part of his personality. Because that is what intense hatred does. He blamed everything that went awry on that white whale, Moby Dick. But did that solve any of his problems?

There is this tendency to blame “whiteness” for all our ills. It’s a tendency that is magnified in these times of political polarization where Trump has become our “white whale.” I remember in my MSLIS program studying Jimerson and the social justice in archives ideas, alongside opposing views. But it was a much calmer time and nobody went beserk about it. But back to the subject at hand, “whiteness.”

As I told my colleagues over coffee, we can’t blame white people for everything bad in the world. It gives them too much credit and denies us our own sense of, and indeed, practice of agency. Same whether it comes from white voices or from black voices. In fact, it may be a bit disingenuous coming from white voices who simultaneously may be the not-so-silent beneficiaries of the very practices they profess to condemn. End of postscript #3.

Today at Moorland-Spingarn (July 25, 2019)

It’s been almost two months since my last blog post. Not that there hasn’t been anything of interest to write about; there has been plenty. But we have been slogging through that stage of collection processing that does not lend itself to publicity, to public airing of the process, because of the possibility of harming the final product. Nonetheless, we are coming to a turning point in the long term project, and now we can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially for the two main portions, correspondence and writings. So despite the constant labor and effort required to push this project to its turning point, I am going to pause today, get a gulp of fresh air, and survey our progress.

We have an undergraduate worker helping out, a promising young scholar with youthful ideas and drive. It makes a big difference. We started him on photographs and graduated him to correspondence. Meanwhile, I continue to plow through the boxes of documents making the first pass for sorting, preservation, and identification.

We met today with a team of scientists on campus doing related work, not with documents from the collection, but with related artifacts, in this case, bones of cadavers that comprised the collection of the noted anthropologist, anatomist, educator and physician whose papers we are processing. Here is a link from this morning Channel 9 news spot covering the work these scientists are conducting: Cobb Research Center in the news. The Cobb Research Center, expertly led by anthropologist Dr. Fatimah Jackson, has also recently published a bio piece on the subject of our collection, mentioned in an earlier post, Dr. William Montague Cobb. We plan to maintain this collaboration and make it richer and stronger.

We also plan to reach out to other parts of the University community as we get closer to completion, to making the collection fully discoverable and researchable, with the aim of giving Howard departments first dibs on perusing the vast wealth of historical information in this significant collection.

Following the rules of MPLP (more product, less process), we have decided to divide the correspondence into only three broad categories: Cobb’s work with the National Medical Association (NMA) and its DC chapter; Cobb’s civil rights and medical work with the NAACP; and everything else. The correspondence, ultimately, will be alphabetized by individual name and in some cases when prominent enough, subject or event name.

The writings are a different subject, and right now we are focusing exclusively of items written by Cobb himself, manuscripts, articles, book reviews, speeches he gave, and conference presentations. One estimate has the number at over 11,000 items. We will be streamlining that somewhat. Conferences and delegations of significance with have to make up its own category. These will be included with the collection. All the strictly NMA organizational stuff, journals, bound volumes and article reprints outside correspondence we will index, but they will be stored apart from the processed collection. We still haven’t decided what to do with what we call routine “engagements,” the many events to which Cobb was invited as an official representative and in which he took part, but I suspect they will also be indexed and stored in a remote location. There will be several boxes of “ephemera,” transactional stuff like receipts, event programs, obits, news clippings, etc., that will definitely remain with the collection.

I am anticipating completion of all correspondence, writings, photographs, and ephemera by the end of February, my one year anniversary with Moorland-Spingarn. Not too shabby a timeline when you consider this collection has been with us for decades. Decades. I met a guy today who had my job well over twenty years ago. He told me he remembered going to Dr. Cobb’s house to remove the boxes of documents and relocate them to Moorland Spingarn. That’s way too long a gap between receipt of a collection and final processing.

As an aside, I met a very distinguished lady today to whom we refer scholars who are researching her father’s papers, a long time Howard history professor. I mentioned to her that we would love to have her father’s collection in the archive. She countered that we don’t have a great reputation for processing papers in an expeditious fashion. After going through the normal spiel about funding and staffing, we gave each other that look that admits our respective faults, mostly the institution’s failures. I wish I had enough time to correct all of these organizational flaws, but my time is short and I promised my wife I would only work five years come hell or high water. That is the sadness of the job for me. It is ultimately Greek tragedy, though nonetheless, very fine drama. A sadness that is frequently counterbalanced by the joy of discovery and the immense potential for outreach and increased accessibility. That said, I intend to give it my level best effort during my tenure here.

Howard University’s history is marked by housing successive assemblages of intellectual giants (the Howard School of IR Theory espoused and developed by a group of Howard professors early in the 20th century is another brilliant example) whose academic work charted the course not only of the black diaspora in America but of American progress in general and of African leadership development worldwide. We have to be better at both preserving the documentary evidence of that magnificent contribution to the world at large, and of enabling the telling of that story through access, discovery, and preservation of that evidence. It’s a big job. A really big job.

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.

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 occasional 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.