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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 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!