Archives as Stories, Stories as Archives

Biographer, essayist, and novelist Tracy Daugherty’s book on writing – Let Us Build a City (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2017) – includes a passage that, in my mind, evokes the meaning and purpose of archives: “Stories, like building, are social sites and mediating spaces, meeting spots for writers and their readers, carefully constructed areas where private and public lives overlap. Entering an old building, we may hear creaks and mysterious settling – ghostly voices – speaking to us from underneath the smooth façade; may feel invisible others observing our most intimate acts. Similarly, we may wonder about the relationship between a story’s surface and its foundation: how do history and memory shape, support, or wrap a narrative?” (p. 16). Anyone who has read my blog or assorted essays knows that I connect stories and archives together in close harmony. I continue to worry that archivists are not always as creative or imaginative as they should be, opting to focus on the technical aspects of their work and missing the grander notions of what their holdings mean for society. If we think of archives as social sites, mediating spaces, meeting spots, and so forth, I believe how we view ourselves and our roles becomes more dynamic and relevant. Many archives have thought of their repositories as important places for conferences and consultations about the past and its role in the present, but, unfortunately, not to the extent where journalists, politicians, and policymakers naturally think of us. More often than not, when we are thought of it is in hackneyed stereotypes of places covered in dust or secret chambers where ghosts might roam. Despite many efforts over the past half century to engage with the public, we still have a long way to go to achieve that goal. But, perhaps, a better way to look at it is to see it as a continuing challenge and one that should be very interesting.

The Vagueness of Documentation in the Ongoing DOJ Investigation

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation about the Russian interference in our 2016 elections and the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. I watched the two-hour plus hearing, noting various issues regarding how documentary evidence was used, misused, or ignored. In doing this, I am reminded of how much advocacy work archivists have yet to do in order to educate our leadership and the public about the significance of records.

AG Sessions was asked a number of questions in which he said he could not answer because it would require answers about “confidential” conversations with President Trump. When additionally asked if he was claiming Executive Privilege, Sessions replied that that was a prerogative only the President could invoke. The Attorney General replied that he was not doing so, but that he was deferring so that the President could use this if he deemed it necessary to do so. When asked if the President had requested this, Sessions replied that he had not, but that he was following long-standing principles used by the Department of Justice. In the at times testy conversation that followed, it became clear that Sessions had not read any kind of written guidelines and was not particularly well-informed about such guidelines; the Committee requested that it be supplied with the written guidelines, although it was never clear just what these consisted of or the level of detail they might provide. He seemed remarkably ill-prepared in this area for his testimony.

All during the hearing, Sessions consulted documents that were referenced at various times (by both him and the various Senators). Some of the documents seemed to hold different import for different people, both in terms of their meaning and significance and according to the chronology of events. There is nothing particularly unusual in this (think of different historians and other scholars investigating the same topic using the same sources but reaching different conclusions), but it was also clear that there were fundamental differences in how a particular document was seen as providing evidence. For example, AG Sessions referred to the memorandum prepared by the deputy FBI Director as a critical evaluation of Comey’s fitness for duty and continuing as FBI Director. However, when asked about whether there had been another written evaluation of his work performance, there were major differences in how various Senators perceived what had happened, severe differences of opinion about Comey and the general workplace environment in the FBI, and the divergent conclusions about the primary reason why Comey was dismissed. This resulted in requests for additional documents and questions about who had said what and when.

This line of questioning also led to some additional tension between AG Sessions and some of the Committee members. When it was requested that Sessions provide additional materials, the AG replied that he would do so if it were “appropriate.” However, one sensed that the AG was not eager to comply, and it was also apparent that there was no consensus about what “appropriate” meant or who got to determine this.

Not surprisingly, the question of President Trump possessing recordings of Oval Office conversations also emerged. When asked if the AG knew if there were such recordings, Sessions replied that he did not. When asked if the existence of such recordings would require being preserved, the AG seemed unsure but tentatively replied that he assumed so. That someone in the position of being the chief legal officer for the federal government does not know about the relevant laws concerning Presidential records seems a remarkable oversight. Of course, it is an easy thing to chalk this up to the general high-handed fashion in which the Trump administration has tended to view legal precedents, traditional protocols, and, at times, commonsense administrative processes.

Whatever political persuasion an archivist might be, it is also necessary to commit to serious understanding of the laws and traditions governing the use and maintenance of public records. We also must understand that how we view such issues continue to change, as Michael Schudson, in his recent book The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), ably demonstrates. When will we see expert archival witnesses commenting on contemporary records issues and cases? It had better be soon. The future of our profession and nation depend on this.

Sword Drill: Successful Academic Writing

As I have indicated in other posts, I read regularly books about writing, always with an eye to improving my own writing and to provide advice to others (especially students). Helen Sword is an academic who has written several books on the topic, most recently Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017). Not too many years ago, she wrote one of my favorite books, Stylish Academic Writing, also published by Harvard in 2012.

Sword’s new book draws on her own teaching of writing, interviews with one hundred “exemplary writers,” and a survey of more than one thousand academics. This is the source of the strength of this publication, lengthy quotations and observations based on her interactions with these people. Sword also draws from others who written about the writing process, as well as her own experience in writing: “I still academic writing to be a frustrating, exhilarating, endlessly challenging process that never seems to get a any easier – but that I wouldn’t give up for the world” (p. 7).

For those who have read other books on writing, they will find little that is new, except for the many cases drawn from the academy. Sword considers writing regimens, preparing a space for writing. “To be a successful academic,“ she states, “it is not enough merely to have mastered the craft of writing intelligibly. You must also be creative enough to produce original research, persuasive enough to convey the significance of your findings to others, prolific enough to feed the tenure and promotion machine, confident enough to withstand the slings and arrows of peer review, strategic enough to pick your way safely through the treacherous terrain of academic politics, well organized to keep multiple roles and commitments, and persistent enough to keep on writing and publishing no matter what” (pp. 65, 67). Do I hear an amen?

Throughout the book, Sword offers advice that is both practical and straightforward. For instance, she provides a useful orientation to collaborative writing ventures and its benefits. The book is amply loaded with examples, other sources to consult, and ways of resisting failure. This is a very useful guide, one that academics will find of value for their own work. Sword is sensitive to the fact that most academics are not taught how to write, and must learn as they go. This book is a good place to start.

Russia, Trump, Comey, and Records

I watched, along with millions of others, former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. I was interested in hearing just what role records might play in all this, and I was not disappointed. There were ample references to Comey’s memos and his leaking of them, his written testimony provided before hand to the Committee, and the possibility that there might be recordings of Comey’s meetings with President Trump (although, personally, like many others, I doubt there are recordings).

I also made note of one surreal aspect of the discussions following Comey’s testimony. As I watched various CNN commentators, I noticed that at times, the background in reports from Washington, D.C. featured a view looking down on the U.S. National Archives. So, even if we have not heard from leadership of that institution or seen references to it in the news coverage, the National Archives nevertheless loomed in the background of the present scandal. Repeated references by reporters and commentators to the Watergate crisis of forty years ago (and it is amazing to me how many individuals involved in that earlier investigation are still around) and the matter of those tapes nevertheless affirmed why the citizenry ought to be more aware of the importance of federal records laws and practices. And none of this makes any difference, or ought to, because of how you personally view President Trump and his administration.

It was a bit surreal. It got more so for me, as I finally got around that evening to watching the 2016 film Denial about the Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd case that played out in the British courts about historian Deborah Lipstadt’s characterization of Irving as a Holocaust denier. It was riveting cinematic interpretation, even if you get a much more complex sense of the case and the individuals involved by reading books about the case by Lipstadt, historian Richard Evans, and others. What I was struck by was the sometimes-eerie similarities (notably, the accusations of lies) between this case and what was happening yesterday and in the daily coverage of the investigations about possible Trump campaign collusion with Russians in the 2016 elections. Now, I didn’t go looking for this – I was merely taking a break from watching the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates blow games. But the constant reference in the film to lies and documentation almost seemed like it could apply to contemporary political news.

Now I need to go back and watch the 1976 movie All the President’s Men about the Watergate crisis. Former Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper recently stated in a talk in Australia that “Watergate pales” in comparison with what is now going on in the Trump-Russia investigation. History will determine this, provided we have the adequate documentation held by archivists and their allies. What archivists do is important.

Distractions

In a brief essay in the May 29, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, writer Hallie Cantor describes the process of writing. At one point she considers one aspect of the writer’s craft that is seeming more odd in our super-connected world: “”In the afternoon, I typically take a long walk. I do not listen to podcasts. Why would I? The music of the natural world is podcast enough. As you may have noticed, a running theme in my process is that I am not afraid to be alone with my thoughts, Not al all.” Hollie Cantor, “The Writer’s Process,” New Yorker, May 29, 2017, p. 27.

Armed with our various smart devices, cable television, and other technological wonders of our age, we do, in fact, seem to be afraid of being alone. To be a writer or a scholar, one must, at some point, be content to be alone, allowing reflection on our world and what we are trying to write. While I try to watch and read the news, I am concerned with constant “breaking news” every half hour or more, that is often more distraction than real news. Involved with teaching graduate students, I have become even more concerned with how disconnected many of these students are from reading, in a careful and reflective manner, scholarly and professional books (or, in fact, books of any kind).

Despite decades of predications about the demise of the printed book, books continue to play important roles in society. They inspire, agitate, inform, amuse us – and more. They make us think. In recent years, a long stream of books about particular books and their influences have appeared. Two recent examples suggest our continuing fascination with books. Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (New York: Viking, 2017) is a lively account of how Darwin’s book played a role in American philosophy and politics on the eve of the Civil War. Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (New York: Penguin, 2014) is a “biography of a book,” focusing on its censorship and political battles and literary and popular influence. Both studies attest to the fact that books matter and words are important.

 

Will Twitter messages engage us in any way similar to that of the power of books? Twitter, and other such social media and stuff is what we need to get away from in order to be alone with our thoughts.