Innovation Means Working Smarter, Together
The struggle to achieve what seems impossible. Everybody goes through it at some point in their lives, and our Agency is no exception. So it was with some joy that I stumbled this weekend on a classic 2005 article from our magazine Prologue, “Secrecy and Salesmanship in the Struggle for NARA’s Independence.”
Penned by former Archivist Robert M. Warner, it describes the successful tactics he and his colleagues used to set in motion the Agency’s re-establishment as a standalone organization in 1985—reversing the1950 law that made NARA a component of another agency, the GSA.
At the time, employees were dismayed by their absorption into an agency unrelated to the archival mission. As Warner writes, they understood that the transfer was a symbolic act, in which “a cultural institution dedicated to preserving the greatest documents of American history became a cog in the housekeeping wheel of government.”
The passion Warner describes struck a familiar chord in me. As the Chief Innovation Officer, I also hear the same visceral discomfort, the fear that what we describe as “innovation” may put the core mission in danger.
It is frequently a paradox of organizations that what seems positive to the outside world feels threatening on the inside. But the concern is real: Given limited resources and our emphasis on promoting public access to the records, will preservation itself become at-risk?
Of course not. Innovation belongs to all parts of the agency and all aspects of the mission as we confront a multitude of challenges, including describing and digitizing our records.
When you consider it, preservation and access fit right together. The more uniformly and quickly we archive the records, the more state-of-the-art our preservation methods, and the faster we digitize and display everything, the better.
This leads to the second reason I found this article so intriguing. Not only did it show how the present often echoes the past, it also provided a roadmap for making positive change happen today. And we must transform the status quo in an environment where the agency charged with holding the nation’s most precious records is being virtually flooded, and the dam is at risk of breaking. Debra S. Wall, Deputy Archivist of the United States put it well in 2011 when she said: ”We’re going to minimize redundancies, streamline decision-making, and lay the foundation for a very different way of doing business.”
At NARA, what works to make change happen is a core group of people who believe genuinely in the vision of the future, meeting regularly without fanfare, in an environment that welcomes the free exchange of ideas. These change agents work with concerned stake-holders on the inside and on the outside—cultural institutions, members of Congress, the press, and others. The ultimate goal is clear and simple, compelling and easy to visualize. And the markers of victory are simple and dramatic progress.
I especially appreciated the way Archivist Warner ended his article. It perfectly captures the deep emotions that all of us at NARA feel about how important it is that we do our jobs right and stand up for our mission when we believe it is being threatened:
“This brief narration of the steps in the struggle for independence cannot convey the emotions involved. Throughout the complex maneuvering there were moments of great disappointment, worry, and frustration as well as elation, excitement, and joy.”
The history of the United States has inherent value to us as a Nation. It is our collective identity; it binds us as one. When we think about innovative ways to move the NARA mission forward, it’s important to remember that there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” when it comes to saving our records for the sake of generations to come.