This is the first blog entry in a series introducing LVA employees and exploring what they do day-to-day. If you are interested in what goes on behind the scenes entries in this series are collected under the tag 7 Questions. Other entries discussing the internal work of the Library of Virginia are filed under our new category “The Stacks”.
What is your background?
I was born and raised in Halifax County in Southside Virginia; I did my undergraduate work at UVA and got a graduate degree from VCU, both in American history. I was intending to move on to PhD school and a career in academia, but a graduate internship at the then-Virginia Historical Society got me hooked on working with archival records.
I moved to Iowa after graduate school and worked on the archival side of things before getting into records management about 2000 at the State Historical Society of Iowa. I took a position as records manager at the University of Louisville in Kentucky in 2002 and remained in that position until I moved back to Virginia and took my present job in 2016.
How do you explain what you do to others?
My unit, the Records Management Section, creates the retention schedules that define what records public employees have to keep, and for how long. A lot of people laugh and say they’d never want to do my job, and admittedly it does take a certain type of mindset to try to understand how large office systems and the people in them work, and then attempt to gently impose some sort of order on chaos. But in my point of view, open government is a critical component of democracy, and good open government starts with good records management. So I see our role as a vital one in supporting the public’s right to know.
What I like to say to new audiences is that, when done right, records management gives you permission to forget. I’m a big science fiction nerd, so I like to use a couple of examples from science fiction—lately, the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You”—to illustrate that a perfect and complete memory is actually a curse, because it traps you in an endless loop of reliving the past, for better and for worse. The ability to forget is what frees us to live in the present. In theory, records management should be telling an organization and its employees what is important to remember, and what can be let go. That way you can concentrate on what’s important as you work in the present and prepare for the future.
Have you held other positions at the Library? If so, what?
While I was still in graduate school at VCU, I actually worked in the Circulation Department for about two years, starting in the spring of 1996, when this building was brand new. It was a great experience and I worked with wonderful people, so when I had a chance to come back to the LVA decades later I didn’t hesitate.
How has technology affected your current job?
In numerous ways, but the most obvious one is that it has allowed the exponential proliferation of records creation. Records management as a discipline really grew out of a late-19th century office organization mindset, in which correspondence and files were created and sent and received and filed in a somewhat formal manner. I picture people doing it in Victorian garb, perhaps with their noses somewhat elevated. In comparison, in preparation for a talk I was giving once, I counted up the number of email messages I sent or received on the day before the talk. The count was 59 – one of which was spam, and seven of which were not spam but were things that I could and did delete as soon as I read them. Fifty-nine messages a day from the perspective of those Victorian file clerks might seem like a lot, but I would say it is average for a modern state office worker. But then there is the fun part: one of those messages I sent happened to be a notice I was sending out to all state records officers on a listserv, so it had 2191 recipients. That just illustrates how much easier it is to create and disseminate records in comparison to the olden days.
What is in fact happening in modern offices is that people tend to keep everything, more or less indiscriminately, and rely on internal search capabilities of their computer or email systems to find things rather than categorizing them. Meanwhile, records management theory and much more importantly public records law is struggling to keep up. We keep attempting to apply telegraph logic to a TikTok world, with varying degrees of success. Classification of records for the purposes of determining retention is still an operation that is extremely difficult to automate, so we are dependent upon human intervention at some point in the record’s life cycle. If it is not done up front, then it has to be done on the back end, such as when an employee leaves office or, say, when a Governor leaves office and sends ten million emails to the State Archives.
Describe your best day at the Library of Virginia.
My favorite days are when I get to engage with our clients, our fellow state and local government employees. Since 2016 I’ve been lucky enough to have several different types of clients: from the public schools to state parks; Soil and Water Conservation Districts, all the way to the Governor’s Office. I like trying to learn more about what they do and how they do it so we can better help them, and I likewise enjoy trying to share with them my enthusiasm for records management as a gateway to open government and as a way for them to free themselves from carrying around more baggage than they need. Hopefully I don’t leave too many eyes rolling when I make my sci-fi/comic book analogies.
What was your first paid job?
At 14 I spent the summer working in the tobacco fields for one of my neighbors, a distant family member. There were five of us: the landowner on a tractor, myself, two of his grandsons, and one other teen neighbor between the ages of 13-15. We started work pulling the leaves in the field as soon as there was light enough to see and worked through about noon; in the early afternoon we were joined by other members of the landowner’s family and put the sticks in an old-fashioned log barn. I always say that summer did two things for me: put me in touch with the work my tobacco-farming ancestors had done for generations, and convinced me of the benefits of a good college education.
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
My work-study job in undergrad was working in UVA’s reactor facility, answering phones and making copies for the nuclear engineering faculty. Lots of people apparently preferred washing dishes in the dining halls to having to wear a dosimetry badge, but it never bothered me, despite my college girlfriend’s “glow in the dark” jokes. My weekend hobbies are following grand prix motorcycle racing and doing leathercrafting; I like to make bracelets, belts, guitar straps, and such for myself and family members. And while I don’t play rugby regularly nowadays, I still can get coaxed onto the pitch and into a scrum every now and again. A couple of my (much younger) former teammates are now playing in the American Major League Rugby league, including the last guy to give me a concussion…