So how’s that blogging thing working out? Over the last few months, as part of the Open Government initiative, NARA has launched multiple blogs in addition to NARAtions, which started up last summer. AOTUS is the Big Guy’s blog. Prologue: Pieces of History promotes discoveries within NARA’s collections, Records Express focuses on federal records management and NDC looks at records declassification issues. All have had some good content but are off to a slow start (uh, kind of like ArchivesMatters).
No surprise, tho. Building a personal blog isn’t easy. Authors may have ideas or a general vision for what they want to accomplish. But it takes time and effort to establish a niche, gain a readership, even to settle on style or goals. Sometimes the goals are obvious, other times less so. If you start off low key, with little word of mouth, then you can’t expect a huge readership right off the bat. If you don’t have a central place to say, “hey everybody, I’m talking, join the convo, whatcha think?” it’s going to take time for the word to get out.
If you write about quirky, arcane topics, with lots of inside baseball references, you should expect to settle for and be satisfied with a small, niche readership. (That’s me.) Your own time and attention are going to flag. Real life gets in the way, other projects take priority at times. Even the best known and most useful archival bloggers, such as ArchivesNext, go through periods where they’re posting frequently and ones where they aren’t. That’s ok, they’re volunteering their time to benefit us, the readers, when they’re blogging.
And then there’s that whole moderation thing. You have to have clear standards for rejecting someone’s post. Not liking what he or she says or appearing to act politically (whether you are or not) is problematic. Word gets around, “the blogger isn’t fair” or “is just looking for acolytes.” Yeah, comments might differ in value in your eyes, but sometimes you have to roll your eyes behind the scenes and go ahead and post a comment. Yet you have to have some ability to control spammers and trolls.
Within the government, it’s even harder. Federal Computer Week recently asked, “Open Government: Will it Pass the Twinkie Test?” One thing not addressed in the article was candor. Another is the structural imbalance in government use of social media, especially blogs. Archival bloggers know more about “citizen archivists” than citizens do about them. Nope, not saying archivists know researchers’ needs better than they do, nuh-uh. NARA definitely benefits from throwing open questions on priorities, process, requirements, and needs. And looking for ways to partner with people.
What NARA can’t and won’t do, however, is explain all of the hurdles it faces. What is and isn’t its role in records management at the departments and agencies and at the White House. What are the sources of footdragging and resistance to good record keeping at those places. What actions stem from ignorance, what from fear, what from arrogance, what from political considerations, what from ordinary things like lack of time or miscommunication or bad coordination. (Some of the factors that affect record keeping are mundane. As Arian Ravanbakhsh recently noted at Records Express, an examination of apps used by federal agencies found that “Records management was not a driver in deploying e-mail archiving applications.”) How different internal and external cultural and environmental factors affect efforts at transparency. Even what people mean by transparency.
The other factor is, government peeps generally don’t show up at private individuals’ blogs to take part in convos on issues raised there. So that avenue for establishing trust relationships largely is closed to them. Sure, there have been a few news stories about sock puppetry, but in Fedland, people are, and often have been directed, to let the official Point of Contact comment “on the outside” and to give the official message. (Most corporations and academic institutions operate that way, too.) That message may be carefully crafted and coordinated before release, especially when there are legal or political considerations.
Institutional PR shops still largely operate outside the world of social media. They may tweet about events and releases. But when it comes to getting across more detailed messages, they still largely focus on getting a letter to the editor published in a newspaper or on its site. Or, for the more prominent, to get an op ed placed by the agency chief. Give and take at personal blogs by stakeholders and professionals? Very rare.
So there are gonna be misunderstandings. And calls by individual bloggers for removal of this official or that, as we saw with the Clark-o-drama, as if that would resolve complex issues. And unforeseen reactions on listservs, such as wagging fingers at the archivists, when AOTUS writes about the researcher who “discovered” a Revolutionary War journal. Chances are, NARA won’t address these things publicly. Decades of crafting careful messages and keeping an eye on who can help you and who can hurt you isn’t going to be overturned overnight by a move to new media. Some of it never can or will be overturned.
Change takes time. And sometimes it’s incremental. Yeah, tough to be patient, at times. But sometimes, often, that’s what it takes. Keep working at it, Mother NARA. And keep talking and debating, stakeholders.