About the National Archives

SAA Greeting, 2021

Greetings from the National Archive flagship building in Washington which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Together/Apart,” captures the essence of our past sixteen months—seeking ways to be together while physically very much apart.

Anticipating some sort of after action exercise, I early started jotting “lessons learned” notes as the pandemic unfolded impacting almost 3,000 staff members in more than 40 facilities in 17 states. Impacting also a user community of Federal agencies, the White House, Congress, veterans, genealogists, historians, professional colleagues, the general public, to name just in our audience.

The high points from my notes:

First, the heightened need for effective communication, internal and external. Sharing guidance coming from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control, weekly monitoring of infection rates in 17 states, use of our internal communication network to keep our staff informed, increased focus on external communication to keep our user community in the loop.

Second, the importance of a robust technology infrastructure. Funding from the COVID relief bill enabled us to deploy loaded laptops so staff could work from home. And as a result of our focus on digitization over the past ten years, we learned that a fair number of queries could be addressed virtually.  We are, and will be for many years, as most of you are, a paper-based collection, but our investment in digitization has served us well.I am so proud of the agility of the staff and their ability to pivot to online delivery of services—a testament to their commitment to making access happen. And a special thanks to those of you who have contributed to our Enhanced Records effort during the pandemic. It took us four years to get to the 1m contribution level, and 9 months during the pandemic to get to the 2m mark. The wisdom of the crowd at work!

Third, the importance of interagency coordination and collaboration. The “we’re all in this together” attitude played out in sharing our experience and planning activities with our partners across the Federal Government—regular communication with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian on closing and reopening plans, coordination with the Veterans Administration on expediting emergency benefit request for veterans and their families, ensuring the daily production of the Federal Register, and fulfilling record requests from Congress are a few of the inner workings of the past 16 months.

Fourth, and for me the most important lesson learned, is the need to recognize and acknowledge the psychological impact of COVID. Staff is at home dealing with child care, parental care, some directly affected by the virus, uncertain about the future, all kinds of trauma brought on by the pandemic. Our Wellness Program offered virtual support, our monthly All Hands Meetings provided opportunities to share information both ways, and I had a weekly session with all staff.  It started as a series of conversations about dealing with stress, an architectural tour of the Washington building focused on the Monumental Statues on Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, and then one week I shared a very funny NYTimes article about how Martha Stewart was spending her time sequestered on her farm in New York.  Which led into a weekly cooking video. Not quite The Food Network, but for 52 weeks I shared cookbooks and recipes—from pimento cheese to limoncello to Thomas Jefferson’s mac and cheese to Bess Truman’s pound cake.  They were posted weekly on our Internal Communication Network and generated conversations about food, sharing of recipes, tips on preparation, etc.  

So, for me, these four lessons learned which will shape the way forward. As we all think about the “new normal” I encourage us all to share lessons learned and pleased to see so many programs and presentations at this conference which fit the bill. We are all still very much in this together and our strength lies in sharing the highs and the lows of the past 16 months in creating the new normal. And I hope that next year we are more together than apart!

Have a great conference!