Friday, April 26, 2013

30th Year Reflections/41: Boston

“The president commended the work that was done to pursue justice in the Boston Marathon bombing, and underscored the need to continue gathering intelligence to answer the remaining questions about this terrorist attack going forward.” — David Jackson, USA Today

The Boston Marathon bombings were tragic and unsettling. Tragic because lives were lost or damaged. Unsettling because echoes of the 9/11 attacks reverberated in our souls louder than was comfortable. Feelings of vulnerability, unease, suspicion, and a raft of other emotions bubbled back to the surface, suppressed after so many years. We didn’t invite those emotions into our being, but they came all the same. Some of us, perhaps, shied away from the endless news cycles that followed the explosions. We didn’t want to hear any more than we had to. I, on the other hand, had a different response. News junkie that I am, I was glued to the coverage from the immediate aftermath into the days ahead, culminating with the lockdown, manhunt, and capture on Friday evening. In the middle of the week, at a hockey game no less, Bostonians showed us their true character in singing the national anthem. I cried and cheered at the same time while watching the clip on the news (and again and again online). “Boston Strong” came through loud and clear. The bombings took place on “Patriot Day.” The bombers should have known better than to mess with Boston patriots.

I find myself, nearly two weeks after the event, continuously reflecting on what all of this means. I’m torn between those proud emotions of a national anthem at a Bruins game and knowing this is the same government that gave me Watergate, Iran-Contra, and other scandals/constitutional crises. I’m torn between the courage and unwavering compassionate skills of first responders and the breathtaking intelligence sweep that managed in a matter of days to gather, organize, analyze, and put into actionable briefings, maneuvers, and tactics all the video, photographic, electronic, and other source materials. To call for, receive, and act on such a mountain of data in such a meaningful way in short order is both amazing and terrifying. I’m torn between a government that has given us the USA Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (and its associated secret courts), Homeland Security, the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the whole alphabet soup of government agencies in evidence during that week in Boston with the other side of government that offers help, assistance, counseling, and comfort during emergencies and disasters. On Friday evening I even saw one individual wearing a diplomatic security windbreaker. It was “all hands on deck” for the Boston bombings. We watched it all on the nightly news. The weight and might of our country was on full display.

When I began my professional career there was no Internet where individuals could find out how to build a bomb. There were no cell phones to use in remotely triggering a bomb. There was no Homeland Security agency, Patriot Act, or FISA. It is a much different world thirty years later. So how does my profession inform my responses to events like Boston? What tools does my profession give me to be an informed professional (and citizen) in an age of global terrorism? At the moment I’m sitting in an all-day conference on advocacy. Perhaps some of the professional answers and direction are here. We know the importance of an informed citizenry. We know the importance of intellectual freedom. We know the damage caused by censorship and secrecy. We know how to reinvent ourselves in the midst of technological revolutions. We know how to respond to a subpoena, how to react to book challenges, how to network, communicate, blog, and raise public awareness. Now, more than ever, we need to attend to what it means to be a library/archival professional, how our codes of ethics inform our actions, who to go to in our professional organizations when we don’t know the answers or how to proceed in a time of crisis. Boston and its aftermath tells me, in a very urgent way, that now is a time for vigilant attendance, advocacy, and action within and beyond our profession. Patriot Day is Librarian Day, every day of our lives.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

30th Year Reflections/40: Performance Reviews

“Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.” — purportedly written as part of a federal employee performance evaluation

I am in the midst of my annual performance review. For me, this time of year roughly equates to a visit with my dentist. But then, such a comparison would be unkind to my dentist. And it would be unkind to my supervisor as well. Both my dentist and my boss are great people. I am more than satisfied with my dentist and I enjoy working for my boss. I know that I will receive a fair, informative, and directive review from my supervisor. She will steer me right when (and where) I went wrong. We will have a meeting of the minds, agree on future goals and objectives, and map a course for the coming year. No, the issue has nothing to do with me and my immediate superior. It is more a question of timing. April, to quote T. S. Eliot, “is the cruellest month.”

It seems to happen to me every year, and always in April. For the past eleven months I will have chugged along at a fine clip, an occasional bump along the way, but nothing drastic. My performance will be fine, meeting expectations (for the most part) and doing what I am supposed to be doing. But then comes April. All at once, like some cruel joke, everything seems sabotaged, everything I thought I’d handled, smoothed out, delivered, or otherwise completed rears up and sneers “No, no, no you don’t. You didn’t do this, you forgot that, this is wrong, re-do that.” Maybe it has something to do with a phase of the moon. Maybe the conjunction of annual reviews and tax deadlines creates strange ripples in the time-space continuum. Maybe the “little people,” now wakeful after long winter naps, are feeling mischievous. I don’t know what the cause of this April sniping might be. All I know is that I’m not fond of April (except for the fact that it usually marks the beginning of baseball season).

I also will admit to a lack of fondness for the review process, although I understand and appreciate its value to me and the institution I work for. If the process is done well, if there are regular meetings to calibrate and adjust performance during the year, if final judgments are viewed as equitable and informed, then the process should be uneventful and relatively pain-free. When the final year-end evaluation takes place there should be no surprises. Each party—supervisor and supervisee—will have been in constant conversation over the last twelve months. Each will know the issues, understand the problems, chart progress, resolve questions, and document actions. The problem lies in our practice. For the most part, even though we may have created a well-defined map or protocol to guide the process, we rarely execute it to perfection. Meetings to touch base and adjust course will be missed or unscheduled. Conversations, questions, issues, or problems will remain unresolved. Lack of clarity, communication, and equitable standards will create problems. We end up with surprises, tension, and an unpleasant review experience.

Thankfully, I think we have a pretty good system. It is not without its faults, and questions continue to surface (e.g. how do you compare the work of an archivist or curator with catalogers, faculty liaisons, subject specialists, technologists, or other professional members of the staff?) In another week I’ll maybe know the answer to that question, or at least how I stack up in the eyes of my supervisor. I have documented my activities for the past twelve months. I have commented on how well (or poorly) I met the goals set for myself last year. I have linked my performance in specific areas to the expectations spelled out in my job description. My curriculum vitae is up-to-date, as is my job description. I’ve spelled out personal goals for the coming year. The immediate question is whether or not my goals help move me, my department, division, and enterprise forward in the next year. I’ll know the answer to that question next week as well. I’m hoping for no surprises and a pleasant experience. Just like a visit to the dentist.