Nixon Now: Divisions on Display

by Jessica Chapel

The entrance to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
The Entrance to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

You can’t cut an American president out of history. How, then, do you represent a president driven from office in disgrace and his complicated legacy? During a recent California trip, I took a detour on my way from Los Angeles to San Diego to ask those questions.

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened in Yorba Linda — a one-time farm town in Orange County — in 1990, 16 years after the 37th president became the first president to resign from office. Unlike every other president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon did not plan to donate his library to the National Archives. It was a privately run institution supported by the Nixon Foundation, holding the president’s diaries and his pre-presidential papers.

Congress controlled his administration’s records, more than 44 million pages of documents, plus photographs, film — and the infamous tapes. The 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Act gave custody of the presidential files to the Archivist of the United States, a move intended to thwart any destruction of records from Nixon’s scandal-blighted presidency.

Feelings about Watergate and Nixon’s record were still running high when the library opened and museum director John Taylor postponed making two Watergate tapes available. Historians complained about the withholding of materials as much as they did the slant of the exhibits and the presentation of the one Watergate tape incorporated into a display, a decision that Taylor defended as a matter of serving visitors.

“The fact that we are the Nixon library does not deprive us of the ability and indeed the responsibility of placing the information we present in some historical context,” he told the New York Times. “Some people use the word ‘cover-up,’ and what they’re saying is that in fact they do not wish for the Nixon library to put forth its interpretation of this document.”

In 2007, after decades-long legal wrangling, the National Archives assumed administration of the Nixon library and museum, and the presidential records were moved to Yorba Linda. The transfer culminated in a wholesale renovation of the exhibits that closed the museum for a year, a joint project with the Nixon Foundation. The museum reopened to the public in October 2016.

One year later, I was waiting with a dozen other early birds on a Sunday morning for the library’s doors to open. I wanted to see how the revamped galleries told the story of a president whose name has become synonymous with abuse of power, a politician who has been both pop culture joke and high culture inspiration, the subject of numerous biographies, and a man who attempted to craft his own myth from the first sentence of his 1977 memoir: “I was born in a house my father built.”

The conflict in how Nixon figures in cultural memory is matched by a seeming conflict in how the dual keepers of his library and legacy manage outreach and advocacy.

On the Nixon library social media channels managed by the Nixon Foundation — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat — posts tend toward Nixon’s acknowledged successes, White House events, and happy family moments. Most of the comments on these channels are positive, but there are instances when followers misunderstand who is posting and why: “If you knew the month and date why didn’t you include it instead of all those unnecessary hashtags?,” one commenter asked on Instagram, seeking the original date of a photo. “We are not an archival page,” the account replied.

Earlier this year, a Nixon library tweet was interpreted as trolling president Donald Trump, prompting a public rebuke from the National Archives.

The Nixon library social channels were also used to question the work of filmmaker Ken Burns, whose Vietnam War documentary aired on PBS in September. “There is no factual support for anything in this sentence,” read one Instagram post, referring to a point on page 347 of the companion book to the film.

Both the National Archives and the Nixon Foundation maintain web pages for the library and museum. The .gov site is oriented to researchers, with information on newly released materials and upcoming events. The .org site is a slicker home for the foundation’s other programs in addition to the library and museum. It was the Nixon Foundation that used its site to respond to Nixon biographer Jon Farrell, who — citing a note written by Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman that Farrell found while doing research at the Nixon library — wrote that Nixon subverted president Lyndon Johnson’s peace efforts in Vietnam late in the 1968 presidential campaign.

Misunderstanding a monkey wrench,” answered the foundation, arguing that Farrell’s interpretation came down to a dash.

Walking through the exhibits, I catch Nixon’s 1972 reelection jingle: “Nixon now, Nixon now, more than ever, Nixon now.” The galleries are bright and interactive. In the Nixon in China room, visitors can pose for pictures with cutouts of the president and First Lady at the Great Wall. At another exhibit, visitors can lift the earpiece of a phone and hear segments of Nixon’s taped calls. Even FDR taped conversations in the oval office, the exhibit tells me. “Tough choices,” blares another, inviting me to struggle — via touchscreen — with the sort of decisions the president had to make.

I come to the Watergate gallery, and if it’s no longer a darkened room occasionally haunted by Haldeman, it is still an unwelcoming room with text-heavy exhibits. I’m not sure who it’s for — amid all the words, the impression is of a reckoning avoided.

Read more:

James Worsham, “Nixon’s Library Now a Part of NARA,” Prologue Magazine, Fall 2007.

Andrew Gumbel, “The Last Battle of Watergate,” Pacific Standard, December 8, 2011.

Christine Mai-Duc, “The ‘New’ Nixon Library’s Challenge: Fairly Depicting a ‘Failed Presidency’,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2016.

KJ Rawson, Founder of the Digital Transgender Archive

KJ Rawson, Founder of the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA)

by Erica J Hill

K.J. Rawson is the director of the Digital Transgender Archive, an online platform providing digital versions of transgender historical records, born-digital records, and holdings of other repositories around the world. Despite not having professional training in archival studies, he took several Library and Information Science classes in his graduate program. K.J. Rawson is a professor of Rhetoric, English, and Gender Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has a Master’s Degree from University of Colorado-Boulder in English Literature focusing on Queer Theory and Critical Race Studies. He received his PhD from Syracuse University in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric.

The inspiration for the archives began when K.J. met historian Nick Matte, at a conference and discussed the challenges they faced when researching transgender history in archives. These challenges include the repositories knowledge of their materials and the environment of the reading room. The archives addresses the barriers in terms of accessibility. Archives may have documents that pertain to transgender history, however, it may be difficult for one to travel to a physical location and find materials.

The DTA functions as a union catalog, virtually bringing together materials that are relevant to the understanding and study of transgender histories. As the collecting policy states, the term ‘transgender’ is used to refer to a “broad and inclusive range of non-normative gender practices.” As such, the DTA considers transgender as a practice rather than an identity, allowing the archives to include a broad range of trans-historical and trans-cultural materials. The focus is on materials created before the year 2000.

What is special about the DTA is that, although there are no physical archives, K.J. has created a lab where student volunteers work to digitize and describe materials. Students also participate in the archives’ social media presence. The posts highlight materials in the archives, including newly added collections. K.J. uses his network of archivists, professors, and researchers, whom he has met at conferences and speaking engagements, to acquire materials for the archives. He uses skype and email the most when working with collaborators.

With a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, he has hired a fulltime project coordinator to oversee the day-to-day activities of the archives. The College of the Holy Cross where KJ teaches, also supports the mission of the archives. By incorporating the materials from the DTA in his classes, he demonstrates its importance as an educational tool. Involving students in using the archives has led to more college support and feedback on the usability of the online platform and has helped streamline the functionality of the site.

The archives has a 10-member advisory board including individuals in the trans community who are located within and outside of Massachusetts. Part of the success of the archives is K.J.’s willingness to ask dedicated archivists and collaborators for their advice and insight. He believes that now is a good opportunity to make the resource available to educate people and organizations about the issues that transgender communities face.

The challenges of the archives include, meeting the expectations of stakeholders and completing projects with grant funding. While people from all over the world can access the materials online (provided they have a device), most information and description of holdings are in English. Efforts have been made to acquire collections in German, Spanish, Portuguese and several other languages. Another challenge involves acquiring materials without knowledge of who holds copyright. This prompted K.J. and his team to create a policy where materials that violate someone’s copyright will be taken down immediately. Direct materials from creators are preferred because of these copyright regulations.

The archives is an advocacy tool in itself to aid trans communities that are committed to education as a tool for social change. It exists to transform people’s perspectives of trans communities in history and present-day. It also has the capacity to inspire other archives to represent trans people in their own holdings. The possibility of physical exhibits based on the materials found online creates a push for users to advocate for the acquisition of materials related to trans history and culture. This push enables trans related museum projects to begin in non-exclusively trans institutions.

One project K.J. is looking forward to the digitization of a collection out of Berlin and establishing connections and relationships with archivists and trans community members in Venezuela.

To browse the Digital Transgender Archive, click here. To read K.J.’s research, including journal articles and a scrollable timeline of the history the term “transgender,” visit his website, here.

[edited from original posting, 11-11-17]

Jade Pichette, Volunteer & Community Outreach Coordinator

Jade Pichette, Volunteer and Community Outreach Coordinator, CLGA

by S.S.

Meet Jade Pichette, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA). Although Pichette’s background in social work might make them an outlier in the archival field, they see this atypical professional experience as an asset. Pichette’s work in nonprofits, and especially their work in anti-oppression advocacy and education, strongly informs their approach to archival work. In pursuit of an organizational mission to serve as a resource and catalyst for progress for LGBTQ+ people, the CLGA works to collect, preserve, and make available materials created by or about the LGBT community. Through their outreach work, Pitchette works to ensure that CLGA’s mandate: to preserve the history of marginalized people – is fulfilled in a way that is equitable and inclusive.

When asked what their ‘average’ day at CLGA looks like, Pitchette’s response resonates with those familiar with community organizing: “I don’t have one.” CLGA’s outreach efforts and volunteer activities bring the community into the archives through diverse and dynamic programming, from leading neighborhood walking tours to curating themed exhibitions.

Pitchette’s work has allowed the CLGA to develop strong partnerships with community organizations, including with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, which has recently worked with the archives to create timeline of LGBTQ history in education. This material reached the Federation’s 7,000 members across Canada. Going forward, the archives and the Federation plan to collaboratively design workshops to help teachers integrate more LGBTQ history into the elementary level curriculum are underway. This partnership harnesses the strengths of both sides – the Federation has curriculum design expertise; CLGA brings their LGBTQ history expertise – and is focused through Pitchette’s anti-oppression framework, emphasizing an equitable lens that traces history beyond dominant, mainstream narratives.

Without outreach that is “explicitly centered in anti-oppression and anti-racism,” says Pitchette, community archives can be vulnerable to “reproducing only the perspectives of those who work or volunteer,” and in turn representing only those perspectives in collections. By reaching out to non-white and non-cis-gendered communities in acquisition, and by helping update collections policies to demonstrate an explicit interest in records from intersectionally marginalized communities, Pitchette has worked to ensure collections represent a diversity of viewpoints. Aside from collection development work, Pitchette also focuses on the reference interactions patrons’ have with CLGA’s board members, staff, and volunteers on a daily basis. By instituting mandatory diversity and inclusion sessions and a strong volunteer policy, Pitchette aims to foster a welcoming environment at CLGA, and create an organizational culture that values inclusion.

CLGA currently seeks proposals for a consultant to aid in their selection of a new name. Their current name – the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives – can be seen as at best unwelcoming, and at worst exclusionary, of people who don’t identify as specifically “lesbian” or “gay.” CLGA’s stated goal of the upcoming name selection indicates a desire to “better reflect [their] mandate to support the archives of LGBTQ2+ people.” This name change can itself be seen as a form of outreach, aiming to identify the organization to those whose history it seeks to preserve.

Ultimately, Pitchette sees inclusive outreach as imperative to the survival of community archives, as well as one of the major challenges in the archival field. They feel that the profession as a whole needs to come to think of outreach as integral to the work of archives – and as something that is directly connected to funding. New professionals coming through MLIS programs can help push the conversation to the fore of the profession, pushing for recognition of outreach as a necessary component of a functioning archives. Outreach is essential to help people – especially marginalized people – see that their histories are valuable, an essential step towards preserving those stories for the future.



Meet Jessica Lacher-Feldman!

Jessica_Lacher-Feldman, Head of Special Collections for Rochester University

by Natalia Gutierrez-Jones

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jessica Lacher-Feldman, who is the Assistant Dean of Rochester University, as well as the Director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation. Jessica discovered her affinity for archives during her undergraduate education at University at Albany, SUNY, when she began working at the New York State Museum, which also held a library and archives. At this point she had not thought about pursuing library science, and had been focused on her education in history. Through both graduate classes while obtaining her first masters in history, and the influence of archivists and museum professionals at her job, she began to see the appealing connections between history and library work. Particular outreach events at the NY State Museum, such as ‘camp-ins’ for schoolchildren, made her more passionate about the positive effect of engaging with cultural heritage, and exhibits in particular – a focus that has been central in her career.

Jessica’s current position as both Assistant Dean and Director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation requires her to balance the grounded work that must be accomplished in the archives with the need to act in the interest of all of the universities libraries as part of her broader role. At her previous job at LSU, Jessica had the responsibilities of Assistant Dean without the formal position, and she has found it helpful to have the official title in her leadership. The balancing act of Jessica’s two roles will be eased in future months as the library hires two new curators and creates a new outreach position for Special Collections. Her average day starts early, arriving at her office around 7 am to have some time to herself before a day full of meetings with the dean, assistant directors, staff she supervises, regarding collection development, exhibits, projects, and grants. On top of that, she spends time keeping up with email communications, particularly with existing and potential donors. Recently her evenings have involved background reading for a class she taught at the University, and preparing for a TED Talk style presentation about her work in archives. Writing articles and working on another book project also occupy her time outside of official work hours.

Her outreach and advocacy work involves myriad tasks, including applying for grants, connecting with donors, and planning and producing exhibits. She tries to intervene in the more traditional programming and give a new approach to involve the whole community and get people excited; a recent project involved yarn bombing! She finds experimentation, creativity, and a mixture of branding and surprises to be the best approach to public programming. Jessica also tries to bring in outside institutions, such as the allied community organizations Historic Brighton and the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House.

Jessica’s passionate approach to outreach and advocacy means that she is constantly representing her profession, and constantly working. She finds archives essential to democratic societies, and wants her colleagues in archives to understand that outreach and advocacy are not a separate, extra component of the work, but a fundamental part. She hopes to convey her energy and commitment to those involved in outreach projects so that they also feel fully engaged in the work and the successful outcome. Jessica also would like to see more artists in the archives, bringing the documents to life through performing or visual arts. She sees these projects as important opportunities to emphasize the success of output fueled by research in the archives.

One challenge Jessica sees for outreach and advocacy work is, as she puts it, “bandwidth.” Staff can become stretched thin with responsibilities and Jessica wants to ensure outreach is appropriately prioritized. She sees this challenge also as an opportunity to shift our philosophy to encompass advancement through outreach. When she needs help with a project, she will engage community members who specialize in the area that needs support. She sees this asking as creating a connection and in a sense, deputizing a community member who will thereafter feel like a part of the archives’ success. Another challenge Jessica has faced is working with donors and collections that were controversial, and having to negotiate with senior administration as to how much publicity and community involvement these collections should receive. Jessica believes archivists have a responsibility to be willing to work with a collection regardless of personal feelings towards the materials. Tension can also arise in her position due to competing priorities as to the target audience of the archives. There needs to be an institutional focus to support faculty, but also collection policies that appeal to external and international researchers and bring in a varied audience.

Jessica has written a book on archival exhibitions (Exhibits in Archives and Special Collections Libraries, 2013) and this form of public programming is important to her. She sees exhibits as a foundation for any way that we approach outreach and advocacy, as they can create a narrative or platform that can be built off of in various ways. Exhibits can ground our message in the actual materials. They give us an opportunity to formulate what we need to say and to consider who our audience is ahead of time. Furthermore, they have value in that there is a lasting component to exhibits, and evidence that becomes preservable, especially in the case of digital exhibits. Jessica’s powerful work ethic and passion for cultural heritage make her an ideal advocate for archives.

Exhibits in Archives and Special Collections Libraries by Jessica Lacher-Feldman