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John Fleckner

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John Fleckner is senior archivist at the National Museum of American History.  As chief archivist, 1982-2004, he established the Archives Center and managed a staff of up to sixteen professionals.  He has served on the Museum's Collections, Strategic Planning, and Exhibits and Programs Committees.   Fleckner is a past president and fellow of the Society of American Archivists.  Topics he has written on include Native American archives, business history, archival surveys, and the archival profession. 

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Transcript of the Colloquium

Adriana Cuervo – Well, good morning and thank you for coming here today, this rainy morning, so unlikely for me but oh well, and it is my pleasure today to introduce you today John Fleckner senior archivist of the Nation Museum of American History and past president and fellow of the Society of American Archivist, who is talking to us today about 'How to grow your garden and building sustainable archives programs.' This is the second lecture of our four lecture series of the Library Colloquium. Please keep your ears and eyes open, there are two more coming in the month of June. So [with,] I'll step out of here right now, and John Fleckner, you take over. Thank you.

John Fleckner – Thank you very much, Adriana. [I'm really] Thank you all for coming. Thanks to those of you who invited me. The opportunity to be here today as a birth-child of Illinois, [Hopeworth] High School, class of 1959, son of a University alumni. Although, I'm not sure if she actually got a degree here. She did go to graduate school here. I remember her stories of that. As long time midwesterner, it's nice, very nice, to be back. When Adriana asked me for a title for my remarks, this garden metaphor kind of came into mind very quickly. I shot it off in an e-mail, which is not always the smartest thing to do. But when I took it home and tried it out on my wife, who is both my best critic and really a gardener, she waxed on about planting and nurturing, weeding and pruning- so I thought, well, okay, I think there's something here. All of that work that she's done has really made our tiny, urban backyard, about quarter the size of this room, to a lovely natural place that evolves with the seasons, and that changes over the years, and gives us a real sense of pleasure. Now, I'm not going to press the garden metaphor too far, except to emphasize that building an archives program is a long-term process too. It's not a one-time project. The archivist/gardener must imagine what the work is going to look like some years out from the present, when the new efforts have grown to fruition. The wise gardeners know, or they learn by heart or experience which plants are suitable for the soil and for the other environmental conditions and they know that it's a labor of love and a lot of hard work.

Today, I'm going to talk about building an archives program that and about something, building holdings for that program. I'm drawing on my experiences at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and to some extent previously at the Wisconsin Historical Society and some other institutions that I've worked with on a consultant or advisor basis. I'm going to start out with the first consideration- why is the archives being created? the question, why am I here? Talk about establishing the basics. About building credibility and visibility. About exercising leadership. And then I'm going to introduce some case studies about program growth based on my experiences at Wisconsin. I'll talk about our advertising history center project and about our music archives projects. And if there's time, talk a little bit about evaluating and adjusting as the program goes on. That's kind of the overview of what I wanted to do, but I really invite your questions and comments throughout and these are really topics for discussion and dialogs. [Not] There's no definitive monologue on this, at least there's not one for me on this topic. So, I would really enjoy the interaction with folks. I have created a questions box here. If you've got questions now, you came here thinking 'well, you know, I want to ask him something'- shout it out. I'll write it down. If it's something on..that's going to come up in the course of my planned remarks, that's fine. If it's something you just want to make sure gets in, touched on, it'll be there. So if you've got something now, I would love to put it up here. Ok, well don't hesitate, if it comes up, you think of it, let me know. I can be fluid in this. I want to be. In this same spirit, let me add that 20/20 hindsight is a lot easier to achieve than 20/20 foresight. And a lot of what I'll say, which, some of which makes me sound like wise and smart is really stuff I learned from experience, sometimes painful experience, with a sprinkling of classroom and readings and so forth. I just wish I'd known half of it, or more than that of it at the time. And also though I'm speaking from the perspective of an archivist developing a broad, new program, I think these ideas about programs and growing them are really applicable to an inherited program and they're applicable to managing part of a larger program. And think, really just to managing the day-to-day work of an individual professional.

'Why am I here?' could be an existential scream from a figure in an Edward Munch painting, but for our purposes, it's the first question that an archivist should ask about making a program. It's a simple enough question. And at the National Museum of American History I think I quickly found that it had many layers of answers. The ostensible role there was to create, basically from scratch, a program to manage something like five thousand feet of accumulated archivable materials- business records, personal papers, ephemera, historical photographs, recordings, this is the stuff that had been accumulated by the museum's curators between 1964 and 1982, 1983, when I was hired to create a program. And of course, floundering in a sea of accumulated stuff is often the impetus for creating an archives program. We didn't have a Sousa anniversary coming up so we couldn't draw on that, but there was all sorts of stuff that needed care. And even though this seems like an obvious step if you gathered like five thousand foot of material, you know, probably filling a room close to this size, not everybody was convinced of this. Many of the curators in the museum, who where in essence the faculty of the institution, remained skeptical.

I also learned that opportunities sometimes just happen. Shortly before I was hired, the curator of coal mining died very suddenly. Well, it turned out he had been, for reasons that I never entirely understood, the custodian of a very large collection of historical advertising material and advertising ephemera. So, all of a sudden, these materials became available to put in the archives center, since the person's who's they where his, wasn't. And in fact, these became core collections in our holdings. They are to this day the most heavily used, frequently used materials in the archives center.

In the early months and years at the center I also began to understand the institutional culture that shaped the implicit expectations of what the archives programs should be. I realized that building collections, not just custodianship, what my peers and what the museum management valued. And I also learned that the Smithsonian operated very much on the 'every boat on it's on bottom' principle, which is essentially, you're given minimal resources at a base but lot's of latitude from how you build from that. So in sum, the answer to 'why am I here?' was- partly there was a direct mandate, partly it was up for me to kind of discover by asking, hopefully discretely, questions and inquiry, and partly left for me to create on my own, and, of course that was the fun part.

While I was ruminating about 'why am I here?', I was also busy working on establishing the basics of the program. And I was fortunate in that regard because I had had some experience at Wisconsin where we had a system of regional archives programs, regional archival collections there, located on the campuses of the university around the state. And I was involved in establishing three of those. So on a smaller scale I had actually helped to set up some smaller archives programs. So I wasn't starting entirely from scratch at this effort.

The first very basic was a staff. The museum over the next several years transferred, I think as many as five different people from within the institution to the archives center. For many, this was an opportunity in their professional career, for at least one least one person it was sort of a last chance in a professional career. It's really this point the story of building the archives is a 'we' story- about what we built not an 'I' story.

The museum had identified a facility for us. It was a former storage area adjacent to the military history hall. The folklore of this location was that there had actually been an army tank in there previously. And that was very good to know because it probably suggested that the floor-bearing weight was going to be adequate now that we put in shelves and stacks. And I always took consolation in that. Somewhere I've got a photograph taken when I first arrived at the museum for the job and it's actually not slightly smaller than this. There's two desks, two chairs, there's a palate of cartons over in the corner filled with records from the Park-Davis pharmaceutical company's research labs that had been recently acquired by a curator of medical history. So from that beginning we cobbled together some new shelving; we located surplus furniture; we changed the locks; we even found a working IBM Selectric typewriter, which met all of our information technology needs at that moment. I don't know how many of you...some of you are familiar with an IBM Selectric typewriter, yes? ok. If you're not you can ask, it was an important, if not a breakthrough. It was an important advance in the world of information technologies at that time.

Most importantly, though, at this time in the development of the archives center we began to establish intellectual and physical controls over the collections that we had inherited. We were fortunate really that there was no legacy cataloging system. The stuff was just there. And that the Smithsonian was just in the midst of planning and developing its first online catalog that would also include archival records and archivists were working with librarians in the design and development of the system, and we became part of that effort. On the in-house side, we developed some simple systems for recording, locating, processing collections. One very important accomplishment and one that was not achieved in a day was to integrate our collection's care and management activities with the museum's overall registrarial operations. In the end, we added a few paperwork steps, but essentially we implemented standard archival practices for the control of these collections, and this was critically important because museum practices, which I'm sure our colleagues as registrars, and even some as curators, really thought was the appropriate way to go, those practices just don't work for managing archives. They work for managing relatively smaller collections of discrete, individual items, not for archives, which are really meaningful and have to be managed on a group and collective kind of basis.

And as we began to understand our collections and how to find them we also began to attract research users, and to establish a public service operation. We fixed up a room for researchers, we developed user policies, registration policies, we set up reference services, schedules, and staff schedules for providing reference services. And so pretty soon, within a couple years, we started to look like a real archives program.

Building credibility and visibility, the second place, the next place I'm going here, became possible because our program was slowly beginning to get a reputation for being accessible, reliable, and professionally competent. But word-of-mouth was going to be enough, it was pretty clear in a very compartmental institution like the Smithsonian, and like our museum, where there are a lot of competing demands for attention and interest and resources. So we undertook a number of activities, and I'll just mention a few of them here. There's nothing mind-breaking and particularly creative, but these were the kind of steps that were important for us to take this next step of credibility and visibility.

We held a series of open-houses for museum colleagues to introduce people to our facility. We were located in a fairly obscure place in a very large building. And so this brought people, introduced them to what we've done with the facility, and how our operations...seeing is a lot better than just reading or hearing about something. And eating is even a stronger reinforcement. So coffee and doughnuts aren't just for cops, they're also good for curators and administrators and colleagues.

For at least five years, we produced an annual report on the status of the archive center, which we distributed pretty widely within among colleagues in the building and more selectively within the institution and professionally. Some narrative prose and some statistics, we chronicled our growth, our holdings, our major achievements. I had brought this idea from my work in Wisconsin where it was a routine part of the program. You'd did reports like this on an annual basis, but at the American History Museum at the time no other units did this. Not even the museum itself did an annual report. So, I think this had more of an impact. I also was influenced by Maynard Brichford, which whom I assume many of you know and Maynard's reports, which over the years I had seen as a way of explaining his program.

We began to garner some internal resources to enhance our visibility. With a grant from the Smithsonian's Women's Committee, we produced a nicely designed brochure that described the program. There was some year-end money that funded a redesign and a relocation of the archives center entrance, and created a small exhibit area. The entrance to our area was sort of obscurely back with a door that looked like it was a secret hiding place. And we created a more formal entrance with a glass window and so forth. The display cases, which we had initially created partly because architecturally they set off the door that told you the longest flat wall was actually a door because it's flanked by these display cases. We thought about it was a kind of introduction to archives, a little bit about what are archive materials. But it turned out to be a major attraction to potential donors to the collection. They saw this, even though it was a small and clearly temporary displays we'd use for recent acquisitions. This was a very attractive feature to people to be exhibited at the Smithsonian. I've never actually quite understood this intellectually, but viscerally it's clear to me that this was a really important thing for people that somehow just that what they donated, I understand it was important for them, but the notion that it not just be in those horrible gray boxes, kind of kept away like funeral objects, but indeed presented to the public was a really important emotionally, part of their donation process.

Now, I'm not going to give you a narrative history of the archives center from this point on you'll be relieved to know, but I do want to make some observations about the subject of leadership and then move into the case studies. We often describe the head of a program as an administrator, a manager, a supervisor, and these are all very critical roles, but I think most important and certainly inextricably intertwined with this is the leadership role. This is what really distinguishes this function and ultimately about its success or not. And yet we don't often acknowledge this role. I know certainly for myself, from my own experiences really only after several years on the job did I realize that this really was part of what I was supposed to be doing. Leadership wasn't in my position description, it wasn't in my annual program plans for evaluations, but clearly that's what the expectation was of me and increasingly what my expectation was of myself in the program.

I think about leadership in terms of both functions and personal qualities. Most critically, of course, is the vision thing famously. We expect leaders to identify and articulate where we're going, to create a picture, a sense of momentum toward a goal that is both imaginable but also challenging and yet inspiring. Leaders seize upon opportunities, they deflect the challenges to pursuing these opportunities, they inspire confidence and motivate performance, and they make course corrections as the internal and external environment changes over time. And I hope that as we talk about some of the case studies these are some of the points that will sort of emerge from those.

There are a lot of qualities and actions that are part of leadership function. I'll offer here a list of seven, a series of aphorisms that I use. These are not scholarly findings and I'd be interested in what you would add to this list or what you'd detract from it or subtract from it, it my detract from it too. Number one, know yourself. Learn your strengths and weaknesses. Find your own voice and presence. I know that I've learned that I'm comfortable operating without a lot of formal procedures or policies. I like the excitement of new projects and activities. I procrastinate. And I'm impatient with bureaucratic processes. Number two, appreciate diversity. Recognize that others are not like you. And value those differences in how they make the whole enterprise stronger and smarter. Be humble. Knowing myself, warts and all, has been a first step towards modesty. I've become even more humble over time, I think learning and experiences like when other people found me unfair with my dealings with them or when I put audiences to sleep as a public speaker. I'm also humbled by knowing that the success of my program really rested on the work of a dozen others, whose effort and care that they are motivated to give to the undertakings have all humble making. I learned that people are the most important resource the non-personal budget that I controlled was maybe five percent of the total resources that the archive center had available. So helping a dozen people work as productively as possible was my greatest challenge and in many ways the biggest success and problem also the source of maybe the largest failures. I learned that some folks need more routine and others less. Some want manuals, guidelines, directions and other people resent those. Some folks appreciated extended dialog and discussion, and other's get bored and restive. Some people want regular feedback and approbation, and other's are internally motivated and they blush at even the faintest amount of praise. I don't think you can actually overdo praise even if they do blush. But there are huge differences among us on all of these scales. Number five is keep on learning. I learned a lot on the job but I did also learn, I learned from workshops, professional literature and management leadership. And from active participation in national and regional professional associations, very important to me. I struggle to keep up with changes in the profession as I think everyone has. At, of course, particularly at the transformative effect of information technology. One of the last couple of years, particularly in the past year when I retired from the full-time work, I've been doing a lot of teaching, and it's been really a pleasure to go back and review some of the fundamental ideas about archives, the things I was introduced to in archives education courses in 1970 and '71. And to see how much more, how they mean to me differently today...looking back at a career of experience of doing the archives work has been very stimulating. Number six, presenting or representing your program are crucial. This has been a challenge for me personally because I'm basically a shy person and I was handicapped by spending many years in graduate school trained to find complexity, to find qualifiers and qualification in almost anything. Age has helped a little bit to overcome this, but I've also learned that I have to ask more directly for things that I want. I have to identify and hit home a few key points. When my task is either to impress or to convince somebody about something. And that I have to have at hand at least one 'God and Country' speech about archives, 'the historical record, our treasured heritage and the great good that our archival work is doing.' The seventh and the last one, is that you are what you acquire. And I learned this of [Jerry Ham] who was my boss at the Wisconsin historical society and who was a mentor really, although I wasn't aware of that, and something of a legend as well. The records that an archivist acquires whether they're transferred in an institutional program like the University archives or business archives or whether they're donated to a collecting repository, these records are the archivists legacy to the future, along with the quality of professional care that's devoted to them. The quality of the acquisition will shape the nature and the extent use of these materials and ultimately the reputation of the archives. Now, of course, the archivists reputation barring some terrible malfeasance or massive display of ego, will be lost to history, but that's another matter.

So seven thoughts on leadership, what would you add to those? what would you add to those? Know yourself; be humble; people are the most important resource; keep on learning; you are what you acquire; presenting and representing those program. What else should go on that this? What's on your short list of leadership qualities and actions?


John Fleckner – yeah


John Fleckner – Working in a team. Absolutely. And that was a real, that was a learning experience for me. You don't learn that in graduate school in history, where I spent too many of my formative years.

What other? what other? Yeah?


John Fleckner – Trusting. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's a really good point it, part of that, part of what makes you humble is that it is a trust relationship you can't, you know, you know, you can't make them. You've got to trust that they will.


John Fleckner – [writing on chalkboard] Teaching. but yeah, Empowering. It's this 'we' business. [inaudible] for sure. Yes, Scott?


John Fleckner - [writing on chalkboard] yeah, yes, I could write down just risk, but that's, it's the informed risk that...that promotes those balances of judgement and now well, no matter how well informed there will be, mistakes will be made. I will makes some mistakes. I don't need to say so. I sort of joke about that in the archives business, the mistakes I've made are buried in dumpsters somewhere. 'Ooooh maybe we really should have thought better about those records that we could have been saved' or alternatively they're buried somewhere in the offsite storage where if I were willing to take a little more risk, I might have the obsession to have buried in the dumpster somewhere. But, that's for the next generation. It's not really a risk with, whether the next generation dumps it and blames it on the old guy. So, that's good.


John Fleckner – umhm


John Fleckner – Yeah, hmm


[writing on chalkboard]

John Fleckner – Yeah, that's a really good one. I'm, I'll put that up in the question box there.


John Fleckner – Yes?


John Fleckner – umhum

[inaudible, writing on chalkboard]

John Fleckner – umhum, yeah. Some, some of the case studies will get it down, I can see that the...

[possibly other voice] - Yes, sir. will you go and ask for one and I'll give it to you. [possibly Fleckner resumes] And why didn't anybody tell me this before hand. I don't know where that place is. Don't worry, I won't let that secret down.


John Fleckner – yeah, Advocate, boy...painless advocate. Absolutely critical role and you know, again one that you kind of have to grow in to. I mean, not all of us. I'm going to step back and say, I think many of the skills of leadership, the skills of leadership are learned and learnable. Probably all of us come with some of them and none of us come with all of them. Some of them are relatively easy and painless to acquire, and some are difficult and painful and take a lot of training and effort. And maybe some of them are like, you know I'm going to have to figure a way around this one because it's just not one that you'd be able to do. Leaning to be an advocate. First of all acknowledging and recognizing that role and learning the skills that it takes to affectively be that advocate are really critical.

This is good. Anybody else want to get anything else in here?


John Fleckner – Thank you.


John Fleckner – So a couple of examples of collection, acquisition, and documentation initiatives that we've undertaken in the American History Museum. These are kind of good stories just for the telling, but there are some themes that weave through them that I want to highlight. One of them being again, opportunities sometimes just happen. Recognizing them as opportunities, not just problems or issues that have to be dealt with and seizing on them isn't just a matter of luck, however. Careful attention to detail and execution is really essential, successful execution is essential. But an eye on the big picture, on the institution and more broadly is just as important in the long run.

About the time that the archives center opened its doors, this is '82, '83, the Pepsi-cola company concluded its 75th anniversary. Despite this long history, like many, maybe most American corporations the company had never bothered, really, to collect much historical material. It had really neglected its history, and had almost nothing to document its past. So what it did, for this 75th anniversary, was to go out and find some collectors of business ephemera materials, and buy back examples of packaging and advertising and point-of-purchase marketing materials, and the same similar kinds of stuff. Put a little display in the corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York, some nice glass cases out there, and they had this up for the 75th anniversary. And the anniversary is over and so it's time to find a home for this stuff. Well, who would you look to but the Smithsonian, right, the Nation's Attic. I'm just embarrassed to use that term. But other people think of us this way. So myself and a colleague make the trip up to the corporate headquarters. And we see this sort of collection of old-timey advertising stuff. And it is actually a nice body of materials. And it would be a nice complement to the kind of advertising ephemera that we already have, major collection that we have of it. But at some point, and whether I don't remember the moment, but at some point we realized there's a really interesting business history at Pepsi-cola. How does this company, which was one of a half dozen small time soft-drink bottlers, they were all in the #2s competing with Pepsi-cola, how does this one emerge from that ranks, and become the number two and even equal with at that level? Well, what happens, a large part of that's a story of advertising in the television era. And that, you know, these little give-aways and magazine adds and stuff at the grocery store, really hardly do justice as a record as the history of this really interesting business story. And the collecting, trying to collect that kind of television era commercials would really help to extend our advertising holdings from the print into the modern TV era. So this really made a lot of sense. We proposed an oral history and documentation project grant from Pepsi-cola made it possible, you know as they say, 'made possible in part by a generous gift from' Pepsi-cola company. So we hired an oral historian, some project assistants, we got an outside ad hoc committee of outside advisers to help us think about this effort. And we developed a conceptual framework that really became the basis for a series of ongoing projects.

Advertising is ubiquitous in our consumer culture, but in many ways, self-effacing. and invisible to us. We only see the surface of it. We would, in our projects, we look inside to try to understand marketing strategies, creative techniques, business impact, even cultural meanings of this stuff. We completed the project from this early conceptualization stage through several dozen interviews and collecting a collection of television advertising, commercials. And got it on the shelf. Even, more or less, within budget. We even created a single case exhibit on the history of soft-drink advertising drawing, not just on Pepsi, but on other materials, advertising materials we had. We did a video, created a video-loop associated with the case showing some of the advertisements we collected. We even got the director of the museum, who had been a former TV journalist, to do a brief intro to the video-tape. This was a time when you could throw together a small exhibit and put it on the floor of our museum without twenty-seven different committees and fourteen levels of bureaucracy to go through all the approvals for this sort of thing. It couldn't be done today.

The Pepsi project seemed so hugely successful to us, and the opportunities to replicate it were the other advertising campaigns seemed so obvious that we moved ahead with a great deal of enthusiasm. And sorry to say, in retrospect now, minimal amount of actual planning. Our next project documenting Marlboro cigarettes advertising was our largest, most controversial, and probably the most significant project that we did. It combined an advertising campaign that in some aspects re-imagined the American West and American masculinity in popular culture around the world. Combine that with all the legal and moral issues of selling an addictive and carcinogenic product. And it's still the most heavily used of the collects that we created in the course of this work. Right from the begging there were teams of lawyers from Phillips-Morris going through all the interviews and looking at all the stuff. And there were teams of lawyers from the other's, the anti-tobacco side looking through all the stuff for their interest. But we had tried throughout it to say we're not competent to do research on the health effects of tobacco. We are, think we are capable too try to understand something about the nature of advertising for this kinds of materials. And people can make of it what they will. Which they did.

Not long into our advertising documentation projects, we realized we needed some sort of structure to sustain this work. The Center for Advertising History was an umbrella term for our more expanded efforts. And I eventually included a staff of four- we had someone to direct, to actually direct the program; an oral historian as a project assistant; and an archivist. We had a permanent advisory committee of distinguished advertising industry executives; a sprinkling of academics. We undertook about a dozen projects, most of them focused on individual advertising campaigns. Although we did a couple of other different kinds of things. Projects included: Alka-Seltzer, who remembers 'pop, pop, fizz, fizz?

[inaudible reply]

John Fleckner – Yes! How could you remember that? That's amaz... Popular culture and advertising is, can be a very time-limited sort of think. At any rate, Campbell soup, which produced as long as I can remember no memorable advertising at all, but really interesting, wonderfully illustrates mid-20th century notions of gender and family and food. Appears in this advertising, that advertising. Federal Express, advertising with humor to introduce a service that no one knew that they absolutely, positively needed. And as I said, I don't know, ten or twelve altogether.

In addition to these specific projects, the center was a vehicle for reaching out and collaborating with other archives in the advertising industry area. We worked with Bill here to develop a fiftieth anniversary exhibit for the advertising council, the advertising council's archives is here. And weren't most of things on exhibit were on loan were from here, weren't they, Bill? [inaudible response] yeah [inaudible] yeah, yeah. We put that on in the museum, and then you had them here, didn't you? Yeah, that's what I remember. You did an exhibit. [inaudible] Yeah, yeah, yeah, Probably our most ambitious effort was co-sponsorship with Duke University's Special Collections. And with funding from the National Store Publications and Records Commission, a national conference, and document the advertising history. We brought together archivable repositories from some major advertising agencies, and also some of the folks from the advertising industry trade associations. We produced a public report that talked about the need to document advertising history, and made some recommendations about the kinds of materials that were appropriate for preservation of advertising history materials.

The Center for Advertising History succeeded in building substantial, permanent archival collections and gaining a lot of visibility for the archives center program. It helped to document an important aspect of this country as a consumer-based society and economy. Unfortunately, to paraphrase the poem William Butler Yeats, 'the center did not hold.' Its demise taught us many lessons. We needed to devote as much attention to fund-raising infrastructure as to the historical and archival issues involved in this work and here we were really handicapped by the fact that the Smithsonian had just beginning to develop its development capacity. At that time our museum had one person, you can say a one-person development office, and this was a person who sort of worked the ranks up, the ranks through administrative assistantship and she'd done personnel work. And she was not a development professional. And we really suffered from the lack of expertise in that area and we didn't really even realize it.

But the advertising industry, at this time, also was evolving, and it was evolving from a mix of old, established, well established firms and some smaller, creative upstarts often built around a founding genius. Although evolving from that into a small number of publicly held huge, international conglomerates that were really more focused on bottom line profits. And then, on top of all of this, and again this is in the '90s, the industry and the wider economy were suffering an economic downturn, and it make projects just like as we were proposing, just seemed to be unaffordable luxuries.

So, it was a great disappointment to me personally. I took a long time to step back and try to learn some lessons from it, instead of just greave over it, but we moved on. And in fact, the Archives Center, in the late '80s, so there's overlap, a time overlap in here found itself in the midst of another major collections initiative. Through the efforts of a senior Smithsonian executive, through the political entrepreneurship of a museum curator, and the passion for jazz of a member of congress, the estate of Duke Ellington, the great composer, came to the Smithsonian American History Museum. There were some wonderful artifacts band stands, batons, bibles,, some of Ellington's colorful suits and shirts that he wore on stage in the later stages of his career, some great stuff. But really, his musical composition and Ellington composed something between two to three thousand pieces of music in his lifetime. Those compositions and arrangements and the business records of his orchestra, and the recordings- these were a real prize. And this was enormous. This was three hundred cubic feet of material.

By very good fortune and maybe not entirely intentionally, congressional funding in this instances for the Smithsonian to purchase this estate also an allocation to the museum to support the collection. This was a huge boon, of course, to us in the archives center because a portion of this came to us, but certainly not an unmixed blessing. There was enormous publicity, as you might imagine with something of this scale. But also with it, expectations for quick access to materials that were highly complicated, seriously disordered, and had never before been seen by scholars or other researchers.

Promising of funding, of this congressional funding, the promises came a lot sooner than they actual arrived. In our pot to spend, in the arcane federal hiring and purchasing processes delayed all of this work even further. The saving grace, in this moment came in the form of a project manager, who's been working on an exhibit team, who's familiar with the museum, and his short term money had just expired. Se we were able to bring in FitzRoy Thomas. FitzRoy is a native of the British virgin islands, and spent part of his career in other areas of the Caribbean. And he once told me that one of the reasons he could work so effectively at the Smithsonian was that in many ways it operated like a third-world country. Which is a lesson that I never really learned how to do that, but it helped me be maybe more patient with the bureaucratic processes. At any rate, we essentially pulled together a team of four people; we reworked our physical facility; we began the long task of creating intellectual and physical control over this new treasure.

The Ellington acquisition also offered us opportunities to go beyond custodianship, even as challenging as that was. Our curatorial colleagues developed a major in-house and a traveling exhibition on Ellington. Related to this acquisition came new funding for a part-time jazz repertory, orchestras, Smithsonian jazz master orchestras that was playing some of Ellington's as well as other big band music. And we began an oral history project in the archives center to record interviews with stores, several stores, probably forty to sixty interviews with Ellington, former Ellington musicians who were then, very much, a dying breed, and with other associates with Ellington in the business or, way. We, that is our archives center, and our music colleagues also began to see this Ellington collection as the foundation for a larger collecting initiatives in the area of American music, especially jazz but not exclusively. We looked at the other established repositories in this area- Yale, Wyoming, North Texas, and others. And really started thinking about what is a niche for us, what would we identify what would be strengths and what would be a focus for our program, and we took special interest in musicians as composers, Benny Carter, Roy Gidman, for example, whose papers we acquired. We were looking for collections that were rich in artifacts as well as archival materials because this was a museum based program. The Ella Fitzgered request was rich in both of those.

What we had done, really, was really in essence from the bottom up was to complement our museum's traditional strengths and musical instruments, which to complement that instrument collection, the collections that were the document, the music, and the making of the music, and the makers of music itself. So it was an extension of a core, which was great collections of interments, but broadening this notion of instruments more broadly to music. And we just kind of did it. And nobody said, no.

Our music collections were also the first collections in which we began to experiment with the application of new information technologies. For example, we, with the assistance of an outside consultant, we began cataloging the Ellington music manuscripts at the title level on a PC based, databases system, which was our first roll at that. Later exporting this data into the institutions online public access system, which was a good thing because the database that we chose had never been adequately supported by the firm that we acquired it from. And most important, we had Scott Schwartz came along at this time, and really enabled us to exploit the potential of the then relatively new web. Scott, working with a shoe-string budget, and mercilessly, you'll like this, mercilessly exploiting interns, and graduate students and other inexpensive labor, Mercilessly! [laughter], designed our first web pages; he mounted our first finding aids; he built an prize-winning, online exhibition about the Duke Ellington collection; to mention just a few of his contributions to the archives center and to the music collection there.

And that program, those activities are ongoing. The program didn't coalesce in the same way that our center for advertising history did. But nonetheless we continued to acquire materials previous collections that are there are used.

The me ask, if you have any questions? any follow-up or any more you want to ask me more about these two examples, this Pepsi-cola, center for advertising history business and this music collections? Bill?


John Fleckner – Well, one of the, the question is what happened for this center for advertising history. The center was a name. Many people imagined that the center for advertising history was a building somewhere on the Smithsonian mall. The center was the name for a group of people and a program of activities within the archives center focussing on advertising history. I guess you think of they did two kinds of things. They acquired collections of advertisements and created oral collections, oral histories documenting advertising. And then they undertook projects like the national conference and some other education outreach activities. When the center died in essence. When the funding ran out to support those people, the collections remained and remained to be heavily used. The archive center is there and we continue to collect advertising history materials. But there's no separate administrative group, and it doesn't have the same level of outside visibility. It's simply integrated into the overall operations of the program. Does that, Bill, does that get at what you were asking? yeah. Any other questions, I knew that there where, yes, other questions, yes.

[barely audible, but not distinguishable]

John Fleckner – In one sense, the question is, one answer to a part of this questions is where is does this impetus for collection development come from. The Smithsonian's got a big name and a lot of people who image they have things of significance. I can it the Smithsonian and say, 'I'd like to offer to you', and then it goes two ways: 'I'd offer to you for sale' and then all of a sudden, 'uh, do you have any idea how small our acquisition budget is for this museum?' And if it's archival material it's almost always, 'well thank you for calling.' So we're offering to donate this and in no doubt, 80% or 90%, for us and for most archives, is 'thank you, but that really might be more appropriate somewhere else.' But the broader question, what areas that we want to develop in. I mean making those strategic choices is really critical. I mean, we've got broad guidelines. One of the problems, if you're the National Museum of American History-like, that kind of covers a lot of ground. There are some areas that we just have decided we don't do. We don't collect the papers of politicians. We could. In fact, we've got wonderful collections of political advertising in one parts of the museum and a whole exhibit on the American presidency, but the country is full of archives that collect papers of politicians. So there are some things we just don't do. And then the other areas that we really developed turn on, well the advertising one was really building on existing collections. Those advertising materials were really there when I arrived. It was a strong collection already. The history of advertising is a significant aspect of American National history. And again this is trying to say, what works in a National museum, rather than in a regional or local focus, certainly advertising worked in that...the National Museum of American History began as the Museum of History and Technology. In 1980 it become the Museum of American History, which broadened the notion. But the history of technology is a major strength. It's obviously a national story, and we have strengths in that.

A third case study that I could have talked about was the development of our program of history and invention, where an outside inventor. He and his family have donated over time now about 40 million dollars to endow a program to study the history of invention and to encourage invention and creativity in others. And a piece of that is collecting the papers of inventors. And studying the issues around documenting invention. So we haven't, and maybe if, you know, somebody came to us and said, 'we really want to' Well given that it's the American History Museum, as I said, there's almost nothing that could, you know, within the bounds of the nation-state that could fit under a heading, and if somebody wanted....I don't know is that heading? Ask me more, or, Scott, do you want to follow-up on that, or?


John Fleckner – Right, when we acquired the Ellington collection this created the appearance of a competitive relationship with the Library of Congress, which, you know, a big Godzilla in Washington. The Library of Congress has, obviously has, strong collections in the history of music. As far as I know, this became an issue at the highest levels. In my judgement based on what know about this... I was further down the chain between. But in my sense this developed as a competition between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, because the testosterone guys at the very top of those institutions found became a matter over which they could clash. I'm sure that the professional colleagues at the Library of Congress, would love to have that collection. But I don't think they would have raised to sort of, like a major class of issues. I mean this eventually involved the General Accounting Office investigation. And I had people sitting, interrogating me in my office about what I knew about this, which, fortunately, was not very much. In the end, it didn't encourage us to work harder to build those professional relationships with the Library of Congress or to reinforce them. We had some already. We're in the same business and know each other, but we try to make more of a point to more explicitly coordinate our activities and communicate. And parts of our bosses didn't get, had to read about things in the news papers that might make them unhappy. You know, follow up on that if you want to, if there's more to tease out of that.


John Fleckner – I think that, there was a clearly a public interest, there was a public interest issue with regard to the competition between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. And narrowly that was, those institutions were federally funded in large part; shouldn't be bidding against one another with federal monies that drive up the cost of acquisitions. As far as I know that was not in fact the case with the Ellington collection. That's not how the purchase price was established. But that was important and we wouldn't want to be doing that. I think, my own feelings about that was is that there's so much American music and so much American Jazz that people who have collections as soon as they want to donate or and they want to donate or sell ought to explore the possibilities. And they ought to find a repository that's the best fit for them. If you think that major exhibitions and exhibition space and exhibition, public programs then obviously the Smithsonian is a major museum complex. And if the prestige and the status of the Library of Congress and its holdings and the extraordinary capabilities of that institution outweighs or is what ways in your measure then that's a place that you should do that. So I think that, the notion that we're fighting out there tooth and nail amongst ourselves over these things is, I don't know. I never came from that school of collection building. And I think it's sort of foolishness.

I saw some other hands. Yeah?

[inaudible, lengthy, female voice]

John Fleckner – The question is about, I don't know how much of this was picked up, but was about item level description and the level of subject and the kind of access to it, and I guess to a ... I think it's the...The answer ten years ago, that I think that archivists don't describe items, essentially. And today, in fact, we do have more item level description typically when we have digital images of items that have been web published. But for most archives that's a tiny, that's a fraction, the tinyest part of all the holds. We have in the archives where I work, it's nothing unusual, we've got twelve or, I don't know, seventeen thousand feet of records. I have no idea of how many items, of billions and billions. We have ten or twenty or thirty, maybe, fifty thousand items online or something. It's negligible. The larger question though is, Okay, we've got Campbell's soup advertising that relates to issues of gender and family and representations of, indeed, children. That subject access would all be at the collection level. That collection includes posters and ads and oral history tapes and commercials. And so those terms we would probably use as subject terms for that material because it is so prominent in there. Now obviously within this larger, there's probably an ad that shows a car, some guy in a truck with a can of Campbell's soup. But we're not going to have name 'trucks' as an access in the Campbell's soup collection. Somebody is going to have to think, 'well, hmm I wonder if they ever did any advertising that was...” Come and look at the stuff. So that's really how we would think about that. It would be quite rare to be doing that more intensive kind of description that you're describing. Except when we're putting an item off digitally.

Some other? I saw some other hands. Ask about any of this.

We've got a few minutes left. Let me talk about how to pay. Well, I think I've sort of gotten at that. In a sense that in one instance, the Ellington, we actually actually got a direct congressional appropriation. In other cases, these were project based activities, in which we got individual, corporate gifts, that underwrite them. The history of invention which is the Lumelson center for the study of innovation is technically it was a foundation grant from the family foundation to create an endowment for this program. And so, whatever ways we could find this money...the Smithsonian can't take grants from the Nation Endowment for the Humanities, unfortunately, or the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and I think think not from the IMLS either. So those are three areas that most archives and libraries would be looking for money and we are excluded. We were, we have been able to and did receive a grant from the Save America's Treasures Program for preservation of a huge photographic collection. We have started developed digital access to many of those images. Inviolate[?] accessioning. Oh, my. The immediate answer about the accessioning at the American History Museum is that as a Museum, operating within a museum, context and particularly Smithsonian Museum context, the accessioning is so frightening from a public relations point of view, that it almost becomes impossible. It's not that it's never done. But it frightens people so much that the effort to overcome that even at, and these are perceptions that change over time, but I know for many years this was the case. Even something like duplicate collections of sheet music, which in any library setting would be like, 'yeah, you know, you know what to do with it, just do what you need to do.' You wouldn't think twice about that. It becomes a kind of public relations for us. Well, do you want a dealer selling this as 'from the Smithsonian Institution'? Do you want it, can you make it totally anonymous? What if it gets out anyway? That be even worse. The Smithsonian hides the accessioning of treasures. It's just so fraught with, and operating on the program level. You say, 'how much more am I going put into this? Can't I take these things and put them in some back room out of the way? Way up on top of that shelving, nobody can reach and can't reuse it for anything. And just put that stuff there. And label it carefully, duplicates to be accessioned, dot dot dot, someday maybe.' And forget about it. That's kind of the unfortunate difficulty of it.



John Fleckner – There is within the museum and within the institution there are clearly laid out collection management policies and practices and procedures for doing all of this. Absolutely, yeah. I really don't want to give that impression, for doing this legally and by-the-book and absolutely. And obviously if you were going to do this you would need to do, to follow those. And obviously that takes some of the curse off the public relations issues. But in the end, it doesn't...Imagine it as a headline in the Style section of the Washington Post, it doesn't matter, you have to follow all the rules and all the procedures, but this is a really dumb idea. So that's really part of the hesitation. But thank you for pointing that out.


John Fleckner – Processes and procedures, which probably were put in place to exactly to avoid this kind of frightful public relations, or maybe they were put in place by some bureaucrat who liked process better than outcome. We won't speculate.


John Fleckner – Oh no, that's a question, that's an inside story that is too complicated and tedious for me. I told you bureaucratic processes and that's one of the reasons I retired from this business so I don't have to talk about bureaucratic processes [laughter] Much more interesting things that you're interested in?


Are there other? Yeah?


John Fleckner – The kinds of things that I was talking about sort of gray listing, putting out of mind would be things we wanted... things that we believed should be de-accessioned and really didn't have substantial value. I think the larger question is, how do you provide...You've got lots of stuff that hasn't been fully processed, fully organized, arranged, described to the levels that you would like. And how do you keep that from being hidden? And the short answer is really, we have reengineered and reprocessed our procedures so that we are preparing descriptive information about everything that comes in the door. Now, obviously the level of description and the say, accuracy or the comprehensiveness of describing a collection when you've only looked at it for a few hours is not going to be the same as after you spend weeks processing and organizing this material. But nonetheless, we have some notion about when we get something. What it is? Why we got it? What's in there? How much of it there is? And we're putting that in the catalog record, and putting it online. And I think our goal is like four weeks or six weeks or something after it comes in the door. And that's been a really important step forward. And one of the things I was, where were we, where I didn't go, but this is fine, was evaluating and adjusting. And one of the things we did in the year 2000 was bring in an outside evaluation team to help us there. How are you doing here? And we had four people. And in fact, it was led by Rich [Sarry], who started his professional career here, at the University of Illinois - his archives career. And they gave us thirty-three pages, single-spaced recommendations on how to improve our program. And one of them was, 'Take steps to make information about unprocessed collections more readily available.' I mean, this isn't exactly a blinding insight, but sometimes that's why you get outside professionals to come in and say, 'Alright, you know you should do this. Now just do it, damn-it.' And that, many of the recommendations were if you've got good consultants, that's the kind of recommendation that should emerge. So, we made a real effort to do that. I think another...well, anyway I don't think this is a response to you question but it went off in my mind, is that given the difficulties of the accessioning, given issues of back-log and describe things, we try to be much more rigorous in what it is we acquire. And part of that rigor is to go out in the field and look at it. And make sure that's really what we want. Now, obviously, you're in the field, going out in the field is expensive and time-consuming, but we've certainly found it's made a big, a very important part of our work. Be more intellectually rigorous, but also on-the-spot, applying that intellectual rigor on the spot, rather than hauling this stuff all over Washington, and saying, 'Oh, yeah, you know, gosh, now that I think about it maybe we really don't want it.' or 'maybe we should have looked carefully in that box to see that, gee, that's not the same thing in the box before and the box after.'



John Fleckner – Well, space is, yeah, space is really an issue. How much space does the accession material that should we want to the accession take up? It's not a big enough issue to really press as to push it. Like I said there are some shelves that you can put things away that you wouldn't put anything else. Some corners things can fit in, sort of inaccessible and obscure, but they're not damaged or anything. And since nobody's using this material, since it really isn't useful, it doesn't get wear-and-tear. It'll live there. It'll be fine. So the answer is, it's not a big enough issue to actually try and solve the problems involved and try to actually do the right thing. Just don't do the wrong thing. I guess that is the injunction.


John Fleckner – I think that the issue of space is certainly critical. It's one of those existential things. It doesn't get any bigger, and, on the other hand, I think an archives program that's not adding materials. It's got to be lifeless. So you've got de-accessioning, that's something that everybody should think about. And then I think... Here's what I think. That you have to be seriously out of space in order really for your institution to be thinking about, 'Alright, this is urgent.' Now obviously if your institution doesn't think what you're doing is important then there is no urgent. So obviously part of this is making your case for your program and what it's doing. But you need to be stacking things within the fire codes, and, sort of, protection of materials you're responsible for, and sort of, you need to be stacking things in the isles and double stacking them. And you need to be writing memos. And you need to be creative, I mean, my colleague Craig Orr[?], whose kind of my space guy, is, I mean he has many other qualities not just this, but he is doggedly determined. He's the kind of guy who can see spaces and say, 'You know, I can fit six more boxes in here if I reconfigure this way, get another piece of shelving to go in here.' I mean he's dense packed dense, and yet acknowledging that these are all things that need to be accessible and used. I mean, no point in being stupid about it. Stupid is not, stupid is just stupid. It is true compared to tanks and giant things. For example, in our off-sight, the Smithsonian has a big off-site storage area where its stores great big fire-trucks and big tanks and stuff. So if I say, 'I need some space for 500 cartons.' That sounds a lot like, for you and me at home I can't tell my wife I need 500 cartons in our spare bedroom, but in a place that's used to storing tanks and so forth. You put up some industrial shelving, fill space pretty effectively, and 500 cartons doesn't sound like so much. Well, you've all done that here, right? Didn't you used to storage, did you archive storage in cow barns, Bill, or am I imagining? Or is this another University. [inaudible responses] We've never, I can tell you that the Smithsonian off-site storage, some of it is sort of World War II generation quonset huts. And every time there's a strong wind or something, you you...I don't actually want to go tell any more. You can all. You're all tax payers. You can all imagine the horrors. We don't need to, although I gather, just heard there was a press release from the Smithsonian saying that the, this Night at the Museum movie that was a big hit. Well they're doing a sequel that's going to be Night at the Smithsonian. So, maybe the royalties from that will help us with our planned new storage facility.

Okay. We, You've got to get out of here at 1:00, it's must be, it's close to 1:00. Unless anyone, anybody got a last, last , we've covered everything, last. Well, thank you very much.