Category Archives: systems

Atheists Believe in Systems

When Richard Dawkins sued webmaster and forum moderator Josh Timonen for embezzlement a little over four years ago, it made an impression on me, then newly out of graduate school and fresh from my internship in the Archives Division of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. It was a painful episode for me of course, being that I considered both men to be friends, although I was not pleased at how the forum at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science had been abruptly scrapped by Josh. Richard ultimately dropped the suit.

Later, when I had the opportunity to be an archival consultant for the aviation museum for which I had volunteered for years, I asked to be the assistant archivist, and to have a lead who would also be my mentor. The Richard-Josh mess was the direct reason for my request. It was my first paid consulting gig, but that was not the reason; I was sure of my capabilities and my grounding in archival theory. The real reason was that I did not want to be in the same position that I perceived Josh had been in, with free reign quickly given to him, and without oversight. I wanted oversight.

As it turned out I was wise to ask for this. Not because I needed a mentor – the lead archivist seconded by decisions and judgments, told me that I did not need her, and converted much of her paid hours into supplies for the museum instead. As it turned out, the politics of nonprofits can be emotional and nasty, and suddenly in the middle of my project I was saddled with a bossy, narcissistic former volunteer who tried to press an Air Force cataloging system upon me (we were not Air Force) and who, not unlike many “dedicated” volunteers, seemed to think that the museum owed him something for his time – wasted, in my opinion, in creating what was essentially a parts catalog in Microsoft Access instead of a registry of artifacts – and for his donation of supplies, which were useless.(Commercial plastic bins are not archival, as they have a low melting point, much lower than the flash point of nonacidic cardboard archival boxes.)

All this happened while the blackguard who brought back this volunteer to “help” me went around falsely accusing a staff member of embezzlement (ironic, no? There was no stealing in this case) and alienating what staff and volunteers who were not already alienated by my new friend (old to them). The writer of the grant got involved somehow and began moving the goalposts of the grant. It was a nightmare! “I don’t envy your position,” my mentor told me.

I handled it. I managed to bring the grant back from its elegance creep to its original goal, made the volunteer turn over the information he had taken home and hoarded as a bribe to come back, and let the board member who had saddled me with him what I thought of the situation. The board member resigned soon afterward and both men were out of my hair!

I had applied the lessons learned from the lawsuit by Richard against Josh: human beings need systems in order to do their jobs correctly, in order for there to be accountability, in order to remain honest. It is not enough that people are good, honest, and have integrity; we need layers of accountability and peer review to ensure that they stay honest. In my case, I had a bona fide archives expert, a consultant with many years’ experience, to back me up. It was a smart move for me to request this. It would have been a smart move for Josh to request that he have someone to report to, someone to check his work and render opinions on his decisions.

My aviation museum descended into a paranoid pit of rumor because that board member and my “helper” had had free reign for too long, and I recognized that I had been given free reign as well. Though I was a certified archivist and these men were basically blowhards, they had the ear of other board members and so I had to marshal my forces to push back. My mentor backed me up and wrote up some conclusions to help me, and I did push back. I also asked advice from my archivists’ listserv, who proved to be very insightful and helpful. We archivists lean on each other a lot; there are a lot of standards, and these are constantly being refined in our still relatively young profession. No one can remember every policy, every preservation method, or be informed on everything.

I don’t care who or what you are – we are all prone to greed, mistakes, and confirmation bias. Power corrupts. Individual morality or expertise is not essentially the question. Our system of government is a system of checks and balances, as is the scientific method (via the efforts of colleagues to replicate one’s results), as is peer review, and so on. As I’ve often pointed out, I worship no one, not even Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins. As an atheist, I believe in systems that prevent fraud or the malignant concentration of power.

(You can see the photo of me with NASM staff, all of us posing as patrons, here. I was wearing my polka dotted dress for the Interns’ Ice Cream Social later that day. Photo by Eric Long.) 1271

My photo of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega at NASM