Detroit Arsenal


TACOM Life Cycle Management Command

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Story by Cathy Segal on 12/21/2016
Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

In TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, Rachel Johnstone, the command historian, is charged with helping people remember the past by recording TACOM's history and making it available for anyone who wants to study it.

But therein lies a problem.

When Johnstone took over the program in August 2015, she found that the space in her office was not being used efficiently and recordkeeping had been neglected so badly that she wasn't sure what records she had, nor could she readily locate them. So she did what any sensible Ph.D. and certified archivist would do, she called for help.

That help came in late October in the form of a two-person team from the St. Louis district of the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a Records Access and Management Plan study. Natalie Drew, senior staff archivist and knowledge manager; and Tammie Bush, archives technician, digital archives specialist and federal records manager; analyzed and assessed records and documents, identified and quantified needs, and will provide a roadmap for future action.

According to Drew, the RAMP process was developed in the late-'90s after the USACE staff started receiving calls from people seeking their expertise in curation and facility design, among other things. She said the requests usually went something like, "Oh, my God, I inherited this mess. I can't find anything. Can you help me?" Johnstone had heard about the service and acquired the funding to invite USACE to assess her records. Her plea sounded much like the others. "Those were almost my exact words," Johnstone admitted, laughing at the memory.

"Traditionally in an archive setting, every few years you would do an assessment of the collection," Johnstone explained. "Well, this archive hasn't been managed for so many years, let alone yearly assessed, so I asked them to come in and apply this RAMP process. The way I look at it is, OK, let's stop right here, let's assess the collection and come up with a corrective action plan so that I can quantify to leadership how much it's going to cost, here are the impacts of neglect, here are the outcomes we can expect from reform."

Johnstone doesn't blame the previous historian for all of the issues she faces because Army regulations specify that command history offices have at least two historians and an archivist. "I don't think we've had three people in the history office since at least the early 1990s," she lamented. "Most of my time is taken up with the historians' work. For the past year the archive has continued to be neglected because I don't have the time to devote to it. But, ironically, historical work would be aided by a better-organized archive, so I simply can't perform all the functions of historian without a fully functioning archive, and then it becomes this vicious circle," she added.

Although TACOM only became a major subordinate command under Army Materiel Command in 1967, its historical archives hog at least 500 linear feet of shelf space in an office that Johnstone shares with two people from another directorate. Determining an accurate volume of archives is also part of the RAMP.

"One of the things they are going to help me with, too, is to make more efficient use of the space that's back there, separating materials so we can protect them better and continue to grow the collection as well as focus on what are really important for the command to collect," Johnstone explained. "Right now we have a lot of material and it's everywhere."

Although digital storage is an option, Drew explained that there is no such thing as a permanent digital record because of "technological obsolescence," which can apply to hardware, software, operating systems and storage media. She cited Bernoulli cartridges, the precursor to the Zip and the Jazz discs, as an example. "Good luck finding a reader. You may have saved that cartridge; good for you. But if you don't have the physical driver to read it, that's considered hardware obsolescence," she explained. "Same thing with versions of software. I think Microsoft Word will go back to about Word 4 or 5, so if you have a WordStar document, kiss it goodbye."

Bush, the second assessor, said, "We are here looking at all of the media formats that the archives are currently holding. We're looking at different preservation strategies and ways to increase access, ways to hopefully help with efficiency, and ways to make sure there's a good facility design that will help Rachel in the future and help your installation in the future, too."

Facility design includes environmental conditions such as pest management, fire suppression, lighting, and temperature and humidity to which archival materials are very sensitive. "You don't want to have slides or negatives exposed out there because dust can potentially scratch emulsion off conventional photographs," Drew said. "I like to liken paper to textiles. When it gets hot it gets humid, when it gets humid you get water molecules. Water molecules get into paper fibers and they relax them. All those water molecules expand and contract, expand and contract, and the paper fibers break down just like they would after multiple washings of a shirt. Those are the types of things we're concerned with," she explained.

Lighting can damage archives as well. Johnstone recently had the compact fluorescent lights in the hallway outside of her office replaced with LED lighting because they were shining on a framed Detroit Arsenal flag from January 1941, fading the colors. But the absence of light can be just as bad. "I just had a collection of photographs returned to us from the late 60s, mid-70s, photographs of TACOM athletic teams. They've got TACOM on their baseball uniforms and it's groups shots, action shots," Johnstone described. "Well, somebody took them home with them and kept them in the basement. They have water damage on the emulsion, they're sticking and have what looks to be mold to me. Well, I'm glad they preserved them and I'm really glad they decided to return them, but the conditions are tragic," she said.

Johnstone receives requests from a wide array of researchers who want to search the archives for information, which makes the state of the files particularly frustrating. Plus, lacking another historian and an archivist, she can't support everyone. "We are so underfunded that I have to restrict, be very severe, about my priority, which is the commanding general and the workforce, and if I have time for anybody outside of that, that's great," she said. "But the most I can do for most of them is enable them to come in and do their own research."

Within the command, employees often visit the history office in search of older manuals for equipment specifications or to address a mechanical flaw. Johnstone pointed out that TACOM's collection doesn't include superseded technical manuals, and she asks the workforce to contact her before getting rid of old records. "You never know, it might be a protected permanent federal record, or it just might be the last copy that exists," she said. "Don't discard or destroy records without checking first."

According to Bush, the final report, which Johnstone should receive by Dec. 31, will include a range of options for each of the historian's challenges and record formats, and for facilities design and improvement. "In addition to that there will be several appendices that we supply that give background information, legal authorities that stand behind the recommendations that we're making, and information for specific areas of the report that we're talking about. We break it out so that there's smaller, more financially digestible pieces," she said. The report could end up being anywhere from 200-300 pages.

It will also include an appendix of inventories included in boxes of records recently returned from records holding. Drew said they will translate the inventories into a digital searchable index Johnstone can so that she'll know what's in those boxes.

"We're about excellence, accessibility and pragmatism," Drew continued. "We want to provide a very useful and practical product. We try to give good value to the money people spend. We recognize that it's an investment and we want people to invest in excellence in their own situations."

"Pragmatism is a big thing for me, too," Johnstone said. "Readiness is No. 1 here and this is low on the priority scale of readiness. But if we're going to learn lessons from the past and we're to not repeat mistakes that we might've made, we've got to have some way to keep things in order. I like the approach that they've given -- smaller chunks, things that we can afford in increments over time that will help us be sustainable."

A copy of the final report will surely be added to the files. While it may not be an experience worth remembering, it isn't one that Johnstone would condemn anyone to repeat.


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