U S Naval History at Risk?

The Navy historical world was all abuzz this week with a report that U S Navy history is “in jeopardy”. The newspaper Navy Times, in an 8 January article, describes a U S Naval History and Heritage Command (formerly the Naval Historical Center) that is “beset with preservation problems and internal strife”.

The article, citing a recent navy Inspector General inspection, goes on to relate that the chronically underfunded Command lacks proper climate controlled spaces for its extensive collection of fragile documents, photographs and “operational archives”. The result: “documents and photos … deteriorating from mold and mildew”.

In addition, according to the quoted IG inspection, the Command’s mostly civilian staff is not properly represented at the highest levels of leadership, largely because directors of the archives and histories division and the museums and collections division are both retired naval officers with no formal training in archival, historical or museum arts and sciences. The report points out that the Command’s historical and archival “professionals feel like their advice is ignored, their work is underfunded, and their access to the director is limited…”

When Navy officials appointed retired Rear Admiral Jay DeLoach to direct the Command in 2008, according to the Navy Times article, they tasked him to “change the culture” of the Command, and make it more responsive to Navy needs.

DeLoach’s leadership may be paying off despite the IG’s report. For instance,the Command now has a very aggressive Facebook and LinkedIn presence; I have seen several-times-daily posts to these social networking sites. The article also points out that soon after taking leadership, DeLoach began a program to “push” historical notes out to operational commands Navy wide.

DeLoach has also seen some success in improving the Command’s funding: $38 million are earmarked for fiscal year 2012, representing a 46% increase from the year before. Historian Bill Dudley, indicated in a separate communication that the Historical Center’s budget in 2004, his last year as Director, was $12 million. Staffing problems may also be on the way to resolution as well: the Command reports plans to hire forty-seven new personnel in fiscal year 2013.

Finally, the Navy Times article quotes a Command spokesperson reporting success in moving the more fragile elements of its collection into climate controlled facilities.

Comment: The IG report has not been released to the public, so, for now, all we have to go on is the newspaper report and our own personal experience. To this observer, the Naval History and Heritage Command has definitely put on a more “user friendly” face, with frequent Facebook feeds and the like. The Command website is “busy”, but reasonably easy to navigate; and it is rich with resources. It appears that Admiral DeLoach has been pretty successful in obtaining ever more funding for the Command, though one is left to wonder about future funding given upcoming Pentagon austerity. It also appears that actions are being taken to protect the more vulnerable portions of the Command’s vast collections. Left moot is any comment about upgrading facilities to assure proper temperature and humidity control for all of the Command’s archival and museum spaces.

The most glaring apparent problem remaining to be attacked is the reported disconnect between top leadership and the civilian professionals responsible for the day to day operation of the Command’s collections and facilities. This observer believes a meaningful first step would be the immediate appointment of experienced archives and museum professionals as deputies to the commander. This would, in one fell swoop, overcome the barrier of communications alleged to be at the root of the Command’s internal strife.

The documents, photos and other artifacts housed in the Command’s storage spaces, museums, historical ships and other assets are invaluable and often irreplaceable national treasures. Naval officials, it seems to me, have a solemn obligation to assure that state-of-the-art best practices are applied to every aspect of Naval History and Heritage Command operations.

If any reader has access to the IG report, please communicate this to me through the Comments section, or in a personal email: historyofnavymedicine@gmail.com.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder

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  • Christopher McKee  On 13 Jan 2012 at 12:36

    One of the points mentioned in the Navy Times article, but not in the blog is that the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Committee on Naval History has been allowed to go dormant. This could (and should) be reinstituted an important source of outside advice to the Naval History and Heritage Command. In my view the members of the committee should be fresh faces, not reappointments of previous members. Membership should include both academic scholars of all periods of U.S. naval history as well as a cadre of non-academics with a keen interest in the Navy’s history. They should all be persons willing and able to express their informed views vigorously but tactfully. This should not be a rubber-stamp committee.

  • Gregory J. Martin  On 14 Jan 2012 at 08:30

    The problem with the post above is that it accepts at face value the Times article allegation that the “barrier of communications” between the professionals and the director resides at the deputy or division director level. The presumption, again alleged, is that the “deputies” to the Director do not have the professional qualifications to adequately communicate the needs of command’s professionals to the Director. No one from the IG team asked for my resume or the museum and collections division director’s resume, nor did they speak with us about our programs. We were never given the opportunity to discuss our division’s missions, needs, successes, or shortfalls. As a result, the Times article is deeply flawed in its presentation of the qualifications of the division directors at the command, because the author of Navy Times article did no independent fact checking.

    I am the division director for the Histories and Archives Division (HAD), which includes not only a histories branch and an archives branch, but three other branches: the Navy Department Library, the publications support branch, and the web program. Further, we practice official and public history, as well as academic history. Someone whose sole experience is in the academy would be challenged meeting the needs of HAD, unless they had served a long apprenticeship on a separate management track that included managing in a technology intensive environment.

    I do have a recent Master of Arts in history, as well as an MBA that included a focus on technology management. I have been practicing history since 2004. I am a member of the Society of Military History and the Society of American Archivists. As recently as last August I completed two archival management courses offered by the SAA. I served eleven years on active duty as a Naval Aviator in anti-submarine warfare aviation. Subsequently, I worked 21 years in the private sector, most recently as a part-owner and executive of a software development company. My unique combination of education and professional experience helped me bridge some of the very “culture” gaps described in the IG report, that were distorted in the Times article.

    My unique combination of skills and experience also contributed directly to the securing of additional funding you mentioned in your blog. Working with the professionals in HAD, I was able to make the case during our 2010 budgeting process to secure $8 million for HAD, which is more than half the plus up funding that NHHC received for this fiscal year. Two thirds of our FY12 funding is for cataloging our collections in an archival content management system which the archives never had, mass digitization projects for the archives, and building a new web portal, all technology intensive projects. My same background will help guide my team in successfully managing those projects going forward.

    The Director has a Senior Historian who advises him on the practice of history within the command and who is also a conduit between the historians and the Director. That same Senior Historian works with me as well, and we collaborate daily on how to best meet the command’s mission.

    We are going through a culture change in how we conduct business at NHHC. Those kinds of changes are never easy. I think that the Director of NHHC is well served by myself and my colleague that runs the Museums and Collections Division. We both will continue to deliver the same level of professionalism and dedication that we have in the past to secure the history of the US Navy for the future.

  • Jim Dolbow  On 18 Jan 2012 at 11:54

    The only problem with both the IG report and the Navy Times article is that they both know so much that isn’t so. After decades of neglect, the NHHC is finally headed in the right direction.

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