SAA Records Management Section Hangout, 2/8/17: Further reading

The SAA Records Management Section kindly invited me to participate in one of their regularly scheduled Google Hangouts this month, to talk about records management implications of new police body-worn camera (BWC) programs. You can tune in to that Hangout live (Noon Eastern, 9:00 AM Pacific) or watch the recorded version here. We plan to leave lots of time for Q&A, and you can tweet questions in advance using the #saarmrt tag–with help from the moderators, I’ll try to get to everything!

Anticipating there’ll be some questions related to information resources and where/how to read up on this subject, I have put together some suggestions for records managers who are, or may be, working with BWC footage or other digital media evidence (DME), either within or in collaboration with law enforcement agencies that are generating that material. This list is far from complete–I literally see new stuff every day, and have not read every last news story on the subject myself despite being very much interested in it–but it’s a start. Before I start listing links, I’ll also (somewhat) briefly summarize my introductory remarks from the Hangout to help frame the topic of BWCs and their records-management implications…

As noted by UCLA Law School Dean Jennifer Mnookin in her opening remarks for “On the Record, All the Time,” the IMLS-funded National Forum that Jean-François Blanchette and I organized in August 2016, body-worn camera programs and their associated recordings can be construed in two different ways:

An evidentiary construction of BWCs privileges their ability to create additional pieces of evidence to supplement police and witness testimony and material evidence. An instrumental construction, on the other hand, understands BWCs more broadly as tools of surveillance and social control–tools which are being used to incentivize and modify behavior (of both police and the public). The evidentiary construction of BWC is far narrower–recordings are retained solely on the basis of whether or not they document and can furnish evidence for prosecution of specific crimes, and retention periods are linked to state codes of criminal procedure and statutory limits on prosecution for the crimes in question (which differ from state to state), as well as on local, agency-level policies for evidence retention. The instrumental construction allows for, and even assumes, the use of BWC footage toward a variety of evaluative, analytical, and critical aims, whether or not that footage is explicitly evidentiary.

Each of these two constructions of BWC programs suggests very a different approach to creation, classification, retention, access, and post-custodial use of BWC recordings. And, as Dean Mnookin also noted, neither of these constructions of recording devices and their use in law enforcement will allow for policy solutions that wholly eliminate the tension between personal privacy and potential use(s) of the resultant footage. Balancing those interests is largely a matter of local implementation, guidelines, and procedures–including retention schedules and access policies.

This is a place where theory strongly influences policy and practice, as well as public trust and the public record. If an agency adopts a BWC program with an evidentiary construction in mind, they might very reasonably intend to retain only those recordings deemed evidentiary in nature. Everything else would be deleted after, say, 30 or 90 days–because the costs of storage are prohibitive, and the risks to personal privacy also increase the longer non-essential records are retained. But if the community that agency serves is advocating for adoption of BWCs because they want increased ability to monitor all contacts between police and the population–that is, they have an instrumental construction in mind–then trouble arises when requests for access to non-evidentiary recordings are turned down, or the recordings simply haven’t been retained. Large numbers of periodically deleted BWC records can look like good records management pratice, or it can look like a systemic cover-up. Conversely, instrumental approaches create the potential for camera-wearing officers to be subject to perpetual and pervasive scrutiny of their interactions with the public (even in the absence of complaints or use of force), and for members of the public to also be subject to far more invasive forms of surveillance and associated with a far more enduring and accessible record of that surveillance.

How well these recording programs work, and how well they’re received, especially in crisis, depends a great deal upon how well the intent and limits of each program are understood by all stakeholders. The wide variation in retention and access practices from state to state, and from agency to agency even within a state, further muddies these waters. For those working with BWC records or developing policies to manage them, determining whether the program is fundamentally construed as evidentiary or instrumental is an essential starting point–all else flows from there.

Many of these issues, and especially their implications for information managers, will be discussed in the final report from the OTRATT National Forum meeting, which is forthcoming. In the meantime, here are some links and resources records managers might find helpful:

  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press (RCFP), Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and WITNESS are all tracking this issue and exploring different aspects of BWC programs. They’re worth checking in with regularly, or following on FB or Twitter if you feel comfortable doing so.
  • Given the wide variation in local practices, and the limited likelihood of a national standard for BWC policies emerging, you should at the very least be aware of what your local police department’s and sheriff’s office’s BWC program plans and related policies are. Check out their policy documents (especially drafts for public comment) and any press releases on BWC programs. Sometimes it will be clear whether they’re partaking of an evidentiary or instrumental construction for these programs, sometimes not. City Council meetings are a good place to learn about BWC program plans, too.
  • Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute has links to the criminal code for each state. Bookmark yours, and follow your state legislature when it’s in session with an eye to any bills related to the status of BWC recordings as public records.

For a deeper dive on some key aspects of this topic:

BWC footage as public record: Remember, none of this is really new! Laws governing access to and retention of records in novel formats (especially electronic records) have rarely kept pace with technological change and contemporary record-making practice. Recent coverage suggests we’re grappling with these issues now in much the same ways we always have.

FOIA Legislative History. National Security Archive, The George Washington University.

Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic, Divine, J., Ehrett, J., Eidelman, V., Musinipally, D., & Wexler, R. (2015). Police Body Camera Footage- Just Another Public Record (Whitepaper). New Haven, CT: Information Society Project at Yale Law School. (PDF link)

Wheeling, K. (2016, June 13). Should Police Body Camera Footage Be Public Record?  Pacific Standard.

HB 972, the NC bill that went into effect October, 2016, declaring that BWC recordings are not public records: Here’s the bill status tracking showing various edits and full text of the bill (PDF link) as signed into law.

BWC policies, in their infinite variety, and recommendations for same: While not many of these policies address retention and preservation in any detail, they all have implications for records management and access policies. Even model policies leave a lot of room for local variation in the retention-and-release aspects of BWC programs.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, & Upturn. (2016). Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard.

Stanley, J. (2013/2015). Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win for All. An updated version of this ACLU policy report (PDF link) was released in March 2015.

Miller, L., Tolliver, J., & Police Executive Research Forum. (2014). Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. (PDF link) Washington DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

BWC policies and their relationship to access and use by the press, the public, and others: Not all investigations are criminal investigations. Journalists are major beneficiaries of state and federal open records laws, so not surprisingly, they’ve been watching the debates around BWC recordings and their status as public records very closely. Even in cities like Seattle, though, where municipal open data policies double down on an already-quite-broad state-level public records act, and the PD is taking a leadership role in developing technical solutions to the challenges posed by BWCs and other new tech, the balance between privacy and accessibility is hard to find, and available resources are being outstripped by public demand and the complexity of media records.

Marshall, A. (2015, May 6). Police bodycam videos: The Wild West of open records requests | Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (2015, July 10). Access to Police Body-Worn Camera Video This policy map is being updated regularly with contributions from the public–feel free to send in any policies you are developing or have access to yourself!

Seattle Office of City Auditor. (2015). Audit of the Seattle Police Department’s Public Disclosure Process. (PDF link) Seattle Office of City Auditor.

Privacy and ethical implications of video evidence, including BWC video:

WITNESS.ORG. (2016). Video as Evidence: Ethical Guidelines.

Funk, M. (2016, October 18). Should We See Everything a Cop Sees? The New York Times.

Data volume and data management challenges for DME:

Kreft, J. (2016). Measuring the Impact of Body Worn Cameras (BWC) on Data Management and Record Retention for Law Enforcement Agencies (Link to full-text version) (MSIS thesis). University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Coleman, V. (2016, August 30). Thousands of Seattle police dashcam videos lost due to computer glitch. Seattle Times.

How to Read an Article

TL; DR: My tips for How to Read an Article (PDF)

This year, I’m teaching a newly-revamped version of our Intro to Media Archives and Preservation course. (Download the syllabus as a PDF here.) There’s a lot of reading, which poses some key challenges: First of all, how do you assign a ton of reading without completely freaking your students out? How do you convey to already-overworked grad students that there’s value in re-reading something they read a year or two ago, or reading things that aren’t directly related to their research interests? And finally, how do you not offend people who have already graduated from college at least once already when you suggest that maybe they don’t know how to read in the first place?

From my own perspective as a mid-career professional, I think it’s GREAT that the last decade or so has seen so many new books and articles fleshing out a canon of professional literature that used to begin and end with Anthony Slide’s Nitrate Won’t Wait and Penelope Houston’s Keepers of the Frame. I am jealous that so much of the stuff I had to learn the hard way–by digging through bound volumes of barely comprehensible technical journals that hadn’t been digitized or fully indexed, asking around amongst senior colleagues, enduring 20 minutes of mansplaining to get 12 seconds worth of actual new information, trial and error when no one was watching, etc.–has now been thoroughly synthesized by very smart people and expressed in whole chapters of (compelling and witty, painstakingly researched) prose that you can just download from the library and read in the Kindle app on your smartphone.We’ve come such a long way since I was starting out in this field, and there has never been a better time to be studying this topic!

From the perspective of a graduate student who only just found out that you can actually go to school for this, though, I can see where the tidal wave of readings could be really daunting. Because so much domain knowledge has now been neatly packaged by scholars and practitioners, there’s an increased expectation that domain workers will be well-versed in ALL of that knowledge. When professionals already working in the field pushed back against the creation of graduate-degree-granting programs in media preservation back in the early 2000s, one of the concerns they commonly expressed was that (to paraphrase, in the voice of a cartoon farmhand) “these snot-nosed kids with two years of book-learnin’ are going to run around and take all the good jobs from folk like me, with my twenty years of good old-fashioned bench-learnin’, but I guess that’s not good enough for anyone anymore, now that we got all these here fancy dee-grees and peer-reviewed journals and such.” They might go easier on the snot-nosed kids if they actually looked at the book list in my syllabus for this quarter. Two years of book-learning can really be a great deal, especially if you’re doing it full-time.

As rich as the canon on media archives now is, there are still many blind spots and gaps in the written knowledge of our field. A lot of the literature is still pretty cinema-centric and/or focused on film as a physical artifact (or, in some cases, cinema-studies oriented and/or focused on “the archive” as a concept, rather than a physical place or functional institution). How much does a student who’s interested in, say, the preservation of complex, time-based media in the context of personal medical records really want to know about the history of silent cinema and the percentage of early films that are known to have been lost? Why should they bother with readings that approach their research areas only tangentially?  Well, in short, because they will have to ground their narrowly focused, groundbreaking research in some sort of larger intellectual context. If they’re going to be the ones writing that new component of our canon, it will help to see how others have approached (or revisited, or refined) the broad-strokes descriptions of media preservation history, theory and practice. The cinema-centered, film-focused, existing literature has many flaws, but still presents a complex enough picture that I can use it as a starting point for extrapolation and talking about what’s missing, suppressed, under-researched, or still unknown.

Now, to the question of teaching graduate students how to read: One aim of this course is to provide students with comprehensive foundational knowledge about the history/ies of media archives in the U.S. and abroad, and the ways in which fundamental archival theories are applied to moving image collections and preservation practices (or foregone entirely in favor of models borrowed from libraries, archives, or business). As a gateway elective for the Media Archival Studies specialization track in our MLIS program, though, it also needs to function as a first-term orientation to graduate-level reading, writing, and thinking–to set expectations high, and also provide tools to ensure students can meet those expectations. So I’m opting to acknowledge that yes, there is a tidal wave of literature out there; and yes, people (including me) are going to expect you to have read all of it by the time you finish this degree program; but no, that doesn’t mean you have to open the book at page one and read straight through to the final words of the conclusion. In his syllabi, my UCLA colleague Jean-François Blanchette recommends, among resources, the excellent “How to Read a Book” essay by Paul Edwards, which presents various methods for getting through a 300-page book in 6-8 hours. The trick, I would say, is not to drink the tidal wave, but to surf it. I’ve gathered my own tips and reflections on how to read scholarly literature here–along with Edwards’ piece, it’s something I’ll be offering to students this term as a way to survive my class with sanity intact. Because not doing the readings is just not an option.

Opening remarks from OTRATT

Provided below is a transcript of my opening remarks from the recent “On the Record, All the Time” National Forum meeting held at UCLA August 17-19. Our project team is currently preparing a whitepaper summarizing our meeting outcomes, work products, and next steps; check the OTRATT site for further news and updates.

Welcome and thank-yous

I’d like to join my co-organizer, Jean-François Blanchette, in welcoming all of you, and in thanking the many people and institutions who have made this event possible. First and foremost, we thank our primary funder, the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, and express our particular appreciation to program officers Emily Reynolds and Trevor Owens for their support throughout the application process, as well as to IS PhD student Stacy Wood, who provided essential assistance in researching and drafting our original grant proposal. A number of people who wrote in support of the grant are also here today as participants, and we welcome them with thanks: Jason R. Baron, Howard Besser, Jan Garvin, Karen Gracy, Cal Lee, Yvonne Ng, Shira Peltzman, and Linda Tadic.

Other supporters who have contributed to making this working meeting more comfortable and more fun—and therefore far more productive!—include Dean Jennifer Mnookin and the UCLA School of Law, who generously sponsored our Taco Tuesday social hour and opening night reception; Sharon Farb and the UCLA Library for use of their well-appointed meeting spaces; our colleagues in the Department of Information Studies, particularly our Chair Jonathan Furner, and the Wasserman Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco. And now, to the topic at hand: audiovisual recordings and record-keeping.

A crowd forms in Dallas

Imagine for a moment that we are not in California, but in Dallas, Texas, where a crowd is forming. They have come as spectators and supporters, to be part of something memorable, even historic; at a time when racial tensions are peaking nationwide, it is important for these people to be here together on this day. Thousands of them line the downtown streets. Then, without warning, a sniper fires his weapon from above; chaos, confusion, anger, and grief quickly follow. Federal, state and local law enforcement reach out immediately, along with the media, to those who witness the event in an effort to establish just what happened and why. Not everything goes as it should; a Dallas policeman dies trying to apprehend the shooter.

HMInsertPaper insert accompanying Texas home movies processed in late November, 1963; image courtesy of Austin History Center.

I am talking here not about events that occurred six weeks ago—in July of 2016—but fifty-three years ago, in November of 1963. Then, as now, people captured the events of the day on camera—the moments before and after shots are fired, the times when citizens encounter the state in violent and lethal ways. People created records that became evidence, evidence that became history. The challenges we are here to discuss this week are not new, but venerable.


Frame 371 of the Zapruder film (This version downloaded from

Among those challenges are material and mechanical ones: What are the critical affordances of our recording technologies, their capabilities and limitations? What falls beyond the frame; what gets redacted or corrupted? Four frames of the original Zapruder film were, famously, damaged by LIFE magazine photo technicians during copying. Two other frames appeared out of sequence in the original printed version of the Warren Commission Report. In every frame of the 8mm original, there is exposed image area between the sprockets—which, as can be seen here in frame 371, captures important information about the scene as it unfolded, but which is not visible during regular projection. In a climate of suspicion and distrust, any missing, hidden, or altered data quickly becomes fodder for conspiracy theories. It is impossible to restore integrity to a broken chain of custody, or authenticity to an altered original.


LIFE Magazine spread, November 20, 1963; © TIME, Inc.

Other challenges are informational and access-related: What right do the people and the press have to see and circulate images of significant events? What ethical guidelines govern the use of these images in news, in entertainment, in the social sphere? Zapruder sold first-publication rights to his film to LIFE for a hefty sum, but stipulated that frame 313, which showed the moment of the bullet’s impact, should not appear in print when the magazine ran its feature on the assassination the week of November 29. Originally printed in black and white, the images were reproduced in color in a special “JFK memorial edition” one week later, and in three more issues that followed over the next two years, creating multiple versions of the sequence to haunt the visual imagination of the public. LIFE’s registration of the published images for copyright protection in 1967 led to multiple civil lawsuits, and to long-running debates over the applicability of fair use doctrine and ownership of the original film—not to mention widespread public dismay over the airing of the assassination images on broadcast television in 1975. We continue to struggle now with discussions of what images we may see and what images we might not want to see—and with the morality of sharing those images, or profiting from violent death as spectacle.


Screenshot of the National Archives and Records Administration’s finding aid for Record Group 272: Records of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy

Finally, these records pose custodial and curatorial challenges: Who takes responsibility for the preservation of these recordings? What happens to their material forms and social meaning over time? How do the acts of classification and designation dictate these records’ disposition, and what kinds of value do we ascribe to them? The U.S. government effectively asserted eminent domain over the original Zapruder film, designating it an “assassination record” under the 1992 John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act. In the case of the Zapruder film and its contemporaries, the original materials are stored by archives and museums—but what about the records we are all generating today of the stories that dominate our headlines? How do we secure their survival for the next fifty-three years? Records retention policies and the legal “duty to preserve” extend only to what we must keep; they do little to address what we should keep, or how to move beyond basic compliance and toward responsible stewardship.

What’s more, the widening gap of trust between our communities—especially communities of color—and those empowered by the social contract to wield force in the cause of keeping the peace has made it difficult to find common ground. Whatever echoes there may be between the past and the present, 2016 is not 1963. We are now working in a media and technology environment that is incredibly swift-moving, and unprecedentedly powerful. This is a hard time for having conversations about the long term. It is a hard time to take on complex problems for which solutions may be a long time coming. It is a hard time to be making and collecting records that are written with invisible electrons in machine languages that will be forgotten by next year. It can be difficult, as well, to confront the succession of news events and the lengthening list of names of the fallen that are connected to these issues, and that continually redefine the boundaries of this topic.

I am therefore humbled and heartened at the fact that so many people, representing so many different interests, have come here to do just that. Three days of meetings and talking—with travel on either side of it, for most of you—is a big ask for working people, whatever field you do your work in. But like me, I think you are grateful for this chance to ask questions of one another, share what you know with each other, and focus on what we might do together to address these very timely, very old concerns. Thank you for coming, and thank you for the work you came here to do.

A busy summer

Working in academia doesn’t mean you get to take the summer off. In fact, for many of us, the end of classes is the start of a very busy season. Summer is when we revise recruitment materials and the student handbook, submit course changes to the registrar, rework our syllabi and course schedules, and otherwise get our ducks in a row for the upcoming academic year. Faculty count on this time for research trips and writing; a huge chunk of what you read from academic presses gets researched and/or produced during their summer “break.” This fall I’ll be teaching three classes, one of which is entirely new (a course on surveillance, archives, and records management practice); another is substantially revised from previous iterations, and the third one I’ve never taught before, so I’ve got more class prep to do over the intersession than usual. In my case, summer also means getting ready to welcome a new cohort of graduate students in the fall, which includes planning a week-long, pre-term “Boot Camp” with multiple mini-courses, site visits to local archives, labs, and studios, and orientation activities specifically for the media archiving and preservation students. Boot Camp is one of the most fun things I get to work on each year, but there are a lot of moving parts, so it’s definitely work.

In addition to all of the above, I’m once again teaching the History, Identification, and Preservation of Motion Picture Materials workshop for the California Rare Books school in August. The AAPB NDSR project will hold their Immersion Week–during which the new cohort of Digital Stewardship Residents will have their own kind of Boot Camp–at the end of July, too. I’ll be attending and helping out with that as an advisory board member and local site mentor, and expect I’ll pick up a thing or two about digital preservation which will prove useful. Summertime is learning time! Sadly, that means I’ll be missing the annual Northeast Historic Film Summer Symposium, which takes place toward the end of that same week–I’m hoping to get to it next summer, however, because it’s always an excellent and thought-provoking event with great speakers.

Last but not least, I’m working with my colleague Jean-François Blanchette on an IMLS-funded National Forum meeting focused on the data management needs associated with large-scale video recording programs–including (but not limited to) police use of body-worn cameras (BWC). The actual meeting will take place in August, which means we’re working now on finalizing our participant list, dividing people into working groups, gathering resources and figuring out the detailed agenda for our two and a half days of face-to-face time. There has been a ton of coverage on BWC lately; if you’re woke at all, you know these cameras are not in and of themselves a solution to the problems of accountability, transparency, and public trust that police forces are increasingly called to address. Nevertheless, they’re a huge part of the conversation, and agencies nationwide are moving quickly to adopt them. Most discussions of this technology engage only minimally with the idea that retention periods for evidentiary media will, in a lot of cases, far exceed the accessible life of a digital video file. BWC programs will also generate an unprecedented volume of data, which few public agencies have the infrastructure to manage. There are a lot of challenges ahead, and few people are thinking about those challenges from an archivist’s perspective. I see this as a major growth area within the media archiving and preservation field, and a place where the students (and faculty) of media preservation graduate programs will potentially be making significant contributions in the very near future. Something tells me the next few summers are going to be very busy indeed.

Recommendations for recommendations

How to Get Great References and Letters of Recommendation (PDF)

The spring quarter is well underway, and that’s a busy time for anyone in a professional degree program. Second-year Master’s degree students are working their way through comp exams, prepping their portfolios for presentation, and scheduling their thesis defense dates, all with an eye on the departmental job boards and professional listservs. AMIA scholarship applications are due, and so are other professional awards. At this time of year I spend a few hours a week, every week, writing letters of recommendation and proving professional references for  current and former students who are on the job market.

In general, I enjoy this particular duty, and take pride in doing it well: it feels great to help a talented and hardworking alum land a professional position I know they’ll excel in, or a current student get a scholarship they richly deserve. In the course of admissions reviews, grant and scholarship panels, and other committee work, I read a few hundred letters of recommendation per year. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at both parsing and composing the particular code of the reco letter as a result of this. (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is an excellent light read if you, like me, actually kind of enjoy reading a really juicy recommendation.)

The process of requesting a professional reference or a letter of recommendation, though, can be a difficult one. Many students have only done it once (to get into college the first time, using the common app) or twice (to get into their master’s degree program) in their lives. It’s not always clear who to ask, when to ask, how to ask. In some cases, people may not even realize that they should ask at all. I once received a phone call out of the blue from a close colleague, asking me to provide a job reference for a current student. The student had not informed me that they were applying for the job, or that they had listed me as a reference…even though they were currently taking my class, saw me in person at least once a week, and could easily have mentioned it. Another student once sent me an email “to inform you that I intend to list you as a reference” for a particular job. The “this is happening; deal with it” tone of the message was surely unintentional, but still rather off-putting.

In both cases, I provided the reference the student should have asked me for in the first place, but I also tracked them down afterward for private, honest conversations about why that really wasn’t such a great situation to put me in. In case it’s not clear, I’ll tell you too: I wasn’t prepared for the calls to come when they did, I didn’t know or recall that much about the position(s) they were applying for, and I had no idea how they’d positioned themselves in their cover letters and other application materials. I could therefore address only vaguely their qualities as students and emerging professionals and potential employees. My preference, though, is always to speak in specific terms to how right someone is for **this particular job** on the basis of projects they worked on or papers they did in my class, their past employment, qualities the position requires that I know them to have, etc. Neither the “surprise reference” nor the “tell don’t ask” approach give me the chance to do so.

Finally, some students don’t realize right away that in a professional community as small as the one I work in (the media archives and preservation field), it almost doesn’t matter whether you ask for a reference or not. Anyone who knows you’ve been through one of our handful of specialized degree programs will probably know people you’ve studied with, and will probably just ask whoever they know in your program about you, directly and informally. So you may be getting references you don’t even know about. That doesn’t happen every time, but it definitely happens. (In the case of the surprise phone call, I wasn’t at the top of the list of references provided by the candidate, but I was the first and only one who got called–and that was because of my long-standing relationship with the hiring manager.) It’s far better to know about these relationships when they exist, and to control who’s providing your references, if you can.

Unfortunately, the strategies, tactics, and etiquette of requesting professional references can be just as recondite and opaque as the coded language of the recommendation letters themselves. Offering a reference means staking a little of your social capital on someone else; asking for a reference means making yourself vulnerable and imposing on a (usually very busy) supervisor, professor, or mentor’s time. By the same token, though, serving as a reference for someone who works out really well for a job helps accrue social capital for the referrer. It establishes them as a good judge of talent, builds credibility and trust with colleagues, connects them directly to a colleague they may have only known by reputation, etc. Moreover, success in the job market for students and alums reflects well on the programs they come from. So for faculty, staff, mentors and supervisors, the time spent on writing a letter or discussing a job prospect is always invested, not wasted.

In short, references are a tricky, but incredibly important part of professional life, especially once you get to/through grad school. They’re something that it is possible to handle really effectively, whether you’re requesting, writing, or reading them. Accordingly, I’ve created a handy guide to help students, recent graduates, and professionals at all stages of their careers demystify this whole asking-for-references-and-recommendations process, and manage the essential steps of it more effectively. It includes a checklist for before, during, and after; explanations for why you should do things like include a copy of your cover letter and a link to the job posting; and simple tricks for keeping things collegial and classy from start to finish. Most importantly, I’ve used this approach myself–not just for job applications, but also for similar solicitations like requesting letters of support from senior colleagues for grant applications or collaborative project proposals–so I guarantee the formula works.

If you’re a student of mine who’s recently asked me for a letter of recommendation and I responded with a link to this page, it means you need to download the guide, read through it again, and follow the instructions. All of them. Please. (Even the things you think you don’t need to do, like noting the deadline and procedure for submission of recommendations, or including a link to the job description because I just sent that job posting to the list, like, yesterday. I forgot everything about that job immediately after I posted it, because I am not applying for it. You must not refer vaguely to “that job at  ____” and make me Google it, when you should have just pasted the link or job description into your email request in the first place. That’s by far the most likely reason you are here.)

If you’re a professor or colleague who would like to share this guide with students or mentees, please feel free to do so. I always appreciate hearing of any success stories or suggestions for improvement based on your experiences!

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