Tessa Blanchfield is the newest member of the sales and marketing team at Leadership Directories, Inc. In 2009, she joined the company as a Content Manager (researcher) for the Federal Yellow Book. One year later she became a lead developer for Leadership Health Focus, LDI’s health management database. Ms. Blanchfield is from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and graduated from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, in 2008.
|"The countless bits of information that we research each day combine to make up part of a person’s identity. We are not just entering facts; we are recording a part of people’s lives."|
How do you track down a government official? More importantly, how do you find out if that government official still has the same email address, last name, or is still in the workforce?
During my two years as a content manager researching information for the Federal Yellow Book at Leadership Directories (LDI), I had to ask myself this question countless times. Our company’s mission is to deliver the most up-to-date and accurate information about people working in federal and state government, Congress, corporations, nonprofits, law firms, courts, media publications, and the healthcare industry. Because LDI is over 45 years old, the company’s content managers have been able to establish long-term and mutually-beneficial relationships with points of contact in the organizations that we list in our products. This requires that my coworkers and I check in with these contacts regularly to ensure that our content is comprehensive and precise.
However, there are many personnel and organizational changes that take place in between the scheduled quarterly chats with contacts, and part of my job was to stay abreast of breaking news so that our online yellow books reflected changes immediately. To that end, I spent hours each morning reviewing various news outlets and official press releases looking for anything that might affect our content. I would read everything from the business section to the style section, along with wedding announcements, and of course, the obituaries.
While the information gathering process can be tedious and intense work, it has its unique moments. As part of my research, while striving to confirm a piece of news gathered elsewhere, I often got to be one of the first people to congratulate someone on a promotion or wedding announcement. And sometimes the news I had to confirm was so outrageous all I could do was shake my head in wonderment.
Just seven months after I started my researching career at LDI, I made my first of what would be many uncomfortable phone calls to a government office. Media outlets had reported that a relatively highly placed government official had used his government computer to view over 3,000 sexually explicit images over the course of two years. According to speculation, the official in question was either going to be fired or transferred to a different section in his department. It fell on me to confirm that a career change was imminent. I called the infamous official’s office and had to suppress my desire to ask about the incident. Instead, I decided to avoid mentioning the unfolding scandal and simply asked if there were any changes to the management structure. Sure enough, a very perky (and possibly relieved) executive assistant informed me that her boss had already been transferred to a different post in Washington, D.C. I thanked her and, on hanging up, took a deep breath. That call went better than I had anticipated.
Much of the time, phone calls like these are at best interesting, and at worst, extremely uncomfortable and emotionally taxing. By far, the hardest moments in the life of a LDI researcher are when we have to confirm the passing of an employee. My fellow researchers call this process confirming a “database death.”
No one likes this part of the job. From a pure database maintenance perspective, the task is simple. After we confirm that someone whom we list has died, we follow a strict set of rules to delink that person from all of their positions, save their information, and finally, check off a small checkbox beside their name that simply says, “Deceased.” We can process a death in the database fairly easily, but researching it is an altogether different matter.
In February of 2010, I came across the Washington Post obituary of a much respected director who worked at the Department of the Interior. He had died suddenly due to cardiac complications while he was on vacation, and the news came as a shock to the entire community. The onus was on me to confirm his death, and it could not have gone any worse.
The Department had yet to issue a press release about the matter, so I had no choice but to call the office. Before doing so, I consulted with my co-workers about the best method of confirming the news and finding out whom, if anyone, was slated to act in his position. I decided the best way to handle the situation was to simply call and ask if there were any management changes in the office. Unfortunately, I reached the director’s personal secretary and she was still deep in mourning. Before I could articulate my question, she burst into tears on the other side of the phone and said, “He’s not even buried yet and you want to know who will replace him?” There was nothing left for me to do but convey my condolences and hang up the phone. I had researched and confirmed the news, but I felt no satisfaction on having gotten the confirmation. When it was time for me to record the information, I recall staring at the computer screen for a long time at before I clicked on that “Deceased” button. That day, a piece of news had become a part of my reality and I, too, felt a loss.
To us in the research world, it sometimes seems that the people whose information we research and enter into neat little boxes exist solely in the dispassionate, gray world of our database. We enter phone numbers, birth dates and education records without a second thought. But then, every so often, a person comes alive to us. Like when we find out that a lawyer temporarily left her position to go on maternity leave, or that someone listed in our Federal Yellow Book married someone from our Congressional Yellow Book. Such a change serves to remind us that the countless bits of information that we enter each day actually serve to make up part of a person’s identity. We are not just entering facts; we are recording a part of people’s lives. That is why every time a researcher has to make room for a maiden name, record a promotion, or process a death, we take a deep breath and, sitting alone in our cubicles, have our own personal moment of silence or of joy.