Animation archives Fantasy

Amphibia’s folly and the stereotypical archives

Today, I’d like to talk about the July 29, 2019 episode of Amphibia titled “A Trip to the Archives.” The description of the episode already can give you a bad impression of the bat, which is not good: “to prepare for Anne’s quest, the Plantars visit the town archives and accidentally get trapped.” Not knowing that description at the time, when watching this episode, I was a bit excited because archives are rarely depicted in animation, from what I had found up to this point. I hoped for the best. Hop Pop, the grandfather of the Plantars, says that the best way to start a quest is through research, which Anne and the other Plantars are annoyed by. Pop hopes there will be something that will help Anne get home and out of their magical world.

Pop, Anne (a Thai American girl), and his two children enter the archives, out of the way, perceived to be far out of town and underground. This connects with what Schmuland pointed out in 1999: that many fictional archives are located in basements, accounting for the perception that archives are “dirty and ill-lit,” with the basement locations used “to represent a lack of status on the part of the office or activity located there.” [1] One character, Sprigs, embodies this, saying the archives is “dustier than Dusty’s dustbin.” This reinforces what Schmuland noted: that dust is the “most pervasive motif associated with archives, even outside of fiction.” [2] This episode plays into that.

Then Anne compounds the problem by calling the archives “like a library in my world.” Yikes! As Schumland pointed out, “the single most pervasive image associated with archivists is that of librarianship.” [3] The episode writer, Michele Calvin, who also wrote episodes for The Regular Show, another animated series, is incorporating that stereotype into the story. It’s sad, and unfortunate, especially coming from someone who has received various awards for her past work and been involved in the animation industry since 2010.

The episode doesn’t stop there. When Anne says research is overrated, Hop Pop points out that their past wild adventures didn’t go well. As such, they descend into the archives, looking for answers.

They go down the stairs and enter a room, which kind of looks like a library in some ways. Again, another instance of confusing libraries and archives. Although, the records here are not only books but also parchment and other devices of sorts. The lighting of the room makes it a bit spooky. I loved Anne’s response to Sprigs who grumbles about the archives: “this place seems pretty cool to me!” Of course, Sprigs says it isn’t cool because the only thing you do is read “other people’s cool adventures.” Pop tells them that they need to get a move-on as the door to the archives locks because it is on a “sunlight timer.” This connects to what Schulman noted about some fiction authors: that basement archives can provide a certain amount of security as the entrances are more easily controlled. [4] In this episode, it turns out the archives was originally the home of the first archivist, turned into the archives after he died. Even the fandom page for the location, the Historic Wartwood Town Archives, describes it is as “a place to read archives of Amphibia,” adding it was “then turned into a library” with the door set on a “sunlight timer, so people couldn’t access it after sundown.” As the episode moves forward, Pop, Polly, and other characters all find books, while Sprig remains distracted.

Anne reading a book


One of the artifacts in the archives


Polly way too much into reading

Sprig, annoyed by books and learning, wants to give them a “real adventure,” while Anne is glad that Pop suggested it, saying she is learning “a ton about your terrifying world.” Sprig defends taking away the lens of the door, saying “reading moldy old books isn’t going to prepare us for squat,” saying they need a “daring escape from an old underground library.” Again, I’d like to bring in what Schmuland wrote about: the popular perception of records “as dirty and musty and archival repositories as being below ground.” [5] Even worse is the fact that after the lens is destroyed, Pop checks the visitors’ log and finds out that the last time someone came to the archives was three years ago. The scene after shows no one around to hear their pleas for help, implying they are trapped inside. This means that the episode has a mixed portrayal of libraries, seeming to come down on the side that archives are not useful, although they seem to show that the books within its walls have “informational value.”

Zoom out of the archives


Anne poking out, archives entrance on left

Despite Sprig screwing them over, he and the others work together to get out, although he says that if they don’t get out, they will be “trapped here for weeks” without food or water. In trying to get out, they attempt to ram the door, and use eyeglasses, creating a fire inside, but neither works. They create a pile of books so Anne can get to the top and come out of the skylight. This doesn’t work either, as Anne gets stuck, even as she can see the road. The tower of books falls, with Sprig still holding onto her.

After thinking about it more, Sprig and Polly realize there were pipes. He easily finds the blueprints for the house, which just happen to be there.

Anyway, to get out of the archives, they break down a wall, destroying a part of the structure. Sprig crawls through the pipes, arriving in the nearby town, and then runs back, saving Anne. While she is glad to be saved, Anne is angry, noting that the trip out of the valley is how she will get home, saying that they can’t mess it up. However, when attempting to save her, he and Anne fall back inside, trapped there. Hilariously, Anne says they are ok because they landed on books, with Sprig adding that “knowledge hurts,” reminding me of Finn hitting Jake with a book in one of the episodes of Adventure Time. That’s it for the episode. It was more positive than I thought. But it does traffic in some stereotypes about archives.

Perhaps, we should take Schmuland’s recommendation that archivists should start “popularizing their own images of the profession to replace inaccurate or negative images,” but also must educate themselves on the stereotypes, then “clearly define how reality differs from the stereotype.” [6] Not to toot my own horn, but I believe I’ve fulfilled this in a few of my fictional writings, with my recent story “The Universe Runs Through It: Cheering Gargantians, Snotty Peridots, Calm Etherians, and a Perplexed Kipo.” It features some great scenes within an archives, especially one where characters watch an oral history interview of another character, and a chief archivist.

One may ask if the archives in Amphibia is truly an archives. If we define an archives as an institution or organization, whether physical or online, which preserves first-hand documentary heritage (deemed to not only be inactive, irreplaceable, and unique but have permanent or long-term value) or long-term memory of a particular group, whether a business, government, or otherwise non-governmental organizational, or an individual, then this would be more of a repository. Although perhaps you could go to the archive in Amphibia to gather first-hand data, facts, and evidence about the past from various records. The fact that there is no archivist is, again, unfortunate. This is because archivists work to help users find the information they are working for, run the archive, care for, and control records. Such records are not seen as the truth but only a contemporaneous record from a specific organization or individual, with the archives having the authenticity, reliability, integrity, and usability in order to be a trusted resource by society. The latter is the case in this instance.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) defines a library as a “collection of published materials, including books, magazines, sound and video recordings, and other formats.” This archives would fulfill that, from its look in the episode. However, it is more accurately a “place where things can be stored and maintained; a storehouse,” the SAA‘s definition of a repository. Their definition also notes that this can refer to “any type of organization that holds documents…including manuscripts, photographs, moving image and sound materials, and their electronic equivalents.” The fact that these materials seem to have enduring value leans toward this being an archives, so I’m going to stand by that in this case. Although, it is not known if this archives is organized “using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control” and it appears that all the records are permanent. However, we can say with complete certainty that this is not a records center.


[1] A. Schmuland, “The Archival Image in Fiction: An Analysis and Annotated Bibliography,” The American Archivist, Spring 1999, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 43.

[2] Ibid, 42.

[3] Ibid, 40.

[4] Ibid, 43.

[5] Ibid, 44.

[6] Ibid, 52-3.

By histhermann

Marylander with MLIS who loves archives, libraries, genealogy, reviewing pop culture, and writing fictional stories. UMD '19 & SMCM '16 grad. I've been running various WordPress blogs for a while now, about genealogy, libraries, archives, and more.

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