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Popular culture and the duties of archivists

Peel Archives has written about archives and archivists in popular culture before, and as such, I’ve listed them in a bibliography page on this website. I recently came across two posts by archivist Samantha Thompson in April 2018 and July 2015 about the duties of archivists and what information they keep. In April 2018 post, where she notes that in film, archives “are generally mysterious places,” hiding and revealing secrets that move the plot forward, with one of the biggest mysteries is “how all that stuff got into the archives in the first place,” with old documents somehow ending up in the archives, but it’s never shown how this happens. That’s definitely true. I mean, there are even series where characters literally set the archives on fire and there are no consequences for their actions. With that, I’d like to compare what she says to the archivists that I’ve found in popular culture up to this point.

Arrangement

Thompson writes about how archivists organize and store records, engaging in an arrangement of records in a way that doesn’t disturb “important connections, clarifies how the records were used, related, or collected,” while making it easier “to navigate the records.” This includes physically processing records based on the organization established, when sorting, filing, labeling, and rehousing them in specific archival containers. This connects to Lore Olympus, where, at the end of episode 111 (“You Tell Me”), the two of the Fates (Atropos and Lachesis) talk about how they need to refine their filing system for records. This is alluding, I would argue, to the arrangement that archivists engage in, as these records, memories stored in a videotape format akin to VHS, have to be stored and organized in a specific way. And yes, unlike Steven in Steven Universe, these tapes are stored correctly.

Lachesis grabbing a tape from the shelf

This contrasts with the infinity archive, confused with a library, in the Mystic Archives of Dantalian. How, in the world, are all those records arranged, described, and selected? That is, of course, never explained.

Description

That connects to description, which are ways to systematically summarize descriptions, giving “researchers snapshots of what they can expect to find in collections,” with these descriptions forming finding aids or guides to the collections themselves. As she puts it rightly, not every individual item can be listed, but a description can help see if a collection is good for research. It could be said that Futurama touched on this with the Physical File Archive, although there is some debate as to whether that is an archive or a records center since it has semi-active records. However, no archivists were seen in the episode. There is implied description by archivists like Filis in Tri-Squad VoiceDrama, Destiny in the X-Men comics, and Robert Nicholas in Vatican Miracle Examiner. The same can be said of the books and materials collected in the family library, or more accurately a library-museum-archive hybrid, in the Whispering Woods in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Preservation

In one of her posts, Thompson talks about the preservation and conservation of records, whether older records or newer ones. Related to that, perhaps, is the underground newspaper archive of Nathan’s grandfather in Stretch Armstrong. Are the newspapers really being preserved correctly? It’s hard to know. The area may be dusty, but none of the newspapers are moldy from what I remember.

Newspaper archive as shown in “Harkness General”

You could also say that Abigail Chase, a NARA archivist, in the National Treasure franchise is focused on preservation, especially in the first film, despite the stereotypes in that film. The same could be said about the Yale University librarian in Can You Ever Forgive Me? who gives Lee Israel access to historical letters. Sadly, she does not know that Israel wants to exploit the institution for her own financial gain and ego. However, Seiya in Tsurune sees himself as “Minato’s archivist, his preserver and protector” and in the manga series, Children of the Whales, Chakuro is the “Archivist for the Mud Whale, diligently chronicling the lives and deaths of his people,” to give two examples.

Appraisal

In her July 2015 post, Thompson notes that a lot of what archivists do is “behind the scenes,” using unique terminology, obtaining and assessing records. For the latter, this means selection, appraisal, and acquisition. Appraisal, as she defines it, means:

Visiting potential donors of large collections to see if and how much material should be saved…Studying individual documents as we organize them…Researching the background history and context of collections [.] Writing reports documenting our reasons for accepting or declining records [.] Reviewing documents to ensure privacy legislation is observed and copyright status is clear.

In an episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, titled “The Lost One,” Madame Jocasta Nu, the archivist of the Jedi Temple archives, who embodies many stereotypes about archivists and librarians, says that a record is sealed by the Supreme Chancellor. This isn’t appraisal, obviously, but can be assessing the records and providing access to them. I’ll talk more about Madame Nu later in this post. When it comes to George and Lance in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Samantha Cross put it well, that you have to “squint and imagine George and Lance appraising, selecting, arranging, and describing their First Ones collection.” No doubt about that. There had to be some appraisal when it came to the special collections room in Cleopatra in Space, within the PYRAMID school library, as they couldn’t have been organized so well without it, I would argue. Still, I haven’t seen, in any of the animations or popular culture I’ve read, archivists engaging in appraisal. I’d like to see it, but I’m not going to hold my breath and assume it will happen.

I haven’t mentioned appraisal directly in any fan fictions I have written which mention archives, but I have talked about accession numbers, only transferring inactive records to archives and the difference between archives and libraries.

Reference, collaboration, outreach, and administrative tasks

Thompson writes about the ways to connect people with records, whether through reference activities (helping people use the records), collaboration, outreach, and administrative tasks. She is undoubtedly right that “taking care of archives can be a surprisingly busy occupation.” Now, we actually do have an example of collaboration and outreach. In the comic Leif & Thorn, Broiny, the archivist, gives information to the President about people named “Thorn”:

In later comics, she gives information on Thorn and describes his achievements. She acts as a presidential adviser. In any case, she is helping people with outreach and collaboration. What about reference and administrative tasks? I believe that Nathan’s grandfather in Stretch Armstrong would be engaging in reference, as he points to Ricardo and Nathan to the newspapers he has organized, where they can look for information. The newspaper archives seem like his personal hobby.

What about administrative tasks? Well, I haven’t seen an archivist engage in that in any of the media I’ve seen as of yet. Despite the stereotypes in Attack of the Clones, as I’ve talked about time and time again, especially confusing libraries for archives, Madame Nu is shown helping Obi-Wan with his inquiry before her infamous line, which is talked about later in this post. We do see her, in the animation, trying to serve as a mentor to Ahsoka Tano and help her with her studies. So, that’s a positive. Additionally, in Hilda, the librarian definitely engages in reference and outreach by helping Hilda in various episodes. She isn’t an archivist, but she is very close to it because she runs the special collections room in the town library. Perhaps Arizal will engage in some administrative tasks if the Recorded by Arizal series moves into a full season, but I kinda doubt it, because that would be seen as “too boring” for animation.

Selection

While the blueprint was prominently placed on the table is positive, while indicating the record is being used (the dragon is the only patron) the fact that Cedric cannot find the right document is a failure of selection and organization as shown in this episode of The Bravest Knight

In an April 2018 post, Thompson says that modern archives aren’t an accident are shaped by “the decisions of archivists working together with other professionals,” with more to archival records than their age, archives not keeping everything, and the fact that everything doesn’t need to be preserved. This is connected to the interrelated tasks of acquisition and appraisal, and the important responsibility of archivists to “help determine how the future views the past” through their judgment, making people uneasy. She also talks about the selection of records:

Archivists themselves don’t create the records they collect in archives…They are created in as many places and circumstances as people are found. A record can be as ephemeral…Records reveal events as they unfold…Because records are created for specific purposes, they don’t always survive beyond their initial usefulness…Some records, however, do survive…But no records automatically come into archives. For this to happen requires decisions and planning both outside and inside the archives…Archivists themselves have varying levels of control over whether records ever reach their doors…Some archives acquire records through the organization the archives serves…In contrast, records can also come to an archives from the wide world outside the archival institution’s organization…Over time archivists have devised ways to winnow down and control the deluge of records to those worth permanently saving. Archival records are a further small subset of all the records that survive. The act of making judgements about what records are archivally valuable and worth saving permanently is called archival appraisal…Archivists are always considering and reconsidering their role in shaping the historical and evidential record.

This runs completely counter to Madame Nu’s infamous line in Attack of the Clones: “if an item doesn’t appear in our records, it does not exist.” Before that, she had been questioning Obi-Wan and acting like he was bonkers, thinking the Jedi Temple archive is immutable, without error. Any archivist knows that is not true. An archive never has every record. It only has specific records. If even Yoda can recognize that someone can erase files from the archive, then why can’t Madame Nu? She is the lone arranger of the archives, as shown in the animation, so she should know about this, but she doesn’t for some reason. I actually talk about selection in one of my fan fictions, where one character becomes head of the archives, which I’d like to quote here:

George and Lance worked with Angella, Bow, and his other 12 siblings, to plan construction of a new building, atop the Fright Zone’s previous location, called the Archives of Etheria…As a kind gesture, Stevonnie gave the diary, The tale of Rainbow Quartz and Pink Diamond, back to Angella. She gifted it, along with other books and materials from her personal library to the growing archives, a new institution of knowledge, where she would serve as a special adviser, helping them choose the right items to add to their collections…Bow accepted her sword and promised it would be added to the growing collections of the new archives.

I admit I could have done more here, but it still served as an important method to represent archives positively. Apart from these, are some actions in terms of selecting records among some assorted films, video games, and novels I reviewed in October.


That’s all for this week. Until the next post!

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