Buried in the archives
4 min read

Buried in the archives

Every archivist has a red plastic button installed somewhere on their body, usually in the palm of their dominant or folder-labeling hand. You won’t see it unless you ask us to take our gloves off, and even then, we try to wave and shake hands in a way that hides it, like a person who smiles closed-mouthed to hide their bad teeth. It’s labeled BURIED IN THE ARCHIVES in twelve-point Futura. If you locate and press it, we’ll snap our heads towards you and tell you about our least favorite media trope, which is any article that claims a writer “found” or “discovered” something which had been “buried in the archives” — something “secret,” something “lost.”

I ran into the trope this morning, while reading up on Jenn Shapland’s new My Autobiography of Carson McCullers; none of the examples I found were that egregious, but of course the language was there. (None of this was Shapland’s framing, for the record, or her fault.)

Of course, the punchline of the “buried in the archives” story is that the author discovered the materials in the catalog, where they had been entered after an archivist performed a painstaking process of organizing the collection, labeling the folders, listing them out, and combining the list with a series of short descriptive essays into a beautiful document called a finding aid. It’s the equivalent of discovering a copy of Lord of the Rings “buried” in the public library by typing “Tolkien” into the catalog’s search bar. That’s what happened to Shapland — she was an archival intern, and a researcher asked her to pull the letters, which were located in box 29, folder 4.

And yet the story has power, so much power that it recurs again and again. I think this happens for many reasons that are bad — and a few that make perfect sense to me.

The bad ones first. People love to imagine that archives are magic. It’s not a coincidence that “archivist” is the only major library subspecialization ever to be a D&D class (it’s not a bad interpretation of the idea, although the 3.5e “archivists” resemble academic researchers more than anything). People like to imagine us as Giles, triumphantly banging a dusty book labeled VAMPYR onto a library table. The smell of old books is a heady one, and the idea of caring for them for a living is pleasurably wizardy. Attempts to explain that we actually spend most of our time taking care of midcentury board meeting minutes only makes us sound like the other kind of wizard, who wears a trench coat and lights cigarettes with his fingertips. But archivists, as portrayed by journalists, tend to be a third kind of wizard: the hapless kind, who doesn’t fully control his powers. After all, we are always losing things.

All of this has the effect of making our labor invisible. In fact, the image of the mystical library  often tends to mystify the work that takes place here. (Leo Settoducato has written eloquently about the ramifications of this connection, and also its potential as a source of power: “If we imagine that a collective fear has come true and libraries are dead, it stands to reason that library workers are ghosts. Since ghosts have considerable power and ubiquity, this frees us to rethink our position in and beyond the neoliberal library and linear time.”)

This brings me to the second, not-as-good reason why you read about materials being “buried in the archives.” A lot of this cataloging work is just not done that well. It’s not our fault — we do it as well as we have time to do, drawing on our considerable training and ingenuity to stretch our resources. But to do better, we’d need money. Archives have half the staff they need, and they all have huge backlogs as a result. It’s telling that the most revolutionary article in our field in the past fifty years — the one that’s had the most dramatic effect on how we work — is Greene and Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process,” which basically advocates for doing less work on each individual collection, so that all of the collections can have a little attention. There’s a lot about paperclips, and a lot of curiously gendered policing of how archivists feel. It’s a frustrating piece. It’s also, in essence, correct: we are never going to finish unless we cut corners and learn to call it “minimal processing.”

Look at the finding aid for the Carson McCullers papers. Now, McCullers is a major 20th century author. The Harry Ransom Center is a major repository that also holds Samuel Beckett’s papers, Tennessee Williams’, three First Folios (the third smacks of carelessness), and Alistair Crowley’s hand-colored tarot deck. Yet this collection, donated between 1967 and 1993, wasn’t cataloged until 1998. If you look at Box 29, folder 4, where Shapland found the letters, you’ll see that it’s not labeled “correspondence (passionate) with Annemarie Schwarzenbach.” It’s labeled “S.” In sum, it was processed belatedly, as fast as possible, and with just enough descriptive information to prompt a researcher to check in twenty years later about that folder’s contents. Again, this is not the processing archivist’s fault. There is a hard limit on how quickly and thoroughly we can do our work, because there are not enough of us, and this is consistent across the field.

So I do understand why, in cases like this, people feel that the researcher has found something buried, something no one has ever seen before. I suppose if there’s a moral to all this, it’s “stop imagining that archivists are wizards and give us more money for folders, boxes, proprietary software, and additional archivists.” And I’ll leave it there.