Friday, June 29, 2007

Archives

My hair is doing its typical "in the summer I like to be blonder" movement right now. This makes very little sense considering I rarely see the sun, so how my hair is managing to bleach out, I will never know.

I work 50 feet below ground in a completely controlled environment: no windows, controlled temperature, controlled heat... Basically, I see no sun. I breathe fake air. I am like a manuscript from the 1800s.

I work in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections of the Harold B. Lee Library. My job title is Collections/Stacks Manager.

Try to fit all of that onto a resume, assuming no one knows what the LTPSC or HBLL are. It's tricky.

Working down there has been fun, although it has made me realize that I probably never want to be an archivist. And I probably don't want to spend the rest of my life working with archivists, either.

Archivists, you see, tend to believe that their collecting area is inherently superior to all other collecting areas. (Yes, that is a blanket statment. No, not all archivists are like my description, but a lot are). They tend to treat their collection with the utmost care and respect and expect me to do likewise.

Curators (an archivist who curates, or finds, collections out in the world and brings them home to dwell in the LTPSC) often will try to "slip things through" the cracks of the established processing regimen. This is altogether very annoying for me and my students because we will then have to try to figure out what has been done and what has not been done to the collection.

Interestingly enough what we call "slipping things through," is what curators will also call it, but only if another curator did the slipping. If a curator were to slip something of his/her own collection through the word is ameliated so that "slipping through" becomes known as "expedited." You can only use expedition on your own collection though, because only your collection is important enough to skip many steps vital to keeping the collection's whereabouts known. After all, it is oh, so very important, we would naturally know where it is without having to record it.

Anything else is "slipping through."

How many times have I heard, "So-and-so thinks their collection is so great! I wish they could understand that __________ is the most important collection."

It makes me feel like a playground monitor.

"So-and-so thinks they're so great! I wish they could understand that I am the most important!"

No one actually ever says that, but the meaning is there.

I have to try to cater to 20 different people, all of whom demand that their collection be treated first. It's difficult.

As Stacks Manager I'm simply expected to know exactly where everything is at all times. A seemingly trivial task, it may seem, but it proves more difficult than at first glance. We have row upon row upon row of books and manuscripts. Many of our collections have yet to be processed, many of which have just been sitting around since before I was born.

"Where is ______?"

"Gee, I don't know. Let me look it up."

"You should just know where it is!"

"Should I? Well, we got the collection back in 1973, so I probably should know. Now, what was I doing in 1973 when we brought this collection in? Ahhh, yes...I was busy getting ready to wait 12 more years to be born. But I did take the time to notice where the collection got placed...oh, wait. I have no idea where it is!"

Of course, I've never actually said that to anyone. I won't say that I haven't felt like saying it though.

The best was earlier this week when one girl brought in something that looked remarkably like a tie hanger. In fact, I'm quite positive it was a tie hanger because it looked something like this:


"What is it, do you suppose?" she asked as if she had just found the fountain of youth instead of a piece of garbage.

"A tie hanger from a clothing store." I said, trying desperately to snap her out of her archival bliss.

"Oh, I think it might be like, like, like," I could see her archival brains overflowing with creativity, trying to convince me that we needed to keep said tie hanger, "perhaps a number from a cloak room. You know, like at an opera when you hang up your cloak and they give you a number? Yes, that's what it is."

"Really, it looks suspiciously like the same tie hanger we got when we bought my brother-in-law a tie for Christmas..."

"Oh, no...this is, this is..." again, I'm not sure she could even believe the words she was trying to force out of her mouth since she kept tripping over them, "This is something special. What should I do with it?"

I stared at her for a few minutes trying to come up with a good, gentle way to tell her to just throw it away. I couldn't.

"Perhaps we could just throw it away," I said unceremoniously, "It looks like a tie hanger you'd get at a store. It's garbage." Even if it had been a cloak room number, it would have also kind of been garbage (but I didn't tell her that part).

She gave me a look that said "What?!? You don't care about preserving things, you filthy, filthy woman!"

But what she actually said was, "Oh, no. If they gave it to us, they must have meant us to have it. They want us to preserve it. It is part of their legacy."

Whoa, there! First of all the man who gave us the collection is only about 56 years old. Sure, he's pretty famous, but he's also pretty down to earth. I'm fairly confident one of his grandchildren got into the garage where he was keeping all of his junk (that we now have) and happened to accidently drop the tie hanger into a box of his papers. His wife then screamed at him to get the junk out of the garage so he gave it to us to sort through, making me think that he really didn't care too much about any of it himself, considering none of it was sorted or anything when we got it. He's an author. How much of his legacy can one of his junky tie hangers leave?

Not much of a legacy, I think. A tie hanger from 1203 would have been cooler (that does not mean it would have been cool at all). A tie hanger from 1989? Not so cool.

"Okay," I said, defeated, "Just put it in a folder with everything else."

"You don't think I should put it in a Mylar envelope, or at least wrap it in acid free paper?"

"Not really, no," I said through (almost) gritted teeth, biting back the words I think we should throw it away.

So, in the end she won. We kept the silly little tie hanger. Why? Because it is special somehow. I'm still trying to work that out.

That is what I deal with on an almost daily basis. In fact, today I was given the "You don't care about preserving things you filthy, filthy woman!" look yet again over suggesting that perhaps acid-free paper holds no magical powers.

Of course, there are other librarians who share my point of view, bringing sanity to my job. One of those librarians is Richard Hacken who introduced himself to me in 2004 saying, "Hi, I'm Dick Hacken," and with a little wink, "No relation to Hacking."

Well, he shared the following poem with all my fellow employees at the HBLL and I think his tone kind of fits my opinion of archival work to a t. Although it may be important, at times it is borderline insanity. Enjoy!

I Am the Very Model of a Bibli-Specialographer
            I am the very model of a Bibli-Specialographer,
I liaise if you pliaise with the poly- or monographer,
Assisting students fidgety who seek their knowledge digitty,
As well as those who look in books both softly spined and rigidy;
I'm very well acquainted too with persons professorial,
I get them what they want, a task at times phantasmagorial;
In narrow disciplines I point to articles and bulletins,
Instructing while deducting all misleading or subjective spins…

I'm very good at reverential, deferential reference
Although selecting titles is my rightful place and preference;
In short, I alternate between deciduous and conifer:
I am the very model of a Bibli-Specialographer.

I could be called a curator, I once cured beef all jerkily,
Which fits my job description only enigmatic-murkily;
I could be called a specialist, for I’ve made lists of specialties
And annotated them and even called them bibliographies;
I choose between the news that comes on paper or on microfiche
And then connect and do collect resources for each micro-niche;
Decisions that I make, you know, are as a pro selectively,
And thus I’m a selector of such subjects most subjectively.

I’m able to spell acronyms with letters near identical,
Confusing persons both professorish and studentical:
In short, in matters that require a stereotypeographer,
I am the very model of a Bibli-Specialographer.

In fact, when I know what is meant by "strategy" and "management",
When I can tell at sight what is acceptance versus banishment,
When such affairs as teaching and committees are agreed upon,
And when I know precisely the short phrase, "official liaison,"
When I have learnt the metadata for an incunabula,
When I know words Ukrainian describing a parabola:
In short, when knowledge is delivered to me most caesarean,
Well then, I will be what folks call an actual Librarian---

I'm very good at reverential, deferential reference
Although selecting titles is my rightful place and preference;
In short, I alternate between deciduous and conifer:
I am the very model of a Bibli-Specialographer.

-Gilbert and Sullivan and [Richard] Hacken,
with penance to be performed at Penzance

4 comments:

  1. LOL, so this is what I'm getting myself into? ;)

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  2. Oh, it's not so bad! :) I think you just need the right personality. I'm more of a "children's" librarian, myself.

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  3. Funny, isn't it... that in 1200 years, that tie hanger may, indeed, be something special! I mean, come on, what's so special about somebody's dirty old, lice-filled comb? Why do we raid the graves of the dead in the name of archaeaology? Yet we do it... and it goes into someone's collection and becomes special because some dead person from the 10th century had it buried with them. Maybe in 1200 years, no one will know what a tie hanger is, let alone what one looks like, and it will be a small but important piece of our legacy. Never fear. :) I think with the brain of a medievalist. In 1200 years, we WILL be medieval. And people like me will appreciate tie hangers...

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  4. I think you've convinced me to save all the tie hangers I ever get. ;)

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