The Inner Circle, an Archivist’s Tale

For those of you who follow this blog (thanks for that, by the way), apologies for disappearing. You all probably thought I was dead (except you, Mom- you knew I wasn’t). But I’m not. I just haven’t been doing a lot of history/genealogy-related stuff in my free time that would result in a blog post here.

So what have I been doing, then? Well, it’s not quilting up a storm, not this year. This year, I’ve been reading tons of books, as I try to complete this Pop Sugar Reading Challenge that I learned about from a friend. I’m actually doing pretty well; it’s not even halfway through the year and I’m about 2/3 done. I’ve read almost 40 books already this year! I don’t know how much or how quickly any of the rest of you read, but I am not a fast reader, so 40 is a ton for me.

Anyway, getting back to the point of this post, one of the items on the reading challenge is “a book with a protagonist who has your occupation.” So: archivist. I had to find a book where the main character was an archivist.

In the course of looking for this, I came across a number of interesting twists on the idea of “archivists” and “archiving” which involved fantasy or dystopia or some other genre where the “archivists” and I share the same occupation in name only and not in the actuality of our day-to-day activities. Some of these included The Archived by Victoria Schwab and Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace, both which I have marked “Want To Read” on Goodreads and saved for later but which did not fit the spirit of this challenge item.

What I actually did read was The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer. In this book, the main character Beecher and his colleague Tot are both archivists at the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration (NARA).

Now, I’m not here to write a book review (oh how I hate writing those), to give a plot summary, or to criticize. And there won’t be any spoilers, or at least nothing that I would consider a spoiler.

But I thought it would be fun to record — and share with you all — some snippets from the book that gave me a chuckle, seemed wise, or that I thought my fellow archivists would appreciate. These are things I would have “highlighted” if I had been reading it on my Kindle — which, I wish I had been, because it would have made writing this post a lot simpler. I had both the physical hardcover book and the audiobook, both borrowed from the library. I actually read it as an audiobook – I don’t know why I got the hardcover too – but then I had to go back with my post-it notes and find all the things I wanted to write about here. I mean, look at this:

So many post-it notes!

So many post-it notes!

Most of these won’t require much commentary, so it’s not as bad as it looks. OK I’ve written two of these and had to come back here and revise: I was totally lying; it’s exactly as bad as it looks. But it will be fun. Page citations refer to this first edition hardcover. And on that note, let’s dive in, shall we?

     “…I go on adventures everyday.”
“No, you read about adventures every day. You put your nose in books every day. You’re like Indiana Jones, but just the professor part.”

“Indiana Jones is still cool.”
“No, Indiana Jones was cool. But only when he was out experiencing life. You need to get outta your head and outta your comfort zone.”

“…The past may not hurt you…but it won’t challenge you either…” (pp. 8-9)

I think the scene has been set for an archivist to have a “real” adventure. On the flip-side, I liked the archivist’s allusion that he does go on adventures (through the collections he works with). There’s a lot of life to be lived through the archives, people!

As they told me when I first started as an archivist…, the Archives is our nation’s attic. A ten-billion-document scrapbook with nearly every vital file, record, and report that the government produces.
No question, that means this is a building full of secrets. Some big, some small. But every single day, I get to unearth another one. (p. 19)

As a group, don’t we archivists hate it when people call the archives an “attic”? It’s not just me, right? That reference likening us to something hot and stuffy and dusty? Maybe we’re (I’m) too sensitive. Maybe they just mean it in the sweet, nostalgic sense, like that’s where Grandma keeps all the “cool old stuff” (because an archivist never told her the attic is a terrible place to keep the family heirlooms and photographs).

And scrapbooks…those are just the bane of our existence, aren’t they? They’re a preservation nightmare, with all those different kinds of things affixed to acidic paper? I mean, photographs smashed face-to-face with acidic news clippings for who knows how many years, until we got hold of them and stuck a sheet of Permalife paper in between every set of pages, because that’s about the most we can do? And I think in most cases the National Archives is going to be much better than “a scrapbook” (though they probably have some scrapbooks too, just like the rest of us: there is no escape!).

And when I first read this (again, remember I was listening to an audiobook so some words slipped by), I remember taking issue with the use of the word “every” but now I see that it is qualified by the word “vital”. No, the archives isn’t going to have EVERY document produced, but they certainly should have all the VITAL ones. For any of my non-archivist friends (and Mom): the term “vital records” is an actual specific term in records management. It means, in short, any records that would be vital to keeping your organization running in the event of a disaster. (NARA even has a whole huge long page about vital records.)

“He even answers the questions that get emailed through the…website, which no one likes answering because when you email someone back, well, now you’ve got a pen pal…” (p. 48)

I think this one was my favorite, because it’s absolutely true that you often obtain a “pen pal” when responding to research requests – particularly ones from genealogists who are likely to have cause to contact your archives again later for something else. Often times, they will email you directly – not the web site, not the archives’ generic email – YOU. And who could really blame them? You were so helpful the first time and clearly know what you’re doing, and who knows who they might get if they submit their next question using the generic method?

…I start every morning with the obituaries… (p. 70)

It’s not just me! OK I don’t do this now – for two reasons: I don’t subscribe to the local newspapers, and I don’t know (and more importantly am not related to) very many people (well proportionate to how many people there actually are) in the area where I currently live. But I used to do this all the time as a teenager in my hometown, when I was doing a lot more genealogy than I do now, and when I lived in a place where I was related to…well, let’s face it, just about everyone, if you go back far enough. Sundays were a special treat because that newspaper had the wedding and engagement announcements too!

Forever an archivist, he knows the value of collecting information first… (p. 77)

This one actually requires no real commentary. I just liked it.

“…Don’t hide in those Archives… Live that life.” (p. 90)

But why not? But I love my wood shavings! You mean I should go outside and do things and talk to people? But I’d rather have my nose in a book! Or a letter from the 1830s… FINE.

     “…y’know what the best part of this job is? For me, it’s this sheet of paper… On any given day, this sheet is just another sheet in our collection, right? But then, one day–9/11 happens–and suddenly this sheet of paper becomes the most vital document in the U.S. government… That’s what we’re here to witness… We witness it and we protect it. We’re the caretakers of those sheets of paper that’ll someday define the writing of history…” (p. 96)

YASSSSS. THIS. We take care of ALL THE THINGS so they are there when they are needed and so that folks can use them to tell the world’s story. Every grain of sand is part of the beach. Every individual person’s story is part of the world’s story.

“…History isn’t written by the winners–it’s written by everyone–it’s a jigsaw of facts from contradictory sources…” (p. 255)

Again, every piece is a piece of the story. If you want to get crazy and convoluted about it, even the inaccurate documents are still a piece of the story. There’s a reason that document is wrong

I don’t have any more quotations to share (which is just as well, both for you and for me; hopefully I’m not past the limits of copyright fair use as it is!), but there were a few more interesting scenarios I wanted to note:

In the prologue (pp. 3-5), one character must deal with a situation in which a researcher (and a VIP one at that) is trying to remove (steal) a valuable document from the archives. Boo. That’s a situation no archivist ever wants to have to deal with, whether it’s Joe-Schmoe-you-wouldn’t-know-from-Adam or a high-ranking government official, whether it’s an ancestor’s naturalization record or the correspondence of a dead president. I think we can all agree that’s a scene right out of an archivist’s nightmares.

It is mentioned that the archivists are ranked monthly “in order of how many people we’ve helped” (p. 47). Is that the number of unique researchers or the number of questions answered? (One researcher might reply several times with multiple questions; see earlier commentary about getting a “pen pal.”) Either way, I thought this was interesting. I have no idea if that is something that NARA actually does. The segment says “it helps justify our jobs, but it also adds unnecessary competition.” True dat! I am glad we don’t do this at the archives where I work! For one thing, though, most of the reference questions (where I work) are answered by the reference manager, and we only have one of those. I suppose this could be more of a “thing” someplace huge like NARA where there are likely to be many reference archivists. But again, I have no idea if this is a scenario based in reality.

And finally, at one point, there is mention of a place called “Copper Mountain.” Ah, delightful; that gave me a chuckle. I suppose “Iron Mountain” must be trademarked. Iron Mountain is, according to their web site, is “a global business dedicated to storing, protecting and managing, information and assets.” Part of their storage network literally involves underground caves.

Now then, I really haven’t told you anything at all about the actual plot of the book (as promised, no spoilers), and I don’t plan to. I just wanted to share some of the particular snippets that were fun to read, as an archivist myself. I enjoyed the book well enough, and I would recommend it if the description (which you can read for yourself on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever else) sounds like the sort of thing you enjoy.

With any luck, it won’t be 4 months before I see you again!

6 responses to “The Inner Circle, an Archivist’s Tale

  1. Thank you for sharing! You have a vibrant energy that just pops off the page. Many blessings❤ ps – lovely idea about reading a book where the protagonist has your occupation. I can imagine learning a lot about myself from that.

  2. Glad to know I’m not the only obituary reader! I find them fascinating and quite aspirational.

  3. learningaboutarchives

    There is a trilogy of books (not sure if the third one is out yet) called the Archivist of Duntisbourne Hall, or something like that. It revolves around an archivist and some interesting things (I won’t give anything away in case you read it!) They’re an easy read🙂

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