Tag Archives: books

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!

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My new toy, Kindle Touch

I finally bought an e-book reader last week. I had been resisting them for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which seemed to be “I don’t need it.” Well, of course I don’t need it. Does anyone really “need” an e-book reader, when regular books have worked just fine for hundreds of years?

Well, actually — if you think about it — librarians sort of do. The reason I say that is because many of our patrons have them, and want to use them to access the downloadable media available from the library, and it would be good if the library staff knew how to help them do that. And to that end, the library where I work decided to offer an incentive to staff members to purchase of an e-book reader. Sure, they had some on hand that staff could play with, but it’s not really the same as having one that you can make your own, really get to know it (and love it).

(I should also note that if the device isn’t compatible with OverDrive, the software we use for our downloadables, then it isn’t eligible for the incentive. The whole point is to get staff to learn how to use e-book readers with OverDrive, so we can help patrons with the process.)

I decided to go for it… Why not?

So, allow me to introduce you to my new Amazon Kindle Touch ($99, plus a $40 protective case):

Lisa's Kindle Touch

Lisa's Kindle Touch

I’ve only had it for a week, but I must admit (sheepishly) that I already rather love it.

The first thing I did when I got it out of the box was put it into its case. Next, I charged the battery (via the included USB cable). I figured out how to connect the device to my Amazon account (which is how you get content on to it).

Then, I read the User Guide, which comes pre-installed on the device.  I know that might seem counter-intuitive in a way, to only give you a user guide that is on the device, but the darn thing is just so intuitive in general, that you can’t miss it. It’s right there, when you turn it on, and you just click on it and start reading. Plus, I suppose it’s probably also one of those “immersive” learning strategies; it forces you to learn by doing.

Once I had the tools I needed, I set out to get some new content on it. I looked up some classics — like Pride and Prejudice or The Odyssey — on Amazon and found that many of them are free. Yes, free. Like, zero American dollars. On the one hand, that of course makes sense because the text of those works are in the public domain. But I must admit, I was skeptical whether that would be the case or if Amazon would have found a way to justify charging a nominal fee since they took the time and effort to create the Kindle version. But apparently not, so: Yay for free content!

Speaking of free content, next on my list was to figure out how I could borrow library e-books using my new Kindle.

Now, the ability to get Kindle books through OverDrive is a rather recent development. Until a couple of months ago, it was not possible to borrow library e-books on a Kindle. But, that is no longer the case. However, that being said, there are some aspects of this new feature that many librarians are not very happy about. Sarah Houghton, of the Librarian in Black blog, sums up those concerns better than I ever could (just FYI: her video blog contains language not suitable for work). But the short version is: when patrons borrow e-books on a Kindle, the book actually comes from Amazon and so Amazon is able to keep a record of that transaction, which is counter to the privacy mandate to which public libraries generally adhere. So, as a librarian, I feel obligated to mention that. As a consumer/patron/Kindle owner, it doesn’t bother me, because I have made the (informed) decision to be okay with the fact that Amazon knows what I’m reading. (They keep a record of all the stuff I buy from them, too, and yet I keep shopping there, so I suppose I’m used to it.) But Ms. Houghton definitely makes some valid points, so check her out.

But back to my experience with my new toy. I went to the Dayton Metro Library’s Downloadable Digital Media Library and searched for a book. Once I found one that was both in the catalog, available in Kindle e-book format, and had copies available, it only took a few clicks to “get” the book. I had to “add to cart”, put in my library card number, and then click “Get for Kindle.” I did have to login to my Amazon account (which is where the privacy issues come in) so that the book could be added to my device (because the device is linked to my Amazon account). The e-book then showed up on my list of e-books (with the notation “public library” next to the title). Once I re-synched my device (by connecting to wireless internet and clicking “synch”), the book showed up on my list there, as well. The borrowed e-book works just like my other books, except that in a couple of weeks I expect that it will disappear, once the loan period expires.

I did notice something interesting when I was trying to find a book to borrow, though. I searched for a book I have had on my mental list for a while now – Under the Tuscan Sun – and found that it was not available at all in the Dayton Metro Library e-books catalog.  Out of curiosity, I decided to check nearby Greene County Public Library, whose e-book catalog is also powered by OverDrive. It also appears to be part of a consortium (since you must choose which library your card is from, when you put in your library card number). Anyway, the short version is that they did have Under the Tuscan Sun in their catalog. I found this odd. Of books that both catalogs had in common, I noticed that the GCPL catalog seemed to have more copies of each one than DML (which could be because of the consortium, I guess). Since I am not privy to the inner workings of my library’s OverDrive contract, I can’t say why all of this is. I wondered if perhaps there might be different “tiers” of OverDrive service; perhaps GCPL had subscribed to a more expensive one? By chance, as I was poking around Sarah Houghton’s site today looking for that earlier blog entry about Amazon/OverDrive, I saw that her post from today discusses this very topic: “OverDrive has Different eBook Catalogs for Different Libraries.” I’ll let Ms. Houghton tell you about her theories in her own words…interesting stuff. [*Edit* Apparently, I misunderstood Ms. Houghton’s article. The problem she discusses and the one I’ve mentioned are not necessarily the same. But do still go and read what she has to say! Thanks to “Mike” for the clarification; see comment below. *End Edit*]

As a library patron, whatever the reason, the point is that if you don’t find what you want in one library e-book catalog, you should check the catalogs for other nearby libraries. They might have a book that your library didn’t have, or they might have more copies or copies available when your library did not. (For example, I ended up downloading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians from the GCPL because GCPL’s catalog has 9 copies, and one was available — as I write this, there are currently 4 of 9 available — whereas the DML catalog only has 2 copies, both of which were checked out.

All OverDrive weirdness aside, I’ve been enjoying reading The Magicians on my Kindle — both because the book is enjoyable and because my new toy is really pretty awesome. Here are some of the things I really like about reading on my Kindle:

  • The integrated dictionary. I was always bad about actually looking up words I didn’t know, when reading. I’d try to get the gist from context and failing that, I would usually just hope it wasn’t too important, rather than trudging off to find a dictionary. While reading on my Kindle, if I see a word I don’t know, I can just “press and hold” on the word, and the dictionary pops right up. Now there’s no excuse not to learn exactly what that word means, right then and there!
  • The overall design: the fact that it’s a flat, touch screen. It’s so much easier to read while eating, lying in bed, or even on the couch. I don’t have to hold the book open. I barely need to lift one finger (literally) to advance to the next page (just press anywhere near the right side of the screen). I mean, I know reading is a pretty sedentary, motionless activity to start with…but that one-finger page-advance feature makes it even simpler. I have to say, I am loving the ability to just prop the thing up against my computer at my desk and read while eating my lunch, which leaves both hands free except when I have to turn a page — so as long as I keep mayo or pizza sauce or garlic bread crumbs off at least one finger, it’s all good!
  • The instant gratification. Especially with the library downloadables and the public domain classics, both of which are free. As long as you are somewhere with accessible wifi, you are just a few seconds away from reading a new book (or an old one). You can also buy Kindle books right from the device itself, although I am trying not to get into the bad habit of doing that…it’s so damn easy, it could get expensive quickly!
  • The e-ink. Unlike an LCD screen (e.g., flat panel monitors, iPads, or Kindle Fire), the Kindle Touch uses something called e-ink and it looks like paper. It is black letters on a white background. It doesn’t “light up” exactly so you still need a lamp to see what you’re reading, but it also doesn’t give you trouble if you’re out in the sunlight. (Okay, I have to admit, I am taking their word for it on that one right now, since it is December in Ohio, and we’re unlikely to see much sun for several months.)
  • The percent completed notification in the lower right-hand corner while you are reading. It’s nice to see that, especially since (unlike holding a physical book in your hands), you can’t actually see that the majority of the text block shift from right to left as you read. (Then again, it’s also nice to not have that change in balance affecting your ability to hold the book open with one hand, depending on how big the book is!)

(Please note that as I am not intimately familiar with any other e-book readers, I’m not suggesting that these features can only be enjoyed on a Kindle. Much of what I just said is probably true of many other e-book readers.)

Hopefully this whole blog doesn’t come off sounding like some god-awful sales pitch for Amazon Kindle. That’s not how I meant it. I just thought I’d share some thoughts on this fun new toy I got. (And I do consider it a “toy”. I still believe that nobody really “needs” an e-book reader. But damn, they sure are convenient and fun to use!)

Oh and one last thing about Kindle. The $99 one does have “special offers” (ads), but they only show up in a small banner at the bottom of the Home menu (like when you are trying to decide which book to read today), or when the Kindle is in power-save mode. There are no ads on the screen when you are actually reading a book. And if you really, really want the ads gone, you can pay an extra $40 any time and get rid of them permanently. I’m glad I didn’t splurge for the ad-free Kindle to start with, because I really find the ads quite unobtrusive and not worth $40 just to be rid of them.

If you have any questions about e-books, e-book readers, or how to borrow e-books from the library, please ask your local librarian. If he/she doesn’t know much about it, maybe you can learn together. 🙂

Recent reading: Codex by Lev Grossman

“What’s that you’re reading?”
Codex.”
“Yes, I can see that…what’s the title?”
“I already told you: Codex.”

How could any librarian not be drawn to a book whose title is Codex? It’s so meta! (For those who may never have taken a History of Books class, “codex” is simply a fancy word for what we would just call a “book” today – gatherings of pages bound together within a cover. But in ye olden dayes, the word “codex” distinguished that familiar format from a much earlier book format: the scroll.)

I had recently read a review for Grossman’s newer books — The Magicians and The Magician King — which are supposed to be like fresh meat for adults lamenting the end of Harry Potter. Anyway, I was browsing the Fiction section at the library, and of course the Magician books were all checked out, but the title of one of Grossman’s earlier books, Codex: A Novel (2004) book caught my eye.

Here’s the book’s official description, since quite frankly it seems silly to reinvent the wheel in that respect:

About to depart on his first vacation in years, Edward Wozny, a hotshot young investment banker, is sent to help one of his firm’s most important and mysterious clients. His task is to search their library stacks for a precious medieval codex, a treasure kept sealed away for many years and for many reasons. Enlisting the help of passionate medievalist Margaret Napier, Edward is determined to solve the mystery of the codex-to understand its significance to his wealthy clients, and to decipher the seeming parallels between the legend of the codex and an obsessive role-playing computer game that has absorbed him in the dark hours of the night. [From the entry on Amazon.]

I was still interested after reading the description, and so I decided to take it home with me — er, checking it out first, of course.

I was not disappointed. Similar to how Grossman’s The Magicians is being compared to Harry Potter, I would compare Codex to The Da Vinci Code. As in, if you liked The Da Vinci Code, I think you’d probably like Codex. If you enjoy a good mystery/thriller that is going to have its characters talking about history, books, and traipsing through an archives or two, then I think Codex is probably for you.

I was delighted any time the narrative described an archives or a bunch of old books — which was often — so I frequently found myself nodding and chuckling, as Grossman clearly knows what he’s writing about.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book — no spoilers — with page numbers from the 2004 Harcourt hardcover edition:

It was at the bottom of a tall stack of books, but before he could offer to help she picked them up and shifted them to the floor in one practiced motion. The books left a ladder of dusty smudges up the front of her dress, but she didn’t seem to notice. (pg. 109)

(Yep. Been there.)

“Do you know what happens to books like these once they’re sold?… They’re disbound. Dealers dismantle them, cut them up and sell them off page by page because they’re worth more money that way. Do you understand? They’ll be gone forever. Dead. They’ll never be reassembled.” (pg. 123)

(Sad but true. However, I was reminded of Micah Erwin’s presentation at the Preserving our Cultural Heritage conference in March, in which he described a project aimed at virtually reassembling medieval leaf collections, using social technologies such as Flickr. It was extremely intriguing.)

“…he imagined another life for himself as one of these silent scholars, buried in his research like a guinea pig in its wood shavings, nibbling away steadily after some arcane piece of knowledge in the hope of making an addition, however imperceptible, to the collective pile.” (pp. 205-206)

(I had to chuckle at this, recalling the massive pile of research I had assembled when trying to figure out my “little Quaker love story” a few weeks ago. And you should see all the papers I have piled up on my book cart as I do background research for the entire Forrer-Peirce-Wood collection. I am completely guilty of the guinea-pig-buried-in-its-wood-shavings syndrome, but I’m happy when I’m in there.)

At one point, a litany of book conservation supplies are described, and I just couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear as I read, thinking, I actually know what most of that is for!

I won’t spoil the ending for you. No spoilers here. But I will say that I was surprised at the ending and not quite sure how I feel about it. 

Nevertheless, it was an awesome book, and part of me wants to read it again, just to catch all the things I’m sure I missed the first time around. I might save it in the back of my mind for a re-read again soon, but for now I have other books that need reading. And I need to return my copy of Codex to the library, so someone else can enjoy it.