Put a UV filter on that Limelight, Please! : Archivists in Popular Culture

I had just watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when my supervisor asked me to write a blog post about depictions of archivists in popular culture. If you’ve never seen it, the film features an icy, unhelpful corporate archivist whose presence suggests she’s never assisted a researcher before; this portrayal of my profession left me feeling embarrassed and frustrated. It’s no secret that archival personalities are often portrayed poorly in popular culture media but, girded with some self-righteous indignation, I was only too ready to broadcast my feelings on this affront to our blog readers.  

Or so I thought. But my outrage soon waned as I poured over professional articles and passionate blogs already dedicated to this very topic – of how archivists are portrayed so incorrectly. I soon noted a common lamentation among my peers’ writings– specifically, that archivists’ poor portrayals appear to stem from our own lack of a professional identity. As my indignation cooled, I conceded that this was a fair assessment. After all, if archivists can’t agree on what an archivist looks like, why should non-archivists do any better? I wondered what, if anything, I could contribute to my colleagues’ insightful conversations about archival identities, and in the end — as neither a scholar nor archival visionary — I opted to contribute a bite-sized, entertaining summary of the key issues and proposed solutions.

I: Common Depictions of Archivists

How exactly are archivists mischaracterized? From films at large to articles like The Chronicle of Higher Education’s, “The Delicate Art of Dealing with Your Archivist,” archivists have been cast variously as inept, unnecessary, and high-strung. Either explicitly or implicitly, archival caricatures often manifest as capricious rule-makers presiding over strongholds of reclusive knowledge. Moreover, the cinematic archivist – whose primary occupation appears to be tacit obfuscation—commonly functions as an extension of oppressive bureaucracy, shadowy conspiracy, or benign neglect. This representation may be further complicated by the conflation of “archivist” personalities with other resource management roles, like “librarian,” “records manager,” “curator,” “historian,” and even “archaeologist.” (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones!)

A common cinematic utility of depictions like these is that they function as foils to the story’s protagonist, whether explicitly, as in the case of Archivist “Lindgren” in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or implicitly, as in the case of the keepers of the “Vatican Archives” in Angels and Demons—a future-esque archives whose clearly obsessive caretaker(s) remain unseen during the film. In both examples, the archivist is driven by motivations opposed to those of the protagonist. Viewers see this repeatedly in situations where a protagonist must access a controlled space for specific information in order to further the story’s plot, even if doing so is dangerous or illegal. Such contexts suggest that it’s acceptable or sometimes necessary to break archival rules as, for instance, in Angels and Demons, when Dr. Vittoria Vetra rips out and steals pages from a seventeenth-century text. National Treasure presents another example of this trope when protagonists steal the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives in order to protect it. In such cases, repositories and their keepers appear to be driven by hoarding secrets rather than promoting knowledge. The implication is that archivists in these spaces lack interest in advocating the pursuit of knowledge and helping patrons – that the archivist serves as a roadblock rather than a bridge.

By way of reinforcing the archivist as a roadblock instead of a bridge, consider the aforementioned archivist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Far from welcoming, the archivist scorns protagonist Lisbeth Salander, regarding her as an interloper more than a legitimate researcher. While it’s fair to say Salander’s curt demeaner casts her as a challenging researcher to assist, a good archivist would not be so defensive or disdainful.

Similarly, the Jedi Temple archivist, Madame Jocasta Nu in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones presents an arrogant, patronizing image of records keepers. When asked by Obi-Wan to clarify the location of the planet Kamino, Jocasta Nu unironically asserts that, “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” I’ve been a professional archivist for years now, but I could not tell someone with confidence what I have in my own lunchbox today, much less patronizingly assure a researcher that something absolutely does not exist. On the contrary, best practice would mean redirecting the researcher to another possible research path, if possible. While I might say that we could not provide any insight or documentation on that Kamino, Obi-Wan, you might try the archives on The Federation’s Memory Alpha planet (epic crossover, archives style!)

Now, in the interest of being comprehensive when I write “popular culture,” I should highlight that similar inaccuracies also extend to portrayals of archivists in podcasts, board games, tv shows, video games, and more. This is a short blog, though, so I must let other archivists weigh in with their observations about these portrayals (I particularly enjoyed Samantha Cross’ “Archivist Spotlight: The Magnus Archives Staff” post wherein she addresses diversity among the podcasts’ characters).

In reading my colleagues’ assessments regarding the causes of mischaracterizations, I found myself turning toward grasping the influence of these portrayals – in trying to give words to the sinking feeling that these mischaracterizations are dangerous and voicing why our community feels so slighted by them. And then it struck me.

These mischaracterizations stand in stark contrast to the core mandates of our profession.

Being an archivist demands a passion for learning and sharing information. The best of us spend our entire careers nurturing and fostering that passion, knowing that failure to cultivate the use of our holdings means we are entombing more than preserving the past. The depiction of archivists as disinterested or scheming undermines our profession’s learning-driven mindset.

Moreover, while it is true that we must preclude certain records from public access, doing so is not an arbitrary process. Portraying archivists as enigmatic secret-keepers fails to account for legitimate reasons information may be restricted, including, but not limited to, records containing personally identifiable information, crime victims’ identities, medical details, or other information protected by statute. If providing access is one pillar of our professional house, safeguarding protected information is another.

It stands to reason that the stereotype of secretive archivists stems from our ineffective communication regarding this reality. If archivists fail to communicate why certain materials are restricted, we risk fostering suspicion and frustration. It is our responsibility to ensure researchers understand restrictions exist not because archivists like keeping secrets, but in order to protect vulnerable information. Failures in this regard – whether by inadequately communicating the reasons for restriction or else by granting illicit access –undermine archival integrity. If that integrity is lost, we hemorrhage public trust and legitimacy. This reality is rarely considered in archivists’ popular culture depictions.

Another common slight, especially noticeable in film representations, is that archivists are non-essential to the actual performance of archival research, and, moreover, that such research can be done quickly. In movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one can witness the protagonist sideline the archivist and arrive at the information they require in a matter of minutes. That implies some wildly efficient research, the sort that most archivists could not achieve if researching in our own facilities. By way of contrast, consider that I spent 45 minutes googling French onion soup recipes last week. Now, these were superbly indexed by the search engine, free to access, and instantly available from my smartphone. Even with all that metadata and ease of access, I still needed nearly an hour to find the perfect recipe.

Compare this to conducting archival research. It’s no secret that even the best archives rarely achieve the degree of indexing provided by a search engine. Moreover, we all know that furnishing digital access to materials is not the same as providing the intellectual web needed to understand those materials within the context of their creation. To circle back to the French onion soup example, while a list of ingredients is not useless, without the context provided by the search engine, the recipe’s author, and the cooking directions, I’d never find the recipe or know how many onions to use, or how long I needed to simmer the thing.

Clearly, this sort of context-building is essential for archival collections to be more than ingredient lists without recipes or keyword-indexed haystacks. And who are the bridgebuilders for that context, the entities charged with creating those contextual scaffolds by supplying resources like standardized metadata, finding aids, and historical background? Why, that’s us – the archivists.

However, this “bridge-builder” role is too often cast as “gatekeeper” within popular archival depictions, where the discovery of unique information hinges on serendipity rather than an archivist’s work to systematically equip and empower patrons with tools of discovery. Omitting the archivists’ contributions illustrates a broad-reaching, systemic tendency to value records but not keepers of records. If this popular culture stereotype goes unchallenged, we undermine our professional pride, our institutional missions, and the accessibility of the historical record.

It is important to recognize the threat is not entirely external, either. Some elements of inaccurate depictions are so pervasively compelling that even well-intending archivists buy into them. For instance, I’ve been tempted as much as any of you to believe that only other archivists will ever understand the value of what I do. But that’s an insidious untruth, and it fosters the sort of professional isolationism that silently condones inaccurate depictions. Additionally, some tactless archivists have propagated elements of these stereotypes in real life. Before I embarked on the path of the archivist, I wanted to be an historian, which meant I spent a lot of time in archival settings and regularly interacted with other history students doing the same. Heartbreakingly, some of fellow students described unhelpful or rude archival workers, whose terse demeanors and seemingly arbitrary rules made my fellow history students feel unwelcome, belittled, and snubbed. Looking back on these stories from my current position, I can recognize these archivists as the ill-trained, rude, and inappropriately employed individuals they were. These real-life exceptions reinforce the stereotypes played out on-screen, and repairing this damage requires far more effort that perpetrating it. In fairness to popular depictions, there are those among us who are not worthy of the archival mantle.

II: Professional Conversations

If you are interested in a more robust academic perspective on the topic of archivists in popular culture then check out Amanda Oliver and Anne Daniel’s literature review, “The Identity Complex: The Portrayal of Archivists in Film.” This article offers a concise, but thorough twentieth-century history of archivists’ portrayals in film and the reactions of the archival community.[1] The studies Oliver and Daniel review all echo a similar conclusion – namely, that archives and archivists are not universally defined even within the profession, which in turn contributes to our inaccurate popular depictions. They are not alone in their findings and their conclusions reverberate throughout the professional community – within archival publications and training programs, conference sessions like SAA’s “Archives at the Movies,” and increasingly through grassroots reckonings within the profession. Of the final category, the most visible are probably blogs, but more on that below.

So how do we challenge the myth of the stereotypical archivist? We must illustrate our value and advocate our contributions, highlight our willingness to adapt, and recommit to addressing the needs of those we serve. These sorts of advocacy efforts hinge on embracing the challenge of communicating the value of archivists and archives to people who may never visit an archive.

III: Change and Advocacy

Collectively the studies addressed in Oliver and Danie’s review charge us to action, urging archivists to fight inaccurate stereotypes by conducting more active advocacy and outreach. But while archivists are pursing these lofty objectives, it bears reminding that outreach means more than just broadcasting what we’re doing. Consider the following comedically embellished exchange from a recent (unsuccessful) date:

My Date: “So, you’re an ‘archivist’ – what is that? What do you do?

Me: “Oh, well, I’m a government archivist and, though that means I mostly work with government records, that’s not a hard and fast rule since I sometimes work with nonprofit and private entities as well. Previously, I worked in academic and corporate archives settings, but those repositories served different purposes. But to answer your question, archivists might do anything from coordinating digital migration strategies and database management to developing processing plans and distinguishing between nitrate, acetate, and polyester films – one of which is so flammable it’ll burn underwater–cool right?! I know. So, right now, I’m researching the functionalist roles of a government agency, but maybe later I’ll append Dublin Core metadata to some TIFF files using Adobe Bridge before uploading them to …. Hey, wait, where are you going? I’ve not even described the difference between microfilm and microfiche yet!”

Truly, not my finest hour. Now, compare the tone of this abysmal date story with the succinct, clear advocacy offered by the Society of American Archivists’ “Mad Libs Elevator Pitch” template.

Much clearer, right? When you contrast my jargon-laden date dialogue with this approachable template, you see that the SAA template conversationally shapes the conversation around how archival work “may help with your interest in/work on________.” By placing the researcher’s interests at the conclusion of this brief explanation, we help connect them personally with the larger archival picture; if we can make the public see themselves as participants in and beneficiaries of archives, we will go far in upending these misconceptions about archivists’ motivations.

These two examples highlight how outreach means descending, no, rappelling down our ivory towers to communicate our work to people who aren’t other archivists. Such efforts could entail generating more public programming, elevating social media presences, collaborating with other cultural institutions, and just generally making ourselves known and understood within our communities. We’ve learned how to do this in order to advocate for funding within our institutions; now we must advocate for our value outside our annual budgets and within the hearts and minds of those we serve.

This work is difficult, of course, especially when our occupations demand increasing fluency in complex technologies. Fortunately, our profession benefits from archivists like Sam Cross (the wit behind the Pop Archives blog and Pop Archives YouTube channel) whose entertaining and accessible resources help humanize archives. I will heap similar praise upon the perspectives highlighted by the American Archivist Reviews Portal’s “Pop Culture and Archives” category; the Society of American Archivists Committee on Public Awareness also features a powerful resource page brimming with advocacy tools and ideas on how to improve public awareness.

Though I began this blog under the specter of frustration, I now feel both humbled by my own ignorance and empowered by the “can-do” attitudes from within our community. Far from the elusive mausoleums perpetuated by stereotype, archival spaces are living temples forming the narrative bedrock of our lives, and archivists are their caretakers. We should embrace the full weight of those responsibilities as well as the honor we have in advocating for these places. If someone wants to make that movie, they should give us a call.

ADAH Records Management Archivist  Charles Busby wrote this blog.

[1] Amanda Oliver and Anne Daniel, “The Identity Complex: The Portrayal of Archivists in Film,” Archival Issues 37, no. 1 (2015): 49.

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