Memoir of an Archivist After Death [Fiction, Part I]

Remember when I said I was writing something for an archival short story contest? Well – unsurprisingly – I didn’t finish it. Since it is 2/3 of the way done however, I’m going to share it here in three parts. And I am absolutely going to write part three. Promise.

Memoir of an Archivist After Death
by Stephanie @ PlayfullyTacky

Have you seen Beetlejuice? You know, that late-80s comedic masterpiece from Tim Burton back before he became just a caricature of himself? A modern classic, for sure. I absolutely loved that movie as a kid. I can remember many a Saturday morning pushing that tape into the VHS player and settling in with a bowl of corn flakes. Always corn flakes, my mom never bought the fun cereal.

One of my favorite scenes was when the distressed Maitlands ventured into the Hades branch of their local DHS to meet with their caseworker. How exactly did the deceased end up working in this underworld office? Could I dye my hair as pink as the receptionist? And most importantly, where did all that paperwork come from and why did no one care that it wasn’t organized in nice piles? How would they ever find what they needed?

Is that weird? Oh my God, was I a weirdo? [Hang on for a minute while I reevaluate my entire existence.] Okay, anyway . . . I like to think that my love of that movie helped land me where I am today. Although I’m not entirely sure that is a good thing so helped might not be the right word. Where exactly am I, you ask? Well, I’m in the real-life version of that underworld DHS. And I’m in charge of all that paper.

They don’t prepare you for this in library school.

Let me start by telling you a little bit about a typical day here in my post-existence [context, people!]: The alarm goes off at 6am. No, not even the dead get to sleep in. There isn’t any need to shower, exercise, or eat, but a lot of us go through the motions anyway. Personally, I like to stare at a cream cheese bagel and swirl around a cup of coffee before I leave my building. I just can’t give up that coffee. It used to be the thing that made me feel like a living, breathing human every morning. Although I can’t say it does that much for me anymore, I keep up the habit all the same. Supposedly we in-betweeners can still eat the food, but it doesn’t taste quite the same and I prefer to stick with my memories.

My commute is usually uneventful – we don’t have the kind of traffic they do in Hell – and I arrive at work around 8am to be greeted by a way-too-chipper morning person. Her name is Debbie, she works the front desk, and I’m pretty sure she was murdered by her former coworkers. No one can deal with this level of pep in the morning. After escaping from Debbie, I spend the next eight hours alone in the basement sorting through death records, haunting assignments, closed reincarnation requests, and TPS reports (usually without their cover pages).

On a particularly interesting day, I might discover an old exorcism-avoidance training manual or maybe spend an hour lost in the files of Queen Victoria, Jim Morrison, and Tutankhamen. Last week I tackled the records from one of the European plague pandemics. For official records these are pretty scant; Lord knows the orientation lines had to be longs during those years. Literally, Lord knows. The higher-ups want me to build a searchable database and try to fill in the missing information for these and other mass-mortality records, but won’t even give me an intern to help with that one. Not gonna’ happen.

Technically I should only be dealing with the closed records, i.e. those pertaining to people who have moved on to their final destination (informally labeled 9L, for nine lives). It is a misnomer really, as not everybody actually gets nine. The label comes from an old system leftover from the administration of Lytton during his short term as Death in the seventeenth century. He tried to overhaul the records retention plan and really mucked things up with extraneous ledgers and processes that did nothing for standardization and increased the backlog ten-fold. I’m still trying to right things from that misadventure.

But let’s stay away from politics. As I said, I should only be dealing with closed records. However, at least once a week I get a call from some random case-worker trying to determine proper placement for a person mistakenly nine-lived. I’m constantly reminding them not to send me active files. I’m hoping it will sink-in sometime in the next century or so. An ambitious project, I know.

Drop-everything-and-work-on-this-right-now projects aside, this is pretty much what I do every single day. Or at least, what I was doing before everything changed.

To be continued.
Check back on November 20 for part two.

Thirty Hours in DC

Last Tuesday/Wednesday I took a bit of a whirlwind trip to Washington DC, waking up at 4am on Tuesday to catch a 6:05 flight. I immediately regretted my decision to book such an early flight when the alarm went off.

My flights were uneventful, going first to Atlanta then to DC. I had an hour layover in Atlanta, but it wasn’t needed as I arrived in one gate and left in the very next gate. Oh well. I spent most of my flights (going and returning) listening to an autobiography of Catherine the Great. So good. This audiobook is thirty-something hours long, but I can’t really tell. I’m really into the story, but sorry that I’m going to have to struggle to find time to finish it now that I’m back in the real world.
Washington DCSo, why exactly did I go to DC? It was work thing. Sometimes instead of an over-stressed mom, I’m a badass archivist who works very hard at her job. Sometimes I’m both.

This particular work function was to attend a reception in the Senate building for the unveiling of an official portrait of Blanche Lincoln, former Democratic senator from Arkansas. I’m in charge of her senatorial papers at the moment and went to represent my archival peeps. Don’t worry, I didn’t say “peeps” when I was in the Senate building. I did wander around though, explore the basement, and ride the senators only elevator.
Senate Building

Blanche Lincoln
Former Senator Blanche L. Lincoln doing her thing.

After the reception, I walked over to a restaurant called The Monacle, billed as sort of an old-school Capitol Hill spot. The restaurant was a pleasant place to be and was busy, even on a late Tuesday night. I made the mistake of ordering the vegetarian pasta. I forgot to take a photo before I stirred it up, but here it is, non-food porn style:
The Monacle This dish was a disappointment. The menu said it included wilted spinach and wild mushrooms. I expected an inspired, delicious dish. I got a throwaway pasta dish only added to the menu so the veggie-people would have something to eat. My dish had six pieces of spinach. There were more mushrooms, but they were covered in this thick sauce – not the light far I expected. It really seemed like they had a chicken pasta dish and just removed the chicken to make it veggie. I had intended to treat myself to dessert, but the pasta dish was so heavy I just wasn’t up for it. The pasta wasn’t bad, exactly, but it was Olive Garden fare. Bummer.

On Wednesday, I purposely booked a 6pm flight so I would have time to do at least one thing DC. I decided to set out for the Newseum, as I’d never been there before.

Newseum - Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall and an unfinished statue of Lenin that eventually lost its head too.
Newseum - 911 Overview Nellie
Left: a piece of the World Trade Center. Top: the open lobby of the Newseum. Bottom: Nellie Bly getting some attention.

The best way I can describe the Newseum. . . it was like a punch to the gut. The current exhibits veered into painful territory and I really felt like I needed to do something lighthearted afterwards. Not to discourage you from going though – it was spectacular.

On the flight home, I decided to take advantage of my free-drink first class perk and helped myself to three glasses of white wine during the leg to Atlanta. I noticed I was getting a little tipsy when I opened my window to watch the lights below (something I usually don’t like to do because it makes me nauseous). Then as I walked up the gangway, I started to contemplate the origin of the phrase “drunk as a skunk” while laughing to myself. At that point, I realized I hadn’t had anything to eat in nine hours except for three pimento cheese crackers. I headed for a sandwich on the way to my next gate to rectify that situation and avoided the wine on the second leg of my trip (I was driving home afterall).

I fell into my bed at 11:30, exhausted, but happy to be home. I really enjoy DC – I think it is my third favorite US city (after Chicago and Kansas City).


I am writing this from the six floor of the downtown Cleveland Public Library around 2pm, Friday August 20. After a fourteen hour conference day Wednesday and a fifteen hour conference day Thursday, I welcomed an unexpected 2 ½ hour break to eat lunch and retreat to an introvert-recharging-station. Since I have some kind of archivist-radar, I landed in the history and genealogy area. It is a bit hotter in here than I would like, but I blame that on the weird Midwesterners who don’t understand the glory of blasting air conditioning in every building like us southerners. [I should probably point out that it is 71 and gorgeous outside. I’m sure the temp in this building is actually fine.]

As of right now, I have forty-five minutes until I need to head back for my next meeting. Then the evening is pretty much full, especially if you count the later evening mixer with my regional association. And I do – networking is a required part of conference attendance.

Oh, the air conditioning just kicked on. Awesome.

I thought I was going to share a few days of posts about this conference like I did last year for DC, but I haven’t really left a six-block radius in the downtown area. Plus, the conference has been kind of spectacular this year so I’ve concentrated on attending as much a possible and soaking up knowledge. Usually when I return from a conference, I feel energized about my career. I’m not sure if that is going to be the case this time, but it has been really great anyway.

So, what have I done? The neatest by far was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I walked around with a big smile on my face and passed several people actually crying – seeing this type of history really moved them. I enjoy music, but I didn’t realize how much it would affect me to see costumes and memorabilia from The Doors, David Bowie, Elvis, and even Beyonce.

Photo time! My battery was running low, so I wasn’t able to take a ton. I snapped as much as I could. Also, I spent $75 in the gift shop. I recommend visiting it before you see the exhibits and get your nostalgia going.






Stay tuned Wednesday for some more photos of general Cleveland!

Job Hunting

No, not me. Other people.

We are in the middle of hiring at work, something that always makes me inordinately discouraged. Not because of the hiring process itself, but because of the plight of the job seeker.

So many resumes come across my desk, but the pool is extremely large, diverse, and qualified; many get put aside who would likely be great in the job. The sheer mass of qualified applications makes it very difficult to hire someone based on potential, talent, and maybe an educated hunch.

I guess what really gets to me is the fact that many of the applications I put aside look very similar to mine when I started job hunting after finishing my MA. Entering the archival field what feels like only a few hours before the job market became abysmal, I was able to land a position with scattered experience, enthusiasm, and a promise of bigger things (I like to think I delivered).

appreciate-not-complaining-about-workplace-ecard-someecardsI feel like I should help. Like I should mentor everyone and pull my (nonexistent) strings to find them a good place. I’m big on taking care of the “youth” so to speak. I know that sounds ridiculous coming from someone in her early thirties. Maybe “newbs” is the better term? I’m big on supporting the newbs.

In grad school and early in my career, I had a number of people take interest in me and give me the kind of work experiences that set me up for success and instilled in me a passion for my career. One of my big goals in life is to provide that kind of nurturing environment for others. I don’t know if I’m achieving that as often as I would like.

It sucks out there and I wish I knew how to help make it better. I think it is easier for those of us gainfully employed – especially those of us who haven’t experienced as depressed a market – to become complacent. Phrases like “they’ll take if they want the job” and “they should be happy to have a job” get thrown around too often (not pointing fingers are anyone here, just things you hear). I don’t like that. We should all be on the same team here.

Too altruistic? My feelings are authentic, at least. I’ll keep trying to make a difference.

Things You Should Know About Preserving Your Family Photos

I’m talking actual physical photos here folks, not that new-fangled digital stuff. [Seriously though, if you aren’t taking care of your digital photographs you are putting your memories in danger. Read up on some tips here. Maybe I’ll do a post on that later.]

1. It is all about storage. Storage, Storage, Storage.
In my opinion, the most important thing you can do to preserve your photographs for future generations is to store them in a place that is dry with a cool, stable temperature. No attic. No basement. No garage. Avoid direct sunlight. Bring those babies into your main house. Sure, there are lots more specific storage techniques (and I’ll talk about those in a minute), but you can make a huge difference just by doing this one simple thing. Don’t put this off – do it now!

Okay, let’s move on to something a little more advanced than that. I’m going to cheat here and take my information directly from the National Archives. (Pro tip #1: Trust a qualified source!)

“Look for paper enclosures that are made from a high quality, non-acidic, lignin-free paper (buffered or unbuffered are OK) made from cotton or highly purified wood pulps. . . . Look for plastic enclosures made from uncoated pure polyethylene, polypropylene or polyester (also called Mylar D or Mellinex 516). These are considered stable and non-damaging to photographs. Polyester is crystal clear and is more rigid than polyethylene and polypropylene. None of these recommended plastics have any odor to them, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic does have a strong odor (the new car smell). Avoid the use of PVC plastics–they generate acids which can fade the photograph in time. . . .

Photographs can also be stored in plastic pocket pages and standard size plastic sleeves, grouped in folders for organization, then stacked in a box. Photographs 8 x10 inches or smaller can be stored vertically on their long edges in standard size boxes which are available for many photographic formats, including modern and nineteenth-century photographs. Photos larger than 8 x 10 inches, or those with damaged edges (brittle, torn) should be stored flat in small stacks inside standard size boxes. Groups of similar sized photos which are all the same type, such as modern 4 x 6 inch color snapshots, or older 2-1/4 inch black-and white snapshots, can be stored vertically or horizontally together without extra housings–photos which are the same type are usually safe to store in contact with each other.

Boxes should be neither over stuffed or under filled. Over stuffing causes damage when photos are pulled out or filed away; under filling causes the photos to slump and curl.”

2. Watch those fingerprints.
I’m not saying you have to go out and buy white cotton gloves (although feel free if you want to be fancy!), but fingerprints will cause a lot of damage to your images. Always have clean hands when you will be handling your photos and always hold them by the edges. You won’t even see the oil residue you are leaving behind, but in a few years that tell-tale fingerprint will pop up. The only thing you can do at that point is to scan it and try to remove it digitally. Speaking of scanning. . .

3. Consider scanning.
Take the time to scan your photographs and create high-quality digital images. From there, you have the digital versions to view anytime you want, you could print off hard copies for family members to enjoy instead of the originals, or you could even create a fun photo book gift from one of the many websites out there. If you do scan, make sure you are taking the proper steps for long-term preservation of those files (see the link above to get started).

I feel like this should be common sense, but know from experience it is not – do not discard the originals after you scan them. Seriously people.

4. No rubber bands, paperclips, staples, or writing.
Rubber bands turn into this substance that is somehow hard and still sticky when they deteriorate. Paperclips and staples leave scrapes, indentions, or holes behind and can rust then they deteriorate. Writing? Yeah, that one might come as a surprise. When you write on the back of a photograph, it can very easily push through to the other sides. Even if you are delicate, ink contains acid that could cause problems in the future. If you want to label your photos, you can purchase a special acid-free pen or – at the very least – use a pencil.

5. Choose albums wisely.
If you like to store your photographs in easily accessible albums, pay careful attention to what you are buying. Photo and scrapbooks are pretty popular right now and it should be easy to find an album that uses “archival-quality” materials. Avoid those things with the sticky pages. No glue. No tape.


*My July “Things You Should Know” series is officially over. Due to its popularity, I think I will make it a monthly feature. Look for posts towards the end of each month.

Things You Should Know About Being an Archivist

06b6087449026b7d76f735632f0232bfIn my regular life, I’m an archivist. I deal with getting historical records ready and available for researchers. And . . . a whole lot of other stuff I won’t try to explain here. I work in a manuscripts repository, not a government or corporate archives, so most of what I’m going to tell you about deals with an environment of local family history and business records.
[Right: What I think I look like when doing my job.]

1) You will have to deal with people.
I hear so many people say they want to enter the history professions because they don’t like dealing with people. Big mistake. While it is true that I do spend much of my week sitting in a quiet room, a huge part of my job is serving the public. Whether it is working in the research room, assisting off-site researchers, finding photographs for publishers, or coordinating with other institutions . . . well, there is just a lot of people work. Yes, there are archival jobs out there where you may never come in contact with the public, but in general, welcome to the service industry dude.

2) You will develop relationships with people you have never met. Probably people long deceased.
When you spend entire days working through the papers of another person, you get to know them pretty well. You start to understand how their family related to each other, how they liked to spend their days, what they were interested in, etc. When working with family papers in particular, you often come across interesting and/or humorous stories. You will probably go home and tell these stories to your loved ones. They will get bored of hearing you talk about dead people you don’t really know. It is just a hazard of the job.

2a) Sometimes while developing these relationships, you will pick up on a thread in their papers and really want to know the outcome. A lot of the time, that information is lost to history and you just have to deal with it.

3) You will likely end up with an abundance of self-taught, pseudo-IT knowledge.
A huge portion of records today are born digital (created digitally, no paper) and this number grows every single day. To be competitive, archivists must understand how to work with digital documents in an ever-changing technological world. You will probably take many online classes and do lots of reading. Make friends with an IT professional . . . fast! I spend probably 40% of my time dealing with aspects of our digital collections (and it is only a small portion of my job!). I now know my way around a CSS stylesheet – that isn’t something you learn in public history graduate school!

4) Paper is heavy.
Seriously, those boxes are like great big rocks. Watch out for interns and graduate students who see you toss them around and don’t realize the weight – save their toes (and your hard work)!

5) You will get dirty.
Erase those images of the sharply dressed archivist wearing white gloves handling a document over a clean, white table. Replace it with an image of the old-jeans wearing archivist crawling around in the hay loft of a barn rescuing long-deserted family or business records. Replace it with an image of the archivist smelling documents and books to see if they detect mold, freezing boxes to kill the infesting bugs, covered in red rot from the leather of old ledger books. . . you get the point. Yes, you will get to spend some time doing the fancy part, but unless you do something extremely specialized, it will be outweighed by the rest.

6) You will have to explain what you do over and over again.
Turns out, archivist isn’t a well-known career outside of academia. Have your elevator speech ready; you will need it a lot. If I don’t want to get into a long discussion, I usually focus on the history side of my job. People tend not to have as many questions about that. And no, I am not a librarian. I like librarians, but I am not one.

7) Parents will expect you to do their kid’s homework.
This is not cool and I do not tolerate it. Extra-friendly and new archivists can get sucked in sometimes though. You will need to figure out fairly quickly where your job ends and their work begins. You may have a person you need to go the extra-mile for, but this should not mean taking on their assignments. Also – parents who do this . . . you suck. Big time. Don’t get an attitude with me and teach your kid to put some effort in.

8) You will tease people about erasing them from the historical record when they piss you off.
Ha. Yeah, I do this. Be nice to archivists, people; we control how most of you will be remembered.