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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.

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The Berlin Wall and an unfinished statue of Lenin that eventually lost its head too.
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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).

Cleveland!

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.

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Stay tuned Wednesday for some more photos of general Cleveland!

DC – Day 3 and 4

— Day 3 —

First off, I overslept and missed the first plenary. I know lots of people skip the early morning plenary sessions at these kinds of conferences, but I don’t – I actually really enjoy them. When my alarm went off only 30 minutes before it started, I was a little sad. My fault though for not paying attention when setting it.

The rest of the conference day included great sessions and the Academy of Certified Archivists business luncheon. But you don’t want to hear about that. You want to hear about the sightseeing.

I headed to Ford’s Theater first. Like I mentioned before, I’m only visiting sites I’ve never seen before; all of the big landmarks and monuments are out. This was a biggie to cross off my list – I’ve only seen the outside.

IMG_20140814_014829Ford’ Theater visitor center – the actual theater is behind the scaffolding on the right

Ford’s Theater started with a small museum. It was visually striking and well interpreted. I enjoyed it. In the actual theater, I was creeped out by people taking photographs of their children in front of the box where a president was assassinated . . . to each their own, I guess.

A park ranger gave a short overview of the history. It was conversational and I think it held the attention of the children much better than the museum probably did. If your kids aren’t up for the museum, save it for another time and just do the theater/ranger program. Unfortunately, I was running out of afternoon and was unable to finish the tour with the Peterson House. I snapped a quick photo before heading back to the Metro.

By now I was getting pretty tired, but powered through on my way to the National Archives. I didn’t tour all of the exhibits (it was pretty busy and I was out of patience), but I saw the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. I heard a lot of people talk about National Treasure when talking about the document housing. That movie really made an impression.

20140814_154304National Archives

Next up, I needed a break. I spotted a Starbucks just off of Pennsylvania and indulged in a green tea lemonade concoction. After a little people-watching, I joined the commuters and headed back to the hotel.

IMG_20140814_043635A gorgeous day – the Starbucks is in the brick building in the center

The best part of the day was dinner with friends I had not seen in quite a while. We had great conversation and good food. I was sorry to see them go, but happy we had been able to meet up. Till the next time, I guess!

All of that and I was still in my pajamas by 9:15. Conference continues tomorrow . . .

— Day 4 —

This day was a huge conference day. With the exception of lunch and the evening reception, I spent all day shuffling from session to meeting to session. I won’t share the details of my archives day, but I will leave you with a few photos of my lunch. It was restaurant week and I indulged in one of the preplanned, multi-course meals.

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— Day 5? —

Day 5 had a couple of final sessions, but was mostly a travel day like the first (although without the longer layover) and doesn’t really need to be recounted. I made it home around 9:30pm and was happy to see my bed.

DC – Day 1 and 2

— Day 1 —

My day started with a very horrible alarm clock as 3:30am. I immediately started questioning my sanity for booking a 6am flight. When I made it to the airport at 5, I was happily surprised to see my airline had curbside check-in. This made the check-in process a breeze, although I was starting to wonder why I was there an hour early if I didn’t have to stand in line to check my bag.

Another lucky moment, I got put in the TSA expedited screening line. I didn’t have to take off my shoes or remove my laptop from my bag. Plus, the line was short.

I made it to my gate by 5:16 and spent the rest of the time thinking about the extra sleep I could have enjoyed. ::sigh::

Flight #1: first class to Atlanta, slept, no turbulence
Layover: Atlanta, wondered around for a while, bought some hummus

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Cloudy at the Atlanta airport

Flight #2: first class to DC, flight crew late, plane slightly delayed, rained, no turbulence

It was raining when we landed and I didn’t get to enjoy the view of the city coming in. The Washington Monument was so foggy it might as well have been a smoke stack. I quickly caught my shuttle and headed to the conference hotel – with a van full of archival strangers.

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Reagan National airport

The hotel room was nice – standard business room – and I was excited to see my king sized bed. View was pretty lacking though. Oddly enough, you could open the windows.
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I grabbed lunch in one of the hotel restaurants and intended to settle in, but found a second wind when the rain stopped. A metro stop was right across from the hotel. I headed down and – once I got my bearings – set off towards Chinatown. Then Dupont Circle. Then I walked down to Nordstorm Rack and didn’t find one single thing to buy (that I could afford anyway). After about three hours I crashed back in the room.

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The Friendship Arch in Chinatown

I love exploring cities.

— Day 2 —

Prepare yourself for a very boring conference day. I don’t even really have any photos to share to make it more interesting. This is my real-life work travel though, warts and all.

I originally attended to get up early and head to the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (I’m limiting my sightseeing to things I’ve never seen before). Unfortunately, I misread my schedule and actually had to be in a meeting at 10:30. Good thing I remembered that before I headed out.

So, 10:30-12:00. Leadership forum. Because I’m a leader. No really, I hold a leadership position. It was a very interesting meeting and I got some good ideas from the others at my table.

For lunch, I headed back to up my room and ate my leftovers from the night before. Yeah fancy, I know. It was all for a purpose though; I had to create and print a couple of documents for a meeting I was co-leading later in the afternoon.

After lunch I went to a great meeting for women archivists. The speakers were interesting and I really enjoyed myself. I almost decided to skip it – since it butted up against my meeting – but I’m really glad I changed my mind. Plus, great conversation with the other ladies at my table.

Next up was the meeting I was co-leading. I’m not going to tell you what it was because 1) it feels like the only thing I haven’t revealed and 2) you don’t care. I kind of steamrolled and talked way too much, but it was a good meeting. Afterwards a group of us headed to dinner at the nearby Lebanese Taverna.

Yum. I had chicken schwarma and a passion fruit mojito. It was lovely. The restaurant was wonderful and the staff did a great job dealing with our table of fourteen.

It was a beautiful night, so after dinner I took a little walk around the block to enjoy it. After that? Pajamas and television. The television in this hotel is lacking, so I spent way too much time just flipping through the channels over and over again.

Don’t worry – tomorrow there is actual sightseeing to tell you about.

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.