The Society of American Archivists ran an archives short story contest in 2015. You can read the winning entry and two honorable mentions at http://www2.archivists.org/news/2015/winner-of-the-archives-short-fiction-contest. You can also read the winning story for the 2016 contest and honorable mentions at http://www2.archivists.org/2016-fiction-contest. They are all really good.
And then there’s my story. It didn’t win, but I had a lot of fun writing it, and I thought I’d share it here.
The Curious Case of Accession Number 1985-23
by Eric Willey
In order to satisfy the practicum requirement for the MLIS core curriculum I have begun my internship at the university archives. There I will be processing the collection of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a local author of some small note. This journal will document that project per the syllabus guidelines.
This collection appears to have been donated some thirty years ago. When I inquired as to the time gap my supervisor referred to the collection as part of their “strategic processing reserve.” In any case, I shall endeavor to process this collection to better provide access and make it available to patrons.
I did not know archival processing involved quite so much mouse poop. Fortunately, the vermin effluvium appears to be a part of the collection, and does not indicate an infestation in the archives.
Still, I am enjoying getting my hands dirty (figuratively and literally!) and soldiering on with the rough inventory. Will be washing my hands thoroughly and eating my lunch sandwich with a knife and fork though.
Having completed the rough inventory and observing the principle of original order as discussed in class I have attempted to reconstruct the intellectual context of how Lovecraft used his records, and how he had them physically arranged. I am confident that Lovecraft had a meticulous and logical arrangement to his records (which would be of great interest to researchers) before his records were hauled out of filing cabinets by the handful and randomly dropped into an assortment of emptied liquor boxes for transport to the archives. Regardless of the ignominy of their conveyance, I am attempting to reconstruct this original order to preserve the intellectual and physical arrangement of the records. I feel confident that future patrons will recognize and value this effort.
My supervisor has offered the sage advice that sometimes the deed of gift can offer some insight into how a donor arranged their records. I was led to a file cabinet, in which deeds of gift are arranged alphabetically by the name of the creator of the collection. The form for “Lovecraft” was located, which according to my supervisor was quite the stroke of luck. Apparently most donors do not wish to fill out the requisite paperwork, and prefer to simply force materials into the hands of the first person they see, cackle maniacally, and flee into the night. Alternatively, collections are delivered by long lost relatives who want to get the deposit back on the estate’s storage unit and can provide no information on the collection beyond, “Well, it drove poor old grandfather quite mad, yes quite mad indeed, and at least one investigator who looked into it is now locked away, gibbering madly and howling at every shadow, insisting that mankind’s doom draws nigh. Perhaps you can find something or other to do with it?”
In any case, the deed of gift for the Lovecraft, Howard Phillips Collection indicates there was not a formal donation process, merely several boxes found in front of the staff entrance on a dark night when occurred a series of unspeakable events which still stain the town’s honor with the blood of innocents.
According to my supervisor, this is another favored donation technique. In the absence of background information from the donor, I shall merely apply sound archival practice, and I am certain the original order shall become apparent as I familiarize myself further with the materials.
The bottoms of each box are littered with sticky notes, which I would not expect of a collection from this time period. Perhaps they were added by the mystery donor in a scheme of their own devising? It is of no consequence, and I am sure it will be obvious which documents they attach to, and they will add relevance and depth to the materials in the collection.
I have come across a wide variety of material which does not seem related to this collection of random musings of a somewhat eccentric local writer, and suggested it be weeded. My supervisor, upon checking the accessions log, informed me that the collection came with a small financial donation from an obscure relative in Europe, who did not supply contact information beyond a temporary address here in town. This donation specifically prohibits weeding without materials being offered to living descendants first. Having no contact info for descendants or any means of obtaining it, I have created a series for “forbidden knowledge” which will include these various tomes.
I have inquired with my supervisor if this might warrant an access restriction, and they informed me that forbidden knowledge, secrets beyond the ken of man, and generally any sort of document which might cause the patron to be driven mad with the sheer, awful burden of the secrets contained within would have warranted an access restriction in the past, but it proved too much of a temptation for staff to look at the restricted materials, and no one likes to sit on a hiring committee because a fellow staff member was driven mad by knowledge from beyond the stars after taking a peak into a restricted folder. This is useful information which I will carry with me to my future workplace.
I must confess, I am having difficulty discerning the original, or even a sensible order, to this collection. I can feel it tugging at my mind, pulling me in certain directions, but can never quite bring it into focus. I have tried combination after combination of series and sub-series, but none feel right. It is as if a shadow were pulling my mind one way or the other, as if my body danced to the changing angle of the sun and its contortions of that gray reflected void of self. I shall consult with my supervisor and soldier on tomorrow.
Today, at the suggestion of my supervisor, I looked at T.R. Schellenberg’s black box method of appraisal. I followed the flow chart, one box to another, an endless labyrinth but one where no minotaurs of the mind sought to waylay me. I could get lost in that beautiful flowchart for a million lifetimes, following it as I worked my way through this collection, examining every facet of the Lovecraft collection like a brilliant ruby, thumping with the rhythm of a heart in love as I held it in the blazing sunlight of reason to process this collection.
I shall wind my way through this beautiful labyrinth, follow it’s branches and paths, and emerge from the exit with a finding aid which shall be the envy of my peers, a document testifying to the power of archival processing, a seamless bridge between the researcher and the collection that will allow patrons to feel as if they have known Lovecraft’s work for their entire lives, that will answer questions they did not even know they had, a perfect Jungian archetype of the archival finding aid.
Addendum: My supervisor just returned to tell me that they had forgotten to mention that no one ever really has time to use the black box. Considering the amount of time remaining in the semester, I fear that is the case. Eh, I’ll try to keep the basic idea in mind.
The sticky notes. My God the sticky notes. They are a swirling ocean of scrambled metadata in the bottom of the boxes, and I fear that I am drowning.
A fellow student in class tonight complained that More Product Less Process required processing at the box level, how that wasn’t appropriate for some collections, and that the authors were merely trading one arbitrary standard for an another, inferior standard. I sat in stunned silence, trying to contain my rage and scorn, as the professor cocked her head, and asked if anyone else had thoughts on the article.
I tried to bite my tongue, but my reason left me and I laughed and laughed and laughed, choking out the words that MPLP does not prescribe any particular level of processing, but merely encourages that thoughtfulness be applied, environmental conditions and patron usage be considered, and resources not wasted in the routine over-processing of collections.
I tried to halt my tongue, but the words tumbled over my lips as memories of my work with the Lovecraft collection flickered across my mind. Was I a hypocrite? Was I failing to follow MPLP, even as I extolled the virtue of the flexibility it offered? I knew, deep in my heart, that I was but a Judas, a betrayer to MPLP, that the collection of Lovecraft had driven me to this apostasy, that I should let the sticky notes go and embrace MPLP! But I could not. I could only stand in the cold darkness of full processing where the world should be simpler, easier to understand, and where I had a place, though that place be inferior to the one I rejected. I had gone too deep into the collection to accept anything less than perfection, though it destroy me. Though it destroy us all.
The professor congratulated me on my understanding of the article and relating my practicum experience to theory, but firmly suggested that I try to limit the mad howling laughter in the future. I fear that my mania may cause my class participation grade to suffer.
There is a logic to the sticky notes. I am certain of it. I can perceive it, but only from the corner of my eye. The curl of the corners, the lint stuck to the adhesive strip on the back, there is design here, purpose, method. But when I look too closely it falls apart, a broken mirror reflecting back at me, my hands moving the opposite direction of that needed to put it back in to order. The sticky notes are reality, and we are merely their reflection.
I have arranged and rearranged and rearranged again, but no matter how I divide the collection into series and sub-series, there is always one small pile left over that does not fit anywhere. Three items, whether they be letters, or ephemera, or photos, that do not fit anywhere in my carefully constructed model. My world has come to revolve around these objects in their infinite permutations. A series of remainders that are made of different components, but always equal. How can this be? Is there no correct answer? Was this why the collection arrived in the dead of night, like a thief, and why the mysterious relative insisted that no part of it be weeded?
Is this collection the key to something larger, a shocking insight into the nature of humanity, that no matter how one lives one life, what components one builds their existence out of, the answer is always the same? An unavoidable conclusion in which the calculation, the very factors of the equation themselves, are utterly irrelevant to the final product?
Are we destined, no matter how we live our lives, to have an unavoidable remainder, a haunting remnant of what could have been, but through our choices was not? Will all our lives be incomplete, by their very nature? By our very nature?
I have brought this matter to the attention of my supervisor, and was told just to throw them in a folder called “miscellaneous” and not to think about it too much.
Today I realized that “sticky notes” is an anagram of “kitty scones.” This means something.
Today I submitted the final draft of my finding aid to my supervisor, who praised my work and encouraged me to contact them for a letter of recommendation should I ever need one. They seemed quite pleased with the finding aid, and thanked me for my work. What I did not, could not tell them, was that was not the real finding aid.
The real finding aid left with me, and though I should feel remorse, I cannot. It is a reflection of my soul, shattered upon the prism of the collection. Blood and pain poured forth upon the pages, and when I can bear to look at it, it is both hideous and beautiful. There is no biography, nor a scope and content note, nor an arrangement note. It is merely a container list, written upon warped, twisted paper glued and cut into the shapes which mimic how Lovecraft used his materials.
Sticky notes, blank ones brought from home and distressed to match the aged patina of those in the collection, line my finding aid. I can still see the words written upon them, but may never know their meaning. Were they a warning against… pride? Hubris? Or an attempt by another to divine the original order of this collection. I do not know, and have grown weary of the question, resigned to whatever fate awaits me.
But I do take no small pride in the semester I spent among the collection, and hope that my efforts help scholars who will use the materials, and that they might profit from my effort. The original sticky notes are foldered, and await a wiser person than I to divine their meaning. I hope they use whatever information they find well, and that the finding aid is annotated appropriately.
Addendum: Today I received an email from my (now former) supervisor. The donor has contacted the archives, stating that they have found a “few more boxes” and wondered if the archives might like to add them to the collection. They were accepted by the archives, and as I am familiar with the materials, and a small donation was included, my supervisor queried me about processing it next semester at an hourly wage.
And I laughed, and laughed, and laughed.