Having a Sense of Humor about my Work

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LOL, if only and not one wearing a cardigan (Cassie maybe is – it’s hard to tell) [Originally from The Sci Fi TV Site]

I just finished the second season of The Librarians. I’ve been making my local library buy the seasons on DVD. Sadly, season 3 isn’t out yet on DVD and I am currently avoiding the temptation to just buy that season on iTunes and call it a day so I am caught up when Season 4 debuts later this year. We’ll see how long I last.

I have always adored these types of movies and shows. The original movies that inspired the series, the National Treasure movies, Warehouse 13. Even the Dresden Files (tv show, not the books. It was one of the few times where the books disappointed after the show) had a touch of the artifact/library/book to it. They are ridiculous and nowhere near close to the actual work of librarians, curators, and archivists. And I like to think most people understand that considering all of them include elements of magic. And to some extent, it is fun to think someone out there thinks I’m more Flynn Carson than Marian the Librarian.

However, at a recent conference for archivists, there was an entire panel about the Archive and how that word is being appropriated more and more and seems to mean less and less. They even pulled out the best Princess Bride quote that shows up in my library’s Slack feed every time someone uses the word “archive” – “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” So, as much as I would love to tell you all I work in a super secret magical library and hunt down lost artifacts all day long while saving the world…I sadly do not. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate why everyone thinks that idea of the “archive” is cool.

Out vault at work is not as impressive as the word “vault” would have you believe but I do get a tiny little thrill every time I get to go in it. And don’t tell me what’s in there isn’t magic. I don’t get to work with the classes or tours much but when I do, the look on people’s faces when you say to them “this is a signed first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species” or “this is a rare copy of Napoleon’s Death Mask” or “this is a book which still has its chain on it” never gets old. The fact I get to work in a place where anyone can come and interact with those types of things? Never gets old. Bonus? I get to be the one to put those out on the web where anyone with an internet connection can see them. Let’s call that my super power. I guess those are my magical artifacts after all. Now…where’s my Excaliber?

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The Questions to Answer in the End

(last reflective paper for class)

As I wrap up my summer internship, everyone at work has been asking me what I liked best, what I did not like, do you still want to be an archivist after this? In turn, in order to answer, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what exactly it is that I like about the work. I will admit, sitting in a windowless room, staring at a computer screen day in and day out would have driven me insane two months ago. So one perk to the job is the variety. Because we had a schedule of some sorts at SIA, I knew what building and what I would be working on every day. My supervisors did not always have that luxury. The variety of their work excited me – some days they worked on digital materials, another day they would be processing, the next they would be out at an appraisal or doing outreach with another office in the Smithsonian. I like a job that gives me variety and a sense of adventure. Being an intern there to work on a single project, I did not always get that variety myself but I see the possibility of it in the profession.
I also answer to the “what did you like” question, the feeling of discovery. True, a lot of the collections I worked on outside of my scanning room were not the most riveting of materials – a lot of administration paperwork and so on but a few of the collections were truly interesting and I was never sure what I was going to find next. One collection, from the National Air and Space Museum had video footage of planes being flown into Dulles airport for the NASM Hazy Center Annex at the airport. How often to get to see a space shuttle piggy backing on a 747? Or another collection from the National Museum for Natural History was entirely correspondence between a geologist and professors, collectors, and experts in the field with some fun dirt samples and weird leaves thrown in for good measure. I like wondering also who will use this collection next and what will they discover in it?
I am hard pressed to answer the question “what did you not like.” One thing I did not care of was the isolation from the archives department. Because of the location of the scanning room, I rarely saw my other interns or, often, my supervisor simply because of my location. That is no fault of the profession, more poor office planning. While I like having a space to work in alone and be able to organize everything “my” way, I would like to see other people from time to time…I also did not like getting frustrated with the work which would happen every so often. I would find whole groups of photos with no names or find ruined pictures that no one bothered to remove the first time the collection was looked over. However, my supervisor assures me that that is simply a part of the work. There will be boxes of unknowns and silly people who do not understand what happens to rubber bands thirty years down the road (they harden and stain and crumble…not good). It is a frustrating job I have been forewarned by everyone in the office but also a rewarding job. I have only been able to observe the reference desk a few times but the look on people’s faces when we have that obscure document from the National Museum of American History or we have that photo of the old National Air and Space Museum is worth it.
As for the last question, “do I still want to be an archivist”, the answer is a resounding yes. It took me so long to find a career that was challenging and rewarding enough to keep my interest and fit into what I am personally interested in outside of work. Now I just need to work on the inevitable next question: “what kind of archive do you think you would like to work in?” I am still deciding this one. I really enjoyed my time at the Smithsonian and I would definitely apply if they decide they want to hire in the spring but I want to keep my options open and I have been lucky enough to have co-workers this summer who have experiences in just about every type of archive you can find so they have given me a lot to think about. It’s a question I am still working on but I feel this summer has given me a taste of an institution and an environment that I would be very happy to work in long term any time in the future.