How an Archives is Like Hogwarts, or An Introduction
You might not know this, but the Archives Profession is Hogwarts. Yes, you heard me correctly, Hogwarts. I see that this might take so elaboration, so let me begin.
Hogwarts is known for having a vast amount of hidden door ways and stairs. To put it precisely:
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide,sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them exactly in the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending (Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 131-2).
When entering an archives for the first time, many a patron can feel very much like Harry in his first year: overwhelmed.
But just like Harry, there is a always a map to find your way. Granted, in an archive, a finding aid does not move and flow and show little dots as to where each person is residing, but then again, most of a collection is rather stationary. Though, I do not deny that several times in my searches I have discovered some wandering papers – through either ill luck or determined purpose. Whenever anything is determined, is it rather hard to stop it. When asking for a Marauder’s Map, however, there is nothing yet that I have seen which comes closer – especially when that finding aid is digitized and hyperlinks have been embedded.
One cannot deny that, very much like Hogwarts, an archive is filled with very interesting characters. There are the faithful Hufflepuffs, working tirelessly to bring users their needed information. Brave Gryffindors delve into the backlogs, endevoring endlessly to sort through, weed, and archive records and papers. Clever Ravenclaws assess our progress and our projects, creating better and/or newer systems with which to do our calling. Ambitious Slytherins look at our archives, see what power it holds, and pushes us to do more – to reach out to a community, to digitize more, to apply for grants. In short to be all that we can.
In my archives classes at Simmons College Graduate School of Library Science there were huge herds of Hufflepuffs, great gaggles of Gryffindors, robust rookeries of Ravenclaws, and shifty swarms of Slytherins. We each brought a needed alternate perspective to the needs of an archive. Processing, outreach, reference, preservation, access, digitization, management: all of these things are needed – but to find a perfect balance in one person is a very rare occurrence. Whether or not you are a Potterhead, you cannot deny the great Houses of Hogwarts are engrained within us.
One might liken an archive’s reading room to the library at Hogwarts – with restricted sections, an overwhelming amount of information, and an angry Madame Pince who hounds over records and enforces a strict code of silence. But a library is not an archive, though they often share the same space. When approaching the reading room, I like to think of it more as the Room of Requirement, rather than the Hogwarts library.
The first encounter with the Room of Requirement is a pointed jest of Dumbledore’s:
“Oh I Would never dream of assuming I Know all Hogwarts’ secrets, Igor,” said Dumbledore amicably. “Only this morning, for instance, I Took a wrong turning on the way to the bathroom and found myself in a beautifully proportioned room I have never seen before, containing a really rather magnificent collection of chamber pots” (Goblet of Fire, p. 417).
Oftentimes a patron’s first interaction with an archive is by accident. They are lead further and further into their studies and searches – whether historical, geneological, or contextual – and suddenly there is all of this knowledge at their fingertips. What they need, however, is still not precisely known. That’s where the reference interview is at hand. Just like walking up and down the corridor three times, thinking about what is needed, the reference archivist will narrow down the needs of a patron. An archive can supply you with your need, you just need to know what it is you need.
Perhaps it’s a tunnel to the kitchens or a reference to another archive, but the Reading Room is a Room of Requirement.
If you are still not convinced that the Archive Profession is Hogwarts, perhaps I could explain just a little more. These parallels, no matter how small and silly, would not have been realized if I had not gone to SAA 2011 in Chicago, IL.
The closing plenary session was much like the goodbye feast at Hogwarts, even if the room was a large, windowless conference space in a basement, rather than an exquisite dining hall in a remarkable castle. It was entitled Road to the Future: Collaboration and Cooperation. The room could sit at least 500 people, but it was scarcely populated; only smatterings of archivists sitting throughout the hall. The east coast was currently under threat of Hurricane Irene and all who could were flocking back to their collections and the wind and the rain; rather than being trapped in Chicago for an uncertain term of days.
My companion, ArchiValerie (much the George to my Fred), and I sat toward the front, still reeling with the fluttering excitement of our first SAA (though slightly muted due to the late nights and early mornings we attempted to maintain). We watched as the incoming SAA President, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, took the podium and looked out over his few, brave holdouts for Chicago. He looked at all of us and told us that we needed to stick together. He told us that an archive does not stand by itself, rather it holds itself up with the strength of its friends and companions. He told us that, above all, we could learn from one another.
What struck me most about his speech, was that I had heard it before: from the wise mouth of Albus Dumbledore:
“… in the light of Lord Voldemort’s return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading sidcord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts open.
“It is my belief — and never have I hoped that I am mistaken — that we are all facing dark and difficult times. SOme of you in this Hall have already suffered directly at the hands of Lord Voldemort. Many of your families have been torn asunder. A week ago, a student was taken from our midst.
“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy. remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Digory” (Goblet of Fire, p. 723-4).
While the Archives Profession might not be facing a literal Lord Voldemort, we are facing an economic downturn, a growing flux of graduating professionals who are experiencing a “gap year” of up to three years, and budgets and time slashed at every corner. We face a world with a changing face of records creation with no solid procedure of archiving digital materials. We face a world in which our profession is continual not understood or explained. We face questions to our relevance and the relevance to the documents under our protection.
Standing those challenges all together, it does seem like Lord Voldemort’s snakelike face is cackling at us; but we must face it. Communication and collaboration are what Dumbledore advocated and is likewise what Gregor Trinkaus-Randall advocates. Is it simple? No. Is it easy? No. Is it what we have to do to maintain the life of our profession? Yes.
The Archives Profession is indeed like Hogwarts: ever striving to help, educate, and save all we can. Ever striving to keep alive the memories of those who have passed before us. Ever striving to remember our own Cedric Digorys.
Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts,
Teach us something please,
Whether we be old and bald
or young with scabby knees,
Our heads could do with fillng
With some interesting stuff,
FOr now they’re bare and full of air,
Dead flies and bits of fluff,
So teach us things worth knowing,
Bring back what we’ve forgot,
Just do your best, we’ll do the rest,
And learn until our brains all rot.”
Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 128
For those of us experiencing a gap year (or two or three), please look into a new roundtable for New Archivists. We should stand together and make our voices heard.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic. New York: 1997.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic. New York: 2000.