Archivists on the Issues: Classified Records, Archives, and Fictional Depictions

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Burkely Hermann, Metadata Librarian for the National Security Archive and current I&A Blog Coordinator. There will be spoilers for each of the books, animated series, films, and other media he will be discussing.

Chart displaying processes of National Declassification Center, an organ of the National Archives
High-level overview of National Declassification Center processes, as shown in a post on the NDC blog in 2019

Previously on this blog, Rachel Mattson examined whether police body camera footage is public record or is classified, arguing that it should be a public record. Other blogposts on this blog have examined whether the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture is a Federal or Congressional Record, noted selective declassification by the French government, which declassified over 200,000 records about Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis but none about France’s occupation of Algeria, and noted the tendency of politicians to avoid documenting their activities and stonewall FOIA requests.

In January 2022, the Director of National Intelligence April Haines argued, in a letter to U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jerry Moran that there are “deficiencies” in the current declassification system, and notes the burden of mandatory declassification requirements while the amount of classified material expands. My colleague from National Security Archive, Lauren Harper, noted that Haines, many months later, said that overclassification is a national security threat. Some of these classified records are in the hands of the National Archives, otherwise known as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), organized into Top Secret, Secret, and Confidential. Other records are deemed unclassified if they do not meet the existing requirements for classification.

Classification of records in the U.S. has often been outlined in presidential executive orders, beginning with President Truman in 1951. National security generally described as the primary reason for classification. Over the years, rules changed and the role of NARA increased. This has even resulted in a part of the agency dedicated to declassification, the National Declassification Center (NDC), which was established in 2009, in accordance with Executive Order 13526. This went beyond the agency’s representation on the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP), or the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which oversees the security classification programs in “both Government and industry“, and reports to the President annually. The ISOO, role on ISCAP, and NDC, most recently, have given NARA an important position in the entire classified information management process. [1]

Unsurprisingly, NARA has been in the public focus, especially for storing presidential records from the Obama Administration, and afterward. Some politicians have claimed the agency is an “enemy” and have wanted to dismantle it because of NARA’s push to return classified records to the public, rather than having the records stored in shoddy locations or controlled by presidents as their personal property. [2] This makes reports, in past years, like in May 2012, that boxes of classified government records disappeared from Washington National Records Center all the more concerning, as it could be representative of a larger trend.

Currently, there are measures in place for declassification of government records, either enshrined in executive orders or provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). However, the FOIA system is currently flawed, especially with existence of various exemptions which can be used to redact documents or reject records requests. [3] There are similar issues with Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests. As one government report put it, storage of classified materials is “widespread” across the U.S. government, with NARA storing records from all agencies at central facilities. Even so, some have argued that politicians have neglected the National Archives and failed to “control official secrecy”, belaying assumptions about government transparency, and resulting in the crisis which will make it harder for researchers to examine the “state’s inner workings”. Recent developments, such as a drop in the annual budget of NARA, attrition, and loss of institutional memory have resulted in the agency having one of the lowest levels of job satisfaction in the federal government. All the while, funding for declassification has decreased and backlogs for declassification have increased. [4]

NARA is not the only archives which handles and processes classified records. There are established procedures for classification of records held by the New South Wales Archives in Australia, British Public Record Office, Taiwanese government, Israeli Defense Force, State Archives of Poland, National Archives of Brazil, South African State Archives Service (later renamed National Archives and Records Service), National Archives of Korea, and National Archives of France. Even the archives of the United Nations has a classification level of Strictly Confidential, necessitating declassification requests, while archival materials over 20 years old are “generally open to the public for research”. [5]

As Electronic Records Archivist Amy Wickner argued, archivists have the “power to name and classify,” a power which has “material effects on the world“. This power can be used to make records more accessible or to make them harder to access. The latter is the case if access is only “granted or refused on an individual basis“. At times, more restrictions are imposed because of compliance with professional standards or data within in a record rather than the document itself. This includes including personal data. On the other hand, records which should be publicly available, like agreements between carceral facilities and FamilySearch for indexing of historical records, have a possibility of redaction, despite the lack of personal or sensitive information. [6]

Loid forget holds a secret file in an episode of Spy X Family, showing his target
In the episode “The Underground Tennis Tournament: The Campbelldon”, Loid examines a file of his target, a man named Cavi Campbell, who has a painting in the basement of his mansion. As the story goes, the painting was originally owned by a general who had compiled a dossier of explosive top secret information which could tip the scales and cause possible cause military conflict if revealed, and the painting has a code revealing the dossier’s location.

Classified records have often been depicted in popular culture. For instance, there is an episode of The Crown about classified records showing Duke Edward VIII collaborating with Nazis. Such records are also major part of the Spy x Family series. The protagonist, Twilight (voiced by Takuya Eguchi), poses as a father named Loid Forger, with a wife and child. He is tasked with a secret mission  to keep two countries from beginning a war. As a result, he is often passed information through a network of informants, spies, and others, or is given mission briefings by dedicated agents. The information he receives often includes classified records. Another pertinent example is the 13-episode anime, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet. In one episode, “Deep Sea Secret”, the protagonist, Ledo (voiced by Kaito Ishikawa), demands declassification of the record. What he learns causes an epiphany. It results in him questioning what he thought about the world and his life’s purpose, causing a mental breakdown of sorts.

There are other examples, apart from the tongue-and-cheek U.S. Navy recording studio named “Classified Records” in The Simpsons, which included subliminal messages in their songs which encouraged people to join the Navy. For instance, classified archives of the CIA are shown in an episode of the TV series, Alias. Furthermore, classified, and restricted, records are a major part of the animated adventure series, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which has many archivy themes. In one episode, Mara, the previous She-Ra, learns that the Heart of Etheria project is classified, with Light Hope worrying about information being accidentally shared with Madame Razz. In many others, records are only accessible when specific words are spoken, or specific people are detected by computer systems. The same could be said about the records inside the data archives of the World Organization Of Human Protection which is shown in the Totally Spies! episode “The Yuck Factor”, or the “healing center” for Pearls known as The Reef, which is a structure used to create, repair, or modify Pearls, shown in the Steven Universe Future episode “Volleyball”. Both undoubtedly contain restricted or classified records.

In Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, two animated series, there are records which can only be accessed through magic or other means. As such, they are classified, as a result. Accessing secret, and classified, records is a major plot point for live-action films such as Sneakers (1992), The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005), and My Fellow Americans (1996). In other cases, like in Joker (2009), the records are even stolen. In the latter film, the records clerk is implied as an impediment to protagonist Arthur Fleck, as are the bureaucratic requirements which require a signature from Fleck’s mother, before he can take the file.

Samantha “Sam” Cross, a certified archivist who was part of the SAA Issues & Advocacy News Monitoring Team in 2018, has highlighted this on her blog, Pop Archives. She notes Carol Danvers (later becoming Captain Marvel) examining likely classified information in Captain Marvel and Loki trying to use his manipulation and charm in the Loki TV series to get classified files from a female character credited as an archivist. She also writes about a character in the Danganronpa game, Byakuya, whoread and study the classified information” in an archives-like room and states that many of the documents shown in Federal Bureau of Control, in the video game Control, are redacted, and classified. [7]

Other pop cultural critics in the library and information field note other examples. For instance, librarian Jennifer Snoek-Brown, known as the creator of the site Reel Librarians and real-life librarian at Tacoma Community College, noted classified records featured in Rollerball (1975), Soylent Green (1973), and likely ones in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). [8] Elsewhere on her blog, she pointed out similar themes in Mercury Rising (1998) and WarGames (1983).

The over twenty popular culture examples described in this post only scratch the surface. There are as undoubtedly many more films, comics, and series which featured classified or restricted records. The examples noted in this article do not always feature archives, however, as some creators confuse archives with libraries. To add insult to injury, archivists are often not present, resulting in the characters, who have no archival training, to go through the records themselves. Very few depictions in popular culture reflect the current reality of classified records within archives. Hopefully, this changes in the future.


[1] Čtvrtník, Mikuláš. “Classified records and the archives.” Archival Science 22 (2022):

[2] O’Rourke, Ciara. “Claims about Obama Foundation keeping classified records in an abandoned warehouse are wrong.” Poynter, Oct. 7, 2022; Barr suggests Trump ‘deceived’ the government over classified records.” NBC News, Sept. 2, 2022; Suebsaeng, Asawin and Adam Rawnsley. “Trump Tells His Lawyers: Get ‘My’ Top Secret Documents Back.” Rolling Stone, Aug. 23, 2022; Alemany, Jacqueline, Isaac Arnsdorf, and Josh Dawsey. “Inside Trump’s war on the National Archives.” Washington Post, Aug. 27, 2022; Legare, Robert. “Archives found 100+ documents with classified marking in first 15 Trump boxes.” Yahoo! News, CBS News. Aug. 23, 2022; Kochi, Sudiksha. “Fact check: Archives agency transferred 30 million unclassified Obama records to Chicago.” USA Today, Oct. 3, 2022; Derysh, Igor. “‘He has the right to remain silent’: Legal experts say Trump’s Truth Social post may be ‘evidence’.” Salon, Nov. 29, 2022; “Press Statements in Response to Media Queries About Presidential Records.” National Archives and Records Administration, Nov. 9, 2022; Reilly, Steve. “What the government’s former top classified records overseer sees in the Mar-a-Lago search.” Grid, Aug. 10, 2022; Wood, Jennifer. “Donald Trump Just Couldn’t Keep His Mouth Shut And Went Ahead And Confessed: ‘I Did’ Steal Classified Documents From The White House.” Uproxx, Nov. 29, 2022; “Fact Check-National Archives and Records Administration says they manage all of Obama’s Presidential records, contrary to claims online.” Reuters, Sept. 30, 2022. There have also been cases, like a lawsuit by the conservative legal group, Judicial Watch, against NARA, aiming to declassify Clinton Administration efforts, but their efforts were dismissed by the courts.

[3] “Freedom of Information Act flaws need fixing, experts say.” American Bar Association, Aug. 4, 2018; “The media’s problems with FOIA.” Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, Winter 2007; Goos, Christian. “Seeking Access to Classified Records: Requesting Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) versus Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).” ISOO Overview, Oct. 1, 2021.Also of note are pages like the “Overview” webpage on the Records Management Directorate and Army Declassification Directorate, the NSA’s page on supposed declassification/transparency initiatives, and a press release about ZL Tech’s support of a  “records management platform with DOD classified technology”.

[4] “Appendix V: Central Storage, Declassification and Destruction” in Classified Information: Costs of Protection are Integrated with Other Security Costs: Report to the Chairman, Information, Justice, Transportation, and Agriculture Subcommittee, Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives (United States General Accounting Office, 1993), 26;  Connelly, Matthew. “State Secrecy, Archival Negligence, and the End of History as We Know It.” Knight First Amendment Institute, Sept. 21, 2018. The latter article also says that state secrecy and state archiving began at the same time, around the establishment of NARA and into World War II.

[5] “Standard on the physical storage of State records.” New South Wales Archives in Australia, Feb. 2019; Wittner, Laurence. “What I Learned About Governments from Researching Classified Documents.” History News Network, Sept. 4, 2022; “The Management Regulations for Classified Archives.” Law & Regulations Database of the Republic of China (Taiwan), May 10, 2005; Peterson, Terrence. “The French Archives and the Coming Fight for Declassification.” War on the Rocks, Mar. 6, 2020; Makleff, Ron. “Sovereignty and Silence: The Creation of a Myth of Archival Destruction, Liège, 1408.” Archive Journal, Aug. 2017; “Public Reference Services.” United Nations Archives and Records Management Section, accessed Dec. 5, 2022; Franco, Shirley. “Transparência e opacidade do estado no Brasil: Usos e desusos da informação governamental.” The American Archivist 84, no. 1 (2021): 196; Sromek, Teresa. “Teoria i praktyka archiwistyki USA.” The American Archivist 83, no. 1 (2020): 177; Harris, Verne and Christopher Merrett. “Toward a Culture of Transparency: Public Rights of Access to Official Records in South Africa.” The American Archivist 57, no. 4 (1994): 681-2, 684, 688, 691; Lee, Kyong. “Political Democracy and Archival Development in the Management of Presidential Records in the Republic of Korea.” The American Archivist 69, no. 1 (2006): 119-120,129, 134-135, 137-138.

[6] Wickner, Amy. “Recognizing Co-Creators in Four Configurations: Critical Questions for Web Archiving.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 8 (2019): 4; Geraci, Noah and Michelle Caswell. “Developing a Typology of Human Rights Records.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 3 (2016): 18; Taylor, Claire, Lucia Brandi, Cecilia A. Acosta Sánchez, and Marcelo Díaz Vallejo, “Archives of Human Rights and Historical Memory: An Analysis of Archival Practices ‘From Below’ in Four NGOs in Colombia Archival Practices ‘From Below’ in Four NGOs in Colombia.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 8 (2021): 11, 16; Rinn, Meghan R. “Review of The Future of Literary Archives.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 7 (2020): 4; Szekely, Ivan. “Do Archives Have a Future in the Digital Age?Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 4 (2017): 4; Jansson, Jenny, Katrin Uba, Jaanus Karo, Labor Gone Digital (DigiFacket)! Experiences from Creating a Web Archive for Swedish Trade UnionsArchive for Swedish Trade Unions.Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 7 (2020): 5; Windon, Katrina and Lydia M. Tang. “Archival discretion: a survey on the theory and practice of archival restrictions.” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 9 (2022): 8.

[7] Cross, Samantha. “Archives in the Movies: Captain Marvel.” Pop Archives, Aug. 20, 2021; Cross, Samantha. “Archives in Video Games: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.” Pop Archives, Jan. 19, 2021; Cross, Samantha. “Archives on TV: Loki.” Pop Archives, Jun. 24, 2022; Cross, Samantha. “Archives in Video Games: Control.” Pop Archives, Aug. 20, 2021.

[8] Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “A round-up of library, archives, and reel librarian scenes in MCU’s Phase Four TV series (so far).” Reel Librarians, Aug. 24, 2022; Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “Reel librarians and archivists in 16 sci-fi films.” Reel Librarians, Mar. 11, 2020; Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “Reel librarians in ‘Rollerball’ | Analyzing the 1975 original film and 2002 remake.” Reel Librarians, Feb. 1, 2017; Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “Reader poll of runner-ups, Fall 2016: ‘Soylent Green’ and the Books.” Reel Librarians, Nov. 30, 2016; Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “First impressions: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’.” Reel Librarians, Jan. 23, 2012.


Steering Share: Holly Rose McGee

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of our newest Steering Committee member, Holly Rose McGee. Other members currently on the I&A Steering Committee include: Danielle Simpkins, Burkely Hermann, Caitlin Rizzo, Sheridan Sayles, Elizabeth Call, and Claire Gordon.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

Growing up in my house, with all of my mom’s research files and genealogy documents! Professionally, though, I first got the spark for archives while I was working as a Production Designer’s image researcher on movies in Hollywood. I spent a lot of time with image files in Los Angeles Public Library, which gave me a window into the concept of Visual Resource Collections. But a turning-point magic moment arrived during a visit to the Santa Anita Racetrack archives while working on the film Seabiscuit. They showed me the original ticket you would buy if you were betting on Seabiscuit to win in 1937, and I felt like I was holding pure gold. Shortly after that experience, my old college friend, with whom I’d worked at the music library for workstudy in college, contacted me and started urging me to go back to school for an MLIS. She insisted that we both needed to join this exciting and growing profession in 2006. And she was right!


2) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

There are so many! I think the most important, and one of the first “archivist” thoughts I had before I knew I would end up as one, is that archives and all forms of information (even antelopes, if there are any Briet fans out there) document our existence to the future, even when it is compromised today. In Suzan-Lori Parks’s play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, one of the characters repeats variations on a theme throughout the play that touched me deeply. Paraphrased, the character Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread tells others to write anything important down and put it under a rock, so in the future, they will know we were here, even though they try to make us invisible now. And they will not know who they are unless they know they came from us. [1] When I studied the play as a theater student in college, this concept stung me, and I found my mind wandering back to it again and again, like it was some blaring truth that I needed to follow. Decades later when I went back to school for library and information studies, those words returned to me as an “aha moment” wherein I realized all that I had learned and done in the past was leading me to this profession, where I could be a part of the process to document and preserve the past and the present for the future, whomever and whatever that may be. It always spurs me to ask the questions what are we documenting and why? Who is the author of this history? What voices are silenced by it? How do we ensure that all aspects are represented, especially to people of the future, who will be in a different context? What will they want to know about us?


3) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I hope to give something back to the profession and to learn to step into the mindset of mid-level professional. Being an archivist is a second career for me, so I’m really passionate about it. I gained immense insight and confidence from my mentors, and I’d like to be part of that next level of professional where I can help be a resource of information, advocacy, and guidance. Our profession is endangered by ignorance of the general public as to what we do and who we are. I’d like to help make “archivist” as much of a household word as “librarian” and to help define the profession away from what Gmail does with your old messages.


4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?  

I am always up for a hike and I go crazy for classic cars, so Southern California is a great place for me to live! But I spend the majority of my free time gardening, knitting, crocheting, or doing vintage crossword puzzles. My latest personal craze is making miniature afghan blankets that can either be a dustcover for your turntable or a cozy bed for a cat. I love playing with color and physical crafts, especially now that most of my days are spent with digital spreadsheets!


[1] Suzan Lori-Parks, “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” in The Bedford Introduction to Drama, Third Edition, ed. Lee A. Jacobus (Boston: Bedford Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 1592.

Archivists on the Issues: Sophisticated Bureaucracies, Archives, and Fictional Depictions

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Burkely Hermann, Metadata Librarian for the National Security Archive and current I&A Blog Coordinator. There will be spoilers for each of the books, animated series, films, and other media he will be discussing.

Organizational chart of the National Archives
This organizational chart of the National Archives and Records Administration is an example of an archival bureaucracy

Large government, corporate, and private archives are bureaucratic. Even though the so-called Information Revolution threatened to upend existing practices within archival bureaucracies, and structures of these institutions, new records management strategies developed, in Europe and U.S., which are as hierarchical as previous methods. [1] Bureaucracy remains firmly entrenched, in language, practices, and strategies of collecting institutions, whether the National Archives or Library of Congress. In this post, I’ll discuss the role of bureaucracies in archival institutions and connect my findings to fictional depictions.

Recordkeeping often lends itself to bureaucracy, whether in non-profit organizations, corporations, or governments. Sometimes practices change and reinforce the bureaucracy of these institutions. This can include discouraging creation of “rich narrative reports”, while supporting archival classification and arrangement as an “infrastructural tool”. Furthermore, some bureaucracies are repressive, affecting restitution of captured wartime records. [2]

Unsurprisingly, culture of documentation has changed from being transactional to bureaucratic as organizationally sophisticated bureaucracies first developed in the 19th century. Scholar Francis Blouin called for new principles about diplomatics, referring to study of form, creation, and transmission of records, and their relation to facts within them, and their creators, to order to “identify, evaluate, and communicate their nature and authenticity.” [3] Blouin argued that bureaucratic culture produces transactional and literary records, systematic recordkeeping, analytic records, and records created in respect to “sovereignty of people in democratic societies”. In Blouin’s view, in such societies, public accountability necessitates “particular forms and genres of recordkeeping.” [4]

Other scholars have noted growing complexity, changing nature, and interrelatedness of government bureaucracies. Recently there has been a tendency to “free up” bureaucracy while encouraging entrepreneurship and risk-taking. The latter undermines archival missions. [5] Modern bureaucracies have defined existing file systems, even as archivists and historians are presented with many challenges. This includes influence on archival theory, especially by Weberian bureaucratic thinking, and controlling access to records. This was even the case in Eastern Europe, with political shifts in latter years of the Cold War caused archival access procedures to change. [6]

Modern bureaucracies have produced a “sheer mass of records”. In the past, this caused archivists to use sampling in order to determine “research potential” of records and appraise them. Even so, archivists continued to experience frustrations when “dealing with” bureaucracy, while being a part of complex bureaucratic structures, which can include competing groups. [7] More recently, there has been discussion of how various technologies can change bureaucratic processes, including in the United Nations and Vatican. Other scholars have asked whether the role of archives in the life-cycle of government records is a way of “holding democratic governments accountable”. The latter is the case in Germany, which has a strict division between records management and archival functions, with records remaining in custody of government bureaucracies. [8]

Fictional depictions of bureaucracies reflect some of these realities. One of the best known examples are the Vogans in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, who destroy Earth because the planet is in the way of a hyperspace freeway. They are the embodiment of bureaucrats. The Vogans are inefficient, with absurdly lengthy official processes, and their continued efforts to thwart “any real progress in the galaxy.” Adams’ makes clear a metaphor: the house of protagonist Arthur Dent will be destroyed by an uncaring (and extremist) bureaucracy, just as the Vogans are doing to the planet. [9] Archives are not directly shown, but characters in the 2005 film view a restricted archival record from the Magrathean Public Archive. The record cuts off before revealing the name of a supercomputer, with a message stating that information has been deleted, as I noted in my post on the Issues & Advocacy blog back in December.

While bureaucracies are famously criticized in novels like Catch-22 and The Trial, they are a major part of other media, like the acclaimed animated series, Futurama. In the series, Hermes Conrad (voiced by Phil LaMarr), is a bureaucrat who works for the Central Bureaucracy, which manages legal, financial, and business matters in the city of New New York. In one episode, “Lethal Inspection”, a physical file archive is shown, with Hermes taking a folder out of a file cabinet. It is later revealed that he was the inspector who approved a defective robot named Bender (voiced by John DiMaggio), after be burns the file.

Brad Houston, a Document Services Manager for the city of Milwaukee, said the physical file archive is really a records center because it has semi-active records. He described how the Milwaukee records center works, noting the importance of filling out transfer forms correctly, pointing out that records are organized by box with specific assigned numbers, and importance of records management training. As another archivist put it, information and records management is as much about understanding bureaucratic processes and human behavior as it is about the records and information.

While there are many other examples of fictional bureaucracies, [10] one specifically comes to mind: the Elven bureauacracy in the children’s adventure and supernatural comedy-drama animated series, Hilda. An elf named Alfur (voiced by Rasmus Hardiker) is a series protagonist. Like the other elves in the series, they can only be seen if their tiny paperwork is signed and filled out. In the first episode, the protagonist, Hilda (voiced by Bella Ramsey), tries to come to peace with the elves, who see her as a menace because she stepped through their houses for years without realizing it. In the process, she goes through various Elven political officials who declare there is nothing that can be done and that the matter is out of their hands.

As the series continues, Alfur becomes a correspondent in the city of Trolberg, and files reports about his daily activities in the city, where Hilda is now living. Characters such as Frida (voiced by Ameerah Falzon-Ojo) and Deputy Gerda (voiced by Lucy Montgomery) are shown to care about the paperwork as much as him, as does the witchy librarian named Kaisa (voiced by Kaisa Hammarlund). In other episodes, Alfur proudly tells a legendary Elf story about a fight over a real estate contract, he meets a society which doesn’t use paperwork, and emphasizes the importance of reading the fine print. The series also features elf-mail, known as “email”, which is sent from the countryside into the city with various couriers, Alfur saying that elves pride themselves on the accuracy of historical records, and impressed by how Hilda is able to use loopholes. In the next to last episode of the show’s second season, Alfur is able to convince an elf sent as his replacement to write an eyewitness confirmation form, confirming that his reports from Trolberg, said to be “the most requested from the official archive”, are accurate and true.

Hilda, emphasizes importance of accountability within hierarchies more than fictional bureaucracies shown in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Futurama. Alfur is graded on a performance management system and experiences some level of bureaucratic accountability. The latter is achieved, within institutions, through strategies, administrative rules, budget reviews, and performance management. It can also be accompanied by citizen accountability, which attempts to hold government administrators accountable through forums and laws, using communication technologies to directly access bureaucratic information, monitor government activities, and give feedback on delivery of public services. However, Futurama and Hilda make clear the value of records managers (and archivists) who have developed strategies and experience with relationship-building and negotiating bureaucratic politics.

Many archives, these days, are not “faceless” or “nameless” as those in fiction, nor do they encourage falsification of information to protect individuals. Instead, some likely came into existence during the Progressive Era to “lessen anxiety” about issues such as race. While some bureaucratic records, within archives, may be considered “cold”, there have been efforts to humanize the files, especially those about human atrocities. Even so, some archivists remain impatient with “inanities” of bureaucracies they are part of. [11]

Bureaucracy remains part and parcel of archives. There have been efforts, in recent years, to reduce bureaucracies said to be “overlapping” and related claims that government by bureaucracy is dead or no longer necessary. Despite this, committing information to paper, then managing, or shuffling, that paper within a bureaucracy remains a “source of an essential power.” After all, records have the power to legitimize bureaucracy, while promoting political hegemony and constructing social memory. In fact, in the 1985 film, Brazil, a controlling bureaucracy rules people’s lives and crushes spirits. [12] The film’s protagonist, Sam Lowry, has been described by some as an archivist who has “dreamlike moments” and sees himself as a winged superhero. He tries to tamper with data in order to save the woman he loves before his vision is shown to be an illusion.

While there won’t be any “bureaucratic cock-ups” or Vogan Constructor Fleets demolishing Earth to make way for a hyperspace expressway, [13] sophisticated and complex bureaucracy will remain an integral part of archives, whether we like it or not.


[1] Bearman, David. “Diplomatics, Weberian Bureaucracy, and the Management of Electronic Records in Europe and America.” The American Archivist 55, no. 1 (1992): 169–70, 173–76, 180.

[2] Wosh, Peter. “Bibles, Benevolence, and Bureaucracy: The Changing Nature of Nineteenth Century Religious Records.” The American Archivist 52, no. 2 (1989): 166-167, 169, 172, 175, 178; Montgomery, Bruce. “Saddam Hussein’s Records of Atrocity: Seizure, Removal, and Restitution.” The American Archivist, 75, no. 2 (2012): 326, 331, 333, 357.

[3] Blouin, Francis. “A Framework for a Consideration of Diplomatics in the Electronic Environment.” The American Archivist 59, no. 4 (1996): 466-467, 471, 477-478.

[4] Ibid, 476.

[5] Wilson, Ian. “Reflections On Archival Strategies.The American Archivist 58, no. 4 (1995): 414, 416-417, 421, 423-424.

[6] Elliott, Clark. “Science at Harvard University, 1846–47: A Case Study of the Character and Functions of Written Documents.” The American Archivist 57, no. 3 (1994): 448-450, 460; Menne-Haritz. “Appraisal or Documentation: Can We Appraise Archives by Selecting Content?The American Archivist 57, no. 3 (1994): 528, 532-533; Ress, Imre. “The Effects of Democratization on Archival Administration and Use in Eastern Middle Europe.” The American Archivist 55, no. 1 (1992): 86, 90-91.

[7] Kepley, David. “Sampling in Archives: A Review.” The American Archivist 47, no. 3 (1984): 237-238; Lutzker, Michael. “Max Weber and the Analysis of Modern Bureaucratic Organization: Notes Toward a Theory of Appraisal.” The American Archivist 45, no. 2 (1982): 120-122, 124, 126, 130.

[8]Taylor, Hugh. “‘My Very Act and Deed’: Some Reflections on the Role of Textual Records in the Conduct of Affairs.” The American Archivist 51, no. 4 (1988): 456, 459-460, 464, 466; Zandt, Lauren. “A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace.” The American Archivist 84, no. 1 (2021): 214-217; Blouin, Jr., Frank. “A Case for Bridging the Gap: The Significance of the Vatican Archives Project for International Archival Information Exchange.” The American Archivist 55, no. 1 (1992): 184, 186-188; Hering, Katharina. “Zwölf Wege ins Archiv. Umrisse einer offenen und praktischen Archivwissenschaft.” The American Archivist 84, no. 1 (2021): 212-213.

[9] Fatima, Zahra. “Humor, Satire and Verbal Parody in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Relevance Theoretic Approach.” NUML Journal of Critical Inquiry 14, no. 11 (2016): 45, 51; Thompson, Thomas David. “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: A Metaphorical Look at Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Bachelors, California Polytechnic State University, 2015, see pages 15-16.

[10] The Wikipedia categoryBureaucracy in fiction” lists 50 entries, including Loki TV series, the anti-communist novel 1984, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Pale King.

[11] Yakel, Elizabeth. “Reviews.” The American Archivist 64, no. 2 (2001): 407-409; Pierce, Pamela. “Cruising the Library: Perversities in the Organization of Knowledge.” The American Archivist 81, no. 1 (2018): 262; Arroyo-Ramirez, Elvia. “Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.” The American Archivist 80, no. 1 (2017): 244-245; Jimerson, Randall C. “Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia.” The American Archivist 78, no. 1 (2015): 265-266; Radoff, Morris. “Recent Deaths.” The American Archivist 42, no. 2 (1979): 264.

[12] Baker, Kathryn. “The Business of Government and the Future of Government Archives.” The American Archivist 60, no. 2 (1997): 237, 241, 252; Cline, Scott. “‘To the Limit of Our Integrity’: Reflections on Archival Being.” The American Archivist 72, no. 2 (2009): 331-333, 340. Cline also says that records can reinforce cultural mythology, and bolster democracy and democratic institutions.

[13] Adams, Douglas. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide, 16, 25-26. New York: Gramercy Books, 2005. Vogans are also described, on page 38, as “one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy…[not] evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous”.

Archivists on the Issues: Popular Culture and the Presence of Archival Limits

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Burkely Hermann, Metadata Librarian for the National Security Archive and current I&A Blog Coordinator. There will be spoilers for each of the animated series, films, and other media he will be discussing.

Lord Theodore dissuades Elianna from entering the royal archives in the first episode of Bibliophile Princess

At the end of the first episode of the currently airing fantasy romance anime, Bibliophile Princess, the protagonist, Princess Elianna Bernstein (voiced by Reina Ueda) is physically blocked and dissuaded from entering the royal archives. When combined with other events, she breaks down and cries, feeling she has lost it all. Her ban from the royal archives later turns out to be a measure to protect her from a nefarious plot. Her vast knowledge of the archives’ holdings is praised for its positive effects on society. This depiction of archival limits is not unique, however. It is widespread across popular culture, across what could be called “the cultural stacks”. In this post, I’ll note other examples of archival limits in popular culture, connect the depictions to the SAA’s Code of Ethics and Core Values, and other issues in the archival field.

Scholars, such as Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggott, Barbara Reed, Frank Upward, Jocelyn Fenton Stitt, and Sarah Tyson, define archival limits as barriers created when documents pass into hands of archival institutions from their creators. These limits inhibit attempts to use those records to tell family stories while circumscribing any efforts to reclaim archival records about enslaved people or utilize these records to fulfill other useful purposes. One of the most pertinent examples of archival limits in popular culture is the 1996 mockumentary by Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman. The film has been regarded by scholars, like Jolie Braun, as critiquing how archives and libraries control access to records, and revealing power relations that undergird research in these spaces.

In the eighty-six-minute film, the protagonist, played by (and embodying) Cheryl, is dismissed by a White male reference librarian (played by David Rakoff). He tells her to check reference books in the “Black”, “film”, and “women” categories to learn about a Black female actress in a 1930s film set on a plantation who is only credited as “The Watermelon Woman”. Later, he begrudgingly searches his computer and finds information, directing her to records about the film’s director. The latter is unsuccessful, as it doesn’t have the information she is looking for. As I noted in my review of the film for The American Archivist Reviews Portal, this librarian represents collections which reinforce cultural bias through marginalizing views that are not White, heteronormative, and male. The same is the case in archives, since they are, like museums, libraries, and galleries, not neutral spaces. Rather, they are contested ones.

Later in the film, Cheryl travels to a collective feminist lesbian archive known as Center for Lesbian Information & Technology (C.L.I.T.) Archive, where she meets a White female archivist (played by Sarah Schulman). Although she finds documents and photographs of the Black female actress, who she has identified as Fae Richards, the archivist is protective of the records. She doesn’t even let Cheryl, or her friend, film what she found. She also declares that all White people in the records have their faces crossed out to make the archive more “inclusive”. In this way, Cheryl becomes alienated in a lesbian archive, even though she is a lesbian herself. In actual archives, guidance on what to do with “offensive items” does not always exist, even in established codes of conduct or ethics. Sometimes it is only confronted when working with patrons, donors, or others.This is undoubtedly the case in the film, with photographs of White lesbians seen as offensive by CLIT. Measures were taken to counter White values by the archive, even though the methods used run afoul of existing archival codes of ethics.

There are many examples in popular culture of archival limits beyond those in Bibliophile Princess and The Watermelon Woman. In a pivotal scene of the sci-fi comedy film, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the archival record from the Magrathean Public Archive, published by the Commercial Council of Magrethea, cuts off before revealing the name of the supercomputer that Deep Thought created to reveal this ultimate question. A message states that the information has been deleted. It is an example of an archival limit. It is never revealed why the information was deleted or who removed the information. This deletion, which implies that the original record remains untouched and is intact, rather than completely unreadable (i.e. erased), violate the stated principles within the SAA Core Values. These values state that archivists should strive to expand usage and access to collections for potential and current users of archival records, while serving the broad range of people who “seek to locate and use the information found in evidentiary records.” Deleting important information reduces access to records and does a disservice to users who wish to access the records.

Hermes’ file, proving he was the inspector who approved Bender, despite his defect, burns in a fire at the end of the Futurama episode, “Lethal Inspection”

Destruction of archival records, especially those with important informational, historical, continuing, enduring, and evidential value, can constitute an archival limit. It creates a barrier for those wanting to learn more about their family roots, reclaim records about enslaved people, or employ records for other useful purposes. For instance, in an episode of Futurama, the resident bureaucrat, Hermes Conrad (voiced by Phil LaMarr) burns a file from the Physical File Archive, a records center with semi-active records as noted by Brad Houston, Document Services Manager for the City of Milwaukee. The file proves he was the inspector who approved Bender (voiced by John DiMaggio) even though he is defective, since Bender was missing a backup unit.

While Hermes has a logical reason to destroy the records, since he wants to move on with his life and give Bender confidence, his action stands against principles stated in the SAA’s stated core values which emphasize access, use, and accessibility. These values also state that archivists are stewards of primary sources, with archival materials providing “digital and physical surrogates for human memory”. Even though Hermes is not an archivist, his action runs afoul of promoting “professional excellence” which The American Society for Public Administration encourages in their current code of ethics.

In some ways, when no archivists as present to organize the records, manifested by abandoned archives shown in well-known animated series like Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure or less-known ones like The Bravest Knight, is an example of an archival limit shown in popular media. However, this is unlikely to happen in reality, as even understaffed archives have at least one person managing the records. After all, preservation of records, responsible stewardship, selection of records, service toward “numerous constituencies and stakeholders”, social responsibility, and sustainability are emphasized in the SAA’s stated core values.

In the end, while archives are often shown stereotypically or confused with libraries in popular media, there is something that can be learned from these depictions, lessons which can inform and improve the archival field as a whole.

Steering Share: Danielle Simpkins

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of our newest Steering Committee member, Danielle Simpkins, volunteer with the Veterans History Project, and a soon-to-be MLIS graduate.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

My first experience with archives was at my undergraduate, Stockton University in New Jersey.  After taking a class in the history of World War 2, it inspired my passion for working with historical documents, my specific passion is in military history. I also am interested in the 1920 prohibition era in Atlantic City, as that is where my undergraduate school resides. I interned in archives and special collections there for two semesters. My mentor and the director of special collections was a historical consultant on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”

2) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you? 

As much as archives tell the story of us, they also represent the stories that are not told, the voices that were not carried forward. That is what means a lot to me.

3) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee? 

Gain the ability to share experiences and insights with the public, and learn to become a resourceful advocate for the Committee. I also hope to network with as many people as I can, as I will be finished with my MLIS this summer.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession? 

Outside the archival profession, I spend my time with my husband and two children, Samantha (7) and Jonathan Jr (6). My son has special needs so being a good advocate is a quality close to my heart. I enjoy going to estate sales on weekends to search for more pieces for my personal collection, that includes 1920s memorabilia, antique books/manuscripts. I also volunteer as much time as I can with the Veterans History Project through the Library of Congress. To date, I have conducted over twenty oral histories with several different veterans.

Steering Share: Digging Into the FamilySearch Inmate Indexing Program

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of Steering Committee member, Burkely Hermann, National Security Archive.

Hello everyone! In today’s post I’d like to share a project that I’ve been working off-and-on since 2019, in my spare time, which relates to digitization, archival ethics, and access. Since then, I have been using MuckRock to request documents from county jails and state prisons about FamilySearch’s program to have inmates index public records, like censuses and military records, which are then used by genealogists and the general public. In order to put this project into context, I’d like to give some background to highlight why this project matters.

In February 2020, in my first article on the closure of the National Archives facility in the Seattle area, I noted that some U.S. legislators criticized the partnership between the National Archives and FamilySearch, who stated that this partnership, meant to digitize records, has not “resulted in actual access to records that have been prioritized by stakeholders.”

Currently, NARA’s webpage on digitized microfilm publications and original records states that digitization partners like Ancestry, Fold3 (owned by Ancestry), and FamilySearch “have digitized microfilm publications and original records from NARA’s holdings and made them available on their websites.” NARA has had a partnership with FamilySearch since 2005, with NARA describing them as having a “clear focus on records of interest to genealogists.” The current partnership agreement with FamilySearch will remain in effect until NARA or FamilySearch terminates it, which is unlikely.

All of this matters because FamilySearch, a division of the Mormon Church (LDS), is using inmates to index many of these public records. This means that the records you might be using on Ancestry, which FamilySearch shares records with, or on the latter site, have likely been indexed by inmates.

It is important to keep in mind that jails and prisons are not the same. Jails are run by counties or cities, housing those with short-term convictions or awaiting trial. Prisons are operated on the federal or state level, with inmates who have longer-term convictions.

I became interested in this topic after reading Shaun Bauer’s short article in Mother Jones in August 2015 entitled “Your Family’s Genealogical Records May Have Been Digitized by a Prisoner”. Unfortunately, Bauer never wrote a follow-up piece, and some genealogists, like assorted people on social media and Megan Smolenyak, more prominently, defended the indexing, claiming that a “few key aspects” were left out.

In contrast, Jarrett M. Drake, a Harvard University PhD candidate who focuses on “archival, educational, and organizing projects that pertain to prison abolition,” argued, in a 2020 book, Paths to Prison: On the Architectures of Carcerality, that the national and state governments that partner with FamilySearch certain “untold millions of dollars” by sharing their records for indexing and digitization, and argued that “millions of archival records have been made available by incarcerated labor.”

Although my research on this subject is still ongoing, there is clear evidence that sometime in the 1980s, LDS opened a Family History Center at Utah State Prison, followed by one at California’s Tehachapi State Prison in 1989. In February 2001, the Chicago Tribune acknowledged that the Freedman’s Bureau records, which are popular especially with Black genealogists, were collected and culled by 550 inmates at the South Point Correctional Facility at Utah State Prison.

Smolenyak’s interview with one of the indexers, Blaine Nelson, said that the indexing of the Freedman’s Bureau records took eleven years, 600 inmates, and “over 700,000 volunteer hours.” He declared proudly that, by February 2001, “some 480,000 Freedman’s Bank records had been extracted and indexed.” This means that one of the “richest databases for African-American research” as Ed Lunt, who helped establish the indexing program at the Utah State Prison in 1990 with his wife Penney, described it, was only possible due to the large amount of unpaid inmate labor.

The indexing did not end there. It has continued since then, with millions of names indexed by inmates, not only in Utah, but in other states, like Idaho and Arizona. Some even declared that this indexing means that prisoners are “working to strengthen everyone’s family tree.”

In 2021, Steve Collings, a product manager for the FamilySearch Correctional Services program, stated that LDS had “35 different facilities” with where inmates do indexing across the Mountain West, including Utah, Wyoming, and Arizona, with plans to expand nationwide, then worldwide. Whether the indexing provides “personal growth” to inmates as LDS claims, or not, LDS has been mostly tight-lipped in providing many details about the indexing and noting the exact locations where LDS has contracted prison indexing.

In my research, I’ve found that five jurisdictions in Utah currently have contracts with LDS to have inmates index records: Box Elder County, Cache County, Duchesne County, Kane County, and Summit County, as I note on the “Documents received” sheet within my “FamilySearch and prisons” spreadsheet. Sevier County presumably also has a contract, but I have not received documents from them. The most recent one I received, for Box Elder, shows that FamilySearch is all in on the inmate indexing as it was signed earlier this year by Stephen Valentine, who is the Senior Vice President of FamilySearch International!

From my requests I also learned that there are genealogy programs in Idaho prisons, but they reportedly have no policy related to the program. The same is the case for the Utah Department of Corrections. I also received redacted emails from the Washington Department of Corrections showing communications about Mormon volunteers coming to the state’s prison facilities. Otherwise, I learned that Beaver and Washington counties have volunteer programs but reportedly do not have records of that program.

In order to do these requests, I’ve been using MuckRock, which allows you to submit freedom of information requests to any governmental agency within their databases and keep all of the interactions public, or even private. Unfortunately, it has been somewhat costly to do this work, costing $5.00 per record request, making it hard for those without adequate financial resources to make these record requests and hopefully receive documents which can become public, even if they are heavily redacted. Where I work, the National Security Archive, has the same goal, but on a much larger scale, with various projects and experts on certain subject areas.

As I continue my research, with the impending end of requests to county jails in Utah, I’ll be trying to find out more about this program beyond Utah, to other states. I’ve done this a little with requests to counties in Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and other states such as Colorado and Arkansas. Although I’m not sure what I will learn about this indexing program going forward, and how widespread it is, I am confident that it will remain a learning experience which will inform people, particularly archivists and librarians, about those who index the public records which are used on a daily basis. Hopefully, it will also encourage a push for a larger NARA budget, so that more digitization of their records can be done in-house rather than contracted out to FamilySearch or for conditions be put on the next agreement to prohibit indexing by inmates.

Steering Share: Meet Burkely Hermann

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of Steering Committee member, Burkely Hermann, National Security Archive.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

I first worked in an archives after graduating from college with my B.A. in Political Science and History, as a researcher at the Maryland State Archives for a project trying to track down the stories of Maryland Revolutionary War soldiers, called the “Finding the Maryland 400” project, having a flexible start and end time, often either working with a historian on staff or independently. While that job only lasted six months as the grant money from a non-profit ran out, it began my interest in archives, which was rekindled in later years when I started my MLIS degree and worked at NARA’s College Park location as a work study in my last semester.

While I was drawn toward genealogy when working at the Maryland State Archives, I remember digitizing documents, using a push cart to move heavy books from the stacks to my desk, the in-house system I used to input information, or the many databases I used day in and day out. On the other hand, there were mold remediation efforts during the end of my time there. Worst of all, however, was the public transit nightmare I endured to get to the archives. Every day, I went on a light rail train to the end of the line, then a caught bus down to the archives itself. One wrong transfer or traffic would cause delays either by minutes or by hours. One major lesson I learned from the whole experience was to work somewhere that is accessible through public transportation!

2) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

That is a hard question. I would say precarity in the archives profession is very important, as many of my jobs since graduating have been precarious, whether working at a grant-funded position at the Maryland State Archives, an unpaid internship for NARA, or a graduate assistantship at University of Maryland, where I earned my MLIS degree, focusing on Archives and Digital Curation. Connected to this are those trying to unionize archivists, have fair pay, and safe working conditions, among other efforts to help archival issues.

Currently, I work at a non-profit which relies on grant funding, so in that way, it is a bit of a precarious position, I suppose, as a loss of funding could lead, possibly, to cuts in wages and benefits. I am glad that archival precarity has received a lot of attention in recent years and I hope that it continues to be seen as important by those in the profession, including in the SAA. This seems by the case from what I can gather when filling out the A*Census II.

3) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I hope to connect with like-minded archivists who are concerned with various archival issues, such as reparative processing, redescription, institutional sustainability, institutional racism, and preserving social media posts. I’ll be using my perspective to positively contribute to the Issues & Advocacy Section (I&A) to continue existing advocacy and outreach efforts, including continuing to promote the value and importance of the archival profession.

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

Well, read a lot of webcomics and watch a bunch of animated series. And I write reviews of shows and comics I read, some of which have archivists and librarians! Also, for fun, I write fan fiction, often wild crossovers of different shows of characters which would never be together otherwise, and am trying to incorporate some archivists into those stories. I occasionally do family history research for both sides of my family and have some blogs about that as well. When I’m not doing all of that, and it’s good weather, I go on hikes and read books.

Steering Share: Meet Andrea Belair

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of new Vice Chair / Chair-Elect Andrea Belair, Library Project Specialist at the Clark Art Institute.

1) What was your first experience working with archives?

I wish I could say that I’d had experience in an archive before I was in graduate school, but I can’t remember any. They always sounded cool and mysterious, but I didn’t really work with archives much until my first internship during graduate school, where I processed a small collection of records of the local fire department. The internship was at the North Jersey History and Genealogical Center in Morristown, New Jersey, and I had to travel there by train from Rutgers in New Brunswick. I created a finding aid in EAD, the records themselves were very dirty, so I had to clean them off and asked tons of questions about everything I did. The archivist there was great as a person and as a professional. This was only a part of an internship that had many facets, but I think processing that collection made me feel that I’d like a goal of becoming an archivist, although I was often told back then that I’d never find a job in archiving so I was trying to keep my hopes minimal. 

2) What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?

As many others have said with this question, it’s hard to answer because there are so many issues that are so important. I am always thinking about climate change but I’m not sure what archivists really can do about it, and I think about decolonization a lot. However, one issue that has been hitting close to home lately for me is that of mental health. I know that archivists are not alone in this whatsoever. Lots of archivists take a beating when it comes to their mental health, and this is one area in which much of the general workforce became more aware of during the pandemic. I have just changed jobs, but the toxicity of some of my former workplaces, combined with things like the stress of a low salary, and especially the lack of recognition for your work, can really take their toll on one’s mental health. I have been in situations where supervisors didn’t understand what I did and didn’t trust that I understood it either, and that could be very stressful and taxing. It’s hard to constantly feel the need to prove yourself and your worth, and it has led me into some very dark places mentally. Once I even asked a supervisor outright to try to trust me because I’d like their support, to which the response was that they hadn’t been the one to hire me (although they had indeed hired me) and that was rather demoralizing. It takes advocacy to an entirely new level when you need to try to uphold respect for the profession while trying to advocate for recognition for yourself as an individual who deserves respect as a human being. This really comes down to workplaces in general, but many archivists are employed in academia, which can sometimes have tendencies to maintain a toxic hierarchy that can be hard to change. I cannot imagine how frustrating this must be for others who don’t have the levels of privileges that I’ve had.

3) What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?

I would very much like to regain my focus and become more involved in advocacy for the archival profession. As I said in the last question, I think I’ve become a bit out of the loop and focused a lot on my personal circumstances lately, and I’d really like to connect my experiences with the profession in general again. I am now working in a museum, which is quite different from the academic environments that I’ve been involved in for some time, so it will be interesting to be able to see issues and advocacy that arise within this framework. I’m already seeing a lot of differences. 

4) What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?

I love hiking and I co-own a record store with my husband. Now that winter is here, I’m outside a little less often and inside the record store more often. 

Archivists on the Issues: LAC Union at University of Michigan

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. In this post, Steering Committee member, Sheridan Sayles, talks to a member of the newly formed LAC at University of Michigan.

In March 2021, Lecturer-rank employees at the University of Michigan Libraries—specifically the Librarians, Archivists, and Curators (LAC)—voted to form a union as part of the University of Michigan’s Lecturers’ Employees Organization. This involved coordinating among the Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn campuses and setting standards and goals for all three work environments.
The members of SAA’s Issues and Advocacy section stand in solidarity with the union and, beyond signal boosting their incredible efforts, we hope that getting an insight into the experience of unionizing will support others who wish to take this same path. In this exchange, Colleen Marquis of the Flint campus shares some of her experience.

  1. What inspired you to unionize?
    Our conditions on campus. The Flint campus is very isolated and struggling. The Ann Arbor administration treats us like the problem child rather than support us. Our librarians are overworked and underpaid and it’s embarrassingly obvious to students and fellow faculty in other departments. The breaking point was when we went to re-describe our job duties and redefine our roles (after several positions were left vacant) and realized that we all need two to three job descriptions while being some of the lowest-paid librarians not only in the University system but in the whole state.
  2. What issues were most important to you when forming your union?
    Equality across campuses, better cross-campus library collaboration, job security should the Flint campus close, pay, and better working conditions. 
  3. What research did you need to complete at the onset of your efforts?
    A lot! I learned about how to have the organizing conversation, how to be relentless when contacting people (even if it didn’t work!) and I of course researched ATF and LEO as much as possible. I wanted to be sure that LAC would fit well and it was soon obvious that this was the best way for us to organize.
  4. You were able to get a fairly disparate group together, what strategies did you use—communication or otherwise—in your organizing efforts?
    I used every tool at my disposal including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, every day I could to try to contact people I did. My efforts focused on the Flint campus though and with a whole faculty of 7 people in the library and archives and the realities of our working environment, it wasn’t difficult to get a majority to sign fairly quickly! I had a lot of trouble contacting and getting responses from Ann Arbor librarians.
  5. If you could change one thing about the experience of forming your union, what would it be?
    CoVID made it hard to get face to face with people and I feel like that could have made things go much smoother. It’s easier to ignore the hardships of someone telling you on a computer screen, much harder to ignore them in person. I had a conversation with someone who had no complaints about their job but when I spoke about the trouble I was having they said, “Yeah but that’s you in Flint.” It was harder to connect the individual with the whole community. 
  6. Lastly, what advice would you give to someone looking to unionize?
    You will have frustrating and dumb conversations. You have to remember that we live in a society that actively discourages organizing. There is a negative narrative surrounding unions that is pushed harder here than anywhere else.  You may come across as looking sneaky or non-transparent when working in secret is a necessary first step. Some people won’t let their egos go about not being the first person to be contacted for unionizing efforts, therefore they have a problem with the union. Others will nit-pick and bring up other issues they think are more important or need to be addressed before organizing. Just be ready with answers and be ready to repeat those same answers when their concerns are repeated back to you but with different wording (maybe this is strictly a problem with academics?!) Also, recognize when someone isn’t going to budge and then move on. If someone has strong idealogical (ie not based in their or anyone else’s reality) reasons to reject a union, move on to where your efforts will bear fruit. Finally, you need tenacity, you need to go after a yes over and over. Doesn’t matter if you feel like you are bothering them – you probably are and that’s good! Keep bothering them, push the issue, get them to make a decision cause they’ll have to justify that decision to themselves. Hopefully, they will realize inaction is a decision and will sign a card.  

Steering Share: Meet Caitlin Rizzo

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This post comes courtesy of the Steering Committee member, Caitlin Rozzo, Archivist at the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

  1. What was your first experience working with archives?
    This is always a favorite question of mine! The first time I encountered the archive, I was a sophomore in college. In the spring, I decided to launch myself head first into a project that I was objective unqualified to perform and I applied for a summer job as a Research Assistant for a professor on campus, Dr. Marguerite Rippy. I spent what felt like a magical summer researching an all-black production of Macbeth that Orson Welles directed as part of his work with the Federal Theatre Project, which required me to go to places like the Library of Congress and National Archives and Records Association. I remember very distinctly my first ever trip to an archive was the Library of Congress. The day before I met with Dr. Rippy who told me very plainly that the goal for the first day was simply to get my research card and warned me that the first day of research you always feel very lost and a little like an idiot, so as long as I got the card I should celebrate my success. Fast forward to a very confused 19 year old wondering in the tunnels (I am not even sure how I got there) at 3:00 p.m. so desperate to leave and so terrified of asking for help that I followed a group of people with suitcases around for about ten minutes hoping somehow that suitcases signified an intent to leave a building. (Truly, who would drag around suitcases if they were just planning to Sorkin walk through the tunnel? This part of the story remains a mystery.) The good news is that an hour later, I did manage to find the exit and, utterly disoriented, make my way to the metro. I kept coming back and about a week later I made my first archival “discovery”—a little advertisement for the show in Texas where the black-cast was segregated from white production staff. Two years later, when I was searching for internships I applied to the Library of Congress Junior Fellowship program. I ended up staying there for three fabulous years (and, reader, I still wound up lost in those tunnels again and again, but seriously it remains very worth it.)
  2. What is an archival issue that means a lot to you?
    This is difficult for me to answer because there are a lot of things that concern me in archives. I was incredibly fortunate to get my MLIS at the University of Maryland when Dr. Ricardo Punzalan was teaching there and I often repeat a phrase he would say that feels central to my engagement with and love of archives: “History is offensive. If it doesn’t offend you, then you might not be looking that closely.” He is such an amazing example of how a critical approach to a subject is born out of a great love for that subject and a belief in that subject’s value. This is a nice way to say that many things concern me, but that’s probably because I actively strive to be a person who is concerned and who is attentive to the struggles of others.
    I would say if I had to pick one thing to talk about in this moment that issue would be divestment and prison abolition in archives and special collections. I am part of a wonderful group that meets regularly to talk about the ways the ideologies of the prison-industrial-complex pervade special collections and the ways that we benefit as a profession from prisons and prison labor. I recently have been working on a statement and thinking about how to phrase this for folks that might think that Special Collections exists in another universe from the systemic oppression of millions of the most vulnerable populations and communities around us. I think for me the idea that right now in the United States about 2.3 million people are desperately in need of evidence, of records, of proof to set themselves free should feel sinister to us as archivists. How does that word ‘evidence’ that sustains our positions (our jobs, our material wealth, and our freedom) condemn others? What do we have to do with that if we benefit from it? And truly how do two worlds seem at first so completely separate? I know of several librarians that work with incarcerated populations but very few archivists have anything to do with the incarcerated. Why is that? There are researchers, users, scholars (whatever you would like to call them that would connote to you their worthiness) who happen to be incarcerated. I have read their poetry, transcribed their letters, and maintained their work in the archive. I think we owe these individuals something better.
  3. What do you hope to gain by being on the I&A Steering Committee?
    I hope to gain a sense of how advocacy can work in technical services. I’ve actually just started a new position that is a little more capacious, but previously all of my archival experience centered on technical or collection services. Most recently, I served as the Head of Collection Services for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, but I often find that the work can sometimes feel unconnected from the conversations that seem the most interesting and necessary for the profession. I think largely that’s been changing with the incredible work of archivists that are tackling issues like redescription and reparative processing; however, I have found that it can be challenging to argue for advocacy in technical services. There is always the backlog, there is always software that need refinement or managing. I think of the words technical debt which always weigh heavy on your shoulders in technical services. Sometimes I think technical services gets too weighed down by those burdens of the “traditional” work of processing, description, and digitization to get to participate fully in these conversations, but the best professional development work I ever got to do was attend a Project STAND conference in Chicago and hear former Black Panthers speak to their experience with archives and activism. Those kinds of experiences feel vital and necessary to the work I do. The technology and the archival labor is not neutral. When you are so stuck trying to catch up with other institutions or new rules, it can feel really challenging to engage in what some people might cast as “value-added” work. The truth is that engaging critically with the issues and advocacy around the practice is foundational and necessary work for all of us. I firmly believe it cannot be additional or optional.
  4. What can we find you doing outside of the archival profession?
    Well, lately my love of loafing and people watching has been cut short by the pandemic. I am at my core such a literature nerd, but somehow this also translates to a deep love for really “bad art.” I love bad poetry, strange/awkward one man shows, bad movies—I like seeing the things that don’t quite work out or materialize the way you thought they would. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the podcast “How Did This Get Made?” but I could listen to that endlessly. I also love podcasts from this moment deep in quarantine. The “Still Processing” podcast just came back and I could listen to the episode that breaks down the culture of public apologies a million times over. Other than that, I am generally playing around with one of my own failed crafting projects and loving on my furry family (one dog, two bunnies, and many unrealized plans for expansion of the pack).