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.


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

  1. Pingback: Archivists on the Issues: Popular Culture and the Presence of Archival Limits – Wading Through the Cultural Stacks

  2. Pingback: Guest post: Library tourism in Italy – REEL LIBRARIANS

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