Archival stereotypes in Critical Role, the USOPC archivist, archival labor in pop culture, problem with library grit, using gender-neutral terminology for ancestors, history, and more

Hello everyone! In this special Friday edition, I'll be covering the latest news and articles about archives, libraries, genealogy, history, and other subjects.

Carla (disguised as Rita), in an episode of Elena of Avalor, tries to go through the royal library to find a “weak point” that allows her to get into the royal treasury and fails miserably, yet again

Hello everyone! Since my last newsletter on August 30, I’ve been a bit busy, whether going to a wedding of my cousin, watching animated shows, or updating my plethora of blogs. The latter was the case for my blog reviewing librarians in popular culture, where I published posts proposing the “Librarian Portrayal Test” as I call it, and recent titles of animated series with librarians or libraries that I came across in July and August. And on September 3, I wrote a post about the Rick and Morty episode focusing on a break-in at the National Archives, an obvious reference to the plan in National Treasure to steal the Declaration of Independence and…find the secret map on the back in invisible ink. Other than that, let me move onto the rest of my newsletter.

In the world of archives, there were posts by my work colleagues on Pakistan’s nuclear program, a joint project between where I work and the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies which is trying to “illuminate archival sources and disseminate information about collections that are available for use by students and young experts in the field,” and a post about how Australian spies aided and abetted the CIA in Chile. Then there is a post by Samantha Cross, who have mentioned in this newsletter repeatedly, an archivist who I like to call the “pop archives guru.” She published, on August 30, a deep dive into archives in Critical Role, noting that archives obviously aren’t neutral, and neither are museums and libraries, and saying at one point “I cannot stress enough how neutrality as a concept needs to be eliminated from archival thought and processes because there's absolutely no way a person can make an unbiased decision.” Cross wrote about how archives and libraries confused, with the archives (Cobalt Soul) nested within the library, use of the messy/dirty archives stereotype, mix-up of terminology, Cobalt Soul having “unique circumstances and threats that stymie its ability to be a functioning archival institution,” her concern that archivists are singled out for corrupt, imperialist actions, above anyone else, and the problematic assumption by many that Cobalt Soul is “neutral” when it clearly isn’t. As Cross puts it, rightly, archives and libraries are not the same, as “a library might have an archives or Special Collections and archives certainly have libraries and reading rooms, but they are not synonymous institutions. They have markedly different methods of curation that may overlap at times, but wildly differ when it comes down to the uniqueness of their materials.” She concluded by saying while she was disappointed by the portrayal of archives in Critical Role, she hopes for improvements, adding that “even the most well-intentioned creatives can still misstep or fall back on old stereotype, whether they're conscious of it or not.” I know that for certain when I put an archives in one of my stories, it happened to be underwater (almost akin to a basement archives) and with no archivist. I later tried to make-up for that by having an archives above ground, clean, and well-staffed, built upon ruins of an evil empire. And now I have an archivist as a protagonist, which I’ll talk about later in this newsletter.

I was intrigued by the story of Amanda McGrory, a full-time archivist for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), who “works to document the history of the Games, cataloging its extensive collection of items and hunting for potential new treasure troves of information.” I learned about her from Issue 29 of Colleen Theisen’s “Library News This Week.” McGrory splits her time between working and training as the USOPC archivist, and “reading, eating, napping, live music, and drinking coffee.” In article in I Love Libraries describes her as a “wheelchair racer” and says she has the professional expertise to be an archivist, but is “the only full-time staffer”! She is fine with being a lone arranger, saying “a lot of being an archivist is about being self-driven, with collection development and accepting artifacts,” going onto saying she relies a lot on working independently and her instincts, based on her time as an athlete for many years for TeamUSA. Due to her archival duties, the games last year in Tokyo were her last. According to her LinkedIn, she has been the Archivist and Collections Curator for USOPC since June 2020. An article/post on the TeamUSA website notes that while she originally wanted to be an academic librarian, she found her “true interest” in special museum collections an archives, interning at the USOPC, with a post from her alma mater saying in May 2018 that she was assisting “the archives with selecting artifacts to appear in the U.S. Olympic Museum.”

McGrory said that the USOPC archives is unique in holding “more physical artifacts than traditional archives…[and] until the opening of the museum we didn’t a place to view them,” with the opening of the USOPC allowing for the public to see their artifacts, with the archives request-only up to this point. She noted how the records told stories of “some of the lesser-known athletes” and her desire to make the collection fairer, with the challenges of finding Para history, but that she is “working to add some artifacts to bring to the collection.” Usually, archivists don’t have a spotlight in media like she did, which is why I highlighted it. Doing this work all by herself could exhausting and demoralizing, and the below video about her work at the Crawford Family U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Archives does imply that she is working with others, although she may be doing the brunt of the work.

Other than the post by Cross and the article about McGrory, there was an a meme about the struggles with digitizing records, Andrew Warland asking whether auto-generated topic cards are the future for record aggregation, Maarja Krusten telling the story of Sam Anthony, the Special Assistant to the Archivist, who died from terminal cancer on August 20, the value of exhibits in archives and special collections which “function as an important outreach tool” for some repositories, Daniel Dancis, a Textual Records Archivist at NARA, writing about finding posters within photographs, and the National Archives of Australia being given money to “help further preserve the Commonwealth's aging records,” especially records at risk, and digitize them. Other stories focused on the re-opening of the Alabama Veterans Museum & Archives which will expand the size of the museum, and the Georgia Archives introducing new online research tools. I was also interested in a thread by Cross about archival labor in pop culture, noting that her blog exists to highlight what the media gets wrong about work of archivists and purpose of archives, with a major sin being absence of archival labor. It’s a Twitter thread worth reading. Cross notes that actual work of archivists is often absent, protagonists seem smart enough to do research on their own, archivists are never shown helping people, no mention of who processes materials, “created the indices, the finding aids, the websites.” As a result, there is a skewed conception of “how archives and libraries actually work,” with historians declaring they “discovered” something, leading to “unnecessary expectations” hoisted upon archivists and archival institutions, and the idea of an archivist having “an infinite well of knowledge.” She says that archival labor is important, providing information for protagonists, and asks that creative people should “show them some love or at least acknowledge their existence.” This thread inspired me to start the next story in my Steamland Chronicles series with a non-binary archivist (and protagonist), named Mx. Lawlor, and they contemplate whether a new archives should be created after the destruction of the archives in the last section. The story is still in the very early stages, but I’m excited to continue it, and keep improving it. If all goes well, I’ll publish it either this month or next month.

We then come to libraries. I’m excited to nominate something for the National Film Registry! Each year 25 films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant, and are at least 10 years old, are chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with advice from the National Film Preservation Board. They are currently encouraging recommendation of “a full range of American films…[and] films representing the vibrant diversity of cultures and influences of filmmakers.” Already 800 motion pictures have been selected, and you can nominate up to 50 films through the online nomination form with the deadline being September 15! In other library-related news, Jennifer Snoek-Brown of Reel Librarians wrote about her return to the fright club podcast, again noting the role of librarians in a smattering of horror films, from 1958-1996, and on Wong’s cameos in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in a “first impressions” post which is less detailed without the possibility of pausing a film, taking notes, or rewatching scenes, and the fifth time she “analyzed a reel librarian, library, or archives scene in a Marvel movie.”

Those who work for the Library of Congress are very prolific, so it’s hard to fit every single one of them into a newsletter. However, apart from the retiring of John Y. Cole, historian of the Library of Congress and former director of the Library’s Center for the Book, who began working at the library in 1966, there were posts about Vatican criminal law and money laundering, textiles of the early Americas, the magic of making books, voices of enslaved peoples, some of the many LGBTQ+ writers who have “helped pave the way for the celebrations today through their contributions to the copyright record,” portraits and narratives of formerly enslaved peoples, and 2021 LOC Junior Fellow Sean DiLeonardi noting how he realized he belonged at the library. NYPL shared views from their digital collections of the Brooklyn Bridge and the purpose of maps, which can be for many purposes, including “wayfinding, or locating oneself and navigating from place to place.” The IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) released a statement on Hungarian LGBTQ+ content laws, the Toronto Public Library had a post about preserving an old book, In These Times focused on the Abolitionist Library Association, which I talked about in an earlier newsletter, and Programming Librarian reported on the Jaffrey Public Library in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, having a “virtual conversation…on gender identity,” hosted by the library director!

Then there’s April Hathcock, who gets mentioned at least once in each of my newsletters. She has a post in May 2017 about resilience in the library field, even with the “abysmally low pay” in the profession. She said the obsession with resilience in the field plays a “huge part in destroying our attempts at increasing diversity” with grit keeping “libraries underfunded…staff underpaid…[and] work undervalued,” as people wear grit like a medal of honor. She added that resilience “absolves those with privilege of the responsibility for dismantling oppression and erecting systems of equity,” concluding that this obsession must end, and that we “have to accept the possibility of failure,” with cutting of services, closing of libraries, no matter the tragedy. She quotes a fellow librarian who says that people should practice resistance rather than resilience. This connects to what I said about McGrory earlier, in that she is positioning herself as the resilient one, when she should have a full team of people helping her instead of her doing most of the work.

That brings me to genealogy. There is the disconcerting news about Ancestry gobbling up a French genealogy company, Geneanet, along with genealogists talking about correcting names in the site’s German databases, free online New Jersey birth records and indexes, a century-old murder unveiled through genealogy work, and the role of narrative as an avenue for critically unpacking family history. There are entries for Zachariah Packard and Nathan Packard in Beyond Kin’s Enslaved Population Research Directory, the kinds of ancestor death records you should look for, Genealogy Star on the status all of the records on the FamilySearch website, tips for organizing your genealogical information, and a genealogist encouraging people to “look more closely at their own relatives who suffered from disabilities.” All of that is interesting, but what really caught my eye was Gabrielle Bellot’s review of Jen Manion’s 2020 book, Female Husbands: A Trans History, who says that Manion “accepts that it is not always possible to know a historical person’s gender identity, so when it seems uncertain, Manion uses gender-neutral terminology – a move at once politic and political, doing gender justice to historical figures whose identities are unclear or who may have genuinely wished to be spoken of in non-binary terms.” That is something that matters when it comes to genealogy, as there may be certain ancestors whose gender is a bit of a quandary for one reason or another, so we should not assume anything about them. That’s the main takeaway. I’m excited to read this book in the future and think it could influence my genealogy work.

With that is the subject of history. Smithsonian magazine had posts about Hurricane Ida damaging Whitney Plantation, the only Louisiana museum to focus on the enslaved, Italian authorities recovering antiquities worth $13 million, archaeologists unearthing a 2,800 year old castle in Eastern Turkey, how the obsession of Medieval Europeans with pointy shoes led to painful bunions, excavations on Big Talbot Island possibly unearthing “traces of Saraby, a 16th- or 17th-century Mocama community,” and uncovering a gold ornament in a German tomb which is over 3,800 years old. Other articles talked about the movie palaces which made viewers “feel like they were watching royalty,” something which Hollywood encouraged, with a few large studios producing and distributing movies across the country, with stars under contracts that “essentially controlled their lives,” while the studios has control of “every aspect of movie production and distribution.” The Baby Boom led the demise of the movie palaces, flourishing from the 1920s to 1950s, with the nuclear family becoming front and center, as “people wanted to raise their children in the suburbs.” Other articles focused on the young anti-war activists who fought for school free speech in what became the Tinker v. Des Moines case, and a new study finding that many feathered dinosaurs were more aerodynamic than previously thought.

As always, there are articles which don’t neatly fit into the categories of archives, libraries, genealogy, or history. Margaret Middleton gave tips on gender inclusive visitor signs at museums, ZDNET noted how fast a password leaked on the web will be tested by hackers, Quartz explained that companies are rethinking plans of slashing office space which had been proposed earlier in the pandemic, Popular Mechanics explained the value of the world’s smallest implantable chip, and Smithsonian magazine said that extreme floods are, due to climate change, more likely in Europe. The Conversation noted on India’s plan to pay journal subscription fees which may make science harder to access, The Fuzzy Librarian noted seven spots for free audiobooks, and Gizmodo explained that cops are using Facebook to target Line 3 Pipeline protesters. Then there’s Sarah Ahmed’s Complaint!, a book which “examines what we can learn about power from those who complain about abuses of power.” As always, The Nib had wonderful illustrations. One lampoons those complaining about “critical race theory,” another talks to history of the rainbow flag, one is about moving past expectations you hoist on yourself from her parents. Others are about what you can learn while suffering a gender-nonconforming crisis in folk dancing class, the Supreme Court’s awful decision on abortion, making fun of COVID-19 deniers, and a containment being put upon the dome on a pipeline after Hurricane Ida caused an oil spill… just like with Deepwater Horizon.

That’s all for this week! Hope you all have a productive week ahead!

- Burkely

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