Archival representations in popular culture can go a long way in informing and impacting our work to raise public awareness about archives and archivists, which is why we knew we had to talk to Samantha “Sam” Cross, creator of the POP Archives blog! COPA member Nick Pavlik recently spoke with Sam on representations of archives and archivists in popular media, and what archivists can do to address the cringe-inducing and wildly inaccurate stereotypes we often see. Sam also writes about archives and popular culture on the American Archivist Reviews Portal.
NP: What was your inspiration for starting the POP Archives blog?
SC: Primarily, there wasn’t a lot in the way of archival literature or online resources about archives and archivists in popular culture. Even as a profession we’ve only scratched the surface of examining archival identity as seen through a pop cultural lens. I like pop culture. I live in a world where the Venn Diagram of pop culture and nostalgia is a circle. I also spend a lot of time explaining what exactly it is I do because a lot of movies and television shows don’t understand my profession and treat it as synonymous with librarians.
I think the most direct inspiration was Leith Johnson’s “Archives in the Movies” at the annual SAA meeting. We spend an hour watching clips, some new, many of them repeats, and laugh at how poorly our profession is depicted, but then I started wondering about the sum total of all those middling to cringe-worthy stereotypes. From there I started making a very long list of movies, tv shows, cartoons, comic books, video games, etc., and a website was born of my ramblings.
NP: Overall, how would you “grade” the popular entertainment industry on its portrayals of archivists and archives?
SC: Not great. Based on the articles I’ve written so far, I’d go C- at best. Some creators put the effort in, but there are a lot that don’t.
NP: What are some of the best portrayals of archivists and/or archives you’ve seen in popular culture? What are some of the worst?
SC: As a caveat, I haven’t read or seen every and all things featuring archives and archivists. There’s a surprising amount to go through, but some of it takes a lot of time and energy that I need to parse out between work and what resembles a personal life. So, your mileage may vary on this answer.
The best depiction of an archivist, for me, is in the book Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. The head archivist, Isabel, is the oldest living archivist for a fleet of ships that acts as a hub for humanity amid a cosmos of alien life. There’s a lot of philosophy and slice of life vignettes that have stuck with me and I highly recommend it if only for the cute interactions between Isabel and her wife, Tamsin.
Personally, I really enjoyed the Ben Stiller adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Walter is a photograph archivist, but he doesn’t do a lot of archiving so much as he goes on a journey of self-discovery. It’s not a great representation of an archivist, but I enjoyed it, nonetheless.
Worst portrayal? I mean, the archivist of Minas Tirith lets Gandalf drink and smoke all over the Gondorian documents! And that place was such a mess before Gandalf arrived! No wonder it took him ages to figure out Frodo had the One Ring!
NP: How, if at all, do you think representations of archivists and archives in popular culture have changed over time?
SC: Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s changed as much as any of us would like and it depends entirely on the piece of media being consumed. The go-to depiction of an archivist is often white, male, and middle aged, if not older. I’d throw in cis het, but that would mean the archivist gets any character development beyond “that weird guy who inhabits the dimly lit, dusty basement of our university/company.”
Equally as worrisome is the lack of archivists featured in a piece of media where they should absolutely be present. If you watch any urban fantasy television show, Supernatural, Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, Buffy, etc., they always need to do research to legitimize the threat and justify killing the monster. And wouldn’t you know it, they find what they’re looking for without help or aid from someone with – I don’t know – a background in records management and/or archival science. How did the documents get there, Sam and Dean? How did they get there?
NP: What do you think are some of the real-world impacts on archivists of the ways in which we are generally portrayed in popular culture?
SC: The major real-world impact is the same as it ever was, no one outside of the archival community knows what we do.
Whenever I tell someone I’m an archivist, the first response I get, 9 times out of 10, is “Oh, like Indiana Jones!” It says something when the earliest reference most people have for your job is three decades old and it isn’t even the right profession! And when people don’t know what you do, or conflate it with libraries and museums, then you end up with a profession perpetually stuck between a dated/incorrect reference and a thin media landscape offering little to no alternatives capable of penetrating the pop culture bubble.
It doesn’t help when journalists cover stories about the archives like they’re the first to explore forbidden territory. Historians always “discover” something in the archives regardless of the time and effort put into processing collections and help provided by archival staff. We’re invisible at the best of times and at the worst of times we’re spotlighted for blurring images and perpetuating imperialist practices regarding the records of marginalized communities (which we should absolutely be called out for).
It adds up. No one knows what you do, pop culture paints a confusing picture, and the real-world counterpart is either invisible or nefarious. We have severe trust issues internally and externally, is what I’m saying.
NP: Have you thought about how archivists could be more proactive in attempting to influence (or correct) the ways in which we are represented in popular culture? If so, what are some of the ways in which you think we could do that?
SC: I think the only way to be proactive is to acknowledge the portrayals and course correct. The last presentation I gave at work, I showed an image from Raiders of the Lost Ark (you know the one) as an example of what is “Not an Archives” and then I showed an image from Captain Marvel as an example of “An Archives”! It was entertaining, they were engaged, but I can’t tell you if any of those people who came to the presentation kept it in their brains after the pizza ran out and they left the room.
Repeatedly engaging with the public, maybe some aggressive outreach, is really the only way to change perceptions of archivists and archives. Movie nights are great for that. If your institution or company is up for it, doing an #AskAnArchivist day at work gives you the opportunity to squash those poorly conceived depictions. Even if they don’t ask you a direct question about archives in film, just getting to know you is the bigger win. And maybe they learn that you were a horse girl in high school.
NP: Have you considered authoring a novel, screenplay, etc. of your own that portrays archives and archivists in a more accurate and revealing light? Or perhaps a blockbuster movie series all about the adventures of archivists (please)? When can we expect to see that?
SC: Believe me when I say that the thought has crossed my mind, but there aren’t enough hours in the day! I did write a short script for a writing contest that featured three archival staff members describing boxes that contained actual odd items submitted by donors. I didn’t win, but it happened!
I will say that I’m a big advocate for SAA putting an anthology together of short stories, poems, etc. created by archivists. The fiction contests SAA ran the last few years were a rare opportunity for archivists to center ourselves as the protagonist, if not the hero, of a piece of fiction. Identity is and always will be an important factor to any professional and archivists are no different. Every archivist has a story. Every archivist has a perspective uniquely their own. Every archivist experiences the world differently and we need to let that aspect of our profession thrive. The more art produced by archivists, in whatever the format, the better our community is for it.
Samantha “Sam” Cross (She/Her) is from Seattle, WA where she works as an archivist at CallisonRTKL, Inc. A self-proclaimed sponge for information, when Sam isn’t being an archivist she’s typically immersed in comic books, movies, music, and television, never shying away from talking about or analyzing pop culture minutiae. As a means of combining the two things she loves, POP Archives (https://www.pop-archives.com/) was born, a place for Sam to analyze the depictions of archives and archivists. You can also follow her on Twitter @darling_sammy for even more hilarity and inane ramblings.