The Dark Side of Archiving

This blog is dedicated to all those who consider the practice of archiving to be a dull and tedious profession. Yes, it is boxes, papers and file folders, but there is a treacherous aspect that often goes unacknowledged. Contrary to popular belief, archiving is not for the faint of heart. Archivists must be brave, confident, and above all, they must have a strong stomach.  Let us look at some first -hand accounts of the little known, much feared, dark side of archiving…

June 10th, 1987

Marcus Robyns, a university archivist, found himself at a ranch just south of Beaumont, Texas. He had been summoned there to collect farm records, dating back to the pre-civil war era, that the owner had been keeping on the ranch property.  Marcus was assigned to the task of retrieving the records from the “old barn”.  As he entered, he couldn’t help but noticed the smell of the place; it was fowl, yet he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. He made his way to the rickety ladder that led up to the loft where the boxes were stored. When he reached the top rung of the ladder he was met with a horrifying scene. A sea of bones covered the floor of the bar loft! Dozens of tiny skulls, arms, and tails lay between him and the boxes of irreplaceable material he had been trusted to gather. He had but one choice: traverse the sea of bones and recover the material.

“I’ll never forget the sound of the crunching; it was horrible” Robyns recalls with a shudder.

The boxes were safely removed from their storage space and brought to the Beaumont repository. It wasn’t until later that he discovered that the bones had come from the family of barn owls that resided in the loft of this old barn. They were nothing more than generations of meal scraps left in the loft, but the memory still haunts him.

 July 12th, 2012

It was a particularly slow day at the Central Upper Michigan and Northern Michigan University archives, no patrons had strolled through the doors yet that morning.  I decided to wander to the back to see what my co-workers Jaime and Allison were up to. Most days I would simply inquire about their projects, but that day I thought I would take a look at some of the material myself.

I sat down to read a diary they were processing, marking the worn leather and broken clasp.  As I lifted the cover I felt something fall into my lap.  A pile of long, brown, 50 year old hair was strewn across my legs. I shrieked, jumping up from the chair.

“There’s hair in this diary!” I yelled in disgust.

Human Hair found in ~50 year old diary

Jaime and Allison ran to my aid, each one letting out a small scream when they saw the heap of human hair that had made its way onto the floor. We were then faced with the upsetting task of placing the hair back into its spot in the diary.

I no longer look through materials that come through our doors. I live in fear of the horrors that could be lurking in every box.

These are only a couple accounts of the menacing encounters archivists deal with on a daily basis. While their work may appear uneventful, they wake up each day knowing that the dark side is waiting…

Prepared by Savannah Mallo and Olivia Ernst.

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