Archives and Popular Media

GandalfMy friend was watching an episode of White Collar the other night. I don’t follow the show so I was only half listening until I heard, “We are going to have to go check out the archives.”

A meme/blog post has been going around recently about movies with library scenes in them and it set me to thinking about how archives are portrayed in popular media. For a lot of people, that’s how they see us, that’s their only interaction with an archives.

If that is the case, we don’t look too good. This particular scene in White Collar had the archivist come out, show them into a room full of card catalogs drawers and filing cabinets, and leave them there. When one of the characters asked, “Wait, which cabinet is 1940?” the archivist called over her shoulder as she walked out, “All of them.”

Now of course this is not true to life (hopefully!) especially since scenes in the archives are usually framed as a race against time, a scene that creates dramatic tension as the characters try to find that one document (which generally has a code or treasure map on it) that will help them in their quest.

Even so I couldn’t help but get annoyed that the fictional archivist not only did not give the pair a finding aid or some sort of index but she was openly rude to the couple. She didn’t need to be, she had no spot in the good vs. evil battle which the plot rested on.  And so the characters sat there, throwing pieces of paper around getting them all out of order etc. until one finally found the right piece of paper, yelled “aha!” and they ran away leaving the mess behind them (No wonder the archivist is so rude).

Now I have to say my favorite archives scene in film is Gandalf researching the One Ring in Fellowship of the Ring.  Mostly because it makes me happy that even the great Wizards who have lived so long must resort to archival research! But if you watch it again….he is eating and drinking in the archives! What?!?

Oh well, its Gandalf…I’ll forgive him…

Archives | People


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