Once upon a time, I had a summer job (extending a bit beyond summer) tending bar at a local establishment that remains near and dear to my heart. It was a fascinating gig, and I’m grateful that I was able to have the experience of doing it (even if, on the whole, I was probably not an especially good bartender).
I did not learn to do most of this (which is probably for the best), and there was no flare in my bar game (an excellent thing, for safety purposes). Mostly, I just tried desperately to remember how much to charge for a given bit of boozery and what the regulars wanted to drink when they came in. I served a lot of beer. I secretly loathed people who wanted random complicated cocktails that they didn’t even know how to describe. I became moderately skilled at pouring Guinness properly. I got to meet and talk to a lot of delightful people, got hit on by the occasional drunk, and otherwise had a lovely time. I cleaned a lot. It was fun!
This summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to take on a very different kind of task — I am a (Part-Time, Temporary) Archivist in the library at the institution that employs me to do program admin (with a side of adjunct teaching) during the regular school year. It’s a really great opportunity — my non-Philosophy education is in Library and Information Science, but not in archives or archival records management, so moving into archives work is an adventure in a world just next door (so to speak) to the one I’m mainly trained for. It’s a bit like the way I felt when I picked up the viola, after a lifetime on the violin.
It is SO cool.
Seriously, I could do this FOREVER. Park me in a windowless, climate-controlled room with things that need to be understood in order to be organized and described properly, and I am THERE for it.
[Obviously I’m not working at UIUC, but I love this picture!]
The job in this case involves processing, describing, and organizing the contents of a set of filing cabinets belonging to (and donated by) a previous President of the institution whose tenure in the position was formative for what the place has become. There are letters, reports, newspaper clippings, photos, published and unpublished papers — a whole range of objects and documents that, taken all together, tell a story (indeed, several stories) about both the person who owned them and the institution he served.
I’m still in an early part of the process — the material in the cabinets has been through an initial round of processing (performed by others last year), so most of what I’m doing right now is round two of the processing-and-describing business. I’ve spent the last few weeks just figuring out exactly what I have to work with and thinking about what ought to be done with it. It’s been the most delicious treasure hunt of a job, as I read and identify and connect and name…so many little details and little stories! It’s a bit like picking up a rich, complicated historical novel (or just a really well-written history) — I can’t wait to go back to work on Monday and dig back in to the chapter I was “reading” when I left on Friday.
It’s not just the content that I adore, though. It’s all of the things I have to think about in order to interact with that content. I am (like many people who do library work, I suspect) a great lover of organizing things.* As I study the various papers and objects in the cabinets, I’m busily identifying and describing and tagging them (in my own notes, obviously — not marking the materials themselves), trying to determine some rational scheme for selecting the series in which they will ultimately be placed. Who will the users of this archival collection be? What set of series will best facilitate ease of use for them? There are ethical concerns about privacy and the law (Is this something we can share appropriately, or not? What about copyright?). There are value judgments to be made (Is this something we ought to keep or not? Why?). So many things to think about!
This summer is shaping up to be SO MUCH FUN, and I am infinitely grateful to my colleagues in the library who very kindly offered me the gig and are teaching me how it ought to be done.
*That sound you hear is both of my parents laughing VERY loudly, along with anyone who has ever visited either my house or my office. My claim to love organizing things may make more sense if you imagine that I, like the philosopher Berkeley, may be playing a bit fast and loose on occasion with the use of the word “things” relative to the word “ideas”.
Or, you know, it might not. Carry on laughing, then.