Raiders of the Lost Archive

This week’s adventure was brought to you by the words “Police”, “Microfiche” and “archive”.

So…. Have you heard about occupy Harvard?

…yea neither had I until I wound up in the middle of it this week.

The Harvard Theatre Collection is the largest and oldest archive of its kind in the United States (debatably the world).  They have all kinds of crazy and wonderful things, and it’s where I’m doing the majority of my research for one of my projects this semester.  This last trip to the archive is probably my last before I start writing, but I needed to digitize some microfilm (I know, my life is so exciting).  So I went.

Well, much to my amazement, the campus was on lockdown.  Being a New Yorker, I turned to my “deal with authority figures” survival instincts and whipped out the photo ID most likely to work (my Harvard special borrowers card), took out my headphones, gave the guards my most unassuming smile, and wha-bam had access to the yard.  No big deal.

The yard was quiet and there was a tent city set up on the far end of it.  At this point, my mind leapt to the most likely possibility: that the Harvard students simply could no longer

you can't tell me that this wouldn't perk up any "occupy" movement

afford exorbitant Harvard dorming and thereby were forced to make a make-shift hooverville within the yard.  The police were there, obviously, to stop and wandering gypsies who may get ideas about joining said hooverville.  Unless the gypsies had valid Harvard IDs in which case they were welcome to set up their wagons and perform peacefully (if loudly) for the masses.

I mean, it was a little odd, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before.

What came next was even weirder.

So despite having the nicest reading room with matching oak bookcases that I have ever been in as well as the most fancy bathrooms (seriously… their bathrooms are nicer than most apartments I’ve lived in), Houghton Library’s microfiche reader is a piece of donkey dung.  I get the feeling that they got the one that kind-of worked and thereby couldn’t be thrown away but nobody really wanted in their library so they sent it to the corner of Houghton.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the Houghton people weren’t emphatic about requesting microfiche copies of volumes when possible.

A critical piece of my current research is on microfiche.  This was going to be an issue.

After seeing the oh-so-fancy office-paper-and-handwritten “broken” sign on the printer by the microfiche reader, I inquired about the possibility of printing from microfiche.  The archivist informed me that this process had to be taken care of in Lamont library, the next building over.  “Oh.”  I said, “So I fill out a request sheet and they send my materials there, I pick them up and deal with them?”

“No.”  She said, “You take them there yourself.”

What?  Wait… no… WHAT!?  Like… remove materials from the archive?  With my own two hands?

You have to understand.  Reading rooms at these places are probably the most secure rooms in the university.  They post guards at the door, you need special ID to get in, you can only take certain things into the reading room (at Harvard you may take: a notebook, a laptop (but not the case), pencils, and your digital camera (but not the case)), they have buzz-you-in-from-both-sides doors, and they search your stuff when you leave.  I was going to REMOVE MATERIAL FROM THIS PLACE?

“Yea.”  The archivist said.  “I mean… it’s only microfiche.”

I guess that brought a little perspective to what I was doing.  After all, microfiche is secondary material… not really of any value since it’s not original and requires special equipment to deal with…

Steeling my nerve, I accepted the forms informing all involved security guards that yes, I was authorized to carry around these two rolls of golden microfiche for the afternoon and no, I wasn’t stealing them.

Feeling like I was carrying a case full of jewels and a bomb simultaneously, I worked my way out of the reading room and to Lamont.

So…. Funny thing about microfiche… it’s not glamorous.  At all.  And it doesn’t really require special conditions to be stored.  As a result, it gets foisted to the least appealing section of the library.  At Harvard, it’s in a sub-basement with few lights and locked wire storage cages at the back.  When I arrived in the sub-basement, there was one other student there.  I was somewhat glad because it meant that I had someone to throw at the

...and there wasn't even a counter to hide under!

inevitable zombies or velociraptors which would attack me because I had managed to find my way into their lair.  This other researcher proved doubly unnerving because, after a brief tour around the place, I realized that he disappeared completely without making a sound.  Standing, now alone, in the flickering fluorescent tube lights, I realized that I had to get out of there.  Now.  What if the velociraptors were particularly hungry that day?  What if they just had a penchant for stealing precious microfiche?  Then I would be found out!  Booted!  Clearly I wasn’t really a member of the academy because I fell for the old “velociraptors in the basement steal your archival material” trick!

Thankfully, I realized fairly quickly that while the microfiche lived in the sub-basement, the microfiche scanners lived on the main floor of the building (one of the ones with oak bookcases, comfy chairs, and professional velociraptor handlers… I mean librarians).  I made my escape as quickly as I could, clutching the microfiche to my chest in an attempt to hide its token scent.

And actually, microfiche digitizing scanners are pretty nifty!  I had a grand old time using them, and managed to return the microfiche unscathed to the archives before they closed.

Oh and I saw some Tibetan monks trying to gain access to Harvard but being turned away

You can't make this stuff up, folks.

by the police on my way out.  Maybe that’s why the velociraptors weren’t in the sub-basement… they were otherwise employed at the gates of Harvard keeping the gypsies and Tibetan monks from gaining access to the sacred yard.

4 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Archive

  1. You managed to get microfiche, the Occupy movement, velociraptors, and Tibetan monks all into the same blog post. Nicely done! 😀

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