The Bartleby Dilemma, or Handling Personally Objectionable Materials at Work

“I would prefer not to.”

It’s the refrain of Melville’s recalcitrant narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and it’s on my mind this afternoon.

Yesterday at the museum, processing a collection which shall remain nameless, I stumbled across some material from the 1960s that used images and language which, for personal and political reasons, I found disturbing.  Disturbing enough, in fact, that I took a ten minute break to walk it off in the corridors outside. Out there, surrounded by carefully crafted displays on everything from Wagner’s Ring series to toy theater models, I was struck by how volatile the past can be and how close it actually is.

Professional archivists by necessity and definition work with the past. And the past, as many of you know, was awful. I’m not trying to be glib when I say that, either. I genuinely mean that large swathes of the past were flat-out horrifying and as an information professional, you’ll most likely come into contact with that uncomfortable truth sooner rather than later. Maybe it’s for religious, non-religious, political, or socio-economic reasons. Or maybe you end up finding something that plain old freaks you out. What happens when your reaction to processing an item or an entire collection is “I would prefer not to?” Whatever the reason, how do you handle processing personally objectionable items at work?

Obviously, if we only processed collections we liked and enjoyed from periods of time where everything was hunky-dory, we’d all be out of work in a week. We can’t simply not work on objectionable collections, but it is completely appropriate to acknowledge that archivists have feelings and opinions that can come into conflict with their work. Preservation efforts especially are painstakingly detail-oriented and time-consuming. It can be difficult to justify that amount of energy being spent of items that, given your own way, would never see the light of day again.

Like all personnel-related issues, this is going to depend on the “corporate culture” at your institution. I was lucky enough to be in an environment where it’s okay to react personally to the collections, one of the many benefits of being in an arts-based institution. Art is meant to inspire emotions, both positive and negative, and being surrounded by people who both understand and support those reactions makes it easy to navigate.

In less understanding situations, there are numerous ways to cope. I’ve written missives detailing my personal feelings, which, once emailed to myself, are promptly deleted. Heading outside for a breath of fresh air is another excellent coping mechanism. Even looking at sympathetic hedgehogs can be a stress reliever in the right circumstances.

The most important aspect of dealing with questionable, objectionable, or outright offensive materials is acknowledging that they can and do have a mental and emotional effect on the archivists involved. Even if you can’t talk out your discomfort at work, it makes a difference get that frustration out in other ways.

Go for a run. Rant to a friend over coffee. Build model airplanes. Whatever you do, reassure yourself that by processing this material, by acknowledging this material at all, you’re part of the solution. Education and access to information are the only way society progresses.

And progress is a bumpy road.

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1 Comment

Filed under Archives, History, Museums

One response to “The Bartleby Dilemma, or Handling Personally Objectionable Materials at Work

  1. archiveaspire

    What a great and earnest post! I haven’t personally come across anything that was objectionable, but I can definitely imagine how much it would affect me if I did. I’ll be sending you hug vibes today.

    Also, how did you know I love hedgehogs?? :)

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