Go Ask Alice.

(While a large portion of the archival population congregates at the SAA conference in Austin, I’ve been left to my own thoughts and copious 40th Anniversary Woodstock documentaries – both of which could lead to dangerous things…)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland features the iconic storyline of Alice’s meeting with a caterpillar while wandering through Wonderland. The Walt Disney Company adaptation of  Carroll’s stories into an animated film in 1951 gave the caterpillar a hookah-swirling, vowel-filled song. Voiced by Richard Haydn (oft remembered as ‘Uncle Max’ in The Sound of Music), the caterpillar repeatedly asks Alice about her identity, to which she can only splutter and cough under the pressure of his questioning and smog of his tobacco.

As archivists, we are often cornered and questioned on the specifics of our positions – likely in an audience that does not understand the answers we give. On the spot, we are required to create a working definition of “archivist” for those who are unexposed to the profession of appraising, preserving, and using unique records.

Do we attempt to educate our questioners on the specifics of the archival profession and functions, in the hopes that they will remember and perhaps pass the information along to others? Or, do we provide an easily-understood definition, so they can associate the profession with something comfortable and well-known? And, in constructing such definitions, how does it effect our view of ourselves?

As a (very) recent graduate, I am newly emerged from the theoretical educational realm, where situations become ideal and immune to the real-world effectors. There, we are surrounded by people of our own demographics – young, motivated, educated, enthusiastic, and, of course, hip. We come from mostly liberal arts universities, eager to break down doors, and “stick it to the man.” Like the caterpillar, we “cocoon” ourselves in this environment for two blissful years, only to emerge as fledglings with unsteady wings into a world with rules and restrictions.

After graduation, we find ourselves thrust into professional climates unlike where we’ve been. Archives found in government or corporate environments are filled with their own bureaucratic restrictions and likely limiting our initial grand intentions. Other archives are attached to non-profit organizations, limited by their financial constraints. This raises a whole new crop of questions: Do I follow the organizational culture and mold myself to the examples I see around me? Or, do I become the “ideal” hip archivist I want to be, asking questions and pushing boundaries? Do we risk alienating the established professional population, as Alice offends the caterpillar with her comment about being a “wretched” 3 inches tall? Which side of the mushroom do we choose?

Unlike us, Alice avoided the answering of her questions because “wonderland” turned out to be a dream, while we are forced to contemplate, if not confront, such questions head on. What my own answers will  be, I’m not sure, I just hope I don’t run into the Queen of Hearts while I’m trying to figure them out.

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