Voices from the Stacks (Fiction)


(Note: The Society of American Archivists recently held a short fiction contest. I did not win. However, below is what I submitted, to add a little fun to my blog. If nothing else, after you read this, you will desire to read some good fiction.)

John Gage had worked as an archivist for nearly thirty years. He presently labored in the large manuscript collections of an old historical society, an institution that had been aggressively acquiring all sorts of stuff for over a hundred and fifty years. As a result, the repository held many rare and valuable historical sources, along with a variety of materials that can only be described as junk — although no one can ever guess who might use such documents. Scholars of all varieties regularly showed up, from the famous to the young graduate students hoping one day to be famous, to contribute a breakthrough and insightful study changing the way we understand some aspect of our past. John enjoyed talking with all of the researchers, always interested in what they found interesting and likewise tempted by what they thought they could find among the millions of documents. Gage, when it came to the possibilities of useful historical research, was always the optimist (this he always found surprising). He longed to do some of his own research — he possessed numerous ideas for articles and books — but he lacked the time and he was reluctant to engage in any activity that might suggest the slightest hint of a conflict of interest with his professional duties and the mission of his employing institution. But he loved being an archivist.

Gage was not a people-person. In this regard he shared much in common with other archivists, curators, and librarians, although he thought the stereotyped notion of the shy and withdrawn archivist was both demeaning and inaccurate. A researcher would never know this, since he was always charming and outgoing with them. And he was not afraid to express his opinions when an opportunity. But what had attracted him to be an archivist was his passion for history and his ambition to work alone. He often quipped that he had an easier time conversing with dead people than with his very much alive contemporaries; he always hoped that his co-workers and family understood that this was a joke, but as he got older and grew into what people generally thought of an archivist — grey, bearded, slightly disheveled, with faint odors of dust and must — some believed that this was Gage’s mission in life. He thought it was funny. He kept current with new approaches, technologies, and ideas, all without grumbling or any nostalgic sense of the good old days. Although he had slowed down a bit in terms of conference going, Gage was equally at home in the reference room even as he was debating archival theory and methodology with his colleagues. He couldn’t be happier.

“Good morning John,” announced Julia, as he made his way through the security area and into the Manuscripts reading room. His reply was a mumble, but he recovered quickly, and cheerfully retorted, “Good morning, Julia. How are you today?” She smiled at his recovery, something she witnessed most mornings. Julia wore her green and brown J Jill dress, looking like a hostess at a posh restaurant. John, on the other hand, was attired in his normal khaki slacks, polo shirt (whatever was on sale, as long it was green or blue), white or black crew socks, and a dark Navy blue blazer (just in case someone important came in). No one would suspect him of being a male model, especially with his middle age belly.

“Are you ok, John? You seem distracted.” Indeed, he was distracted, but not wishing to discuss the source of it, he again cheerfully replied, “Ah, no. Everything is just fine. I was merely thinking about what needed to be done to finish up the Thomas Winslow Papers.” Nice recovery he thought.

John had been working on the Winslow Papers for the past couple of months. Winslow was a businessman, mostly in land speculation in the city and its environs, who died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918. His business records were neat and meticulous, leaving nothing to the imagination. But it was the voluminous personal correspondence that was the gem. Winslow knew everyone, and he regularly spun out letters offering his opinions on social issues, politics, economics, sports, the arts, and just about everything going on as the Gilded Age passed into the Progressive Era. Gage had been wondering just how to convey the richness of this set of papers, without spending the rest of his career working on it (although that would have suited him just fine).

Julia already had moved on to remind him of the events of the day — “John, don’t forget the staff meeting at 11 and the tour of graduate students at 2.” Gawd, how he hated staff meetings, breaks in the day never resulting, in his opinion, in anything productive. He mentally wrote essays based on whatever records he was processing, always hoping that his private reverie would not be interrupted, “Thanks, Julia, I have this on my calendar.” The students’ visit would be welcome relief. They usually asked perceptive questions and they could be fun. The staff meetings were tedious and boring, and never much fun.

As he walked into his office, his worries returned. Starting a few weeks ago, he had begun to hear voices. He laughed at the thought. This sounded so much worse when he thought about it in this way. He was not hearing voices all the time. John only heard them when he worked past opening hours, something he did a few days a week when he was particularly engaged in a rich historical archive. The Winslow Papers had drawn him in a way unlike anything else he had ever experienced. He looked forward every day to examining the records, bringing some kind of order and succinct description that would help researchers. Sometimes he thought they could serve as a basis for a novel or a powerful documentary. Gage had an entrepreneurial streak, although he never set aside time to indulge in such efforts. Gage was content with his relatively meager salary, always surprised that someone would pay him for what could be his hobby.

After he had started writing his dissertation, twenty years ago, John had taken what he thought was a temporary archivist position to pay his bills but it soon transformed into an unexpected career. He loved the work, the challenges it brought to the fore, and the unlimited opportunities it gave to immerse his self in documents from and about the past. He never gave up on the notion of an academic career, but he never quite could pull himself away from the archives and the researchers wanting to use them. Gage likened working in the archives to being on the front lines or, better yet, in the front row at an important sporting event. The voices were a new wrinkle.

The day went along quite nicely, with the staff meeting and the student tour. By late in the afternoon all John wanted was to get back to work on the Winslow Papers. Julia was the last staff person, other than him, to leave. Now he was alone, without distractions, to pick up examining the various documents. He had finished the financial records, and he was in the midst of the personal correspondence, a task that was taking longer than normal. The letters were often longer and more detailed than others he had worked on, and he was moving slowly in order to take careful notes of their contents. Gage was struggling to figure out how he could prepare a useful finding aid that would reveal the extraordinary riches of this particular collection, totaling several hundred cubic feet of documents spanning the years from 1880 to about 1930. Mixed in with the letters, there were a few diaries, receipts, and scraps of notes created from Winslow’s voracious reading habit, along with several volumes of photographs documenting all aspects of the family’s private life and the public acts of Winslow as an important businessman, social life, and prominent political broker.

After he had been at work for a few hours, around 8:30 in the evening, John heard the murmurs of the voices, again. The words were not clear, muffled as if multiple people were talking all at once. He tried, he always tried, to locate the source of the voices, but usually he had no success. Tonight was different. Now he realized that they were coming from the document boxes in the stacks. As he moved into the storage area, John realized that very distinct sentences were coming from different boxes. More than sentences, what he was hearing were stories. “I was a stonemason, and I worked for most of my life on the churches in the city — that is, until I lost an arm in an accident.” From another box, he could hear a clear voice saying, “I was a schoolteacher, but I was dismissed for teaching African-Americans how to read.” From his left he heard, “I was a semi-professional baseball player in the early twentieth century, but I could not make it to the major leagues, even as a coach. I committed suicide just after my forty-first birthday, the age past when I had any chance of playing professionally.” Each of the disembodied voices revealed lengthy and poignant events of people of all social classes and walks of life. Occasionally, John heard a voice describing someone else’s life, with an explanation that this individual could not write and was represented only accidentally in a photograph or two or in a letter providing eyewitness accounts of events involving other people.

John could hardly believe his ears. Was he imagining this? Out of curiosity he followed some of these voices to the archival containers they seemed to be coming from. In each case he found documents relating to what the voices were saying, although the documents provided much greater detail than what the voices were articulating. The voices seemed to be adding a human element, a personal statement of pain, angst, euphoria, amusement, and hope. And the voices were poignant, compelling enticements to go and examine the physical files.

It was also the case that what the voices communicated were not on topics familiar to John, and John prided himself on his knowledge of the archives holdings. Gage walked back to the binders holding older and newer revised versions of finding aids related to the collections that had become audible. In these guides he found terse descriptions but in none of them did he discover commentary reflecting what the voices were saying. In fact, he thought, it would be safe to say that the finding aids were not very inspirational in terms of drawing prospective readers to use the original documents. Dull and lifeless they were, Gage pondered, and he was the author of some of the finding aids in question.


By the time Gage had done some of this sleuthing, the voices had become muted and then stopped altogether. Gage slowly packed up his working note files and made his way out through the security alarm system and into the parking lot. As he was driving home Gage pondered over these recent events, resolving that he would keep all this to himself. At least for the time being. He wouldn’t even talk to his wife about any of this, at least for a while. He knew Mary could detect that something was on his mind, about work (of course it was always about work), but doubted that even she could guess the wild stuff going on with him at the sedate historical repository. Mind you, John was sure she could work it out eventually. She was a people person, and everyone wondered how the two of them had ever gotten together (he sometimes wondered as well).

Some weeks passed, and the voices did not return. Gage was at first disappointed, but after a while he found comfort that they had gone. At least now, he wouldn’t feel like a nut case.

When the next staff meeting took place, Gage argued that they needed to launch a project to re-examine some of the descriptions for key groups of records. Jonathan Harris, the assistant director of the repository, seemed flabbergasted by this idea, noting, that so much of the holdings still had not been catalogued at all. Why, he demanded, would we backtrack and re-evaluate the collections that were under some level of intellectual control? Gage squirmed a bit. “We need to do it because there are treasures buried in our stacks that no one could find at the moment. We owe it to our researchers to do some remedial work.” Harris mumbled something unintelligible, something he was prone to do at meetings, especially in response to John. Julia stepped into this discussion, asking a very practical question. “John, how did you arrive at this point? What have you been doing with your time?” And, yes, there was an edge to her voice, implying that John had been fooling around with matters that should not be of any concern to him.

After a couple of weeks, John had forgotten about the voices, focusing all of his energies on trying to finish the Winslow Papers project. He wanted to search for some grant funds to digitize some parts of this collection. He had reverted to his old style of representing a set of documents, creating a workman like if not very creative description. As he reverted to the old work mode, he became oblivious to much around him. Now he could no longer pause to read the more interesting documents, even though being able to do so was akin to having air to breathe. It was time to get these records open for researchers, drawing on the best methods available to him to do so.

Then, the voices returned, much like before, although the voices seemed to be telling longer stories than before, adding more detail and additional human interest. What could it mean?

The next morning, when he arrived at work, he found Julia waiting there for him as usual, except that she looked ashen, distracted. She was not her usual cheery self.

“John,” she said as soon as he walked in, “can I talk to you about a problem I have encountered when I am down in the stacks?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Last evening, when I was here a bit later than usual, I started hearing strange voices.”

John tried not to look too shocked, but he nearly wept when she stated those words. “What do you mean? Were you picking up voices from other parts of the building? You know how voices can drift through the air vents. . . .”

“No, I thought of that and I tried to follow the sounds. The voices were coming from the archives containers, a distinctive voice from each box. At first I couldn’t make out the words, but then I realized they were recounting personal stories from long ago. But I also realized that the stories were not about matters I recognized from our collections and the finding aids we had available for them.”

“How do you know that,” John asked, even when he knew she had done exactly what he had done. He listened patiently as she slowly explained how she had arrived at this conclusion. Then she surprised him. “I talked about this with Mary.” Mary was the young graduate student intern who had been working there for a few months. “Mary told me she had been hearing voices just like mine.”

Gage must have looked shocked, because Julia immediately said, “You have been hearing them, haven’t you?”

John didn’t respond for a few moments. “Let’s talk about this later, after work.” He turned swiftly, and somewhat awkwardly, and proceeded to his desk. Julia knew he wasn’t going to talk about this. At the end of the day, John announced he needed to work late so that he could finish the Winslow Papers inventory and description — which was true.

A week passed, and another scheduled staff meeting arrived. The agenda was fairly pedestrian, mostly about some future staff training in interpersonal and communication skills, something they were regularly forced to go through but something that never seemed to get any better (at least in John’s opinion). As he dozed, he was startled to hear Assistant Director Harris’ voice saying, “I have been thinking about John’s suggestion about revisiting the existing descriptions of our archives’ holdings.”

Well, this was different, John thought. Was he about to be fired? Should he pre-empt what was about to come? Had the word gotten around about his hearing voices?

Harris, after what seemed to John to be a rather dramatic pause, said, “I believe this is a good idea and that we should work out a strategy to do this.” John thought Harris seemed extra fidgety, when he usually full of bluster and himself. Then it dawned on John that Harris had heard the voices as well, and maybe not just on one occasion. Maybe he was still hearing them. Nevertheless, Gage was surprised by the next announcement, that he would be in charge of this project.

Gage noticed that Julia and some others all had faint smiles on their faces, when, if for no other reason that John and Harris had never agreed about anything, they all should have been shocked. Not to worry, however, as John had already begun to map out a plan in his head. He was excited about the possibilities being offered to him. His task was to highlight the stories trapped in those dull gray archives containers. For there was nothing dull about an archives, even if John has forgotten this amidst all the rules, protocols, standards, and whatever that had come to be the core of archival practice. He was about to rediscover, maybe they were all going to rediscover, what it was that attracted them to become an archivist in the first place.


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