Archives in Podcasts: The Magnus Archives
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
[Some spoilers for seasons 1-3 of The Magnus Archives]
Case #24601. Statement of Samantha Cross concerning her most recent obsession with and binge-listening of The Magnus Archives. Statement written...now by Samantha Cross of the website POP Archives.
I'm not typically a fan of the horror genre. I'm much more comfortable with action, comedy, drama, and even the occasional romantic comedy if I have no control over the television. Sometimes it's an adversity to the copious amounts of gore and scare tactics with no purpose that I see in movies. Other times it's the mistreatment of women or the stupidity of protagonists that drives me away. It's just not for me, though I can appreciate anyone's love for it. Obviously people see something in horror that I don't and that's fine. We love what we love.
But I do enjoy a good thriller. I love the building of suspense; the tension that sits in the air when two characters confront each other after episode upon episode of escalating events pushing them towards the inevitable. I love it when an idea gets in my head based on what I've seen or heard. An idea that changes the way I look at an object, a person, or the world because once that piece of information burrows into your grey matter good luck trying to get it out.
So while the horror aspects of The Magnus Archives may not be my cup of tea, the thriller slant more than makes up for my squeamish sensibilities. Trust me, there are plenty of episodes where that particular muscle has been significantly exercised. If you go a bit green over descriptions of blood, viscera, teeth, and meat (so much meat), then proceed with caution if at all.
For those unaware, The Magnus Archives is a fictional podcast produced by Rusty Quill. In it Jonathan Sims (voiced and written by he of the same name), Head Archivist for the Magnus Institute, London, reads statements submitted to the archive by those who have experienced or been touched by the supernatural. The recordings are part of Sims's initiative to bring order to the archives after his predecessor, Gertrude Robinson, went missing and left the institution in a archivist's nightmare of incomprehensible misfiling and general disarray.
Of course, that's not the whole story, and as the episodes carry on it becomes clear that there's more to the statements, more to the Magnus Institute, and more to the Head Archivist than even he's aware of. Sims is also joined by his archival assistants/researchers Martin Blackwood, Tim Stoker, Sasha James, and later on Melanie King and Basira Hussain. While the assistants are briefly mentioned in early episodes due to their varying degrees of success in followup on statements, they eventually become fully fleshed out people. At least the ones who survive do. They're lucky if they even remain people.
As an archivist listening to the podcast, Sims and company get it pretty spot on when it comes to the more mundane duties of working in the archives. In the first episode, we learn that, from Jon's point of view, there appears to be no rhyme nor reason to Gertrude's processing or her filing system - if you can call it a filing system. Much of the first season features Jon bemoaning how unprofessional and mismanaged the archives is as he tries to make sense of what Gertrude was actually doing for the 50 years she was Head Archivist. From an archival point of view, we can all relate to trying to decipher a system that makes little sense. Especially when the person responsible for creating that system isn't around to explain themselves and didn't think to document their decisions. Sims also states that he wants to digitize the archive's holdings, though later on he comes to realize how much time and effort such a project requires. Another daunting task we can all sympathize with. There's also the supernatural element of eldritch beings and dimensional shifts that make working with anything newer than a cassette tape an absolute nightmare, but I'm sure other archives have the same problems.
Every episode includes followup and research efforts to either disprove, verify, or contextualize the statements, which is something people outside the archival community forget is part of our work. We're not stationary beings waiting for materials to be brought to us. Sometimes, we take an active approach to our holdings. Interestingly enough, Jon's discontentment with the lack of resources and available leads puts him at odds with his boss, Elias Bouchard, head of the Magnus Institute, who insists that Jon's job is to "record and study" not "interfere and contain." It's only in the later episodes where those words take on a greater meaning, but it is the constant struggle of the archivist to maintain a balance between collecting and processing records versus actively creating them. At what point do we distance ourselves if our jobs are about, and rely on, communities and the people within them?
Once Jon finds himself fully thrust into the true war going on around him, we learn that his patron is, in fact, the Eye (aka the Beholding, the Watcher, the Ceaseless Watcher),"the manifestation of the fear of being watched, exposed, followed, of having secrets known, but also the drive to know and understand, even if your discoveries might destroy you. It is also the fear that you’re suffering for the sake of something watching." But where the name would indicate a static existence of observe and report, Jon and his assistants are anything but. There are several episodes, however, that feature statements where the subject derides the archives for their distance and inactivity while people suffer; that the only concern of the archives is to gather the statements and little else. Even the founder of the institute, Jonah Magnus, declined to help a friend under attack from the supernatural simply because he wanted to see what would happen. Ever the observer, Mr. Magnus. As an avatar for the Eye, Jon also exhibits the ability to compel people to tell him their stories by simply asking. Something I wish was available to all archivists. Reading ahead a little bit (because spoilers don't spoil the journey), it seems that Jon's powers will continue to grow. Whether he wants them to or not.
As of writing this statement I'm in the midst of season 3, the podcast is currently in season 4, and Sims the writer has stated that he's planned for 5 seasons. So plenty of material to sink your teeth into. But if you need a guide to the episodes with the most archival material featured, here's a handy list that will be updated as I continue listening.
Archival Episode Guide
Episode 1: Angler Fish - Introduces Jonathan Sims and his mission statement to digitize the mismanaged archives left behind by Gertrude Robinson
Episode 4: Pageturner - Jon realizes how daunting a task it will be to digitize the archives
Episode 7: The Piper - Statement from a soldier recounting events during WWI that were misfiled in the early 2000s and the tirade about Gertrude that follows.
Episode 13: Alone - Recording direct from subject, showing the active oral history duties of the archives.
Episode 33: The Boatswain's Call - University students are using the archives for their dissertations and note discrepancies in the statement numbers. Jon is asked by archival assistant Tim Stoker about what happens if two statements are made on the same day and how they're filed. Jon has no answer.
Episode 43: Section 31 - Police Constable Basira Hussain explains Section 31 of the Freedom of Information Act and how the police use it to keep abnormal cases out of the record.
Episode 65: Binary - A computer hacker does a short monologue about analog vs. digital.
Episode 88: Dig - The archival assistants talk about the lack of a searchable database that could be used to follow up on statements. There is also an issue with the inventory of artifacts storage and a missing calliope organ.
Episode 93: Contaminant - Jon's professional credibility is in question when his friend Georgie states that he went from a researcher to Head Archivist without actually having a background or degree in archives and records management or information sciences.
Episode 102: Nesting Instinct - Jon and Martin Blackwood have an awkward conversation in which Martin mentions the institute's library and how the librarians pay the archives no mind. They've come to associate the archives with weirdness.
Episode 105: Total War - Jon visits the Pu Songling Research Center in Beijing and discovers that, aside from the misfiled statement given to him, he can now understand Mandarin. In a previous episode he read a statement that was written in French, but up until that moment he didn't know how to read French.
Episode 107: Third Degree - The Magnus Institute has an American sister organization -- the Usher Foundation located in Washington, DC.