POP Archives Review: Archival Quality
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
The Plot Goeth Thusly (per Amazon):
After losing her job at the library, Celeste Walden starts working at the haunting Logan Museum as an archivist. The job, however, may not be the second chance she was hoping for, and she finds herself confronting her mental health, her relationships, and before long, her grasp on reality as she begins to dream of a young woman she's never met, but feels strangely drawn to. Especially after she asks Cel for help…
As Cel attempts to learn more about the woman, she begins losing time, misplacing things, passing out—the job is becoming dangerous, but she can't let go of this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why is she so fixated on Cel? And does Cel have the power to save her when she's still trying to save herself?
Firstly, it’s important the readers know how much I adore Ivy and Steenz as creators. Full disclosure, I interviewed them on That Girl with the Curls back when Archival Quality was still in its beginning stages, so I’ve been patiently waiting for this book to come out for a while and now that it has I’m so excited that it exists in the world! Do yourself a favor and follow them on social media because they are the best people!
Overall, the story is a fantastic mystery with an equally compelling cast of characters. Cel may be our protagonist, but her co-workers at the Logan Museum, Holly Park and Abayomi Abiola, are just as nuanced even if they don’t take center stage. It’s also inclusive as hell! Women, women of color, men of color, and queer people of color are all front and center and it’s beautiful. And while I like Cel, I appreciate that Ivy managed to craft a sympathetic character who can be a bit of a jerk from time to time. Flawed protagonists are difficult to flesh out even in long form storytelling, but Cel feels like a real person experiencing the ups and downs of her depression and life in general. She’s a frustrating character as well, especially in the way she treats people and her reluctance to help herself. But it’s also what makes her such a well-rounded and relatable character. By embedding Cel’s story of coming to terms with and taking steps towards proper mental health within the overarching plot, Ivy gives the reader an anchor point among the supernatural elements.
Depression and anxiety can be debilitating on a number of levels, but many of us struggle with the stigmas of seeking or even admitting to needing help. As if willpower alone will force us into feeling “better” and overcome whatever “weakness” we’re experiencing. At last year’s Society of American Archivists annual meeting, a survey revealed that archivists are extremely stressed out and equally as depressed. It was enough that even the expert clinician on the panel expressed her worry about our profession. Granted, there were other factors involved in the assessment - gender and institutional support, or lack thereof, being the highest influences - but it’s still worth noting since we tend to silence ourselves instead of reaching out. I can personally attest to that.
Archival Quality, however, touches on a subject that’s only recently been popping up in the literature and professional meetings: empathy. There’s a vestigial stereotype that archivists are closed off, cold-blooded simulacrums of human beings incapable of experiencing the vast range of human emotions. We maintain distance in order to remain “neutral” regarding archival documents and materials. Emotionally engaging with our collections and communities would, in theory, compromise that neutrality. It’s complete bullshit, but it persists. An effort has been made in recent years to combat this stereotype with calls for archivists to practice radical empathy towards their collections as well as being aware of the emotional labor expended within the profession as a whole.
Within the graphic novel, Cel is open to the ghost’s visions and directions because of her ability to empathize with her and the circumstances that led her to haunt the museum. It’s what drives her to relentlessly research the museum’s previous ownership and defend the ghost to her naysayers. They are connected not just in their shared mentality, and their names for the most part, but on a basic human level that Cel embraces and acknowledges. Yes, at first, she thinks she’s going crazy, but instead of holding on to fear and running away, Cel digs her feet in and listens to her otherworldly companion. That, more than anything else, is what sticks with me after reading Archival Quality. Cel’s adamance to help the apparition stems entirely from listening and believing another woman regardless of her supernatural status. The reward is understanding and vindication...and maybe the collapse of a physical building.
So, let’s talk about the actual archives in this book. The Logan Museum, an institution of medical history and specimens, sports a library and an archive that overlap in terms of processing materials and general research. Cel, after being fired from her job at another library, interviews for the archival assistant position basically because it’s the only place hiring that doesn’t require a degree, which I and my MA in History/Archives and Records Management (and my student loan debt) strongly disagree with. After being hired, she trains under the museum’s librarian, Holly Park, and through their conversations it’s clear that the archival assistant functions as an administrative/processing position while the librarian retains all of the research materials and conducts any actual research that needs doing. The librarian also gets to work during the daytime, something the archival assistant isn’t afforded. The odd hours stipulated of ten at night to five in the morning add to the atmosphere of mystery for the story, but I don’t know how practical that would be in a real world scenario. It also reinforces this idea of the position and the archives as lesser compared to the library, which Holly and Cel practically say when Cel confesses that she still thinks of herself as a librarian and Holly agrees.
The archive itself is, for all intents and purposes, in the basement. There’s no internet, no cell service, and the computer Cel uses to scan photographs is about as dead as technology gets. Plus, plenty of dust to go around. Again, it adds to the mysterious and somewhat Gothic setup for a ghost story set in a medical archive. I can’t argue with the dead tech though since most archival institutions are behind the current technology by about 5-10 years, if they’re lucky. The dust is a bit much, but, then again, the last few storage facilities I’ve visited for work purposes weren’t paragons of cleanliness either so your mileage may vary on that particular stereotype.
The purpose of the archive, however, is where it gets interesting. The Logan Museum had many previous lives: hospital, orphanage, sanatorium, and now museum. As the mystery unfolds and the ghost’s identity is revealed, the true nature of the archive’s collections become clear. The ghost, Celine, was a patient during the Logan’s hospital days who died of an infection post-lobotomy. But there was no rest in death for Celine or other patients. The Logan harvested specimens from the dead and sold them, keeping the profits for themselves. The evidence was all there - photographs, journals, invoices - because unsavory people love to document their misdeeds, but only when someone took action and looked past the “silence” in the archive did the museum’s ghosts gain their freedom. Radical empathy saves the day with a little help from the archive.
That doesn’t absolve the archive, library, or museum of their complicity. While the institution ultimately provided the means of exposing the Logan’s sinister deeds, it still maintained and perpetuated the environment that kept Celine and the other patients silent. Like the absurd notion of “neutrality,” medical institutions and archives have a similar air of distance likely due our cultural squeamishness regarding the human body. The best example is how Holly and Cel react to the use of lobotomies on patients. Holly was a former medical student turned librarian and her knowledge of medical history gives her a pragmatic outlook on the practice. She says it several times to Cel, “It was common.” Does this make Holly a monster? No, but it shows how maintaining too much distance stifles inquisitiveness. If it’s always been done this way, then there’s no point in questioning it. That’s how silence is maintained. If we want to change that, then we need to channel our basic humanity and ask “Why?”