In keeping with my favorite time of year, enjoy this short story I wrote about two of my favorite things--creepiness and archives!
by Margot Note
She better keep her dirty mitts off my work, I thought as I opened the wrought iron doors of the historical society. The start of another day at the archives.
The dark entryway of carved mahogany smelled of lemon wood polish and an odor of time: the distinctive scent of old books. A combination of grassy notes and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, the unmistakable smell is as much a part of an archives and library as its holdings.
Dirty mitts? I asked. No. The hands of us archivists are clean, lotion-free, and occasionally white-gloved. With skin dry from frequent washing, it’s shocking how much blood paper cuts—an occupational hazard—can yield.
The archives and manuscript collection of the Echo Valley Historical Society was held in the former home of Dr. W. Durand Durand. Durand served in both houses of the New York Legislature, was prominent in Echo Valley business affairs, and co-founded the local newspaper. He granted the three-story brownstone, built in 1888 and located in the historic High Street district, to the town, along with his estate and personal papers.
Elegant traces of his house remained, like the grandfather clock in the front hall. In the Comtoise style, imported from the French region Franche-Comté, it featured a curved, potbellied case, elaborately carved ornamentations that framed the opalescent clock face, and a gleaming pendulum and weights. Despite its age, the clock required winding only once a week for eight-day movement. The foyer in which it sat was accessible by a series of stone steps, so that, entering the building eyeing the clock, everyone must gaze upward.
Otto, the grizzled security guard, sat at the reception desk, reading a battered copy of In Search of Lost Time that he never seemed to finish. A screen streaming video from the security cameras flickered to his right, which he glanced at occasionally. He nodded “Hello” as I walked past.
I entered the reading room that was once Durand’s ballroom. The walls were paneled in painted wood, and the floors were parquet. Tables of polished wood topped with brass lamps formed two columns along the length of the space. A chandelier, its cut-glass ornaments glazed with grime, hung from the center of the room. The ceiling, a filigree of cracks, was decorated with constellations that gave the researchers occupied below an otherworldly appearance as if they were working on the moon. Along the back wall stood glass-fronted cabinets containing Durand’s objets d’art from his extensive travels—timepieces, snuff boxes, statuettes, and other items. Morning light streamed through the double bay windows to the east. As time passed, sunbeams swept across the double rows of work tables.
An oil painting of Durand, vexed and jowly, loomed to the west. Trained as a doctor, his interests in cosmology, physics, and history developed throughout his life. The more esoteric the topic, the better, I learned from processing his archives and manuscripts.
Mrs. Salas squatted at her usual spot—the second table to the left—inspecting a box of genealogical records. She took notes on a piece of scrap paper beside her. Bob, a visiting journalist in all black, adjusted knobs at the microfiche machine. Finding more information than he expected, he had stretched his investigative trip indefinitely. Elderly Mr. Renner, at the back of the room, was examining land use maps again. Hannah, our research archivist, surveyed users from the reference desk.
I walked through a set of doors to the back office. After a series of project archivist gigs, I was grateful to have a permanent position and the regular paycheck that came with it. I was this close to being hired full-time at my last assignment, but taking care of my ailing father impaired my work. I never knew what to expect during his decline, as he moved from his apartment to a nursing home, hospice, and, finally, urn.
The stress, over time, affected my marriage. At my lowest point, I was without a job, partner, home, or savings. What’s past is prologue, I thought to comfort myself. Once my Dad’s estate was settled and the divorce papers signed, I moved to Echo Valley for routine, order, sanity—but little did I know what I would encounter.
“Good morning,” I greeted Mimi, the executive director, in her office. Mimi had a silver bob and sharp eyes behind bifocals and wore a uniform of cashmere twin sets and slacks. She was a creature of habit. It was rumored that she ate the same lunch every day—cheese sandwich, orange, and tea—since she started working at the historical society as a graduate student. She rose to archival assistant, associate, manager, and, finally, director. She personified 30 years of institutional history—and the organization’s secrets as well.
“Morning. Remember to call about the deed of gift today.”
“It’s on my to-do list.”
It was the third time Mimi had reminded me this week. She repeated herself daily:
“What are we going to do about the HVAC system again?”
“Why did we select and appraise this collection?”
“Where’s the user agreement policy?”
“When was the EAD updated?”
“Whom did we meet today?”
And so on.
Mimi crafted a mosaic of Post-it notes with reminders on her cluttered desk. She reminded me of my father at the beginning of his Alzheimer’s. As with Dad, I learned to act as if everything was normal. To remind them of their faulty memory only caused frustration, embarrassment, and anger.
Would Mimi retire? Or would she be pushed out? When I was hired six weeks ago, the chairman of the search committee hinted that I might succeed her. I coveted Mimi’s job, but I hid my intentions.
She rifled through my work, that’s as much as I had figured out. I first knew something was wrong when I arranged a series of new acquisitions, only to find that the folders were back to their previous state the next day.
My penciled notes about the collection were erased; no traces remained. From that day forward, I photocopied my notes at the close of each workday and brought them home. Comparing what was to what had been was evidence that something happened.
Did Mimi distrust me? Did she forget that I was working on Durand’s collection? She originally processed the papers, but I was describing them more thoroughly. After my work was tampered with, I reviewed our inventories and discovered some of Durand’s rare artifacts were missing and their database entries were deleted.
Durand had been a prolific diarist and collector. Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a tail-devouring serpent, was a recurrent motif in his letters. He amassed anatomical drawings from around the world, maps of arteries and veins—some primitive and crude, some finely rendered and startlingly beautiful. Along with his paper files, the historical society owned paintings, tapestries, and decorative arts including Gothic and Renaissance furniture, Oriental rugs, and Greek and Roman objects.
I found valuable material undocumented, such as a series of antique French medical books about bloodletting, trepanning, and other medical “arts.” Some amphorae, kraters, and kylix were photographed and assigned catalog numbers, but were missing from the collection.
I suspected Mimi of stealing. She might be hampering my progress so that I wouldn’t discover the extent of her theft. Stealing by fellow archivists cut at the core: a betrayal, a perversion, a violation of everything sacred to the profession. From my training, I knew to remain professional and non-confrontational. To wait, observe, and document. I needed proof.
At night, I drifted to sleep, exhausted. I woke throughout the night, frightened and unsure of where I was. A deluge of hypnagogic images raced through my brain; I dreamed of work: cartons of papers, digital files, and ArchivesSpace indices. Acid-free folders cut my fingers; I bled. I dreamed of Durand’s manor with its inner dimensions seemly larger than its outer ones. Its warren of chambers: the butler’s pantry, the maid’s quarters, the root cellar that smelled of rot. Faces of strangers never before glimpsed by me thrummed beneath my eyelids. In a state of consciousness that was neither sleep nor waking, I saw Durand before me. Rubicund, he had a lapidary face with hooded, haunted eyes and gray hair brushed back from his forehead.
During diurnal hours, I became drowsy as my lack of sleep caught up with me. In my fugue, I repeated tasks, commencing a project and realizing that I had completed it earlier. Having much to do, I never made progress.
Walking to the processing area to start the day’s work, I returned to my current project of extensible processing of the Durand papers. I wanted all holdings to have a baseline level of arrangement and description to aid in their access, with more granular description reserved for historically important collections. A Sisyphean task, I realized. The historical society had legacy systems and colleagues, volunteers, and researchers who resisted change. Opposition to a new order occurred in all repositories, but the Echo Valley Historical Society was particularly set in its ways.
When I first suspected something was amiss in the archives, I upgraded our closed circuit camera system. I tried to fix a virus in our network too. Our computer system sometimes failed to back up the day’s work; other times, it duplicated files. I searched eBay and contacted booksellers and specialist dealers in the area to raise awareness of the missing items. I insisted that Otto perform exit searches for our researchers. I discreetly monitored our outgoing mail.
I thumbed through the folders. The Durand collection consisted of correspondence, memoranda, and reports about his medical and civic affairs, catalogs of art holdings, family correspondence and biographies, artifacts and ephemera from world travels, and scrapbooks. Durand collected extensive papers on his family, aristocrats from Senones, France, the capital of Salm-Salm, a state of the Holy Roman Empire.
In his later, frankly eccentric, years, Durand became interested in what he called his phantom time hypothesis. From what I could tell from his papers, he believed that a scarcity of archeological evidence could be dated to 614 to 911 AD. He found discrepancies between the ancient calendars and the astronomical year; he discovered that October 4, 1582, in the Julian calendar was followed by October 15, 1582, in the Gregorian calendar. From this and other gaps he calculated, he concluded that time skipped three centuries and that the early Middle Ages never happened. According to him, the presence of Romanesque architecture in tenth-century Western Europe suggested that the Roman era was shorter than what was conventionally thought. Durand vacillated between believing that the years were added to the calendar by misinterpretation by astronomers and mathematicians to deliberate falsification by ancient world leaders. A wild idea! Durand seemed mad in his twilight years. How would I explain that in a finding aid?
The day before, I removed duplicates from his correspondence and placed them next to the carton of materials I was working on. The stack was no longer there. I found a folder that I remembered had contained many copies. The duplicate papers were interspersed where I had initially found them.
“Mimi, do you know anything about the papers I left here?” I looked her straight in the eye.
She stared back. “Papers, no. I don’t know if I asked yet, but please call about the deed of gift.”
In my office, I studied call slips to note what files were most requested. I developed a system to track and analyze the use of our archival materials. The data helped me prioritize processing for collections with the highest research value. I also had an ulterior motive. I was reviewing chain of custody documentation for missing materials to determine a systematic pattern of loss.
While going through the call slips, I noticed Emme Salas’ schoolgirl script. Call number 1989-024/006 this week. The same call number the week before. And the week before that.
With a spidery scrawl, Bob requested microfiche record group 55, then 56, then 57 the next day. And here it was again—record group 55, 56, and 57. He had been cycling through this record group since his arrival two weeks ago.
I looked at Mr. Renner’s call slips; he requested our WPA land use surveys, hand-painted and collected into ten maps per book. He asked for the third volume today, the second during his last visit, and the first before that. And, I realized as I arranged the call slips by date, he had been looking through this triad for the last three years.
Otto left work at 6 p.m. every day after he made his final rounds.
“I’m staying late to catch up on work,” I told Mimi. Once everyone left, I went to Otto’s desk. Made of dark mahogany, it contained many drawers and pigeonholes; his seat was an antique swivel chair, with a well-worn crimson cushion. The desktop was cluttered; on it were a Tiffany lamp of exquisitely colored glass and a computer that displayed grainy, black and white views from the cameras that were placed in the foyer, reading room, processing room, and storage areas. Finally, I would obtain proof of Mimi’s activities.
I logged into the computer and found the previous day’s video of the processing room. I saw myself: walking in and out, sorting files, and writing down notes. Mimi entered the processing room from her office, then exited to the reading room at 11:10 am. I played the section again. Mimi didn’t even look at my files. She returned to her office twenty minutes later. I continued watching. At 2:10 in the afternoon, she walked in again and then out to the reading room. At 2:30 p.m., she ambled back to her office. I watched the rest of the video: Mimi entered the processing room at 5:10 p.m. and left for the reading room. She returned to her office at 5:30 p.m.
I switched to the reading room video. I saw Mimi enter, chat with Hannah, and then walk to Bob at the microfiche machine. She moved to Mr. Renner to look at his map, then talked to Mrs. Salas. She returned to the back office. I forwarded the tape to 2:10. Mimi walked to Hannah, then to Bob, Renner, and Salas and returned at 2:30. I forwarded the tape to 5:10 and watched: Hannah, Bob, Renner, Salas, and return.
I let the video play as my thoughts wandered. Renner submitted a call slip. Hannah answered the phone. Mrs. Salas opened the Hollinger box in front of her and took out a folder. JJ, a page, rolled a cart of boxes to the reference desk; Anna, another page, passed him with her cart. Bob stretched backward from the microfiche reader. Mimi entered the room.
I fast forwarded the video and pressed play. Renner got up with his call slip. Hannah reached for the phone. Salas opened a box. JJ pushed his cart; Anna moved hers. Bob stretched. Mimi entered. I fast forwarded…and saw the same scene.
Was the video looped? Didn’t Otto notice the repetition? I played the present day’s video of the reading room—and I spied a pattern. I fast-forwarded. The video displayed the correct date, and the time stamp changed as the video ran. In my numbed state, my mind worked rapidly as a machine. As everyone repeated themselves, slats of sunlight moved throughout the space as the day continued. The beams marked the passage of time, yet everyone conducted the same activities as if on a Möbius strip.
Mimi, Otto, Hannah, JJ, Anna, Bob, Salas, and Renner. Durand Durand. W: double-u. From Senones in Salm-Salm. Anyone who entered the archives existed in a vacuum where time didn’t exist. It mirrored and repeated itself. Mimi wasn’t forgetful. She hadn’t been stealing. Like the ouroboros, time was cyclical at the Echo Valley Historical Society. Durand Durand had indeed found a lost period—phantom time—a duration that jumped forward and back, iterating and resonating on itself. A time palindrome.
Aha! The grandfather clock tolled. I woke, startled. My head had slumped forward onto my crossed arms. I rubbed my face, my dazzled eyes. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. The brownstone was silent, and the sepulchral foyer receded into darkness.
The wavy glass of the front lunette distorted the moon. I gathered my belongings. As I walked outside to my car to go home, I drew a deep breath. The crisp air carried the scent of wood smoke and the sweet decay of leaves. I would return tomorrow and take control—physical, intellectual, and temporal—of the archives.
She better keep her dirty mitts off my work, I thought as I opened the wrought iron doors of the historical society. The start of another day at the archives.