A Practical Response to The Archivist (2015)

Sarah Chilton
Senior Research Librarian
Brookings Institution

Unlike Nathan Mathers in the short film, The Archivist, I do go home every evening and I don’t see myself in videos I process. I will admit to occasional dreams (or nightmares) about boxes, cloud storage, files, tape cassettes and photos. I do find myself trying to finish one more box or file, but there is so much else to do, I don’t let a collection processing take over my life. As a research librarian at the Brookings Institution and a lone arranger of the Brookings Archives, processing happens in the time around requests for library or archival reference.

The Brookings Archives was established in the early 1980s with grant funding from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Cafritz Foundation. A project archivist was hired to collect and process the records of the Institution, a public policy research organization founded in 1916. A finding aid to the collection was published in 1987. Plans called for a librarian to accession material after the archivist left. I took over that role around 1993. My training consisted of a new MLIS degree with a concentration in reference services and participation in training at the Modern Archives Institute. Since then I’ve received lots of on the job training and I’ve counted on the advice of colleagues including those on the Lone Arranger listserv. The bulk of our 750 box paper collection was moved to and offsite storage facility. With real estate prices around Washington, DC so high, the storage facility changed hands and the collection was move further away from the city four times. I was finally able to bring the collection back to Brookings. I’ve spent the past year reorganizing and rehousing the collection in the building basement. I started scanning paper archival files program 15 years ago. I didn’t have all the answers for a digitization project, but I started with two scanners, (one flatbed and the other with an automatic document feeder) scanning software, and storage on the Institution’s drive. Funding for a content management system and optical character recognition software were deferred for several years. Now, with an OCLC ContentDM management system in place, I’m busy loading digitized paper and born digital documents into our repository. Board of trustees, presidential files and photographs have been the priority so far. Our scanning project continues with help from library assistants. I’m also investigating ways to collect more digital content including email and process some paper files from a retiring president and vice president. I get about 10 questions a month for archival information. The requests range from questions from our Executive Officers about former policies and programs to graduate students from around the world studying past Brookings research projects. In the coming year, I hope to establish digital rights so customers can use our ContentDM database to do their own research. Of course, I will continue to process more content for the archives.

Jackson Place NW, Brookings Sign
Brookings building at 722 Jackson Place in 1932. Photo courtesy Brookings Institution.
Brookings building at 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, 2018. Photo courtesy Brookings Institution.

A Critical Response to The Archivist (2015)

Catherine Lucy
Technical Services Manager/Archivist
Fontbonne University

Depictions of archivists and archives are ever-increasing in popular culture. From popular fictional characters like Abigail Chase in the blockbuster film National Treasure to unusual examples such as the fruity wine label The Archive or the French perfume Archives 69, archival images are all around society. Unfortunately, these depictions reinforce stereotypes that surround the profession, particularly of archivists. Aldred, Burr, and Park (2008) analyzed nineteen films containing archivists as characters. They determined that film archivists “follow generally accepted stereotypes” in their physical and behavioral characteristics, as found in published literature on the subject (p. 58). The following study describes and summarizes a recent depiction of an archivist in popular culture, and then analyzes the portrayal for stereotypes and other thematic elements found in existing literature.

The Archivist is a short film produced in the United Kingdom in 2015. Peter Owen Brook is the writer, director, producer and editor of the film. Visual artist Jamie Topp served as co-producer, cinematographer, and costumes/set design. The Archivist is a color film 13 minutes in length, which gained attention in the United Kingdom for its selection in the 2015 London Short Film Festival.

Nathan Mathers, a young man likely between the ages of 25 and 30, works as a news archivist for a television station. His position is very solitary, as he works alone in the basement of the station. As he is reviewing old PAL videocassettes and indexing their contents, he begins seeing himself in some of the archival news clips. Through telephone calls and a recorded video message, his girlfriend Alice pleads with him to leave the job because it is making him miserable. A reporter from one of the news clips (identified by the filmmakers on YouTube as a “spectre”) spies on him and then confronts him over a grudge she has been holding. The entire short film takes place in the television station’s basement where the archival news tapes are stored. The audience is only shown glimpses of the outside world through some of the news clips that Nathan watches.

This film is an original story of Brook’s. Both Brook’s and Topp’s individual works prior to this film show that they have an interest in the visual element of film. This interest contributes to the mood of the film, as they likely wanted to establish an element of mystery through their use of the camera and sound. As far as genre is concerned, the film is a drama with a supernatural element. The character of Abigail, the news reporter, is supposedly a ghost or apparition. Although the filmmakers do not make this completely clear to the audience in the context of the film, it is explicitly stated on the YouTube page where the film resides for viewing.

There is not a specific audience for this film other than film enthusiasts and archivists. The general public is unlikely to see an artsy short film such as this, so it mostly appeals to adult cinephiles. The main character Nathan seems to be an archivist for the purpose of creating a sense of mystery and exploiting the isolation of his job. Due to this isolated nature, Nathan feels socially out of touch with his girlfriend, his parents, and even society. The only person he confronts face-to-face in the film is most likely a ghost (Abigail), although it is not clear why she is a ghost. She is shown in past news footage, so either she was a real living person at one time or she is a figment of Nathan’s imagination. The audience is left to draw its own conclusion about Nathan’s mental state, but his character seems to be an archivist solely to portray the elements of isolation and mystery that the filmmakers strive for.

Aldred, Burr and Park’s study defines an archivist “as a person, male or female, who works within a variety of institutions, deals with records in any format, at any point in their life cycle” (2008, p. 68). Main character Nathan Mathers is an archivist for a TV station (which is a type of a commercial or private institution). He works with old PAL videocassettes in an isolated room in the building’s basement, which is a stereotypical location for archives. His main task is cataloging the videocassettes by indexing tags of each tape’s content. When talking to Abigail, Nathan says, “I ingested one of your videos yesterday.” He says this to acknowledge that he recognizes her even though they have not met before. The film’s screenwriter appropriately uses the industry term “ingest,” which in general means to absorb the information or data from the archival record into computer software.

In addition to the stereotype of locating the archives in an isolated place like a basement, there are other stereotypes employed in this film. Nathan embodies many of the physical stereotypes of an archivist as mentioned in Aldred, Burr, and Park’s study (2008): he is male, has short hair, dresses conservatively (white shirt, dark pants, and a tie), and performs technical tasks. He only veers from the path of a stereotypical archivist because he is a main character (as opposed to a minor character) and he does not wear glasses.

He also embodies the stereotype of an employee with low status. He is “non-aggressive, mild and quiet” (Schmuland, 1999, p. 39) in his one physical altercation with Abigail (in which he tries to save a tape that she is determined to destroy). Also, the location of his work room in a basement is representative of his “lack of status” at the organization (p. 43). In fact, this work area is symbolic of “death and [a] tomb” (p. 44), which foreshadows the urgency of Nathan realizing he must leave this job because it (or its ghostly inhabitant) might literally kill him.

There are some echoes of realism in the film. In the introduction to Levy and Roble’s report for the Society of American Archivists, archivists are noted as “suffer[ing] from the belief that somehow they don’t deserve more” (1984, p. 3). This is a real problem in the archival world and in Nathan’s world. He has little self-worth and feels that he is only good enough for a lowly position at the television station. When asked by his girlfriend to quit his job or even just get away to meet with her, he makes excuses to avoid any contact outside the office. Uncomfortably settled into his job, Nathan realizes it is no longer a healthy environment for him. He tells his girlfriend Alice he is nervous about applying for other jobs because of the responsibility it might have and that he is “not used to it.” He makes an excuse that he cannot leave because his contract at the station does not end for another year.

There are other common themes in popular cultural portrayals of archivists. Buckley (2008) discusses the archivist as guardian or protector of the truth (p. 103). Nathan is the protector of the videocassettes, and he has to protect one from Abigail, who wants all copies of a particular newscast destroyed. Buckley also mentions the common occurrence of the truth being kept “from those desperately seeking it” (p. 104). Nathan is trying to discover a truth about his own self by viewing the station’s tapes, many of which he appears in (perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not—it is part of the mystery).

The search for self is another theme in Buckley’s article. Nathan is viewing these news tapes and recalling moments of his past in the outside world. He has phone conversations with his girlfriend and strange in-person conversations with the Abigail the reporter. He is desperately seeking to restore his identity before it can no longer be recovered (much like an archivist works to preserve records). A third theme of Buckley’s is closed spaces as “sites of surveillance” (p. 106). Similarly, Ketelaar states that “archives are places of surveillance” (2002, p. 237). The theme of surveillance is present in The Archivist. Abigail gives Nathan a video to watch, which ends up being footage secretly taken of him working in the archives. Even the news clips he appears in are a form of surveillance because they are capturing moments of his life he did not realize were being recorded.

The mysterious nature of these news clips adds to the film’s dream-like quality because the audience is never quite clear what is real and what is not. Other dream-like qualities include the repetition of certain sounds (which often cut out other sounds) and an abstract sense of time. Abigail tells Nathan he has been there weeks, implying he has not physically left the facility in a long time. He is shown sleeping on the job, then waking abruptly and acting surprised that he missed a date with Alice. Whenever he leaves the video room or its adjacent break room, the camera cuts away and the scene ends. Viewers never sees Nathan outside of his basement surroundings.

It is also not clear how much time is passing because he wears the same outfit throughout the film and sports a couple days’ growth of a beard on his face, which also does not change. Abigail, who appears twice on seemingly different days, wears the same clothes, as well. Another element of the dream-like nature is that telephone conversations between Nathan and Alice are often garbled or end abruptly, symbolizing their lack of effective and frequent communication. When they do speak, she mentions that he sounds “so cold on the phone.”

Nathan’s portrayal of an archivist is not a positive image since it embodies the stereotype of a socially awkward loner who works in an isolated basement with outdated equipment. However, this film is more about an isolated man entrapped by his job and intimidated by a mysterious co-worker. The filmmakers perhaps thought this was an ideal professional for Nathan’s character. They probably came to that conclusion because of existing stereotypes, but they seem driven by a sense of mystery and wanting to paint a dream-like picture.

The director chose not to show other typical aspects of an archivist’s job, such as acquiring materials or helping others. Nathan does not conduct any administrative work at all, such as these common tasks mentioned in Aldred, Burr, and Park’s study (2008, p.76): reference, research, acquisitions, or outreach. His profession could be any job that requires an individual to work in an isolated area (closed off from the outside world) that could potentially affect their mental well-being.

Unfortunately for archivists, this portrayal is just another stereotype that makes their work seem mysterious and unappealing to the larger population. While the portrayal is unique in the sense that the main character is an audio/visual archivist instead of one surrounded by dusty books and paper, it is still representative of known stereotypes. What does this mean to archivists? It means that while fictional archives and archivists might make for entertaining examples of popular culture, archivists must strongly advocate to wider audiences to teach society who they really are and what they actually do. There are many truths to reveal about the profession that can be accomplished in just as many entertaining ways as the stereotypical examples if only writers, filmmakers, and others would take the time to learn what those truths are. Accurate portrayals of archives and archivists would help bring much needed credibility to the profession.



Aldred, T., Burr, G., & Park, E. (2008 Fall). Crossing a librarian with a historian: The image of reel archivists. Archivaria, 66, 57-93.

Brook, P. O. (Producer/Director), & Topp, J. (Co-Producer). (2015). The archivist. [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: POB Productions. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7jjEpNpfrg

Buckley, K. (2008, Fall). “The truth is in the red files”: An overview of archives in popular culture. Archivaria, 66, 95-123.

Ketelaar, E. (2002). Archival temples, archival prisons: Modes of power and protection. Archival Science, 2, 221-238.

Levy, S.J. & Robes, A.G. (1984 December). The image of archivists: Resource allocators’ perceptions. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved from http://files.archivists.org/governance/reports/Image-of-Archivists-Levy1984.pdf

Schmuland, A. (1999 Spring). The archival image in fiction: An analysis and annotated bibliography. The American Archivist, 62, 24-75.