Coming Soon! A Reality Show for Archivists!

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September 2, 2014 by randberg

Okay, I made that up, but I bet I got your attention!  

Truthfully, there isn’t an archival reality show in the works, but I think there ought to be one.  Alongside all of the shows where the hopefuls warble to Simon Cowell or dance in front of Tom Bergeron, we need to have a competition show for archivists!  In my universe, the show would be called “So You Think You Can Archive” and would be hosted by former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin.  I know, I know, Mr. Boorstin passed away in 2004, but this is my universe so I get to say how it is set up!  

In front of a panel of nationally known archivists (Which “rock star” archivists would you choose?), the competitors would be faced with an archival dilemma and they would be awarded points based upon how they solved the problems associated with accepting a fictional collection at their imaginary institutions.  Instead of having to sing a variety of songs (from country to power ballads) or perform an assortment of dances (from the tango to the waltz), the contestants would be faced with making decisions about the best way to store various media and how best to make the collection available to the public.  Bonus points could be awarded for creating the best finding aid.

Like any good reality show of this type, there would have to be a home version created so that aspiring archivists everywhere could get a sense of what it would be like to be on the program.  In 2008, the Subject and Special Collections Division hosted a day-long workshop at the Westerville Public Library.  The workshop was conducted by Nancy Down (Head of the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University) and Steve Paschen (University Archivist at the Kent State University Libraries).  By the way, both of these individuals would be excellent candidates to be judges on “So You Think You Can Archive.”

At the SSCD workshop, participants were given scenarios of complex archival collections that were being offered to their fictional institutions.  Their job (“Should they choose to accept it”) was to analyze the information provided, look for any potential pitfalls, and come up with a game-plan for dealing with the collection being presented.   The members of SSCD at that time had a blast writing up those scenarios and I think that they could easily be adapted for the home version of the show.  Let me share with you one of the scenarios that I wrote and you can test your archival mettle.  What would you do with this situation?


The library

Gander Public Library

Summit County, Ohio

Pop. 10,000

Collection: 35,000 volumes

Existing special collections:  Large collection of local and county history books, newspaper clippings, and photographs.  Maintains a “local authors” collection.  Some objects have been collected over the years, but not in an organized fashion.

The collection being offered

The corporate archives, schematic drawings, and promotional materials of “Just Ducky”, a now defunct local company which manufactured rubber ducks in your community for over 50 years.  Included with the donation would be a large assortment of the rubber duckies made at the plant (there are approximately 300 in the flock).


For many years, the rubber industry had been the number one employer in your county.  While most of the largest factories were in other communities, the city of Gander was home to a firm by the name of “Just Ducky” for over 50 years.  “Just Ducky” was the world’s largest manufacturer of rubber duckies until the firm was sold to a foreign conglomerate which moved production overseas.  At one point or another, nearly every family in Gander had relatives who worked for “Just Ducky.”  The company, ever the good corporate citizen, sponsored the local Little League teams and supported both Boy and Girl Scout troops. 

 When “Just Ducky” closed in 2000, the new owners removed all of the machinery, padlocked the doors and put the property up for sale.  Any corporate “secrets” such as the formula for making the rubber ducks soft and pliable were also removed from the property.  Schematic drawings, design photographs and related items were scanned and the digitized files were sent to the new factory overseas.  After many years of the property being on the market, a new owner has been found which will re-tool the factory into a bakery.  The new owners, sensitive to the shock to the community when “Just Ducky” closed with little warning, would like to make a good impression on the town of Gander. 

The corporate archives for “Just Ducky” include lists of all former employees (records with sensitive information will be weeded out), samples of advertising layouts, and engineering drawings which show how a rubber ducky was constructed.  In addition, “Just Ducky” sponsored an annual ducky river regatta which featured local and national celebrities who sponsored a duck.  There is a large collection of photographs of these celebrities, many of whom came to town and made personal appearances during the duck regatta.  Among the many celebrities who posed in the winners’ circle with their triumphant duckies are Shirley Temple Black, Eddie Albert with Eva Gabor, and Mr. T wearing a shirt which reads, “I pity the fool whose duck beats mine!” 

The new bakery, wanting to make a good impression on the community, has approached you with the opportunity to assume ownership of all of the “Just Ducky” corporate archives.  They have pledged to allow use of their corporate advertising department to assist the Gander Public Library in any future displays and exhibits and any promotional materials which feature the “Just Ducky” collection.  In addition, your co-worker at Gander Public Library who just happens to be the Children’s Librarian, is ecstatic about the possibility of redesigning the children’s reading room in a rubber ducky theme.  Because the bakery is looking to see some positive publicity (and sell lots of bread), they have stipulated that as part of the agreement to take the “Just Ducky” archives, the library must promise to resurrect the duck regatta and list the new bakery as the sponsor.

What do you do?


Now, rest assured, there are no definitive right or wrong answers to how an archivist should handle this proposal, but what issues come to mind?  What opportunities do you see?  What questions would you want answered?  

In the home version of “So You Think You Can Archive” players would somehow be awarded points for coming up with solutions and for addressing problems (I haven’t got that all figured out yet, but I’m working on it!).  What I think would be especially thrilling is the episode where an archival Susan Boyle knocked the world’s socks off with her performance on “So You Think You Can Archive!”  Oh, just imagine the number of hits that clip would receive on You Tube!



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