Fantastic archives

I was reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and was delighted by this passage about the university Archives Our Hero has snuck into (having previously gotten himself banned from the premises):

I knew my secret route would only work as long as it remained secret. Telling a scriv, even a scriv who owed me a favor, simply wasn’t a good idea.

“Listen,” I said quickly. “It’s safe as houses. I’ve been here for hours and no one’s come even close to me. Everyone carries their own light so it’s easy to avoid them.”

“You just surprised me,” Fela said, as she brushed her dark hair back over her shoulders. “You’re right though, it’s probably safer out there.” She opened the door and peered outside, making sure the coast was clear. “Scrivs spot-check the reading holes periodically to make sure no one’s sleeping in here, or having sex.”


“There’s a lot you don’t know about the Archives.” She smiled as she opened the door the rest of the way.

“That’s why I need your help,” I said as we headed out into the stacks. “I can’t make heads or tails of this place.”

“What are you looking for?” Fela asked.

“About a thousand things,” I said honestly. “But we can start with the history of the Amyr. Or any nonfictional reports of the Chandrian. Anything about either one really. I haven’t been able to find a thing.”

I didn’t bother trying to keep the frustration from my voice. To finally get inside the Archives after all this time and not be able to find any of the answers I was looking for was maddening. “I thought things would be better organized,” I groused.

Fela chuckled deep in her throat. “And how would you do that, exactly? Organize everything, I mean.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple hours, actually,” I said. “It’d be best to do it by subject. You know: histories, memoirs, grammars….”

Fela stopped walking and gave a deep sigh. “I guess we should get this over with.” She pulled a slim book off a shelf at random. “What’s the subject of this book?”

I opened it and glanced over the pages. It was written in an old scribe’s hand, spidery and hard to follow. “It looks like a memoir.”

“What type of memoir? Where do you put it in relationship to the other memoirs?”

Still flipping pages, I spotted a carefully drawn map. “Actually, it looks more like a travelogue.”

“Fine,” she said. “Where do you put it in the memoir-travelogue-section?”

“I’d organize them geographically,” I said, enjoying the game. I flipped more pages. “Atur, Modeg, and…Vint?” I frowned and looked at the spine of the book. “How old is this? The Aturan Empire absorbed Vint over three hundred years ago.”

“Over four hundred years,” she corrected. “So where do you put a travelogue that refers to a place that doesn’t exist any more?”

“It would be more of a history, really,” I said more slowly.

“What if it isn’t accurate?” Fela pressed. “Based on hearsay rather than personal experience? What if it’s purely fiction? Novel travelogues were quite a fashion in Modeg a couple hundred years ago.”

I closed the book and slowly slid it back onto the shelf. “I’m beginning to see the problem,” I said thoughtfully.

“No, you don’t,” Fela said frankly. “You’re just glimpsing the edges of the problem.” She gestured to the stacks around us. “Let’s say you became Master Archivist tomorrow. How long would it take you to organize all this?”

I looked around at the countless shelves retreating off into the darkness. “It would be a lifetime’s work.”

“Evidence suggests it takes more than just one lifetime,” Fela said dryly. “There are over three quarters of a million volumes here, and that’s not even taking into consideration the clays or scrolls or fragments from Caluptena.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “So you spend years developing the perfect organizational system, which even has a convenient place for your historical-fictional-travelogue-memoir. You and the scrivs spend decades slowly identifying, sorting and reordering tens of thousands of books.” She looked me in the eye. “And then you die. What happens then?”

I began to see where she was going. “Well, in a perfect world, the next Master Archivist would pick up where I left off,” I said.

“Hurrah for the perfect world,” Fela said sarcastically, then turned and began leading me through the shelves again.

“I’m guessing the new Master Archivist usually has his own ideas about how to organize things?”

“Not usually,” Fela admitted. “Sometimes there are several in a row who work toward the same system. But sooner or later you get someone who’s sure they have a better way of doing things and everything starts from scratch again.”

“How many different systems have there been?” I spotted a faint red light bobbing in the distant shelves and pointed towards it.

Fela changed directions to take us away from the light and whoever was carrying it. “It depends on how you count them,” she said softly. “At least nine in the last three hundred years. The worst was about fifty years ago, when there were four new Master Archivists within five years of each other. The result was three different factions among the scrivs, each using a different cataloging system, each firmly believing theirs was the best.”

“Sounds like a civil war,” I said.

“A holy war,” Fela said. “A very quiet, circumspect crusade where each side was sure they were protecting the immortal soul of the Archives. They would steal books that had already been cataloged in each other’s systems. They would hide books from each other, or confuse their order on the shelves.”

“How long did this go on?”

“Almost fifteen years,” Fela said. “It might still be going on today if Master Tolem’s scrivs hadn’t finally managed to steal the Larkin ledger books and burn them. The Larkins couldn’t keep going after that.”

“And the moral of the story is that people get passionate around books?” I teased gently. “Hence the need to spot-check the reading holes?”

Fela stuck out her tongue at me. “The moral of the story is that things are a mess in here. We effectively ‘lost’ almost two hundred thousand books when Tolem burned the Larkin ledgers. They were the only records on where those books were located. Then, five years later, Tolem dies. Guess what happens then?”

“A new Master Archivist looking to start over with a clean slate?”

“It’s like an endless chain of half-built houses,” she said, exasperated. “It’s easy to find books in the old system, so that’s how they build the new system. Whoever’s working on the new house keeps stealing lumber from what’s been built before. The old systems are still there in scattered bits and pieces. We’re still finding pockets of books scrivs hid from each other years ago.”

“I sense this is a sore spot with you,” I said with a smile.

We reached a flight of stairs and Fela turned to look at me. “It’s a sore spot with every scriv who lasts more than two days working in the Archives,” she said. “People down in the Tomes complain when it takes us an hour to bring them what they want. They don’t realize it’s not as easy as going to the ‘Amyr History’ shelf and pulling down a book.”

She turned and began to climb the stairs. I followed her silently, appreciating the new perspective.

In subsequent books, I more than half expect Our Hero to come up with the Dewey Decimal System or the principle of provenance and solve the scrivs’ problems in one fell swoop. (As a teenager he’s already managed to rescue not one but two fair maidens, slay a dragon, knock everybody’s socks off with his musical stylings, master one flavor of magic and start working on a more difficult variety…it’s that sort of book.) But I love this bit.

Because of the timing–I read the book near the tail end of last semester, when I was taking the archives class–I was of course amused by the fact that the book was talking about archives (or manuscript collections) and created illogical-but-we-have-to-advance-the-plot-with-unnecessary-conflict policies. Mostly I like the organizational dysfunction described. It rings true for…well, pretty much any type of organization I’ve been involved with or heard about.