Thursday, June 18, 2009

Archivists and our Pencils

Several months ago, I wrote a short piece about the Special Collections staff and our pencils. I never got around to publishing it to the blog, but as today is my last day before going on maternity leave, I thought I'd post it and leave (for now) with a meditation on one of the essential tools of the archivist and librarian:

Archivists and Our Pencils

Have you ever wondered why you are required to use pencil while working with historical library materials and archival collections? It’s to protect the items. Ink from a pen could permanently damage historic materials, while pencil is a much less invasive and more reversible tool. I imagine that the tradition probably began when fountain pens were ubiquitous in the workplace. Judging from some old documents we’ve seen, accidents were not uncommon. So pencil was by far the safest writing tool to use around precious archives and library items.

It’s not just patrons who must use pencils in an archives or special collections: the staff use pencils for many of our tasks. In the Special Collections Department, we do use pens for some things: taking notes in meetings, jotting down outlines for reports, and such. But when working on, with, or even near our collections, we use pencil. Because we use them so much, and probably because we are precise and a little obsessive by our professional natures, each of us in the department has developed our own little pencil habits and fetishes.

Lacy, the Preservation Librarian, uses pencils for making enclosures for books, applying titles and call numbers to items, and also for most of her writing and note-taking. Because she uses pencils so much and for different tasks, she has her favorite kind of pencil for each task. For marking enclosures and labels, she prefers a Ticonderoga Soft, because it is easier to erase. But for regular writing, she likes a harder pencil.

We have a number of different kinds of pencil sharpeners in the Special Collections Department. Interestingly, no-one likes the electric sharpener: it just doesn't produce a good enough point. We prefer to use one of the two old-fashioned table-mounted sharpeners, or a hand-held one. Shawna, a former library page, liked to use a small hand-held sharpener that she keept with her pencils and other tools. I like the extreme sharpness produced by the table-mounted sharpener in the back workroom ("sharp enough to slay a vampire" is my motto). Because I also wear down those sharp pencils quickly while processing manuscript collections, I like to have a number of them lined up on my right. As they get worn down, I lay them aside on my left, and then sharpen them again all at once.

Patrick, the Library Program Coordinator, doesn’t understand it at all, but he can think of a corollary that helps him get it: he compares this pencil connoisseurship to the way billiards players think of their pool cues. I think that it is just an extension of our natural propensity for order and systematic hierarchical arrangement. The same precision and attention to detail that allows librarians and archivists to successfully arrange complicated systems of information also carries over to our management of the physical work environment. Sometimes it even bleeds over into our choice of writing tool.

-Katie Chase, Special Collections Librarian