The Amazing Adventures of The Archivist

February 3, 2017

Alexandria Brown gets ready for her day, which begins with leading freshmen through the maze-like world of databases.

Alexandria Brown gets ready for her day, which begins with leading freshmen through the maze-like world of databases.

Renee Serota

Renee Serota

Alexandria Brown gets ready for her day, which begins with leading freshmen through the maze-like world of databases.

Like any good superhero, Alexandria Brown’s story begins with a challenge. At twelve years old, a librarian throws her out of the children’s library, and the adult librarians refuse to let her into their sphere. There she stands in the middle, seeking the information that her world will not allow her to have. She learns that librarians are her enemy, only good for shushing kids who just want to fill up a milk crate with books and dive into other worlds.

Little did young Brown know that she would soon be joining their ranks, fighting battles she cannot even imagine, and doing everything she can to share and catalog the mountains of information she has been seeking all her life. Little does she know she will face enemies as varied as mother nature, forgetful library patrons, and high schoolers who can’t bother to throw away food, and little does she know how the books she already loves will make her into the superhero she is today.

Or is it a supervillain? Today, in the lair of her Star Wars-decorated office, librarian Brown isn’t sure. “I’d be The Archivist,” she decides, “and I’d just go around and nag people about not properly organizing things. I would like to have some card catalog jokes. I would pre-plan some card catalog puns, and maybe I could have some extra sharp card catalog cards I could throw at people. They’d be my throwing stars.” If MA students know her at all, it is as this strict crusader, ready to intercept any rouge plates making their way into the library. The image she conjures up is enough to keep any student from stuffing their trash in the recesses in the stacks, which is the subject of her latest crusade.

A relative newcomer at Marin Academy, her plea for a clean library is only the first item on a list of ideas The Archivist hopes to implement in the place she now calls home. Next on the docket? A blind date with a book program, where students pick up a book with the cover all wrapped up, letting themselves try something completely new. Over the long term, she is planning a Comic and Graphic Novel history class, a way to explore the complexities of her favorite medium interwoven with history, which has been the subject of most of her adult academic life.

Brown’s own childhood academic memories come from a place philosophically far removed from MA. Until high school, she attended a strict Seventh Day Adventist School in Napa, California. The transition to public school speaks volumes about her experience, “Most people went off to full academy [Seventh Day Adventist high school]; we couldn’t afford to go off to a full academy. So I went to public school and caused my principal to call me a heathen. I learned many things and I learned that many things I had been taught were not accurate.” Seventh Day Adventists are similar to Evangelicals in their beliefs; Ben Carson is a prominent Seventh Day Adventist politician.

After high school, Brown headed to Mills College and then down to LA, where she hoped to be a screenwriter and a director. A search for a temporary practical job led her to library science, and a few classes were all it took to convince her that this was her calling. The Archivist was born.

Working as a public librarian, she came to appreciate the role libraries can and should play in our society. She is adamant about their importance: “You don’t have to put into this building, you don’t have to participate in the keeping [up] of this building. It’s just here to be used if you want to use it. Everybody just comes together to be in this space and use it as a part of the community without any obligations tied to it.” The job of a librarian is to do their best to make that space as inviting as possible. 

Most of the time, Brown’s challenges come in the form of people, but every so often, something else is added to the mix. Working as an archivist for the Napa Historical Society, she was tasked with protecting books housed in a building damaged by the 2014 earthquake. Torrential rain was falling through holes in the roof, and Brown, armed with tarps, had to work around the clock for an entire winter to keep the precious materials safe and dry.

If it came down to it, what would she save? Probably her favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. According to Brown, “it’s so much more than all the romance-y stuff. There’s some deep conversations about classism and sexism and all that stuff. It’s a darkly funny satire.” Just like Brown herself, the story is more than meets the eye. Pride and Prejudice, along with dozens of other books, have taught her what she values, what she loves, and what she’ll fight for. As she explains how Jane Austen layers history and social critique, I see the love for complexity that has shaped her life up until this point.

I consider her a hero, but The Archivist is not one of those simple costumed caricatures, the one-dimensional champions who are meant to be something other than human. At the end of the day, she flies under the radar, ready to combat the daily challenges every librarian faces, ready to help the next generation of knowledge-chasers, and ready to prove all of your stereotypes wrong.


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