Hiding Darkest Peru: archives fact or fiction in “Paddington”

In the 2014 movie Paddington, based on the popular books about Paddington Bear, the titular character is aiming to find an explorer from the the fictitious British Geographer’s Guild, who offered his home should the bear ever make his way to England. In trying to locate him, they are rebuffed by an archive, and then break in to access information.

Record retrieval is automated

In the film, record retrieval is automated, by a robotic arm that grabs the rolled up records, stored in tubes, and shoots them through pneumatic tubes to the front desk.

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Fiction! If only it was that easy. Ladders and arms are still the primary retrieval system.

Weird sidenote: Toronto Telegram installed a system of pneumatic tubes under Bay Street in Toronto, to send sealed tubes from city hall, courts, police headquarters, aldermanic offices, off to the newspaper’s headquarters. Similar systems existed in New York City (even through the Brooklyn Bridge), under Prague, and under Paris, among other cities. Even the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library would send retrieval slips through tubes.

Can strange men and bears can do damage to archival order?

When the receptionist at the Geographer’s Guild tells Henry Brown and Paddington there are no records, they ask to root around the storage. She gives them stink eye, replying:

“There are over two million letters, diaries, and artifacts up in our archive, meticulously filed, and they don’t stay that way by letting strange men and their bears rummage around.”

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Fact! Indeed, when we bring archival records up from storage for researchers, most archives enforce a one-box-at-a-time rule, to avoid things being mixed between boxes.

Plus, even if you were to convince an archives to let you into the storage area to “go and check”, you’d be hopelessly lost. Unlike libraries, where non-fiction books are ordered by subject matter (the Dewey Decimal Classification is most common in public libraries), archival boxes are sorted by donor, by year of accession, and all kinds of other factors not related to subject matter. Not knowing the name of the explorer who went to Darkest Peru, you’d have next to no chance finding their research papers.

That, and there’s a chance an archivist will give you stink eye if you suggest otherwise.

Archivists hide stuff from you.

Despite finding records for Darkest Peru, the staffer denies their existence.

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Fiction… While archives will occasionally court fonds and collections, largely, their holdings are dependent on public donations. If no one ever donates a picture of your great-granduncle, the arcade that you spent your youth hanging out in, or information on your house’s construction, we simply don’t have it. You can ask another archivist the same question, but unless they know of something that hasn’t been processed, they’re using the same database, and thus they’ll give you the same answer.

But also mixed… There are government records at PAMA that are closed for a defined period of time, in order to protect members of the public whose personal information is mentioned in the records. While we can’t openly let you access the records, and we may not even be able to tell you the headings for individual files, we don’t deny that they exist, and you can theoretically FOI them through the responsible municipality for access. (That’s archive-ese for applying for access through the Freedom of Information Act.)

Should your expectations be malleable?

Frustrated by the Geographer’s Guild denials of a voyage to Darkest Peru, Mr. Brown asks Paddington if he’s sure that there was an explorer in the first place.

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Fact! Yes, it’s healthy to keep an open mind when researching in an archives. Even long-held oral traditions about your family may run counter to what the primary records stored in an archives say. Occasionally, researchers have suggested that they are leaving the archives with more questions than they came in with.

(Spoiler alert: Paddington, his Aunt Lucy, and Uncle Pastuzo were indeed visited by an explorer.)

Card catalogues?

In one of the offices at the Explorer’s Club, there’s a card catalogue.

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Fact and fiction! Fact, in that archives will often have finding aids that haven’t been input into our database. For example, Library and Archives Canada’s paper finding aid for the David Shadd collection includes item level descriptions of letters, but they are not represented in their database.

Record destroyed

Mr. Brown chooses a record from the database, and when delivered, all that’s in the tube is “RECORD DESTROYED”.

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Fiction! In some cases, yes, records are deaccessioned. (Deaccessioning happens when an archives decides that records no longer meet the mandate of the collection; we generally try to transfer it to another collection with a more relevant geographic or thematic mandate. The best practice is to simply be discerning from Day One.)

That said, the deaccessioning would be noted in the database record, or noted in a separate file altogether, to avoid “false positives” in the database. If it’s still in the database, it should still be in the collection.

Plus, “x”ing out the accession number, shelfmark, and other information is counter-intuitive to tracking what has been deaccessioned.

Can I bring a marmalade sandwich?

Paddington eats a marmalade sandwich while operating the archives database.

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Fiction! The only way that you can eat in an archive is to sneak in, dressed as a janitor, with your Wellington-wearing bear. While the records delivery tubes get clogged in the movie Paddington, the more likely situation is that the record will get grease stains or some other permanent residue from the food. Archives aim to make records last for hundreds of years, minimum. Marmalade is not compatible.

Archives shoot records into your mouth using pneumatic tubes

After requesting a record from the database, it is sent at high speed by pneumatic tube, into Paddington’s mouth.

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Fiction! (Well, unless you’ve broken into the archives and are eating marmalade sandwiches. In which case…)

Paddington (2014) is available on DVD and Bluray.

posted by Nick Moreau, archives reprographics specialist

5 responses to “Hiding Darkest Peru: archives fact or fiction in “Paddington”

  1. I like the air of mystery that film and television tend to give to archives! Makes it so powerful when you retrieve the desired file!

    Liked by 1 person

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