The best books about quirky archivists

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been an archivist at Canada’s national archives for more than twenty years. I love my job. Archives are, by their very nature, a collection of miscellany that weren’t created to be preserved or remembered. They are the scraps of paper and hurriedly sent emails produced while the world is out making history. As a result, they offer unselfconscious glimpses into the past. Archives are poorly understood, which means that the folks who decide to devote their professional lives to them are often a little quirky and a bit odd. This makes books featuring archivists celebrations of the off-kilter, the overlooked, and the frankly strange. 


I wrote...

The Foulest Things

By Amy Tector,

Book cover of The Foulest Things

What is my book about?

Junior archivist Jess Novak is struggling to find her footing in her new job. Her colleagues undermine her, her boss hates her, and her only romantic prospect hides a whiskey bottle in his desk. When Jess discovers a series of mysterious letters chronicling life in Paris at the start of the Great War she thinks she’s landed her ticket to career advancement. Breaking into the art vault to do more digging, she stumbles upon a colleague’s body.

As if that isn’t frightening enough, Jess is being stalked by a menacing figure. It’s only when Jess connects the letters, the murder, and a priceless Rembrandt, that she realizes just how high the stakes are. Can Jess salvage her career, unravel a mystery, shake her stalker, solve a murder, and save her life?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Bear

Amy Tector Why did I love this book?

Bear is a slim, easy-to-read story about an archivist who travels to a remote northern cabin to catalog its contents, discovering surprising insights about herself and the world. It is funny, it is insightful. It is also marketed as “a tale of erotic love between an archivist and a bear.” Yup. I promise you, though, that somehow it’s not weird – just delightful and strange and highly enjoyable. 

As a young archivist, did I make my first professional conference presentation about this novel? Yes!

Did it limit my career? 

Possibly! 

Does that paper hold the record for most times “bestiality” was mentioned in an Association of Ontario Archivists conference? 

I hope so!

By Marian Engel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bear as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A strange and wonderful book, plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale, and with the same disturbing resonance.' -- Margaret Atwood

'Bear,' she cried. 'I love you. Pull my head off.'

Lou is a librarian at the local Heritage Institute who lives a mole-like existence, buried among maps and manuscripts in her dusty basement office.

The chance to escape the monotony of her city life comes when she is summoned to a remote island to inventory the late Colonel Jocelyn Cary's estate. Hoping for an industrious summer of cataloguing, Lou heads north.

Colonel Cary left behind many possessions, but…


Book cover of Possession

Amy Tector Why did I love this book?

I first read this one in my early twenties and the story of a poor, kind of pathetic grad student caught in a hopeless academic grind resonated… As did that moment in the British Museum when the protagonist discovers a forgotten letter from 100 years ago that changes the course of his life. What follows is a fast-paced mystery where our heroes race to uncover more letters and discover the truth of the past, whilst staying ahead of a dastardly and acquisitive collector. There are two love stories intertwined here a tragic, historic one featuring complex characters trapped by circumstances, and a contemporary one that had me rooting for the romantic payoff. Finally, take it from someone who has read this book five times – you can safely skip the long pages of invented Victorian poetry. 

By A.S. Byatt,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Possession as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once a literary detective novel and a triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars investigating the lives of two Victorian poets. Following a trail of letters, journals and poems they uncover a web of passion, deceit and tragedy, and their quest becomes a battle against time.

WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE


Book cover of All the Names

Amy Tector Why did I love this book?

Written by Nobel Prize winning, libertarian communist (don’t worry about it, it’s a thing) author Jose Saramago, All the Names is a weird and joyful exploration of the grind of bureaucracy and the power of information to control lives. Unlike Bear, this is not an easy read. Saramago’s signature style features long, convoluted sentences, which confuse and disorient – much like plunging into complex archival research. The story focuses on Senhor José, a poorly socialised records clerk, trudging through his days in a faceless, nonsensical records centre. One day he connects with a particular file and the realisation that the pieces of paper he manages represent whole beautiful lives sends him on a journey that requires breathtaking bravery and the formation of new, if eccentric, friendships. A life-affirming read.

By José Saramago,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All the Names as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE

José Saramago's mesmerizing, classic narrative about the loneliness of individual lives and the universal need for human connection.

Senhor José is a low-grade clerk in the city's Central Registry, where the living and the dead share the same shelf space. A middle-aged bachelor, he has no interest in anything beyond the certificates of birth, marriage, divorce, and death that are his daily routine. But one day, when he comes across the records of an anonymous young woman, something happens to him. Obsessed, Senhor José sets off to follow the thread that may lead…


Book cover of Letters to Amelia

Amy Tector Why did I love this book?

This story is centred around Grace, a recently dumped library technician who is assigned to catalogue a previously “lost” trove of letters from Amelia Earhart. It’s a wonderful back-and-forth through Grace’s attempts to recover from her grief and move on with life while learning valuable lessons in courage and staying true to yourself from her immersion in the life of Amelia Earhart. 

By Lindsay Zier-Vogel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Letters to Amelia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Grace Porter is reeling from grief after her partner of seven years unexpectedly leaves. Amidst her heartache, the 30 year-old library tech is tasked with reading newly discovered letters that Amelia Earhart wrote to her lover, Gene Vidal. She becomes captivated by the famous pilot who disappeared in 1937. Letter by letter, she understands more about the aviation hero while piecing her own life back together. When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her life becomes more intertwined with the mysterious pilot and Grace begins to write her own letters to Amelia. While navigating her third trimester, amidst new conspiracy theories…


Book cover of The Archivist

Amy Tector Why did I love this book?

A dark meditation on guilt, love, and marriage, it intersperses the story of Matthias, the titular archivist with the life and work of T. S. Eliot, whose letters he’s charged with keeping. When a young scholar wants to read these letters ahead of their scheduled opening, Matthias must wrestle with his own repressed feelings about his past, with some incidents paralleling the poet’s. I enjoyed it for the meditation on how archives can bridge that gap between the past and the present.

By Martha Cooley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Archivist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A battle of wills between Matt, a careful, orderly archivist for a private university, and Roberta, a determined young poet, over a collection of T.S. Eliot's letters, sealed by bequest until 2019, sparks an unusual friendship and reawakens painful memories of the past


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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