Some of our favorite things, installment 2

The Pencil, by Mariecris Gatlabayan

When I was in elementary school, my friend and I would sit by the long jump sandpit and write and draw. We would write letters, notes, our thoughts, doodle, come up with secret codes for our diary, and, most importantly, write with pens of different colors: bright blue, purple, green, pink, mustard, maroon, etc. Sometimes the ink was sparkly or metallic. We never wrote in red ink because it was bad luck and black ink was too serious. We even experimented with the dreaded heart-dot over the lowercase “i.” It was a time before we had email or word processing programs like WordPerfect or Word, and in our minds the written word was a way to make a good impression and convey our personalities.

I carried this mindset into graduate school and was very particular about my pens. They always had blue gel ink, preferably a happy blue, and were fine point (0.5). As I meticulously took notes during my first archives class, the professor mentioned that the pen was not allowed in the Archives. What was I going to do? It took me years to discover the brands of pen that had the qualities I required. I even had back-up brands, just in case. As for pencils, there was no happy color lead. Fine point pencils were the equivalent of medium point pens. And, they have yet to develop a gel pencil. At that point, I realized I had a serious problem: I have a weird hang-up about writing instruments. So I took a deep breath and decided to go with the flow.

My first archives internship involved transcribing descriptions about photographs onto acid free enclosures. My internship supervisor handed me a few pencils and off to work I went. The yellow number 2 pencil had to be sharpened every few envelopes, so I decided to stick with the mechanical pencil. But then I had to keep clicking the top of the pencil every few envelopes as well. It just didn’t seem efficient and I developed muscle fatigue. Plus the 0.7 point pencil translated my typically neat small print into a smudge across the envelope. To remedy the situation I went to the store and spent a significant amount of time in the pencil section. I left the store a proud owner of a mechanical pencil that used 0.5 lead, had a comfort grip, and a side-clicker (so I would not have to stop writing and click the top of my pencil to get more lead). It was brilliant!

As I developed my skills as an archivist, the pencil became more important. With my pencil and a pad of paper, post-it notes, or index cards, I could make sense of a collection. Whether I was in the vault, reading room, processing room, or a donor’s home, my pencil helped me record what was there. It helped me to literally connect the dots. So when it came to creating an accurate and concise collection description, my notes were there. Whenever I made a mistake, I could erase it. I could write “box 1,” on a box and change it to “box 15” with no problem. With my pencil I could neatly label folders so that researchers could better navigate the collection. If I needed to figure out the cubic footage of an oversized box, I could use my pencil to draw the picture of the box and figure it out visually. Not only did I use the pencil for working with collections, it was useful at the reference desk. It helped me keep track of which collections and what parts of the collections people requested. I even take notes when working with a researcher to better understand their research topic.

In many ways, my pencil helped me organize my own thoughts. Just like the real world, papers and records are never in perfect order. They are complicated. With a pencil, the complicated is more manageable. So the next time an archivist asks you to use a pencil instead of a pen, think of it as our way of sharing one of our most valuable tools: the pencil.

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