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Perceptions of Recordkeeping in Visual Media

Updated on December 23, 2017

As a seeker of knowledge, you are drawn to the legendary College of Winterhold, which houses the largest collection of rare books in the world- the Arcaneum. You have heard tales of it, and as you enter the college and walk up a few flights of stairs, you find yourself standing in awe. The first thing that catches your eye are the rows of locked bookcases lining the walls. You cannot access them on your own, nor can the locks be picked, so you locate the head librarian to ask more about the collection. He greets you by saying one of three pre-programmed phrases. After all, he is a Non-Player Character, and you are a player in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Visual media has done much in the last few decades to feed the public perception of archives and other social memory institutions. Movies and television feature these institutions frequently and with varying degrees of truth. Video games are no different, but depending on the game they provide a level of depth to these themes that are not often shown in film. This form of media immerses its audience rather than simply playing feedback for its audience. Anyone can watch as Harry peruses the Restricted Section of the library at Hogwarts, or as Hermione opens a giant volume of Hogwarts, A History. Ultimately, we the audience never get to experience the book itself as the characters do.[1] A video game allows a person to browse and read books within these libraries, even if the character on screen is just a digital representation of ourselves. Some videogames, such as the one referenced here as an example, can be actively shaped by player actions resulting in different gameplay each playthrough.

In Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there are numerous gameplay characteristics related to cultural memory institutions. The first and foremost is the Arcaneum, but there are others.[2] Private collections are significant to the history of museums and archives, and this holds true in the virtual world as well. A player can amass their own private collection of rare or unique artifacts, books, and manuscripts. Two types of shelves are built in-game: shelves on which only readable materials such as books, letters, or diaries may be placed, and ‘open’ shelves which allow for any item to be arranged, regardless of importance. In Skyrim, the player is even rewarded with the achievement ‘Reader’ once they have read fifty Skill books. Much later, another quest chain is bound in books and book collecting.[3] The idea that the only extensive archival collection in the game is maintained in the College of Winterhold also speaks to the game’s understanding of the archival profession as directly related to scholarly studies.

Skyrim’s virtual representation of librarian, Urag gro-Shub, shatters the usual notions of how visual media portrays this role. Often timid with glasses and a mousy personality, the archivists portrayed in film and television are virtually cookie cutter replicas of each other. Urag invokes a more draconic perception[4]; except he’s an orc with anger issues. When he greets you, it’s a warning: “Hundreds of years have gone into assembling this collection. It’s going to stay pristine, understand?” You can complement him all you want, he will never warm up to you. You quickly discover the books in his library can be read but not removed, and the library houses many unique books not found anywhere else, as well as single copies of the most common books. Urag is proud that many of the books are old but well-preserved, and their knowledge would be lost to the ages if not for him. Ulag then lets slip about several books he would love to have for his collection, and being the adventurer you are, you oblige him by seeking them for him.

The way an archives collects and accessions materials is different than other memory institutions. By collecting groups of documents and records rather than individually, they can preserve chains of events in history and better understand how events are related. In Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief, an account of E. Forbes Smiley III’s transition from map dealer to map thief, there is a glimpse of accessioning through memory institutions. In general, they were made aware of the existence of a particular map, they wanted it for their collection, and they set about acquiring it.[5] This is not too far removed from how the game Skyrim portrays the Arcaneum and Urag’s methods of accessioning materials for his library. Even the theft part is similar, since many of the books have been stolen and must be stolen back. The first quest the player must accept is Shalidor’s Insights. “Urag gro-Shub asked me to bring him more of the writings of the Arch-Mage Shalidor. I was able to find another copy, and have brought it to him.”[6] Two in-game days later, Urag has translated the book and provided the player with the translation. After this, he tells the player, “If you’re feeling adventurous, I’m always looking for someone to procure valuable books from some more…dangerous locations.”

Visual media representations of libraries and archives are not as varied as these institutions actually are. They generalize the profession and borrow perceived notions from each other. Public notions of archives and libraries are annoying and misconceived, but sometimes they are necessary for simplicity’s sake, especially in movies. Unless the movie, or game, is about the archival profession, it will never be as important to properly portray them. At least in Skyrim, the depth of the profession is almost apparent. It is only a tiny portion of the game, but even that little corner is immersive. The player can collect not just books, but letters and diaries, all of which are valuable to the game’s story, just as real letters and diaries are of exceptional value to our own history.

Through the player’s interaction with Urag, he explains how much work went into collecting and archiving the collection, which helps the player understand why he is so protective of it. In other media, the audience is not aware of why the librarian is so protective of their books. Video games have a much better ability to properly portray the profession, because a lot of time and effort was spent in building the game storyline around this institution. In Skyrim, the player can control the gameplay, and focus on finding and collecting the most rare, unique items and displaying them. That a player can do this speaks to a video game’s ability to not only portray libraries and archives, but they allow players to go so far as to act as archivist or curator.

Endnotes

[1] J.K. Rowling has produced a few supplemental books to her Harry Potter series so the audience can read and experience those books as the characters have, but the visual representation in the movies remains forever the same.
“Writing,” https://www.jkrowling.com/writing/.

[2] In the city of Dawnstar, for example, there is a museum dedicated to the Mythic Dawn, an ancient cult. In this quest chain, the player aids in finding artifacts for the museum.
“Lore: Mythic Dawn,” Elder Scrolls Pages, https://en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Mythic_Dawn.

[3] “Lore: Black Books,” Elder Scrolls Pages, https://en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Black_Books.

[4] See Carmen Deedy’s The Library Dragon as an example of the second most popular depiction of librarians.

[5] Michael Blanding, The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (Avery, 2014).

[6] From the player quest log in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Studios, 2011).

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