Friday, October 27, 2017

What Really Happens At The Library

Part of writing Demon City is digging in to the tropes of investigation-based games and getting at the juicy gameable meat within--often with the help of people who know the worlds involved better than me.


Richard G, an expert on real life Going To Do Research wrote most of this for the game, I just edited it a bit and changed a sentence here and there...

Things To Know About Research 

Unless they’re right there in a library or the embezzler’s office, that initial Research Throw just means looking on the Internet. When that fails, you should go “Ok, nothing’s coming up on the Internet immediately. Do you want to try digging a little deeper?”


Digging deeper can involve a few different things:

-Have a Contact try it.
-Spend more time (maybe a week?—search variant spellings, leave requests on some forums, etc).
-Go to an archive.

…the third is the most exhausting, gameable, and has the greatest chance of success. Only 5% of archived information is even on the Internet—feel free to set Research challenges that simply can’t be done any other way (feel free to tell the player), and what is archived is often eccentrically indexed by barely-overlapping generations of underpaid staffers and unpaid volunteers into obsolete, proprietary paper and computer filing systems.

If you know a little about how archives work you can do two things: add some roleplaying color to an investigation that fleshes out your Demon City, and, once in a while, have an adventure about getting to the archive or (shudder) the depot before someone else does.

Archives

Storage formats get old and/or go out of fashion. Microfilm, fiche, photographic slides of unusual sizes, glass plate negatives. Photo negatives and prints are kept in deep freeze storage – you have to order them 48 hours ahead to warm up, and the archivist will want to know which photos beforehand because they can only be warmed up so many times. And you won’t know which photos ahead of time because nobody describes photos in the metadata.

Materials that are hard to scan/photograph because they’re big (blueprints) or fragile or mildewed or reflective. Attempts to digitize materials that failed to capture the important details (microfilms can usually be scanned but only in 1-bit colour (like a fax) –so you can see the data but can’t record it, except with a camera pointed at the preview screen.

Who cares? It’s all old stuff. We are concerned with the new.

Well, most infrastructure is old - buildings average 20-50 years, even if the computer system inside them is new, so if you want to know about the plumbing or air vents, that’s not online. Roads, foundations, geological surveys, city plans, interstate highway plans, birth and medical and education records – it’s all more than 20 years old and first recorded in systems that were antiquated then.

Requesting these things from the staff takes forever or charm or both. After that, the main challenge is that you might have to be a little stealthy about photographing the documents. Or the fact they might not be there. Then you have to go to the depot.

The Depot

There are the open stacks – that’s where the 5% that’s been digitized is kept. Then there are the closed stacks, which you can get into by charming the librarian. That has the stuff the chief archivist keeps on hand. Then there’s the depot.

The depot isn’t anywhere near the archive’s main building. It’s in an industrial wasteland where the buildings are cheap and truck access is bumpy but not crowded. Or it’s on a rented corner of the Navy yards, or “temporarily” housed on barges.

The depot is supposed to be double-sealed from the outside world – that’s supposed to mean a building inside a building, with its own electrical and heating and humidity control system and ideally slight positive pressure compared with the outside. In fact that kind of treatment is usually reserved for one room – the rest of the depot is a damp, leaky, badly lit concrete building with wire racks and cages where the artifacts are piled high on an organizational scheme known only to one person and their short-lived acolytes. You’re not supposed to be let into the depot unless you have special clearance – from the institution, possibly from the military, depending on where it’s located. Sometimes an archivist can let you in, sometimes clearance takes months to arrive.

All the doors in the depot auto-close (fire regulations – to keep the stuff inside safe, not you the visitor). All the lights auto shut-off after 3 minutes. The depot guy (or, less often, depot lady) carries a flashlight. Air conditioning units are loud. Leak locations are known and avoided.

If the depot crank gets into it, they’ll start finding stuff on their own to show you. You will learn stuff about them and the institution that makes it hard to work with either.

If you ever need to steal anything from the depot, request stuff that’s in the same cage or stored behind it. Chances are, the whole cage will be trucked out for the one item, so it’s not the depot crank’s fault if the other stuff in there gets damaged. The truck has no security beside obscurity.

Where else?

Maybe you’ve done all that and the thing just can’t be found. Maybe someone already stole it, suppressed it, or more likely just misfiled it. Maybe it’s actually on public display in the museum but nobody knew that.

All is not yet lost: The old, disgruntled archivist who nobody listens to will tell you to look in financial or insurance records. It’s amazing how much is reproduced in the insurance company’s archives.

Each department of a big institution keeps own records, often double-entered and cross-indexed with head office, so head office’s copy may be firewalled/redacted, but plumbing's might not be.

People hide things in ancestry records. Like, literally in the archive box. Their own notes, books belonging to the ancestor. If you go to the town where they grew up, you might find their diary, unindexed, with the immunization forms and diplomas.


Finally, quid pro quo works. Gifts are welcome, time spent chatting is maybe more so and if you can remember their grandkids’ names, less suspicious. Archivists and curators don’t have enough time to do a better job or know their archives better - they will ask you to share your research and photos, because you’re the only person to request that record in 50 or 100 years. Share what you can, because 6 months later they’ll find that other thing you needed and it’ll be your little secret.
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2 comments:

Kyana said...

Can you, please, clarify what did you mean by "If the depot crank gets into it, they’ll start finding stuff on their own to show you. You will learn stuff about them and the institution that makes it hard to work with either."

Is depot crank a person with obsession or profession of some kind? Why would they show their findings to me? And why learning this stuff will make it difficult to work together with depot crank?

Dale Morrell said...

Surely the depot crank is the most obnoxious (or only) person in the facility who, while the should be getting you what you need are telling you (or showing you) stories that start "This one time, at band camp ..." and are so mind numbingly boring that you want to gnaw your own ears off until suddenly the story is about a flute and an orifice which causes you a double-take except its more likely to be about the company's involvement in selling Zyclon B to the Nazi's or sterilising minorities in 1970s USA or inadequate safety in the design of tailings dams in Brazil etc.