The Backlog

by Christine Borne 


Amanda finished writing the answer to her last question and looked up. “What about the backlog? Can you tell me a little bit about your strategy for processing the backlog?”

It was a good question, a question that shouldn’t have been unexpected in an interview for Archives Processing Supervisor. More often than not, the question was answered with a chuckle and an eye roll, and maybe a “well, we hope to win the lottery and hire 400 people to process it!” Or, more promisingly, an actual plan or National Endowment for the Humanities grant in the pipeline.

It wasn’t a secret: historical societies were too often staffed by generations of people who were too nice to say no, and before you knew it, 1816 was 1916 and then 2016 and you had two hundred years’ worth of boxes of family papers and rolled-up maps, of photographs of people at picnics and building dedications and annual events that had long ago ceased being held, and of records of community groups whose communities had died out or been assimilated or whose purpose was simply rendered unnecessary by progress. Sure, it was a little embarrassing to admit you were the community attic, but smart organizations at least had a plan in place, a list of processing priorities assembled from a careful analysis of researcher needs and trends. Leaving the backlog unaddressed entirely, to pile up indefinitely, turned you from an archivist into a hoarder.

The reaction this question provoked in the three interviewers across the table from Amanda was strange.

The woman on the left, a slight, older woman with a sweep of salt-and-pepper hair and tiny, round glasses, put her pencil down and closed her eyes. Henriette Schultz, her nametag read. Collections Manager. The woman on the right, young and mousy with her black hair pulled back in a bun too severe for her age, froze, and looked like she would have scurried under the table like a cat sensing a trip to the V-E-T, if she could have gotten away with it. Rachel Novak, Special Projects Assistant, said her nametag.

The woman in the center, whose nametag said Marybeth Cousins, Curator of Manuscripts, just chuckled.

“Don’t worry about the backlog, dear,” she said. Marybeth was bosomy, with a floral print quilted vest and dyed-red hair permed in a way Amanda hadn’t realized hairdressers knew how to do anymore. “We have . . . other projects in mind.”

It was a disappointing answer, but a job was a job.

As she was leaving, Amanda overheard one of the interviewers, the slight woman with the round glasses, say, “She asked a lot of questions.” It wasn’t until later that Amanda realized this hadn’t been meant as a positive.


The New Prague Historical Society was located in a massive brick edifice with a sharp-sloping roof that was, Amanda learned from Wikipedia, built in the German Renaissance style. A squat, concrete-block annex had been attached sometime during the 1980s, and it seemed that all of the staff offices had been crammed into it.

Amanda found Marybeth Cousins in one of these offices.

“I want to thank you again for the opportunity,” she said. “I’m really excited to learn about the community here in New Prague.

“It’s New Prague, dear, remember.” She pronounced it to rhyme with plague. “And there is a lot to learn, oh my! We have a very long and rich history here, oh yes. My ancestors go back to, well, the very beginning!” She got up from her desk. Amanda saw that she was wearing a different floral vest. She must have a closet full, she thought.

“My colleagues really wanted to be here for your first day,” said Marybeth, pouring a cup of tea from a red tartan thermos. “But I sent them to a team-building workshop up in the city. Team building is so important, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for Amanda to answer. “Well, how about I give you the grand tour?”

It turned out that both the museum and the library had been shoehorned into the little annex as well. When Amanda asked what the enormous building next door was used for, Marybeth just said, “Oh, collection storage,” and changed the subject.

“And this is where our volunteers work,” she said, indicating the large workroom outside of her office, tables and desks groaning with boxes, their contents laid out in heaps. “We have quite the crew! Some of them have been coming here for oh, twenty years or more, at least!”

Amanda flipped open a Hollinger box. “The Chelm Family Papers,” she read. She pulled out an acid-free folder, opened it, and thumbed through the photographs. She stopped at a portrait of a young woman with black hair pulled back into a tight bun.

“This one looks just like Rachel!”

Marybeth glanced at the photograph. “Oh, maybe a little bit. I wouldn’t be surprised, we’ve all got loads of Chelms on our family trees around here!” She took the folder from Amanda, closed it, and slipped it back in the box, without regard for where it had come from.

“I’ve heard you rented the old Jempsen farmhouse out on County Road Ten.”

“I did. It’s very . . . picturesque.”

Amanda had briefly considered keeping her apartment in the city and driving—it was a fifty-minute drive, but a pleasant fifty minutes along country roads that gave her time to listen to the history podcasts that she counted as low-budget professional development. But describing these plans to her mechanic, he’d whistled through his teeth and said “It’s gonna be a bad winter for driving, young lady. I wouldn’t do it if I were you.”

They circled back to where the staff offices were. Amanda’s was at the end of the hallway, by the exit.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Marybeth dug around in her pocket and pulled out a key ring. “Here are your keys. This one’s for the front door, this one’s for the back door. And here’s your office.”

Amanda’s office was a smaller version of Marybeth’s—or maybe it just looked smaller, crammed as it was with stacks and stacks of crumbling leather-bound ledgers and three-ring binders.

“What about this last one?” she asked. There was one more key on the ring, smaller than the others, and rusted.

Marybeth chuckled. “Oh that’s just Collection Storage. I’d stay out of there if I were you.”

Amanda worked late that day, going through all of her desk drawers and all of the files on the shared drive, testing her CuadraSTAR login and browsing through the accession records that were just the tip of what she gathered was a very large iceberg. The historical society had only started using electronic accessions records a few years ago—in fact, had only started using computers a few years ago—and the first task Marybeth had assigned to her was to input all the legacy accession records into CuadraSTAR. That, she quickly learned, was what was in the stacks and stacks of binders that cluttered her office.

She had just powered down her computer and picked up her keys to leave when a knock came at her office door. It was Henriette, the grey-haired woman with the old-fashioned wire glasses who had been at her interview.

“Oh!” said Amanda. She shuddered. “I’m sorry, it’s so cold in here. I’ll have to remember to dress in layers. How was your team-building workshop?”

“What made you take this job, Amanda?”

Amanda felt her hand going sweaty around the key ring. “I just love history.” Her voice came out too high-pitched.

Henriette peered at her over the tops of her museum-piece glasses. It was as if she could tell the real answer, which was that there were three jobs posted in the last six months on the state museum association jobs board, and her student loan debt wasn’t getting any smaller.

“Have you ever lived in a small town?”

It wasn’t a question she’d been expecting. “I haven’t . . . no.”

Henriette drifted over to a bookshelf on the wall and trailed a finger along the row of books. “History has a way of . . . building up around the edges here, you might say. Do you know what I mean?”

 Amanda raised her eyebrows.

Henriette regarded her. “Like a canal that hasn’t been dredged in a long time. You know, some people think that time moves slowly in a small town. That the modern world is slow to reach us. That isn’t it at all, in fact.” She righted a volume that had fallen on its side. “The modern world reaches us at the same rate it reaches everywhere else, but the difference is that it cannot—” She paused, like a non-native speaker searching for the right phrase. “It cannot pass through. Now do you see?”

“I think so,” said Amanda, but in truth, she didn’t.

But driving home, a glimmer of understanding appeared. During her brief Wikipedia research, Amanda had noted that the population of New Prague had fallen slowly, from its peak of 12,000 around 1920—people leaking away to the city where new types of jobs and new forms of excitement awaited them—to the present-day number of 2,600. And it wasn’t hard to see the consequences of that, during the day, at least. In the dark, though, it seemed like there were too many lights, lamps illuminating the windows of houses she couldn’t quite see and couldn’t recall seeing on her morning commute, houses that Amanda suspected she would not find on Google Maps.


The end of summer ripened into fall, and just as quickly disintegrated into November. Amanda continued plugging away at the accessions records.

It was a dreary Monday, the week before Thanksgiving, when the donor showed up.

Marybeth and the rest of the staff had gone to the city for another one of their team-building workshops, and had left Amanda in charge of the building. It was odd, how the rest of the staff went off to these team-building workshops but never invited her.

Amanda was no stranger to drive-by donations. Usually they consisted of a box of Life magazines, or twenty copies of a newspaper from the last time the local sports team won the championship. “Well, really you should talk to Marybeth, the Curator of Manuscripts. But she’s not here right now.”

“When will she be back? I can wait.”

“I’m sorry, she’s out today. Can you come back tomorrow?”

He looked distraught. “I’m afraid I can’t. I’m only in town for today and then . . . I don’t think I’ll be back for a very long time.” He looked down at the shoebox.

“I’ve donated papers before, in the past. You can look that up, can’t you?”

Amanda regarded the old man. Tiny, bearded, hands mottled with age spots. His lips were slightly blue. Amanda saw that he had a tremor. She really didn’t want to add to the backlog, but it was just one shoebox, and he had driven all the way here. She clicked the CuadraSTAR icon on her desktop. “How did you spell your name again?”

“Loew. L-O-E-W.”

She typed the name into the search field. “Reuben Loew?”

He nodded eagerly. “Yes, that’s right.”

There were a dozen records associated with the name, all within the last five years. Amanda shrugged. “Okay. You can just leave it here.” She pointed at an empty spot on her desk.

“Oh, bless you, thank you so much!” He scurried out, moving faster than she would have thought possible. Amanda got the distinct impression that he was relieved to be free of whatever was in the shoebox, which, like an idiot, she realized, she hadn’t even bothered to look at.

Well, I’ll just accession this really quickly, she thought, and put it with the rest of the collection. She clicked on the most recent accession record, which was from April.

Location: Collection Storage, Row S-223, Shelf 1, read the accessions record. Amanda picked up her key ring. She was going to have to go into the other building.


The door opened easily.

Collection Storage wasn’t what she expected at all: inside was one cavernous room, like a warehouse or a cathedral, with towering rows of shelving going up three stories high. There wasn’t a forklift in sight. In fact, someone seemed to have constructed a set of stairs reaching all the way to the ceiling with boxes.

Amanda put her hand to her mouth. This is such a safety hazard, she thought. No wonder Marybeth said not to come in here.

At least the shelving units were numbered. She followed the numbers deeper and deeper, higher and higher, holding her breath lest she disturb whatever precarious force was keeping all of this from crashing down around her. Finally, here it was: aisle S-223. Mercifully, shelf 1 was the bottom. She cleared a space for the shoebox, and as she did, she noticed that the shelving units themselves were made out of boxes.

Then she heard the noise. It sounded like—laughter.

“Hello?” Amanda called. “Marybeth?”

Still clutching the box, she followed the sound further into the stacks, winding closer to what must be the center of the building, until she came to a clearing.

Her scream caught in her throat, unvoiced.

The creature was huge—its body made up of hundreds of ancient cardboard boxes, orange crates printed in old-timey writing, and plastic tubs of all colors and sizes. Its arms and legs were rusted metal blueprint tubes, bound together by the dozen with cotton twine and shrinkwrap, and its legs and feet were made of pallets, splintered and broken into horrible fingers and toes.

In front of the creature was a cherry picker, with Henriette at the control. Marybeth had climbed into the basket, and it lifted her up to the creature’s face. She reached out toward its cheek, stroking the mildewed cardboard. Then, she took a stub of pencil from her vest pocket and wrote something on a small, yellow piece of paper—a library call slip, Amanda thought—folded it, kissed it, and popped it between the creature’s teeth.

Immediately, its eyes—two commemorative plates donated by some long-forgotten city official—opened, lit from behind with some dull, unnatural light. Its jaws began working back and forth, and from within its maw there came forth a terrible groaning, exactly, Amanda thought later, the sound of a poorly serviced HVAC system.

The creature wobbled, moving first one arm, then the other, the blueprint tubes clanging together. It looked at its massive pallet hands, first one, then the other, and then at Marybeth, who was beaming at it.

The creature swatted at the cherry picker.

In a blur of flowers, Marybeth came tumbling to the ground. A scream—and then the whole building rocked. There was grinding sound. Someone grabbed Amanda’s arm. It was Rachel.

“Get out!” she yelled.

Amanda turned from the bellowing creature and ran, just as a banker’s box labeled HENDERSON FUNERAL HOME RECORDS tumbled down from the ceiling, exploding in a mess of yellowed invoices.


It took many years, but prosperity finally returned to New Prague, in the form of tourism. Everyone wanted to see the crater left when the old historical society had collapsed: rumor had it that it was bottomless. Geologists were baffled. “You really don’t find sinkholes in this part of the country,” a Dr. Bennigan from the local university was quoted as saying. “I guess all those old books were just too heavy!”

The only person who knew what really happened was the old lady who lived out at the Jempsen farm on County Road Ten. She wouldn’t talk to reporters, but she had promised to donate her papers, which she kept in a shoebox under her bed, to the historical society when she died.

© 2016 by Christine Borne

About the author:

Christine Borne has worked as a project archivist at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. She currently lives in Minnesota.

2016 Archives Short Fiction Contest

Winning Entry:

"Family Stories" 
by Marcella Huggard

Honorable Mentions:

"The Backlog"
by Christine Borne


"The Tell-Tale Diary"
by Susan J. Illis


"Night Memory"
by Jona Whipple