One of the toughest questions for those charged with archival outreach is: how do you get through to your potential audience when they have never heard of your product? Archives, and therefore Archivists, have a visibility problem and that problem is a giant barrier.

There are a few bright cracks in that barrier, however. One of them is a movie called ParaNorman (2012). This movie, intended for children but with plenty of content for adults, does a fantastic job of introducing archives to its audience. Here is a quick list of how ParaNorman gets it right (spoilers ahead!):

1. When Norman needs to find out where an old grave is located, a friend instructs him to look for that information at the Town Archives. Later, at the archives, the audience sees Norman looking through a stack of death certificates to find the location of the grave.

Why is this awesome?

The movie both introduces the Archives as a place to go to find useful information and demonstrates the practical use of primary sources.

2. When Norman first gets to the Town Archives, one of his friends makes a remark about the “library.”

Why is this awesome?

It’s true! Many people, even if they have heard of archives, don’t know that the archives are not the same as a library, and are apt to get confused about where to go to find different kinds of information.

3. When the movie needs to add a sense of urgency and terror, a mob of townspeople set fire to the Town Hall (which puts Norman, his friends, and the archives in danger).

Why is this awesome?

I appreciate a well-done terror scene, and this one really worked on me. Not because of the danger that the fire posed to Norman and his friends, but because of the danger the fire posed to the archives; the materials are irreplaceable!

4. Finally, despite their best efforts, Norman and his friends don’t actually find the information they need (the location of the grave).

Why is this awesome?

Although the movie doesn’t spell it out, Norman & his friends failed to find any information on the location of the grave because they didn’t have an archivist to help them (an unfortunate consequence of breaking into the Town Archives after hours). I think that ParaNorman effectively conveys the fact that there is a lot of information in an archives, but that you need help in order to find what you need.

Outside of the specific plot points above, I love ParaNorman because it shows that the writers have a working knowledge of archives (which means that past archival outreach efforts were successful), and that they found an appropriate way to use that knowledge in the movie’s plot.

As a child, I was exposed to all sorts of new professions, historically significant places, and social commentary via movies. In the same way, ParaNorman’s primary audience has been exposed not only to the concept of archives, but have also seen a practical use of archival material (rather, an attempt at practical use). ParaNorman does a great job of raising the visibility of archives and helping us overcome that barrier to effective outreach.

What do you think?

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