Suicide, Princeton University, and Emotional Labor in Public Services

Though it may not be obvious to most of the people who use our library, work in special collections often includes playing a role in someone’s grieving process. Archivists have begun talking about the ways in which interacting with donors puts them in the position of providing comfort to the bereaved, but this is also work performed by those who interact with researchers. For those of us in public services, this usually means providing information about the deceased to those in mourning. One kind of loss, however, is distinct from the others, and the emotional labor for me working with these patrons is different, too.

We confront human mortality on a daily basis in the archives. Many records, after all, cannot be viewed during a person’s lifetime. Death comes into the picture in a variety of ways, but reference inquiries about suicides are usually phrased without the same clarity as other types of questions, as though speaking of suicide itself will injure the person making the inquiry. Though I have responded to several people who have called or emailed Mudd Library looking for information about someone who committed suicide, I have yet to speak to or read an email from anyone who disclosed the fact of a suicide up front. Instead, they tend to ask about “someone who died” or even just “someone I knew.”

My own emotions surface at unexpected news of a suicide in ways they do not when I am caught by surprise about the news of other kinds of unexpected deaths, a phenomenon psychologists label “transference.” Though I may remember the unusual circumstance of someone’s demise I uncover in my research if it is especially noteworthy—such as an alum who electrocuted himself trying to install a TV antenna—they are far less personally provocative. I cannot recall their names; a week or so passes and new questions push them away. This is not so with suicide. One example that particularly stands out in my mind came in almost two years ago, just after the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2016), when an elderly alum wrote to ask a seemingly innocuous question: Did a Princeton student die in a train accident immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?

Frank Birney ’42’s entry in the 1942 Nassau Herald.

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