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In Defense of Finding Things in Archives

Over the past several months, and probably before that, several historians have been flayed on social media for making claims like “I found this forgotten thing in the archive,” and stories about their finds criticized for calling their work “discovery.” Scholars have (rightly) called out these stories as erasing the work of the archivists in those archives. But these excoriations are often accompanied by calls for all researchers to stop saying they’ve discovered things in archives. I disagree.

I work at the intersection of historians and archivists. I manage the development of software whose goal is, in part, to help researchers see and acknowledge the work done for them by archivists. I encourage researchers in every training session to increase their awareness of and gratitude for the work of those who made it possible to find the sources they’re photographing. However, another goal of Tropy is to allow researchers to add item-level metadata to the sources they photograph, a level of granularity not often achieved by archivists. Every archive would love to have item-level metadata on their collections, I’m sure, but most have neither the financial nor personnel resources to make it happen.

Hence it is entirely possible for a researcher to find, within a described collection, a “lost” source. A lost source is not necessarily one that no one has ever known existed, or that has not been placed into a location that is “organized.” It is a source that no one currently knows the location of, or possibly the existence of. When I have lost my keys in my house, I don’t mean that I have never known where they are–I just don’t know where they are right now.

Likewise, anything in an archive has of course been known to someone at some point. Someone had to accession it; someone might have even written a finding aid that included it. But that work may have been done decades ago, by archivists who took their personal knowledge of those collections with them when they retired. A researcher can certainly find a source that no current archivist knows about, even if they know the collection exists. Because finding aids almost never include item-level information, a source can be cataloged perfectly and still be completely invisible to archivists.

For example, I was recently in the Library of Congress looking at the papers of Richard Dale. In Box 1, I found, alongside the commissions and appointments that the finding aid said would be there, Richard Dale’s certificate of entrance into the Society of the Cincinnati, signed by George Washington himself. A passing librarian stopped to admire the certificate, and he was surprised to find a document with Washington’s signature on it so easily accessible. (I was too–the last time I looked at documents that included presidential signatures, the archivists had to retrieve them from the vault.) For all intents and purposes, I discovered that certificate. I daresay not one person currently at the Library of Congress knew that document was there.

Richard Dale’s certificate of entrance into the Society of the Cincinnati, October 31, 1785. Library of Congress, Papers of Richard Dale: Commissions and Appointments.

Furthermore, finding aids are an imperfect mechanism. Things get put in the wrong place. On a research trip to the National Archives once, I found in a box labeled “Charts of the Mediterranean” several schematic diagrams of the torpedo damage to a vessel called Terpsichore. There was no identifying information on those schematics, and they couldn’t be related to the charts of the Mediterranean (torpedos weren’t a thing till years after the dates on the charts). I still don’t know the significance of the Terpsichore, but my experience is a perfect example of “stumbling across” something that no archivist could have been able to point me to unless they had personally accessioned it.

Schematic of torpedo damage to the Terpsichore. National Archives, Charts of the Mediterranean.

Again, I am not saying that researchers should unadvisedly claim they’ve found something lost–I too get annoyed when people overstate their discoveries. A fully described item in an online catalog cannot be described as lost. Something an archivist showed a researcher in person is not lost. Those instances are not discoveries of those sources, though perhaps they are fresh realizations of the source’s significance. But we need to stop reflexively saying that researchers can’t make discoveries. Just because we know where the Titanic sank doesn’t mean that discovering its wreck is any less of an accomplishment. Give archivists credit for doing their job; but give researchers credit for doing theirs too.

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