Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There

The researcher responsible for digging a report of Lincoln out of an archive responds to a recent Atlantic essay about her find.

The researcher responsible for digging a report of Lincoln out of an archive responds to a recent Atlantic essay about her find.


I am the researcher for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Helena Iles Papaioannou, who discovered the report on the assassination of President Lincoln that Suzanne Fischer discussed in her article "Nota Bene: If You 'Discover' Something in an Archive, It's Not a Discovery" here on The Atlantic earlier this week. I would like to offer a few words of clarification.

Fischer suggests that I could have surmised the existence of this report and thus looked in the logical place to find it. ("But if anyone thought that a report to the Surgeon General from a physician who saw Lincoln post-assassination existed, they might have looked through these correspondence files -- which is exactly what the researcher, Helena Papaioannou, did.") This is inaccurate on two counts. First, I had no idea that the report existed. No one, or at least no one alive today, knew that a copy of Leale's report was in the records of the Surgeon General. I did not, therefore, seek to pinpoint the report's location. (I would not have been looking for such a document anyway: it does not technically fall within the scope of the project I am working on, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, as we deal with documents to and by -- not about -- Lincoln.) Second, it is not obvious that such a report would be filed in a "Letters Received" series. It is not a letter and therefore may well have been filed on receipt with a different series of the Surgeon General's records.

As a trained archivist myself (I have an MLS specializing in archives, records, and information management), I wholeheartedly agree with Fischer about the central importance of the work of archivists in acquiring, preserving, arranging, describing, and making available historically important documents. The success of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and of all historical scholarship would be hard to imagine without the excellent work of archivists. I can only concur with the sentiment that their crucial role deserves more public recognition, which I took to be the point of Fischer's article. Nevertheless, as Fischer acknowledges, documents in most repositories are not processed at the item level. Archivists do not look at every piece of paper in their holdings. This is especially true in a repository as large and expansive as the National Archives. No archivist knew that the Leale report was in the Records of the Surgeon General because no item-level processing had taken place. It would be inappropriate to characterize a document known by an archivist as a "discovery," but no archivist knew of this report's existence.

I respectfully disagree with Fischer's definition of a discovery. The title of the article suggests it is impossible for a researcher to make an archival discovery. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is dedicated to identifying, imaging, and publishing all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime. We have located a number of documents previously unknown to the repository holding them. These are discoveries, in that they add to the corpus of documents that are known by scholars. Fischer states that "a 19th-century professional knew about the Leale report and decided that, as a part of the Surgeon General's correspondence, it was worth keeping in the nation's collections." There is no evidence of this active decision-making taking place. A clerk in the Surgeon General's office filed the report, as they did all other incoming correspondence. On transfer to the National Archives (after the agency's creation in 1934) an archivist may have deemed the entire "Letters Received" series worth keeping, but it's highly unlikely an appraisal decision was made of any particular document.

Furthermore, by Fischer's logic of only considering the very beginning of the report's existence, absolutely nothing created by anyone in history can be subsequently discovered. The tomb of Tutankhamen was not, by this definition, "discovered" in 1922 because those who built the tomb in the 1300s BC knew it was there. Surely if someone uncovers something unknown in living memory (or in the historiographical record) this counts as a discovery.

Finally, Fischer asserts that "the exciting part about the Leale report is not that it was rescued from a 'dusty archive' (an abhorrent turn of phrase!) but that since it's now catalogued, everyone who wants to find it can." This indicates that Fischer herself believes that, at best, the report was difficult to locate prior to my discovering it (I would go a step further: no one knew it existed, so how to locate it was beside the point). I concur with Fischer that the Leale report -- which was not buried in a "dusty archive" but preserved in the sophisticated facilities at the National Archives -- needed no "rescuing." But until this past May it was unknown to researchers or anyone else.

This work of making available unknown documents is a part of the mission of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln. Precisely because archivists cannot possibly know the entire contents of their repositories, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is systematically searching at the item-level. This work proceeds in order to uncover and catalog Lincoln documents and make them freely available to researchers. There is no doubt that the work of archivists, especially those at the National Archives, is fundamental in enabling us to conduct our search. This is usually because of the preservation, arrangement, and description of holdings archivists undertake, not because of item-level cataloging. Moreover, the Leale report is not, to the best of my knowledge, now cataloged. I can provide a citation to any interested researcher over email. The report is also available digitally on our website.