Says one curator, "I wish there were more articles headlined 'Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!' "
Commodore Gandalf Cunningham/Flickr
A few weeks ago, an important document was discovered after more than a century of neglect. It was a medical report on President Lincoln, sent to the Surgeon General by Charles Leale, the first doctor to arrive at Ford's Theatre after Lincoln was shot. This report, said scholars and pundits, could change the way we think about those harrowing days after Lincoln's assassination, when an unsettled country kept a deathbed vigil.
So where was this document found? Was it in a suitcase in the attic of Dr. Leale's great-great-great-great granddaughter? Well, no, it was at the National Archives. Was it in a warped metal filing cabinet down a neglected set of stairs labeled "Beware of the Leopard"? No, it was in a box of other incoming correspondence to the Surgeon General, filed alphabetically under "L" for Leale. In short, this document that had been excavated from the depths of the earth with great physical effort was right where it was supposed to be.
When I'm doing archival research and I find an important letter or pamphlet, slipped prosaically into an acid-free file folder among other, less interesting items, I feel like I've discovered a new world. But those documents made it to the archives because a professional made an appraisal choice to acquire, preserve and provide access to them. 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.