Nota Bene: If You 'Discover' Something in an Archive, It's Not a Discovery

Says one curator, "I wish there were more articles headlined 'Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!' "

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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.

In the case of the recent press on the Leale report, the report had not yet been catalogued, cutting off discovery for ordinary researchers searching with finding aids and online catalogues. It's very possible, of course, with the volume of material that archives hold, for a particular professional to not know exactly what the repository holds. This is because archivists catalogue not at "item level," a description of every piece of paper, which would take millennia, but at "collection level," a description of the shape of the collection, who owned it, and what kinds of things it contains. With the volume of materials, some collections may be undescribed or even described wrongly. 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. 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 happens all the time, this discourse of amazing discoveries in the archives. On Monday, the New York Times reported on a "discovery" at Rutgers of lab notebooks that solved a longstanding mystery about credit for the discovery of streptomycin. The notebooks were in a box that came in with a scientist's papers, and had not been opened recently. The archivist who found them was "thrilled but not surprised," said the Times. The materials are amazing, but their discoveries are not.

"It's important to remember," said my colleague John Overholt, a rare-book and manuscript curator at the Houghton Library at Harvard, "that in most cases what's termed an archival 'discovery' was possible only because of the years or decades of effort a repository invested in arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to the materials in its care.

"That work," he continued, "is indispensable to the research process, and I hate to see it devalued for the sake a more exciting narrative. I wish there were more articles headlined 'Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!' "

Here's hoping for more opportunities to celebrate the amazing things easily found in archives.

Editor's Note: Helena Iles Papaioannou, the researcher responsible for digging up the Surgeon General's report of Lincoln's assassination, has responded to this essay with her own, "Actually, Yes It Is a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There." It can be found here.