Is it Lost in the Archives?: Discovery Myths and Archival Labor

Every so often in the news we hear about an important document that was previously unknown and discovered in the archives. Beginning in 2012, The Atlantic ran two pieces about one such example: The Leale Report. This is a perfect case to examine for making archival labor transparent and looking at several myths in the process.

Suzanne Fischer’s “Nota Bene: If you ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, it’s not a Discovery,” responds directly to the discovery of the Leale Report.1 At the National Archives, a researcher encountered 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.”2 The report was filed alphabetically under “L,” corresponding to “Leale,” amongst a box of correspondence sent to the Surgeon General. Fischer wrote that the report itself had not been catalogued, therefore unsearchable. However, because the collection was processed, the report was “right where it was supposed to be.”3 She makes the point that archivists do not always catalog every individual item, and in lieu, opt for describing a whole collection’s contents at a broader level in a finding aid. This carries the logic that since the item is in a collection that has been processed and described, it does not qualify as a discovery.

Meme illustrating how finding aids help users locate seemingly hidden documents
I made this meme to illustrate that our labor arranges and renders collections searchable. We really hope nothing would ever be physically lost!

To dig deeper into this case, it’s important to understand finding aids. Finding aids are an organizational tool that archivists create to document important contextual information and metadata about an archival collection.4 In a finding aid, we describe the general contents of a collection, from subject content to the different types of records within. This is also the place where we show how a collection is arranged. In larger collections, there could be hundreds of boxes and thousands of documents. A finding aid helps researchers parse through large quantities of information by showing how a collection is structured by different series, subseries, folders, and items. Finding aids can describe a collection down to the item-level, but every collection is processed at different hierarchical levels. Catalog entries for books provide similar information to finding aids, but the primary difference is that a catalog entry contains information about a single book. A finding aid provides information about a group of records as a constituent whole. 

Finding aid for the Paul A.M. Dirac Papers at FSU Special Collections & Archives.
This is an example of one of our finding aids. You can see Information about the collection on the left, and its organization in the drop-down menu on the right.

With this in mind, how did the researcher locate the report? Fischer theorized that if a researcher could reason that a medical report on Lincoln was created and sent to the Surgeon General, that they could think to look in the correspondence where the Leale Report was situated.5 Helena Papaioannou, the researcher that encountered the report, disagrees in her rebuttal: “Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There.”6 She offers two points. First, that she was unaware of its existence, therefore not actively looking for it. Second, that the report is not a letter, therefore conflicting with its location in a box of correspondence. Papaioannou goes on to say that if an item is unknown in recent memory, it surely qualifies as a discovery when found.7

There are two “myths” that get at the heart of the Leale Report:

  1. Archivists know about every single record in their repository.
  2. Archives are a place to discover lost pieces of history.

The first one is easy to settle: Busted! There’s simply no way for every archivist to look at every single record in every single collection. Archivists describe collections as a whole because it would take too much time otherwise. Finding aids help archivists just as much as they help researchers. 

I’d caution for the second to pay attention to the context and not the headlines.

There’s a significant amount of labor that goes into processing a collection, creating a finding aid, and ensuring that those collections are searchable and easy to navigate for researchers. From the time we receive a collection to the moment it’s searchable online, there are often many people that contribute to that process: In our case, faculty, full-time, and part-time staff comprising in part undergraduate and graduate students. In many cases, a document will be “exactly where it’s supposed to be” that was made possible by combined labor. An example: Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, a short story by Sylvia Plath thought to be discovered at the moment was published for the first time in 2019.8 However, it had not been “languishing” in the archives as suggested by a Vox article.9 Archivists preserved it and scholars have researched and written about it before its recent discovery and publication.10 

Yet, if we keep Papaioannou’s point in mind about memory, it’s quite possible that something that was previously known about became “lost” in an abstract sense. Finding aids aren’t immune to scrutiny; describing archives should be thought about as a continuing process. A finding aid created years ago may not accurately and successfully describe a collection in a contemporary context. Sometimes having specific subject knowledge and experience with similar types of records helps researchers locate what they need and the same goes for archivists when they determine what might be of value for a researcher to examine. Moreover, many of the discoveries we hear about have to do with the significance of a record when examined against accepted historical truths. It would be wrong to erase the labor of the researcher that is placing documents into a different context to produce new knowledge. Perhaps its more accurate to rephrase our second myth: Archives are a place to make intellectual discoveries.

To browse our different archival collections online, visit our finding aids database ArchivesSpace: https://archives.lib.fsu.edu/.

While direct access to physical collections is unavailable at this time due to Covid-19, we hope to resume in-person research when it is safe to do so, and Special Collections & Archives is still available to assist you remotely with research and instruction. Please get in touch with us via email at: lib-specialcollections@fsu.edu. For a full list of our remote services, please visit our services page.

References

  1. Suzanne Fischer, “Nota Bene: If You ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s Not a Discovery,” June 21, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/nota-bene-if-you-discover-something-in-an-archive-its-not-a-discovery/258538/.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Finding Aid,” accessed April 8, 2021, https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/finding-aid.html.
  5. Suzanne Fischer, “Nota Bene: If You ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s Not a Discovery,” June 21, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/nota-bene-if-you-discover-something-in-an-archive-its-not-a-discovery/258538/.
  6. Helena Iles Papaioannou, “Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There,” July 17, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/actually-yes-it-is-a-discovery-if-you-find-something-in-an-archive-that-no-one-knew-was-there/258812/.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Bethany Anderson, “Sylvia Plath’s New Short Story Was Never ‘Lost’ – so Why Is the Media Saying It Was ‘Just Discovered’?,” The Conversation, July 31, 2020, https://theconversation.com/sylvia-plaths-new-short-story-was-never-lost-so-why-is-the-media-saying-it-was-just-discovered-110329?fbclid=IwAR27mKppcJzJpC8Vs4Xc9vgMAvKfl5n6bNKUruknnORv4WDhCh5o3BXFv1c.
  9. Constance Grady, “Sylvia Plath Wrote This Short Story in 1952. It’s Now out in Print for the First Time.,” Vox (Vox, January 22, 2019), https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/1/22/18188354/sylvia-plath-mary-ventura-and-the-ninth-kingdom-review.
  10. Bethany Anderson, “Sylvia Plath’s New Short Story Was Never ‘Lost’ – so Why Is the Media Saying It Was ‘Just Discovered’?,” The Conversation, July 31, 2020, https://theconversation.com/sylvia-plaths-new-short-story-was-never-lost-so-why-is-the-media-saying-it-was-just-discovered-110329?fbclid=IwAR27mKppcJzJpC8Vs4Xc9vgMAvKfl5n6bNKUruknnORv4WDhCh5o3BXFv1c.

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