J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Discovery in the Archives—What Does That Mean?

I’m hoping to visit Britain’s National Archives this week, so it seems like a good time to note this interesting blog post from Jo Pugh, on staff there, about what it means to “discover” documents in an archive:

In January of this year, the Guardian reported that a researcher had ‘chanced’ upon unpublished letters by Mary Shelley. The researcher called it ‘a lucky find’ but their luck was a matter of preparation meeting opportunity: the letters were in Essex Record Office and had been spotted online (the Guardian called it ‘an unpromising website’ which is just mean). The implication was that this was discovery via Google. Again the comments were lively: ‘funny sort of “discovery” when the letters were in a public record office, have been catalogued by an archivist, and put in an online search engine’, wrote Technopeasant. ‘This was catalogued and described and ready for the researcher without any particular effort. Any credit for “discovery” goes to the archivist’, insisted Kate 2468.

But I don’t agree. What lost cities and found documents have in common is that someone other than their creators (or residents) comes to understand that they exist. Joshua Ranger has suggested a thing ‘cannot be lost if no one is missing it’ and went as far as to argue that tales of ‘discovery’ harm the archival profession because they imply we’re not doing our jobs. This seems rather alarmist. Does interest and excitement cause harm? The implication in his argument is that if archivists weren’t goofing off drinking tea and building state of the art digital preservation environments we’d see to it that everything could be found, is permanently available and then nothing would be discovered.

I have to say that this thought depresses me. The day all collections are completely digitised (to do this in Europe would cost billions so I’m not panicked) will be simultaneously cool and a bit dull. But it won’t stop discovery because discovery is an intellectual process. People will still find new knowledge in collections even if they aren’t physically discovering new documents. Because it isn’t objects, documents or films which change, it is our state of knowledge about them. This is true of a lot of discovery – gravity was working perfectly well before Isaac Newton noticed it.
Back in 2011, I was happy to refer to my finding a broadside that matched the description of what was in Christopher Seider’s pocket when he died as a “discovery.” Of course it was a discovery for me since I’d been looking for such a document for years. As N.B.C. used to advertise their Friends reruns in the 1990s, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!”

But of course the existence of that document wasn’t a discovery to whatever fine archivist had examined and accurately catalogued it. I made that point last year in regard to an unpublished poem by Jupiter Hammon that a professor “discovered” by having his students ask university librarians for available information on Jupiter Hammon manuscripts.

So what can constitute a widely significant “discovery” of a properly catalogued document? I think it lies in such a document’s historical significance. Of course, that significance might be debatable. And the distinction between discovering a document and spotlighting its importance can easily be lost in university press releases or news reports.

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