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Madhu Narayan


February 1, 2013

On Archival “discoveries”: What does it mean?

February 1, 2013 | By | No Comments

In June 2012, The Atlantic published an article by Suzanne Fischer titled “Nota Bene: If you ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s not a Discovery.” []. Fischer wrote the article in the aftermath of the publication of the Leale Report. Briefly, Charles Leale was the Surgeon-General when President Abraham Lincoln was shot. He was the first doctor to arrive on the scene after the shooting. His report of the shooting was found by Helena Iles Papaioannou, a researcher who has been working on a project titled “The Papers of Abraham Lincoln.” The Leale Report has the potential to change the way historians write about the days following Lincoln’s assassination.

Fischer’s contention is interesting: the Leale report was “discovered” by researchers within the National archives because “(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.” For Fischer, nothing can be “discovered” in an archive because it has already been found by an archivist who then makes materials available to researchers. She further points out that, given the scope and volume of the collections under their care, it would be difficult for archivists to know every minute item contained within a particular collection. Archivists, she explains, describe materials not at the item-level, but at the level of the collection. Such collection-level description gives us an idea of the “shape of the collection, who owned it, and what kinds of things it contains.” She also adds that “with the volume of materials, some collections may be undescribed or even described wrongly.” Fischer ends her piece by adding that “archival discoveries” quiet often depend on the labor of archivists and that researchers should be willing to acknowledge this labor rather than “devalue” it for the “sake of an exciting narrative.”

Two days later, The Atlantic published a rebuttal by Helena Iles Papaioannou titled: “Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There.” []. Papaioannou argues that while she is cognizant of the important work done by archivists, it does not mean researchers cannot make archival discoveries. As she puts it: “if someone uncovers something unknown in living memory (or in the historiographical record) this counts as a discovery.” Since archivists do not process everything at the item-level, they did not know of the existence of the Leale report. Papaioannou concedes that while it would be inappropriate to call something a discovery if an archivist knew of its existence, in the instance of the Leale Report, this was not the case. She also points out that there is no evidence that a 19th century archivist actively made the decision to preserve the Leale Report since it is likely that the National Archives received the document as part of the Surgeon-General’s entire correspondence. Instead, what is more likely is that all of the Surgeon-General’s letters were kept and the Leale Report was simply one among those letters. Lastly, Papaioannou also points out that since the Leale Report was not cataloged in any of the National Archives’ finding aids, it was entirely unknown to researchers. Thus, the finding of the Leale report indeed qualifies as an archival discovery.

I see good arguments being made by both writers: on the one hand, Fischer is calling out the conceit of discovery. The idea of “discovery” has often been used to justify colonial conquests and erase the existence of people and knowledge that existed before those conquests. I see vestiges of the same attitude towards archival discoveries: it negates the labor of archivists and glorifies the labor of the historian or researcher. Archives are often seen as “unchartered” territory for researchers to discover or illuminate through their work. On the other hand, there is some weight to Papaioannou’s argument as well: something can be discovered if no one knows of its existence. On a fundamental level, however, I see this as a debate about archival context versus historical context. As Joan Schwartz (2006) has pointed out, what is deemed important by historians may not be as significant to archivists and vice versa. The Leale Report may have just been another letter to the archivists who originally filed it*: it may have been preserved because it supplied information about aspects of Charles Leale’s work as the Surgeon-General. But for the researchers studying the Leale Report in the context of the life and death of Abraham Lincoln, its significance is amplified in a very different manner.

In the context of this discussion, I am wondering what it means to “discover” something in a digital context? Under what circumstances can something be called a “discovery” whilst doing digital archival research? How do narratives of digital discoveries silence or make digital labor invisible?


*It should be noted that even though the Leale Report may have been deposited in the National Archives many decades after Charles Leale’s death, it would still not have been possible for the archivists of that period to predict its historical value: so much of history/historiography is about having a long view of the past that is often not available to those archivists who are under immense pressure to appraise and make sense of the large number of documents that flood their workplaces every day.


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