Assessment / Processing / Research / Robert Van Nice

Discovery in the Archives

We were all interested in a recent series of articles that appeared in the Atlantic discussing the possibility of true “discovery” in archives.  In the first article, found here, Suzanne Fischer expresses the annoyance many archivists feel when researchers or reporters describe “stumbling upon” items previously “lost” in “dusty corners” of archives.  These particular turns of phrase make for exciting news, but to the archivists who spend their lives carefully cataloging these materials, they can also be misleading.  She quotes John Overholt of Houghton Library at Harvard University as saying: “I wish there were more articles headlined ‘Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!'”

Helena Iles Papaioannou, the researcher whose discovery of a previously unknown medical report of Abraham Lincoln was the focus of Fischer’s article, wrote a very interesting response, which you can find here.  Upon closer inspection, Fischer’s description of Papaioannou’s research turns out to be mostly mistaken or misleading.  Papaioannou does an admirable job of seeking out a middle ground, acknowledging that most items are not “lost” in archives until “rescued” by researchers, but maintaining that there is definitely room for discovery in archival research.

I was thinking about this today as I continued to rearrange the Van Nice materials because of all the new things I’m finding as I go.  Even though I spent six months at least glancing at every single letter, drawing, and photograph in the collection, I’m continuing to notice new items, new trends and patterns, and to refine my sense of the collection as a whole.

While I hope that the work that I’ve put into processing this collection will facilitate future research, I have no doubt whatsoever that when scholars continue to use this collection, many, many new discoveries will be made.

Hollinger boxes, or treasure chests of potential discovery?

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