On June 24, 2016, we opened the I&A Poll Discovery or Not? The poll was inspired by two opinion pieces which were dated the previous week but were later pointed out to be from several years ago, regarding whether or not something could be discovered if it was in an archives. The poll remained open through July 1, 2016 and received 83 responses. Of those 83 responses, 19.5% identified as a member of the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable; 46.3% as a member of the Society of American Archivists but not the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable; 28% as an archivist but not a member of the Society of American Archivists; and 6.2% as someone who is not an archivist but wanted to weigh in.
Respondents were asked to read the two pieces and then asked what they thought. They were given four options and the results are as follows:
Respondents were asked if they had any other thoughts to share. Responses have been redacted to remove any potentially identifying information and have not been edited to fix any typos. The responses were:
- There is a comment on each of the stories from an author who claims he cited the very same document in his 2008 book. It was not the original report at NARA, but a copy in a file at Georgetown. That basically refutes the researcher’s claim that “no one knew [it] was there.” But I also think her argument is flawed in general – just because archival collections are not processed to the item level does not mean every item found in that collection is a “discovery.” Perhaps the argument is semantics – based on how someone defines the term discovery. But the original article’s point that these “discoveries” often devalue or exclude the work archivists have done with historical material is an important one. I feel the researcher’s response missed that point.
- Saying that a researcher “discovered” something in the archives is an unethical erasure of the massive amount of labor it takes to manage archives in the first place. Even if a contemporary archivist doesn’t specifically know about one piece of paper in a collection, that shouldn’t negate the labor and efforts of the repository or that one archivist’s predecessors. The records came into the archives because an archivist made the decision that they had enduring value.
- “Discovery” depends on context. If it’s unprocessed or minimally-processed material, then it’s a lot easier for archivists or researchers to feel that thrill of seeing something for the first time in years. Even if the material is processed/described/accessible, if it’s highlighted or put to a new use, that also has the glow of discovery. My kneejerk negative reaction is that popular use of “discovery” also includes processed and described materials being put to perfectly ordinary use (there’s a difference between not CARING that something exists and not KNOWING it exists and/or an innovative way in which it can be used), and tends to disregard the fact that processing archivists discover things every day.
- I agree with the researcher (who is also an archivist) that discoveries can be made and it is not to discount the efforts made by archivists. As a lone arranger archivist myself and under the time constraint of a two-year grant, I know perfectly well that I won’t know everything there is to know about my collection, it spans four generations and my best bet is to get it organized and then catalog what I can so that researchers can at least have a starting point. Archivists often do just make general decisions about a collection without sitting down and reading every item, we look at an envelope perhaps confirm the to and from and then file it where it belongs in the arrangement without ever looking at the actual content. I have even made these types of decisions when it comes to digitization, its time consuming and at times costly, you just choose those series you think most valuable to researchers but never know if one small item in the miscellaneous or another small series could be that one thing that changes a researcher’s whole angle on their topic. So yes, researchers make discoveries and their findings are very valuable to institutions, the public may not recognize the effort put in by the archives staff but those researchers do.
- It seems that archivists have a lot of internal definitions that the general public does not share. I wonder about the broader importance of this issue. It seems that, as researchers’ skills and expectations change with the emergence of digital collections, we might revisit the importance of description. There is no way to describe a collection for every future researcher’s interests, but we do have a responsibility to ensure that description establishes appropriate context rather than assuming that researchers can hit control-f and find the items they require. To me, the issue here is whether we are enabling discovery (in archivists’ parlance) for modern researchers with different expectations and training than those of years past.
- Discovery seems to me to be reliant on the concept of use and observation. I would argue that Columbus “discovered” America for Europe, for example, far more than did the Vikings who arrived there hundreds of years earlier. The former’s efforts resulted in actual change, whereas the latter’s attempts at colonization were scattered and ultimately doomed to failure. In the same way, an item may linger on the shelves for years or decades, but its value is only realized when a researcher or archivist finds it and makes use of it.
- Even in the most well processed collections, archivists make decisions about what they’ll describe. In theory, we strike the perfect balance between brevity and detail that leads the researchers straight to the smoking gun, even if we don’t describe that gun itself. But maybe we don’t. And there are always items in the collections that even the archivist didn’t realize were there. So can the answer be yes and no at the same time? Schrodinger’s Hollinger box? Anything inside is both discovered and not discovered until the box is opened?
- I don’t think the researchers analogy of King Tut’s Tomb holds water. A more acurate analogy would be saying that the tomb was “discovered” it in the 1300’s BC when it was built it is like saying Leland “discovered” the document when he wrote it. But of course in between when Leland wrote the report and when the researcher “discovered” it, there was an archivist at the National Archives who processed it…
- I would say that the situation is nuanced but is also kind of boring and therefore requires less discussion
- There are a lot of different ways we can think about “discovery.” You don’t have to be the first person in living memory to see something to “discover” it. I think “discoveries” are made in the archives all the time–it’s that aha moment, such as when a researcher finds what they were looking for. However, more to the point, archivists cannot necessarily know every single sheet of paper in their repository (although I would not say it is impossible). Even if a researcher finds an item that the archivist was unaware of, the item still falls under the responsibility of the the archivist. Users should be confident that the archivist has “taken care” of the items. I think documentation is a really important factor. Archivists do not have to describe at the item level to gain familiarity with the material and make note (if not in the finding aid, in an accession record or processing notes) of items that might be the most significant to users. Also, I think that archivists should provide means for researchers to comment on their research experiences. We should ask them: did you find what you were looking for? how could we improve our finding aids? did you find any discrepancies between the finding aid and the actual content of the boxes? Since researchers are the ones using the materials, archivists should respect their input and allow them to participate in the process of “describing” archival materials. Maybe then we can fill in some of the gaps and get a better understanding of the materials in our collections.
- the articles in question appear to be from 2012, not a month ago or this week
- I also blame MPLP. And sheer volume of materials. Archivists don’t look at item level. Why can’t this be a “discovery” with mutual shared credit (even, shared “author-ity”). Archivist led researcher to collection. Researcher found item. Neither possible w/o the other
- If we’re not describing collections at the item level, let’s give researchers their due for highlighting discoveries from collections described at the folder/box/series level. If we really think that we’re not missing interesting records when we MPLP a collection, we’re deluding ourselves.
- The original articles were written 4 years ago, not a month ago, but still quite relevant.
- Even if an item is “findable,” the archivist’s knowledge of it doesn’t move it into the public arena as a scholarly/historical resource. It needs to be a partnership of archivist and researcher to save/protect/make available on one side and to explore/spend the time/read the documents/make connections on the other.
- This question is nuanced, but I generally thought the “yes” opinion to be closer to my views. I think it is possible that there are uncatalogued items that no archivist in recent memory knows are there (like the Lincoln report). I also think there are many times when an uncatalogued item is well known by the archivists and is not truly a “discovery” for a researcher. It’s clear that more advocacy about the nature and value of the work that archivists do is needed.
- Perhaps we can liken this to “personal discovery”….i.e. a friend could tell you your book purchases boarder on obsession long before you “discover” that truth when confronted with the bill. Archivist’s set the stage for discovery. It is up to the researcher what to do with that discovery.
- We can’t possibly remember or know what every piece of paper is or says, even if we have come across it in our work. That’s much like saying that a librarian should know what content is on every page in every book in a library’s collection. Plus, our researchers find documents that have been long forgotten and it is a new discovery not only because we located it again but, also because we just located it within this time and place with a different perspective. The analysis of history changes over time depending on new discoveries and someone may have come across a certain document decades earlier; however, there may not have been any well-documented context for it until the recent ‘discovery’.
- From nearly 40 years in the Archives biz I’d say that each person who discovers what he or she had not previously known, well, they’ve made a DISCOVERY! Does publication mean it was previously discovered? Do multiple copies mean it was previously discovered?
- Repositories differ on levels of cataloging and amounts of metadata made available. These differences are often due to funding levels and/or size of the repository. If funding challenges and lack of personnel force archives to not list creator names, describe materials of note, or even make their finding aids public electronically, findability is restricted. Yes, researchers who habe time and funds to make in-depth searches make “discoveries”. But archivists would make more discoveries themselves if afforded the opportunity to catalog in a more detailed way. It’s unfortunate that MPLP often becomes “no product because no process” in lone arranger situations.
- If it’s in an archives, even if unprocessed, someone decided the materials were important & needed to be preserved & cared for. Regardless of the stage of care, it’s presence in an archives makes it accessible & thus findable on some level. If the media & scholars would just acknowledge & understand the scope of what we do across formats & time with extremely limited financial & staffing resources, I don’t think it would rankle so bad when they claim to “discover” a document. These “discoveries” never turn into additional staff or supplies though. Given that they must market themselves & their research to get tenure, I doubt the media hype will change.
- Discoveries can be made by both parties, either working together or separately. Plus, many of our institutions have poorly-described or unprocessed collections that could contain countless treasures.
- It’s naive to think that our esoteric access tools make it obvious or easy for the general public to be aware of the contents of our collections. It can also be reductive and offensive to archivists’ hard work to imply that a document was completely unknown when it simply hadn’t been written about yet. HOWEVER, if the archivists themselves are completely unaware of a document’s existence, for example in the case of folder-level processing where specific contents are not understood, then I do think it can be framed as a discovery. It’s important to still emphasize that the item was well cared for and managed within a collection, not rotting in a forgotten basement.
- Can’t they both me given credit?