Response from I&A Poll Discovery or Not?

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:

Discovery results

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?

There Will Be No Digital Dark Age

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Bertram Lyons addressing the alleged “Digital Dark Age.” If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email

[Update: Eira Tansey, from SAA’s Records Management Roundtable has written a response to this piece.]

On January 4, 2016, NPR published a story, “Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?”, with the tagline: “We are awash in a sea of information, but how do historians sift through the mountain of data? In the future, computer programs will be unreadable, and therefore worthless, to historians.”[1]

As is often the case with news media, there is a noticeable absence in the way the story is framed. Read the tagline again. What is missing? It seems that the journalist ignores the fact that historians[2] have intermediaries called archivists who not only select and aggregate data for the future but who have also been heavily engaged in the question of digital preservation and digital acquisition since at least the 1980s.[3] We, as archivists, are not absent, and have not been absent from the action.[4] We are, however, hidden in the public narrative. This not being the first time that I felt frustrated to see archivists (and our sibling professions) left out of the conversation, I left a note on the NPR comment page for the article:

“Hi Eric. This is a nice story. Something we need to remember, and that did not come across in your story, is that this is an issue that archives, libraries, museums, funding agencies (IMLS, NEH, NSF), and many, many others have dedicated decades of time and millions of dollars into researching, responding to, and developing methods to prevent such a digital dark age. Nothing in your report is news to any practicing records managers, archivists, cultural heritage collection managers, librarians, or any others whose responsibility it is to take care of historical and informational documentation. It is great that NPR is promoting this issue, but please do not promote the issue as if only a few prophet-like or savior-like individuals are involved. From NASA to the Smithsonian, from Harvard to Indiana University, from the Internet Archive to the British Library, there is an army of practitioners working on this problem—and it will take an army, not just a few, to ensure we carry our digital information with us into the future. But we will succeed, just as we succeeded in previous generations by amassing an army of librarians to carry our books with us, and an army of museologists to carry our artifacts.”

I really am not sure how many people this comment reached. Maybe no more than 30 if I had to make a guess. But that is not the real point of this post. The point is not about my small response to this one report on NPR. One of the points I hope to make has already been stated: We are not and have not been absent from the digital preservation questions. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative. From emerging efforts to improve social media data collection activities such as Documenting the Now[5] to decade-old web archiving programs such as the Internet Archive; from the ePADD email analysis project at Stanford University[6] to the enduring work of the Digital Preservation Management Workshops and Tutorials,[7] as well as the Digital POWRR project;[8] from LOCKSS and CLOCKSS networks to the continued outreach of the NDSA; from the forensic methodologies applied in the archives domain via the BitCurator project[9] to the millions of hours audiovisual archivists the world over have already put into the process of avoiding the never-mentioned magnetic dark age;[10] the list of archive-based digital preservation and documentation initiatives goes on. Seriously, the list of projects and research alone could fill an archive, not to mention the enormous amount of actual digital content collected, selected, and processed each day by archivists, librarians, museum professionals, records managers, and many others in the collecting domains around the world. We are there, we are doing the work, we will continue to do the work, and we, most of all, must continue to communicate about our digital preservation work outside of the walls of the archive profession.[11]

However, even a few weeks into the future, I would argue with myself about the comment I made on the NPR site. I did not go far enough to address the important topics of selection and appraisal, nor the complexity of who collects and selects the documentation that will persist into the future. Which leads to the other point I hope to make in the context of a digital dark age: the concepts of selection and agency to collect are more salient today than the fear of lost bits. We critique the contents of archives today — the absences, the presences — because, as archivists, we know that appraisal and selection matter. Even as, today, we ask important questions about how these activities should change — focusing on what is selected for the archive and by whom, and to be stored where and for how long — we ask these questions to improve the effect archives and archivists can have on society, to reveal assumptions and biases in the practice of archives, and, in turn, to affect change within the archives profession itself.

The digital dark age will not happen in the way that the media predict it. We should not be blinded by a fear of the inability to ensure persistence of digital information. As I mentioned above, it is obvious that as a profession (and as part of larger communities) we are engaged in the technical solutions to that issue.[12] If we have any digital dark age, it will manifest, as has been the case in the past with other forms of information, as a silence within the archive, as a series of gaping holes where groups of individuals and communities are absent because there was no path into the archive for them,[13] where important social events go undocumented because we were not prepared to act quickly enough, and where new modalities for communication are not planned for. The digital dark age will only happen if we, as communities of archives and archivists, do not reimagine appraisal and selection in light of the historical gaps revealed in collections today.

It is the digital-ness of today’s world that may actually allow archives to reach out to and to document (or to support self-documentation of) the enormity and complexity of society in a way that has never been feasible before.[14]

Bertram Lyons is a Certified Archivist and senior consultant with AVPreserve, where he specializes in digital asset management, digital preservation strategy, digital repository development, and in the acquisition, management, and preservation of documentary, research, and cultural heritage collections.

 For fourteen years Bert has worked as an archivist for extensive archives, first at the Alan Lomax Archive and most recently at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, where he developed tools, policies, and partnerships around the development and management of analog and digital archival collections. His recent activities include the implementation of digital risk assessment standards in the assessment of digital preservation environments; development of digital collections management workflows, tools, and policies (including a new tool, Exactly); the design and implementation of a nation-wide, EAD-compliant, multi-user online cataloging platform for folklore collections, a project sponsored by the American Folklore Society and hosted at Indiana University; the design, development, and implementation of the U.S. International Standard Music Number (ISMN) web application for the Music Division at the Library of Congress, the U.S. ISMN agency; as well as the development of a collaborative workflow system for the congressionally mandated U.S. Civil Rights History Project, a born-digital oral-history partnership between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

 Bert is active nationally and internationally with professional archival organizations such as the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (Member of the Executive Board and Editor of IASA publications) and the Society of American Archivists (Chair of the Membership Committee). He has also received certification from the Academy of Certified Archivists and is a graduate of the Archives Leadership Institute. He holds a MA in museum studies with a focus in American studies and archival theory from the University of Kansas.

Bert is also an associate lecturer in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches Archive Appraisal & Theory, Digital Curation, and Web & Social Media Archiving. He will be serving as a new SAA DAS faculty member in 2016, teaching an introductory course on command line scripting for archive workflows.

[1] Retrieved from, 2016-04-27.

[2] Actually, many who write “history” today are heavily engaged in digital archaeology or digital humanities and, themselves, have the skills and capacity to reconstitute abandoned and/or obsolete data formats.

[3] An easy example is this list of the writings of David Bearman, stretching back into the 1970s, actually:, or Jennifer Trant, beginning in the 1980s, Really the list could go on and on.

[4] I have to thank Ed Summers ( for the reminder to revisit the excellent work of David Rosenthal on the question of the digital dark age:

[5] Read more:

[6] Read more:

[7] Read more:

[8] Read more:

[9] Read more:

[10] You know why? Because archivists.

[11] And, of course, there are many examples of this activity ongoing today, including efforts surrounding personal digital archiving, digital humanities and other academic collaborations, and research data management programs.

[12] We do need to continue to broadcast these efforts beyond the profession, however.

[13] Or there was no repositioning of an archive that exists within their bounds, within their control.

[14] I mentioned Documenting the Now previously in this post, but this is an excellent example of a combined  technological and ideological approach to address the absence of voices and experiences that have long been silent in the archive by refocusing collecting agency, reinforcing ethics and privacy, and redefining the archival record.

Historical and Contemporary Thefts of Lincolniana

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Bryan Whitledge that first appeared on the Society of American Archivists Security Roundtable listserv on February 12, 2016 about current and historical thefts from historical institutions. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series, please email

Today is the 207th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It also marks two months since a plaster sculpture of Lincoln’s hand by George Grey Barnard went missing from a Kankakee, Illinois museum. The story made national headlines, including a New York Times piece from January 3. As the museum director noted, the security in the little museum was far from ideal due to budget constraints. This isn’t the first time that Lincoln-related materials have gone missing, including other sculptures.

In 1890, sculptor Leonard Volk reported that his own cast of Lincoln’s left hand was stolen, he believed with malicious intent. Volk was using the casts as a model for a Life statue of Lincoln at the time. A little over 100 years later, in 1992, the Glessner House Museum in Chicago had bronze castings of Volk’s 1860 lifemask and hands taken in what appeared to be an after-hours, insider job. A week later, the casts were returned to the Glessner House entrance anonymously in the middle of the night.

As for documents, there have been numerous instances of Lincoln papers being stolen. In no particular order, these include:

1)      Signed Lincoln letters among $5 million worth of materials taken from the Chicago Polish Museum at some point years ago in an insider job and returned in 2012,

2)      Documents taken from the National Archives by Charles Merrill Mount around 1984-87, which were recovered in 1987 after Goodspeed’s shop in Boston alerted authorities,

3)      Nearly 200 documents stolen between 1993 and 1996 by Sean Brown, a researcher involved with the Lincoln Legal Papers Project who gained the confidence of various municipal archives and surreptitiously stole the documents. The theft was discovered by other members of the Lincoln Legal Papers Project who recognized documents when they were purchased at auction. More documents were recovered in 1998,

4)      And, several Civil War documents returned to NARA in 2011 that had been stolen from War Department archives before the establishment of the National Archives.

The value of Lincoln-related materials means that institutions large and small, all over the country have been victims of theft for the past 150 years. With this large number of thefts concerning Lincolniana, today is a good day for us to think about what it means to protect our collections. It’s also a good day to think about how archivists, historians, dealers, and other professionals have been instrumental in returning the documents to their institutions.

And for those more inclined to celebrate Darwin’s birthday instead of Lincoln’s on February 12, there are plenty of cautionary tales involving Darwin materials such as the Transy book heist in 2004 and a case in Nova Scotia of a returned “On the Origin of Species” last year.

Bryan Whitledge is the Reformatting and Imaging Manager at the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. He is the co-chair of the Security Roundtable.