Found Buried in the Archives!

Every so often, a news article will catch my eye that exclaims “Rare [X] Found Buried in the Archives!”

This headline is misleading for two reasons.

  1. Archives are not like mines, where things sort of magically come up out of the earth, or scholars must literally “dig” for them.
  2. The [X] wasn’t found or discovered. It was already found several years before by archivists, where it was preserved and placed in carefully stable conditions so that it may never be destroyed.

Archivists usually get bent out of shape about these headlines, but I feel like it may be time for a deep dive into why we feel so strongly. As an archivist who uses her own archives for research, I will try to explain.

One reason this pulls so negatively on archivists’ emotions is because though many of us have training in historical research, we are often discouraged from doing any research in our own collections beyond what is strictly necessary to help a future user navigate the collections. And so, we tend to fall into the background, listed as “the staff.” To use yesterday’s example of the “long unseen H.G. Wells ghost story”,  the librarian was, as far as I know, never interviewed for the story. This happens a lot–it happens nearly 100% of the time these stories are published, actually. The man who “discovered” the manuscript, however, said “It’s one thing to publish something where 15 people on Earth know about it, but it’s another thing to publish something where it’s just me and the librarian and H.G. Wells.”  He mentions the librarian, but the journalist never interviews them. There is an implied recrimination: why bother interviewing the person who *missed* this vital piece of material for so many years? That person couldn’t even be bothered to know about it! (whether or not journalists really think this way is almost irrelevant; this is what archivists and librarians think when something like this happens)

But that’s the crux of the issue: archival practice lies in organization, description, and providing access. We do not have time to also be the subject expert on every collection we preserve. In a case like the University of Illinois, this is especially true, because they have thousands of manuscript collections, and many, many famous authors and politicians and thinkers are represented. Can one person know everything about all of those people? No, of course not.

Scholars are supposed to come in and do research on collections. That’s how the system works–archivists save things, and the scholars come later to try to pick out the juicy bits or to glean some new insight from the materials at hand, and then tell the world. We welcome scholars, and scholars are usually very lovely towards their archivists, because inevitably, the archivist shows them a new treasure that they never would have seen without the archivist’s help. I imagine that is what happened at Illinois: the scholar came in, wanted to look through Wells’ archives for something (who knows what it could have been, perhaps an unedited manuscript), and the librarian says “oh, you know what? You should check out these boxes of draft manuscripts, I think there are some early ones in there.” And voile, the scholar has “discovered” a manuscript that was never published. But the people who preserved it for all that time don’t seem to warrant a mention in the journalist’s story, probably because “well-preserved draft manuscript given to publisher” is a really uninteresting headline. This kind of thing leads to frustration in archival circles, because it demeans our work, at best conveying us as secretaries and at worst conveying us as absentee landlords who don’t care about our own collections.

Here at University of Houston-Downtown, I’m lucky, because no one does any historical research on our university (yet! I think we have a lot of interesting stories that inform a much greater narrative of “higher-education-for-all” that blossomed throughout the 70s,80s, and 90s. Eventually we’ll see more interest in our story). So I get to do all the research to frame the story, to generate interest in our institution and its accomplishments. Which gives me more ability to advocate for my own worth, as well. But most archivists are not in that role–their job is explicitly *not* to do research, because that is someone else’s job, for better or worse. Does that mean that they don’t know of the existence of interesting collections or artifacts? No.They know very well what they have. But they don’t write books about it, they preserve and create access, for the right person to come along and show interest. That doesn’t mean things are lost. In fact, if they are “found” in an archives, they were never lost at all. We should feel grateful for that.