There’s an interesting story over at The Atlantic which discusses the important role that cataloging and archival description play in historical research. The example is a recently discovered report to the Surgeon General from Charles Leale about his treatment of Abraham Lincoln after he was shot. A few weeks ago a researcher named Helen Papaioannou discovered the report while combing a collection of correspondence to the Surgeon General looking for materials related to Lincoln for a project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The Atlantic piece boldly declares in its title:

If You ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s Not a Discovery.

Then it goes on to heap accolades on the silent archivists toiling away for centuries, that made the report possible to find. I’ve done my fare share of cataloging, and put in enough time working with EAD finding aids to enjoy the pat on the back. But something about the piece struck me as odd, and it took a bit of reading of the announcement of the discovery, and listening to a NPR interview with Papaioannou to put my finger on it.

It’s very possible, of course, with the volume of material that archives hold, for a particular professional to not know exactly what the repository holds. This is because archivists catalogue not at “item level,” a description of every piece of paper, which would take millennia, but at “collection level,” a description of the shape of the collection, who owned it, and what kinds of things it contains. With the volume of materials, some collections may be undescribed or even described wrongly. But if anyone thought that a report to the Surgeon General from a physician who saw Lincoln post-assassination existed, they might have looked through these correspondence files – which is exactly what the researcher, Helen Papaioannou, did. The exciting part about the Leale report is not that it was rescued from a “dusty archives” (an abhorrent turn of phrase!) but that since it’s now catalogued, everyone who wants to find it can.

Papaioannou’s own account is a bit more nuanced though:

Well, the record group I was currently searching was the records of the Office of the Surgeon General. And I was looking through his letters received, and I was in the L’s. And I was going through 1865, so I - since Lincoln died in 1865. I was almost finished with L and there it was, sitting right in the middle of a box.

This account makes it sound more like she was combing various record groups looking for correspondence from Lincoln, and accidentally ran across a letter from Leale, that was filed nearby…and she happened to notice that it was about Lincoln, and subsequently that the documents existence was not known. So Papaioannou didn’t suspect that the report to the Surgeon General existed, and go searching for it. She was instead examining various record groups for any correspondence from Lincoln, and was alert enough to notice something as she was moving through the collection. And most importantly she recognized that the document was not known to the historical community: the all important context, that is not completely knowable by any individual cataloger or archivist. At least that’s how I’m reading it.

Saying that there is no discovery in libraries and archives, because all the discovery has been pre-coordinated by librarians and archivists is putting the case for the work we do too strongly. It doesn’t give enough credit to the acts of discovery and creativity that library users like Papaioannou perform, and which our institutions depend on. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the lines that divide the historian and the archivist are more or less semi-permeable, especially since what is historic research gets archived itself, and archivists end up doing their own flavor of historical research when documenting the provenance of a collection. If we care about the future of libraries and archives we need to not only pat ourselves on the back for the work we do, but we need to recognize and appreciate the real work that goes on inside our buildings and on our websites.

And yes it’s great that the letter is now cataloged for re-discovery. But even better (for me) was that I was able to read the Atlantic piece, do some searches, and then go and listen to an interview with Papaioannou, and read the announcement from the Lincoln Library which includes a transcription of the actual letter.

…and then go and update the Wikipedia entry for Charles Leale to include information about the (very real) discovery of the letter.

Hopefully it won’t get reverted :-)