Discovery and the Joy of Uncovering the Unbeknown

Geof Huth

A small discovery I made in the archives: Supreme Court of Judicature Sheriff’s Writs for Quackenbush (1795–1799).¹

We find joy in finding. As humans, the discovery of a new and interesting thing snaps us out of our most natural state of sleepwalking through the necessary routines of life. When we find that thing — something we may have been searching for, but also possibly something we had no idea existed — we become alive. Our minds awake. Our bodies feel the excitement of these discoveries via the beat of our hearts, a sudden intake of breath, horripilation along our forearms.

The thing revealed could be anything. In my own life, such events have included the sight — while hiking out of the deep Adirondack woods in the rain after a weekend of camping — of hundreds and hundreds of salamanders, each a bright but mottled orange, that had emerged from their soft moist burrows to enjoy the cool wet rain. Finding, as boy living in Bolivia, perfectly preserved trilobites resting upon the open ground in the high Andes. And, this week, receiving, as a gift in return for a gift from me, a selection of small poetic broadsheets from Hermetic Press — each of them on different papers, set with different letterpress type, and verbally and visually exotic and appealing.

I was, in none of these cases, the creator of these revelations. I did not set up the world so that I could find these. I happened upon them through the course of the accidents I have come to experience over my life. Others had made these or seen these, and even documented these, before me. Yet they suddenly became shuddering epiphanies for me.

Because I had discovered things I was ravished by.

And I want others to find such things through their own accidental lives. I do not want to deprive them of the joys of their discoveries. I want them to be discoverers, even if only of things already discovered by the rest of us.

So let’s think about this in archives terms by starting with a word we have only fairly recently begun to use in a particularly archival sense: discovery

I remember the first time I heard this word used in our particular way. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the source. This was a number of years ago, sometime before the 2000s became the 2010s, and happened when I was working at the New York State Archives. Michelle Arpey — who ran our information services unit, which consisted of archivists who developed the information technology that supported our archives and records management services — told me that archivists had begun to use the term discovery in place of access or finding or other terms we use for this penumbra of concepts. I loved the term, because it was both active and bold. Our patrons were not just searches sort of finding kind of interesting stuff; they were intellectual sleuths discovering information new to them — and also, to be sure, sometimes new to the archivist. More on that last clause in a moment.

In my conceptualization of archives,³ the ultimate purpose of our field is the creation of knowledge.⁴ I also see knowledge as a particularly human attribute. People have knowledge. Records don’t. Books and archives and even artifacts can concretize and store knowledge, but they cannot have it. They cannot know the knowledge that encrusts them. Knowledge, by my thinking, is the primary concern of archivists. We demonstrate this by identifying the recorded knowledge we believe is most important, by making this knowledge easier to discover, and by providing access to that knowledge base through the knowledge we, as humans, create when coming to know the records under our care.

Let me put it this way: Imagine we live in the world of Fahrenheit 451. In that world, our only way to preserve recorded knowledge is to store it within this (flawed) storage device we call the human brain. Since it is our only hope to transfer knowledge to the future, we — as a community — carry out this onerous task to protect our collective memory and to ensure our survival as a thinking species. Eventually, we realize that we live in various human communities, large and small, concentrated and dispersed, and that our only purpose is to better the lives of the citizens of these communities (the largest of which we call Earth). In such a world — which is the world we live in — we humans need stores of knowledge that allow them to create eurekas that can better humanity. We cannot depend on recorded knowledge because it is merely potential knowledge. We need the kinetic knowledge⁵ of humans, a knowledge which weaves together every bit of information inside a human skull to allow that person’s brain to make connections between disparate sets of knowledge that then increase our collective knowledge and better the human family.

That is our purpose. And it is broad and deep and difficult and nearly impossible — so it is what is most worth our effort to achieve.

At this point, we can return to discovery. As we now see, discovery can sometimes be that eureka moment when a person has accumulated enough knowledge and made enough connections among the pieces of that knowledge to make an intellectual breakthrough.⁶ And part of that moment of realization is the discovery of that one record they did not know existed or did not believe they would ever find. The archivist might have found it first, the archivist might even have been the original finder of the record — but neither of us, not the archivist nor the user, was its creator. The creators, not us late-comers, are those who are important. They are the ones who created the knowledge in their heads and then recorded it. We archivists are interlopers into the world of creation — simply appraisers or considerers. We are only rarely creators of the knowledge we purvey.⁷

Because our roles are not as creators, we also experience the joy of discovery. We discover what others have made — during our process of appraisal or afterwards — and we are amazed by the beauty or insights or value we find within the archives. We experience a spark of joy, and it is joy about something we did not create, but one that we connect with. Some of these experiences we expect, such as when we encounter a centrally important document in the papers of a famous writer or scientist we have just accessioned. But some of these experiences are mere surprises. We might open a journal of a nameless woman from the 1800s and find laid out before us a world that has disappeared forever yet rises off the page and into us.

Still, that journal had already existed. The scientist had already written his theorem on string theory. Another archivist had appraised the records — or, in the case of the personal journal, possibly accepted it without much consideration, utilizing a laissez-faire means of appraisal not too rare in our world.

Because of these two facts — we are not the creators who made the physical or digital objects in our care, and the joy of discovery is part of the allure of archives — we should be considerate when dealing with the cries of “Eureka” emanating from our users, even in the cases of journalists exaggerating the hiddenness of records.

Let’s first put this in perspective, in a couple of different ways. I understand and even possess the urge to complain when people say certain things about records. “Never-before-seen” is never true. Never. Somebody has always already seen a record stored in an archives, even if it was only one person, and even if that person is now dead. But to become agitated by this usage is a bit unfair.

When we focus on the falsity of the statement, we ignore the fact that it is not meant literally. We ignore the fact that language itself is often not meant literally,⁸ but archivists are usually trained to be literalists, so I can forgive us our tendencies. If we complain about such statements, and then call out journalists for undervaluing our work or making it invisible, we are making pedantic statements, likely coming to false assumptions, and possibly assuming they don’t see the value of archivists’ work when they actually do. I’ve seen such news articles before, and they do include the occasional panegyric to the archivist.

We also often complain about others calling our archives dusty when they are not, but I work in an archives with a century’s worth of dust (an archives I’m slowly moving the mass of elsewhere), and I know of plenty of other dusty archives, so I didn’t mind when dust was prominently mentioned in an article about my work.⁹ I even embraced that dust, which I discuss in a little article not yet published.¹⁰ So there are ways for us to reorient our perception and thus take vigorous advantage of our opportunities.

But that is the small problem, an issue with perception. The big problem, from my point of view,¹¹ is that for us to expect users to frame archives as we want them to is unfair to them, for a few reasons.

First, we must be active creators of people’s perceptions of us. If we don’t help them understand how to perceive us and our work, we cannot hold them responsible for their misreadings. To be fair to non-archivists, archives are arcane sites to most people. Those who visit our archives do not know how the archives had come to be, how we make decisions about what to preserve, or even what we know about the records under our care. So we must be active creators of our own press coverage.

We also must accept that we do not know our holdings in their entirety. In most organizations, we have too many series or collections to know even a little bit about all of them, so we certainly cannot know their entire contents. We never do, and finding aids reveal only the outlines of the records in our care. An archives is always filled with secrets, pieces of information lost to the human storehouse of knowledge because they do not reside in anyone’s head anymore, even pieces of information the original appraisal archivist never knew. We know we don’t know everything about the records, yet we are concerned when people say they discover surprises among those records. The fact is we ourselves make discoveries in the archives all the time — I certainly do — and we should embrace those discoveries and accept the joy we receive via them.

And we should honor and celebrate the discoveries our users make — even those that are not discoveries to us personally. We should do this because they are still discoveries and because we want them to experience joy as they extend their knowledge. And we should do this because we are servants of people, which I tell my staff is the highest calling anyone can accept. It is good and honorable and potentially¹² joyful to serve people, and if we allow them the joy of their discoveries they will return the favor to us.

[1]: The discovery of these writs wasn’t a significant one (I’d seen thousands of such writs by then), but I loved finding five years’ worth of writs created on behalf of the lawyer Quackenbush in one place and revealing the original — and otherwise almost totally unknown — arrangement used by the court clerks who first managed these records. Finding these gave me insight into the workings of the Supreme Court of Judicature and had the value of radiating the aura of beauty that disintegration can sometimes have.

[2]: Let me note here that I have not conducted the research to make this statement, hence the weaseliness of my phrasing. I create entries and write definitions for the Society of American Archivists’ Dictionary of Archives Terminology, and because of this I have a relatively deep understanding of archival terminology and how it has developed and changed over the years. But I’ve never looked into the word “discovery” to see when we began to use this term (and its children: discovery tool, discovery process, etc.). Often, people make broad statements about language they cannot support with facts, and this may indeed be one. I will admit, for instance, that I’ve just found a 1961 use of discovery that seems to fit this archival sense — but I’m not sure, yet, that it carries that facet of meaning it has in our contemporary context.

[3]: Alas, I have never written down my entire conceptual grounding for archives, so this will only be a peek into my thoughts on it. I think archivists have finally accepted that any intellectual pursuit — of which archives definitely is one — requires conceptual theorization to inform actual practice. It is good for us as workers and good for the profession as well. Theory dispels the idea that we are pullers of records, rather than knowledge workers intent on increasing knowledge across the spectrum of human activity.

[4]: Unlike my friends in the world of information governance, I eliminate the step of “wisdom” from the information continuum (my term), which moves forward in complexity and value in this order: data, information, records, knowledge, wisdom. I am wary of the term wisdom and unsure any human truly achieves wisdom. We most likely achieve proficiency or excellence — but in narrow aspects of our lives, and likely for limited ranges of time. Also, the word wisdom always forces me to think of wizard, which makes the use of the former too goofy for my tastes. In case you were wondering, Yes, wisdom and wizard ramify from the same root.

[5]: Occasional readers of my small essays strewn over the internet, may perceive a correlation between the concept of potential and kinetic knowledge and a concept I have written about: the potential and kinetic value of records. This similarity is intentional, and it points to the deep purpose of archives — to make active (not activist, I’ll note) change for the benefit of humanity; to ensure archivists are not waiting for patrons to appear at their door but actively encouraging them to enter; to ensure all archivists see their work is active intellectual work designed to help people know more, think more deeply, and help all of us understand and better the world. (This does not remove the obvious fact that people will use archives to make the world worse and to try to diminish the biological stores of information residing in our heads with non-facts, distortions, and lies — but we cannot allow the bad to murder the best.)

[6]: Let me say, in another of my lengthy asides, that this intellectual breakthrough may be a small one, a personal one that affects one person or only a few. But it is still a breakthrough and still the creation of knowledge. Despite my heady sermons on knowledge, I treasure small bits of knowledge as much as the life-changing ones. Because every discovery is a new discovery. I do not honor the work of historians writing books over those of genealogists tracking down ancestors or grassroots activists looking for information on environmental changes to their part of the country. To the archivist, any research — no matter how apparently unimportant to us personally — is work we should honor, because we do not know what value that knowledge will eventually have and because allowing users access to the records they want confirms their work and gives them the pleasure of being recognized as living, thinking creatures of our own kind. Okay, even this is a bit highfalutin — and that is because I believe in giving people the agency they need to make their lives what they want them to be.

[7]: I will note, however, that I am a strong proponent of active archivy, in which we ensure the records our institutions need are created. That is a story for another day, but archivists as active creators — in the form of oral history programs and active inciteful documentary programs, for example — are heroic figures in my mind. They identify gaps in the historical record and ensure the creation of records to fill those gaps. But most of us do not take on that role of creator in our lives as archivists.

[8]: Take, for instance, the word “literally,” which literally means “literally” — and its opposite, “figuratively.” This drives purists mad, because they want every word to have one true meaning. Problem is monosemous words are rare, consisting only of those words very rarely used. For instance, the word “archives,” by my count — and I’ve done extensive research on this — has at least 11 separate nounal senses in the archives world — and I could add to that at least one from outside of our universe. So how the heck are we supposed to know what “literally” means? one might ask, and I have two answers to that, the first tautological (but how else are we going to learn?):

1. “Literally” literally means “literally.”

Okay, not too helpful, so here is a second:

2. We are archivists, so the answer is staring us in the face. We know what it means by the context in which it occurs. If this is how records mean (via context), and records significantly consist of words, then why can’t it work for words themselves?

[9]: Rick Rojas, “Centuries of New York History Prepare for a Move,” New York Times (5 January 2017). (Or see the paper version published on 6 January 2017 on page A15.) Note that the subheading to the article begins with “Caked with dust.”

[10]: Geof Huth, “Let Me Tell You About Aaron Burr’s Divorce: Promoting Archives through the Media,” Archival Outlook (January/February 2019): page number as yet unknown.

[11]: Which point of view I’m guessing (not asserting — because I don’t really know) I share with only a small percentage of archivists.

[12]: I live in the real world, so I know people can be a pain in the neck, but they are sometimes the best thing that will ever happen to us.

Geof Huth is the Chief Records Officer and Chief Law Librarian, New York State Unified Court System.

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Metropolitan Archivist

A publication of The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART).