Archives as Discovery Zones

I loved Discovery Zone when I was a kid. If you’re unfamiliar, it was this amazingly massive pile of kid sized tubes and ball pits. Like someone took that part of Chuck E. Cheese by the ball pit and multiplied it by a magnitude of awesome. Parents didn’t really fit up in that network of tubes, and there was a giant rope spiderweb suspended in the air. And the slides. So many slides.

"Sacha at Discovery Zone 1996" that is what it felt like

It was it’s own little world up there. You made the face that Sacha is making over there in that cc licensed picture I found on Flickr. The first time I saw an ad for it I just had to go there. I had to climb up into that wondrous world.

At this point, I think there are substantive parallels between that sense of discovery that happened there; that sense of wonder, and of exploration, and visiting an archive. Not only do I think that we discover things in archives, I think of archives as discovery zones.

What made discovery zone so cool is that they took all of this stuff that was fun to play on and then strategically and systematically organized and arranged it in such a way that it became something new. It became the discovery zone. It was an engineered place for exploratory play and imagination. The work that goes into an archive, deciding what to keep, how to arrange and organize it, how to tell folks what you have, is what makes the archive a discovery zone. Now as an adult I don’t really have a desire to climb around a series of tubes. With that said, Archives now offer me a similar sense of wounder. A place to encounter strategically organized and engineered traces of the past. Each hollinger box offering another chance to discover something we didn’t really know, or something we hadn’t thought about in the way I might think about it, or just the opportunity to touch and connect directly with a physical trace of another world.

What does and dosen’t count as discovery

This set of memories of Discovery Zone is brought to you by a recent back and forth around the discovery of a Army surgeon’s first person report from treating president Lincoln immediately after he was shot in Ford’s theater. Suzanne Fischer, suggested “If You ‘Discover’ Something in an Archive, It’s Not a Discovery.” At the heart of the post is a  wish that there might be “more articles headlined ‘Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!'” I wholeheartedly agree, with the later statement.  To this, Ed Summers responds “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.” Which I also agree with; archives are places to explore and discover and celebrating moments when we find things we didn’t know in archives helps broadcast the invitation to discover.  Lastly, Helena Iles Papaioannou’s the discover in this case, has declares Actually, Yes, It *Is* a Discovery If You Find Something in an Archive That No One Knew Was There.  I’m not so much interested in the exact details in this case as I am in the broader question of what kinds of discovery happen in the archive.

Different kinds of historical discoveries
Very rarely, we can discover an object of historical importance in a place no one would have expected it to be. Hidden in the walls, out in someone’s attic, buried deep underground; these are all places where one can discover a thing. These kinds of discoveries are really exciting but most discovery happens in the exploration of materials that have been carefully organized and arranged.

In contrast, there is a kind of discovery that happens when one closely reads documents that we already knew were there but no one spent the time to extensively analyze. The tried and true example in this case would be something like Martha Ballard’s diary. People have known about the thing for a long time and kept it around but not until Laura Thatcher Ulrich turned her attention to it, with a very different frame of reference, did we all discover how amazing a text it is for understanding her life. I would call this kind of discovery finding/building knew knowledge. This kind of discovery in history is generally happens when researchers use carefully organized, weeded, and arranged collections which have been processed and taken care of by archivists, librarians and curators.

Lastly, I would add that there is a sense of personal discovery. While there is a lot that is known we all come to know it individually and to comes to mean something to us as individuals. I have spent a good bit of time in archives and I don’t think anything I’ve done has constituted discovery. Some of what I have found has been interesting enough to publish.

From Dusty Archive to Archive as Discovery Zone
So I love the sentiment behind Suzanne’s post, doing all we can to banish “dusty archive” from our vocabulary is a good idea. This is particularly true in times like this when budgets are stretched, and people are looking for things to cut it is really important that we try and foreground the critical role that libraries, archives, and museums play in gathering, organizing, exhibiting, preserving, interpreting and providing access to cultural heritage. With that said, I think the message that we want to send is better delivered as “hey guys, come inside, we have all kinds of stuff that we have organized coherently and consciously developed as coherent collections, come in and make discoveries.” Much like discovery zone, archives are these amazingly cool places where all kinds of rich historical information is at your fingertips.

This all ends me with a continued question. How do we strike the balance between recognizing, paying tribute to, and celebrating the work of those who collect, preserve, exhibit, and organize traces of the past while also making clear that there is so much that could be learned by those who come and explore?