Great article by Suzanne Fischer in The Atlantic on THE media cliche about archives: the amazing thing discovered in a “dusty archive”, which was in the place it should be, and often already known to staff and scholars. It’s always nice to see press coverage of the wonders of archives, but these stories tend to make repositories look bad. In fact, as the article explains, we can’t know about every single item in our collections, and it’s natural for ourselves and our users to make new discoveries. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of special collections work.
So why does this trope continue to be so popular in the media? I made something of a point of looking for these stories when I was writing the Handbook and I reckon that there is one every day or so in the national media.
The discovery cliche continues because it’s a better, more compelling, simpler narrative than trying to explain the complexity of the real situation. Usually the point of these stories isn’t the archive itself, but what the “new” find has revealed about a historical or literary figure. I suppose that too much detail about the archive would obscure this most interesting element.
Anyway, I’d rather have a story about my collections in the media with this sort of inaccuracy than no story at all!