Browsing, Serendipity, and a Titanic Discovery

Today’s post is by Alan Walker, a processing archivist at Archives II.

As a kid I was captivated by the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The drama of such a man-made behemoth falling victim to an iceberg and the scope of the human tragedy conspired to trigger the imaginations of this impressionable youth. I read voraciously about the sinking, and I even played the board game from Ideal called “The Sinking of the Titanic.” It’s a fascination that endures for me, as for so many, to this day.

Some years ago, after I transferred to the Textual Archives Services Division, I spent some time preparing for what my new duties would be. I spent a day at Archives I learning about the textual records that are housed there so that I would better know how to refer people to the relevant records they would need. I studied the finding aids in the Textual Research Room in Archives II, especially those dealing with the records of civilian Federal agencies in NARA’s custody. And I studied the online tools we then had at our disposal: the Master Location Register (MLR) and the National Archives Information Locator (NAIL).

The next task I gave myself was to go from the finding aids, NAIL, and the MLR to the records themselves. And it was in this way that I came upon…serendipity.

Now I claim no special faculty for making fortunate discoveries by accident, but the fact remains that they won’t happen if you don’t first make the effort to look. And that is why we archivists strive to browse among our holdings as often as we can.

One day I was browsing in the records of the series “General Correspondence, 1903-1950” (ARC 564429) from the Department of Commerce (Record Group 40) to get a sense of the records and what information they might hold, when I started looking at the adjacent shelves. I came upon a box labeled “Letters Referred to the Department of Commerce and Labor.” Now, records with such a drab title probably would contain little of interest, but I took a look anyway.

And I was floored. It contained several fat bundles of correspondence, each bound with the infamous “red tape”. Within each bundle were dozens of letters written to President William H. Taft by citizens angered, inspired, or moved by the loss of the Titanic.  Their subjects included demands for an investigation into the sinking, ideas for the prevention of such disasters in the future, or expressions of sympathy for the loss of President Taft’s military aide Archibald Butt.

As I read through these letters, I thought, “No one has ever looked at these.” The twill tape was still crisp and deep red, and apparently had not been re-tied over the years. And the most likely reason that these records had never been requested is because of that anodyne series title “Letters Referred to the Department of Commerce and Labor.” The description in the inventory consisted of the following: “Relate chiefly to labor matters. Arranged alphabetically by name of correspondent.” It’s easy enough to see how they could be overlooked, with as informative a “description” as that.  After making this discovery, I immediately created a new description for this series: “Correspondence Relating to the Sinking of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, 1912 – 1912,” (ARC 565958) in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC).

I never would have imagined that I would make such an incredible discovery about a monumental historical event, especially one which so captivated me as a boy. It is truly a part of what makes working at the National Archives such a privilege.

Now that NARA has rationalized its archival processing system, courtesy of the 2006 Processing Initiative, we are much better at identifying and describing our holdings. For records newly arrived from their agencies of origin, or records which have languished at NARA for decades, our initiative means greater searchability, more detailed descriptions and finding aids, and greater access.

As you browse our holdings via the Internet, we at NARA will continue our browsing the old-fashioned way. You never know; some of those revelations may turn out to be quite…Titanic.

April 15, 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

2 thoughts on “Browsing, Serendipity, and a Titanic Discovery

  1. Interesting post and thanks for sharing. I enjoy hearing about what is being found and thinking about citizen activists then and now.

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