Thursday, May 26, 2011

“The Sagacity to Find Serendipity”

From “Serendipity in the Archive” (The Chronicle): 
In the humanities, a prime site for serendipitous discovery is an archive. This semester, I have introduced my graduate students in English to the concept of serendipity in archival research. ... 
My students now understand that most rare archival material, and materials in private collections, will never be scanned and digitized. And even if much of this material is digitized, its virtual presence is no substitute for the tactile and sensory experience of being in an archive.
Most important, however, the students got a taste of the thrill of discovery that one can experience only in an archive, where good sleuthing and the expert guidance of a willing archivist fosters serendipity. Archival researchers, those whom Richard Altick named "scholar adventurers," still labor in the rarified spaces where only pencils and bare laptops—their carrying bags shuttered in lockers outside—are allowed. Here, acid-free boxes suddenly emerge from closed stacks at the flourish of a call sheet, and first editions recline on velvet book cradles.