The Excitement of Discoveries

I thought I’d take a look at something a little different for this blog: discoveries. Although the real focus of this blog is digitization, its methods and outcomes, and making material available to ALL, sometimes librarians and archivists come across hidden analog gems in their collections that no one—not even other librarians or archivists—knew of.

A large reason that this exists is because many libraries and archives have a LOT of stuff. They could never possibly go through every single scrap of paper to find the one that has so-and-so-famous-person’s signature on it. When I made my exciting discovery, it was because the center I was working at had just accepted a donation of over 100,000 analog master recordings on the very fragile medium of lacquer (also known as acetate) discs. There were only two interns making slow headway through this collection.

Discoveries are exciting to those in the information profession because sometimes it takes some sleuthing. When I cam across my discovery, the first thing that stood out is how the text was physically different compared to everything else in the collection:

The other discs had cataloging numbers on them.

I could look them up in a discography reference.

There were complete band names and song names.

The disc I found only said “McGee Saunders aud.” After some simple research, I could find no one with the name McGee Saunders (or Saunders McGee). That’s when the gears really started moving, and I though that this may be something more than what it seems.

After presenting my find to the curator whom I was working under, we discovered that this was an early recording of the blues duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. (Apparently the recording engineers in the studio were not keen on accurate metadata.) Two never before heard songs from a fairly famous blues duo were wafting up through the record player to my ears.

Me, displaying the “discovered” Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee recordings

Me, displaying the “discovered” Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee recordings (Abby Brack Lewis/Library of Congress)

This record could have easily been overlooked. Sometimes it takes a hunch and an anomaly to discover a hidden gem in the library. It makes all the tedium of cataloging our objects worth it.

Do you have any “discovery” stories? What have you uncovered while working in an archive or library?

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