Serendipity in the Archives

Last week the Messiah College History Department hosted Philip Deloria of the University of Michigan for our annual American Democracy Lecture.  Deloria was very gracious with his time. Not only did he deliver an evening lecture to about 350 students, faculty, and community members, but he also agreed to lead a few classes.

One of those classes was our Sophomore “Historical Methods” course.  In this course we teach students how to produce a first-rate historical research paper on a topic of their choice.  In the course of the conversation in the class he visited, Deloria discussed how historians work in the archives.  All historians hope to have a moment of serendipity when they enter the archives. (“Serendipity is defined by Webster as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for”).They want to find a document that no other historian before them has seen or considered. Or they want to have an “aha” moment in which they encounter a document or series of documents that can be interpreted in a way that reshapes or fundamentally changes the way we have long understood the historic subject matter at hand.

Sometimes these serendipitous moments happen by sheer luck (or providence, depending on your theology). We find something we never expected to find that totally transforms the way we think about our project.  But most of the time, as Deloria told our students, serendipitous moments in the archives or with primary sources happen because we are prepared.  In other words, these kinds of moments usually happen not because we simply got lucky, but because we have done the necessary secondary reading and we understanding the historiography of the particular subject.  When this happens–when we are prepared to do historical research– we are more prone to find things that are useful, if not groundbreaking, for our work.  We begin to look at primary sources or archival material in a new way.

Deloria’s remarks reinforced what we have been trying to teach our history majors about writing a research paper.  A good piece of historical scholarship–even an undergraduate piece of scholarship–must always be forged out of a regular and ongoing conversation between the secondary literature and the primary/archival material.  The more one reads and prepares before encountering the primary material, the more likely that such an serendipitous moment might occur.

I think this is an important reminder for both students and the seasoned historical researcher.