Adventures in the Archives, Part 4

Adventures in the Archives, Part 4

Adventures in the Archives, Part 4

But for all of my success stories, I’ve also had a few disappointments. Probably the most disappointing was on my last Plymouth trip, when I couldn’t access the archives at Pilgrim Hall as thoroughly as I wanted to. It might be years before that happens, but I’m pretty sure there’s some good stuff there.

I also recently uncovered an archival catalog listing a letter from Loring Henry Austin, Jane’s husband, to Henry David Thoreau, dated 1863. I don’t have anything dating from this period of Jane’s life except one or two short letters to publishers offering manuscripts or pitching story ideas. Plus, the very fact that he was writing to Thoreau was obviously a big deal; Thoreau mentions the Austins in one part of his journal, so I know they were friends.

Austin lived a fascinating life on her own, but it’s still a thrill when I discover that she knew other important Americans.

I immediately filled out the request form and began checking my email obsessively. But a week later, the archivist emailed me that they didn’t have the letter. They don’t know if it was miscataloged or it never existed. Maybe some earlier, careless researcher put it in the wrong file. Maybe it’s stuck to another piece of paper somewhere.

But another, more nefarious possibility exists: perhaps it was stolen. Theft from archives is not all that rare, and as this article points out, we probably don’t even know the thefts have occurred most of the time. There are plenty of reasons why someone would steal from an archive, not just because they might profit from the theft.  A.S. Byatt’s best-selling novel Possession centers around just such a reason, as does Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water.

Because it’s such an issue, most of the bigger reading rooms have taken steps to avoid this, of course. I’m always asked to leave all of my bags, either in a locker or at a front desk, and I’m never allowed to have anything other than a few sheets of loose-leaf paper, pencils, and my laptop. When I leave, I’m usually asked to open my laptop to prove I’m not smuggling anything out in it. Most of the bigger rooms also have invigilators, people who monitor the researchers. I was in one large reading room when an invigilator showed up and began fiercely scanning the room. It was a little intimidating. Later, when I asked the clerk at the desk, she told me it was simply a matter of numbers; enough people had entered the reading room so that an invigilator was required for additional security.

In the smaller reading rooms, there’s obviously less manpower, but I’ve never been left alone in an archive. There’s also much less space; I’ve been crammed in on one side of the archivist’s desk while we both tried to work.

Although theft is a possibility, it is more likely that it was miscatalogued or misplaced. Maybe someday I’ll be working there, and I’ll insist on going through every page of the collection, and my persistence will pay off with a recovery.

About Kari Miller

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  1. Hi Kari,
    If there’s something in particular that you’re looking for in Pilgrim Hall’s archives, let me know. I’m in Plymouth fairly often. (And I’ve been visiting Pilgrim Hall since I was old enough to walk to the library with my friends. On Saturday mornings, we’d go to the library first, and on the way home we’d stop at Pilgrim Hall. They had some cool stuff there!) I’ve been doing some research in the Plymouth area this summer for the pieces I’m writing about Sandwich history. You can check out my blog at
    I’m looking forward to Standish to Standish!
    – Ann

    1. Thank you, Ann! I really appreciate the offer. I know Pilgrim Hall must have a lot of resources, but they’re in the process of cataloging everything, so nothing clearly connected to Austin has surfaced just yet. I’ve recently just discovered a huge trove of material in Worcester that wasn’t available when I was there years ago, so now I’m trying to figure out how I can get back for a visit in the spring. Your blog looks great and I enjoyed reading about your research on Woods. Even though you didn’t find Woods’ signature, how amazing to see William Bradford’s handwriting!


    1. Thanks for the heads up! I’m hoping to complete an annotated PDF/ebook version for anyone wanting to participate in the online reading of Standish. I’ve set a deadline for myself and am working hards towards meeting it!

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