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.
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.