– Hi, sorry to bother you, but could you please help me? I’m confused … the description of this collection says it has 44 boxes but then there are only 20 boxes listed.
– Hmm. Let me look at that for you … [clickety clickety clickety … pad pad pad … murmur murmur murmur … stride stride stride] Yes, that’s correct. There are 44 boxes, but 24 are uncatalogued.
– [heart sinking; the catalogued 20 are from a period completely irrelevant to your topic] Would it be possible for me still to see them please?
– [pad pad pad … murmur murmur murmur … stride stride stride] Yes, though you should know that once we catalogue them the box number may change.
– [calls boxes … boxes begin to arrive … begins looking]

On the one hand, this is terribly frustrating: you’ve no idea what you will get. On the other, it’s wonderful: you’ve no idea what you will get. There are papers in folders and papers in envelopes and loose papers, snapshots and certificates and invoices, family letters and official reports, all very much as if they were picked directly out of the subject’s garage on the day after his death and stuck in acid-free boxes and then left there for decades. There is nothing of real value, though of prudence and courtesy to the material you’ve taken a few notes and snapped a few photos. Boxes come and boxes go. Time ticks by. The archives will close in forty-five minutes. At which point, in the penultimate box – in the middle of the penultimate box – stuck in backward so the title tab is facing away from you and you might have missed it, there is a manila folder crammed about to a thickness of about an inch with onion-skin papers, labeled in unsharpened pencil with the title of your topic