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Archive Hunter

In the current British educational climate, will the special collections that actually do contain popular fiction continue to survive and grow? Louis James, arguably the founder of research in popular literature, remarked when he began his study over fifty years ago that “only a moiety of this literature has survived” due to its disposability, fragility and inherently ephemeral nature.  He was able to work with an unlisted case of books left to the British Museum by the music hall artist ‘Barry Ono’.  As a private collector Ono had been fascinated by the penny dreadful and left 700 books and magazines, many of which were from the 1840s and 50s, which formed a major part of James’s (1957) survey Fiction for the Working Man, 1830-1850.  But James also describes being on the trail of private collectors in their natural habitat: “I first knocked at the scratched and grimy door of a condemned house of an East End Square” […] “A magnificent collection of Victorian periodical literature was piled dusty and damp, around the walls”.  James was able to meet and view the unique collection of a recluse who had started his days as an East End wastepaper collector, before it was sold to an American University.  Other private collections that he consulted were fated to be dispersed on their owners’ death.  Finding research material, he advised, needed resolve, patience and good fortune.  Nowadays it often needs a travel grant as well.

Science Fiction Foundation Collection, University of Liverpool

At one ARPF conference I was told by an American researcher that she had an appointment to visit Oxford University’s bunker, in an undisclosed rural location, where they housed their Mills and Boon holdings.  I’m not sure that I quite believed her but the notion of that secret repository for the popular has often intrigued me.  I am also reminded of Marina Warner’s description of how she examined Cambridge University’s sample of ectoplasm whilst being overseen by a librarian who was obviously dubious about her research.  But at least it was seen as valuable enough to be preserved. Often at study days or when meeting postgrads working on popular fiction, the lack of an archive determines the development of their research, or tales of horror are shared about the trunk of letters or manuscripts from a writer whose family had decided to dispose of them, which are either just missed, or alternatively rescued from near incineration in the nick of time.  Even the electronic manuscripts and correspondence of contemporary writers will have to be indexed and conserved, so where will the archives of contemporary popular writers go?

Delegates at the recent Jane Webb Loudon and nineteenth century women and science conference, held at Leeds Trinity University College, spent quite a bit of time discussing where sources might be located.  Significant gaps in Jane Webb Loudon’s personal biography mean that we don’t fully understand her professional writing career.  The basis for other research projects discussed at the conference alluded to the loss of contextual material (Loudon burnt all of hers on her death bed) related to the study of women’s writing.  Other women writers, especially those working in science, were also concerned with managing their reputation, and original letters and other types of documents appear to be absent or overlooked by archivists regarding their relevance or value. 

However archivists and curators are more often than not a friend to the dedicated researcher, locating material and tenuous connections which the catalogue alone may not reveal.  One of the archivists at The Bill Douglas Centre (BDC) at the University of Exeter found a handbill advertising an Egyptian diorama placed smack in the middle of an Old English Cavalcade – St George and the Dragon meets King Ptolemy, not something that I would have found on my own.  Professor Lisa Hopkins was contacted by a member of the public about something which had been bought on eBay because she was the only person he could find who had written on Jane Webb Loudon.  She gave a presentation about a very curious artefact now generously housed at Sheffield Hallam University Special Collection to prevent it from disappearing again from public view.  Described as Jane Loudon’s wedding album, it raises more questions than it answers but they are very interesting connections to pursue.  One of the main problems with it is that we don’t know how it was used and the cultural practice that it represents.  Nevertheless its value could be immeasurable.  There is only one known portrait of Jane Webb Loudon but it is possible that this album contains another pen and ink drawing of the writer on her wedding day by her friend Isabella Martin.  One of the problems that this item presents for special collections is that, unsurprisingly for a horticultural writer, it contains dried plant material, adding to the problems for its continued care.

Sheffield Hallam University Special Collection

So is digitisation the key?  At the Marie Corelli conference in Stratford upon Avon in 2006 ARPF members were introduced to an early digital collection of popular women authors.  Emory University’s Women’s Genre Fiction Project, funded by a three year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, digitised female-authored and female-centred texts drawn from the library’s extensive collection of detective, crime and romance fiction in the form of yellow backs and dime novels.  Various international members of the audience for this presentation also commented on the availability of popular women writers in their libraries and their surprise that these books were on open shelves.  At Emory digitisation had been undertaken with the dual aims of making the texts accessible and preserving them.  Overall the project wanted to increase scholarly engagement with popular women’s writing, open up popular texts as a resource for the study of British and American culture and expand undergraduate teaching.  The original text selection of the Emory project had some very interesting themes: seduction, temperance novels, western brides, American orientalism, abolition, and regionalism, some of which are evident in a fascinating subject list for the 140 titles currently in the collection.

Do we share or jealously guard our sources? Are we doomed to remain individual archive hunters, unable to locate the funding to preserve personal research collections or the private collections that we encounter while carrying out individual projects?  One way to build up the significance and importance of the archiving of ephemeral, commercial and entertainment media is to talk about the big special collection projects and about personal experiences, which is something that can be hosted on this site. Discussions that help us, as a research community, to locate and evaluate collections may be the best way forward in a climate where funding will be hard to come by. We would welcome guest contributions on the subject, either here in comments or as ARPF blog entries, as a start.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 14th, 2011 at 9:19 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Archive Hunter”

  1. At one ARPF conference I was told by an American researcher that she had an appointment to visit Oxford University’s bunker, in an undisclosed rural location, where they housed their Mills and Boon holdings. I’m not sure that I quite believed her.

    I can believe that. In 2009 it was announced that

    Millions of books from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, one of the largest and most famous in the world, will soon be on the move – from the dreaming spires of Oxford to the rather more pragmatic surroundings of an industrial estate on the outskirts of Swindon.

    Sarah Thomas, the director, announced today that the Bodleian has bought the site and hopes to start work this autumn on a gigantic warehouse to hold 8m volumes – a move that is predicted to solve the library’s storage problems for the next 20 years. [...]

    The library’s need for new storage is unarguable: it has been swallowing up neighbouring Oxford buildings for centuries, and the stacks in the 1930s New Bodleian, connected to the main building by an eccentric railway running under a road, have officially been listed as 130% full. Books are stored outside Oxford as far away as Cheshire.

    Maybe the M&Bs were stored in one of those places “outside Oxford as far away as Cheshire.”

  2. Convenor says:

    That means they are just down the road from me so I will definitely have to follow this up.

  3. Sheffield Hallam has a new archive. According to the Yorkshire Post it contains around 650 books:

    most of them by such once-popular authors as Ruby M Ayres, Arnold Bennett, Zane Grey, Compton Mackenzie, Howard Spring, EM Delafield… the books that people actually used to read, rather than the books that won prizes or the books now studied on university literature courses.

    They rub shoulders and brush spines in a new and probably unique collection of popular fiction at Sheffield Hallam University: a novel archive of novels from the first half of the 20th century.

    And on the topic of Mills & Boon, I’ve just had a book published.


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