Thursday, 25 August 2011

A day in the archives


Today I had probably the most exciting day of my DPhil research so far - and, bear in mind when you read the rest of this post, I'm not being sarcastic. When I tell you that I was off on a research trip to Wiltshire & Swindon Record Office (rather than other research destinations I've heard of friends visiting - New York, Paris etc.) you might think that I'm rather overstating the case. But, in all honesty, today was one of those days that makes me realise that I'm not the world's least suited person to be doing a doctorate. For today I got my hands on Edith Olivier's papers.

I started off going to Chippenham Train Station - from which the record office is about three minutes' walk. I wondered why the website said it was ten minutes away, until I saw the average age of the people using the archives reading room - quite a few over 70s researching their families and, in the case of the lady behind me, the history of her house. An archives reading room, incidentally, is a great place for eavesdropping. Just so you know.

Back to Edith Olivier. An easy way to write original work is to choose a topic not many people care about. Scholars have not fought over who gets to look at Olivier's diaries and letters - although a sort of biography/selected letters was written by Penelope Middelboe, picking most of the choicest bits. But I still had a wonderful time working out Olivier's handwriting (she does the most peculiar things with 'p's and capital 'A's) and slowly reading her diaries. A couple of eureka moments - when I found that she had attended a party with Sylvia Townsend Warner, for instance, or her thoughts on To The Lighthouse ('far too highbrow for me as a whole. She demands too much of the reader – who has to make his own unity.’) I snapped away with my new camera - I mentioned in the comments the other day that I opted for a blue Canon PowerShot A3200 in the end; thanks again for all your advice. I signed something saying I wouldn't publish the photographs I took, sadly, but I have included a tiny snippet of the page on which Olivier records that Martin Secker had accepted The Love-Child (her first novel) for publication: 'A Great Day'.


I'll be going back on Friday, since I only read one folder of publishers' letters and three months' worth of diary (out of about forty years... hmm) and I want to take a moment to say thank you to all the staff at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. As most of you know, I work for the Bodleian. Whenever people tell me "This is my first time" my heart melts a bit, and I go out of my way to help them - and so I trotted out this line to everyone I encountered. I troubled four separate people, from receptionist to help desk to archivist - and they were unfailingly helpful and incredibly friendly. I was so impressed - not a smidgen of grumpiness with my ignorance and helplessness! There's not much of a chance that they'll spot this post - but if any of you do, thank you so much!

11 comments:

  1. It sounds like a great day! I'm fortunate to work as an archivist, and I always enjoy hearing about other archives, and a busman's holiday of visiting them. One of the best parts of my job is connecting researchers with records.

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  2. Well you know, Wiltshire has its moments. Stonehenge?! Sounds like a wonderful day. I got to go in the archives at the V&A and look at the manuscripts of a few Dickens novels when I worked there...it gave me such a thrill so I know just how you feel! Glad you managed to find stuff that was useful, too! And a helpful reminder that I need to read The Love Child...naughty me.

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  3. Archive days are always fun, no matter where the archives may be. It's definitely an instance where what's inside counts far more than external appearances! Also, very nice to hear how helpful the staff were - that does everything that much more pleasant.

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  4. Archival research is one of those things that make you glad you're doing a doctorate! Have to say I went to lots of places including Chicago but I loved the bit where you had to swear an oath in the Bodleian.

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  5. Bet you could have spent days in there! I remember visiting the British Library and practically steaming up the glass in the treasure room while looking at Jane Austen's handwriting.

    Glad your new camera has come in handy!

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  6. I too have had some very interesting days in archives in recent months. Unlike you, I was completely unprepared for the need to decipher the subject's handwriting. I don't know what I was expecting.

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  7. "An easy way to write original work is to choose a topic not many people care about." I love it! Sounds like a great experience.

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  8. Sounds like a wonderful experience.

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  9. Is there any info online as to what is in there? Any sort of directory or whatever else it may be called? I'd love to have a project to research on my next trip - always on the look-out for stuff about E.F. Benson and/or George Wolfe Plank (illustrator) - letters (to or from someone who's a specialty in this place), etc.

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  10. chasingbawa: That reminds me, I wonder where my picture ID from the Bodleian is - or, the one from the British Library. I never throw things away, so they're stashed somewhere around here.

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  11. It sounds fascinating, Simon! You've inspired me to order 'The Love Child' from the library.

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