Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Blogging from the Jerwood Centre: why should we visit archives?


Yesterday I was thinking about what archives can offer us as researchers that more easily accessible and standardised scholarly editions can't. Today I want to consider the second part of that question: why should we visit archives and why should we value the original manuscript or object?

Digital archives are transforming how we carry out research for the better. Not only are they providing access to a far wider academic community, but through innovative digital cataloguing and search features they can significantly reduce time spent trawling collections, and it could be argued that in some cases they've rendered the physical archive obsolete. Personally speaking, my PhD project would have been near-impossible and prohibitively expensive if I could not rely on digital archives. So the point of this post is not to argue for a return to using physical archives, but to think about how the two kinds of archive complement each other, and to ask whether just as digital archives have the edge over physical for access, convenience and cost, there are areas where physical archives are better.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, digital archives will be the norm. Costly research trips to archives to spend days poring over material for something useful will no longer be necessary for most of us. We will instead go to an archive website, call up a collection, enter search terms and receive a list of results in return - some of us may already do this. When this happens, we won't no longer need the physical archive, but our relationship to it will change.  We'll use the physical archive to instead think about texts in different ways, perhaps in some of the relational ways I've tried to suggest below. Physical archives, in order to remain relevant and attract researchers, will have to be open to new modes of scholarship and new uses for their collections.

In the case of Sara's letters, they've been digitized as part of the Wordsworth Trust's Life, Literature and Landscape digital archive, and as my school has a subscription to that resource, I could have just looked at high-resolution images of the letters. So why am I here? Beyond issues of the cost of some of these resources (some are free, many, including this one, are not), there is a value in dealing with the physical objects in research, especially in literature. Practically speaking, we can (very gently!) hold them, examine the paper, work out if it's cheap or expensive. We can look at how and where a text was was written down: in a notebook, or on a loose scrap of paper? Alongside other writing, or on a page of its own? We can feel the weight of books and look at their bindings, and observe how items in a collection relate to each other. In the Jerwood Centre, part of one wall is occupied by Wordsworth and Southey's personal libraries. I can stand in front of it and see what they thought worth owning. These kinds of relationships can be lost in even the very best and most thoughtful digital archives.

The second advantage is one that might be unique to the Wordsworth Trust and its collection. This is the relationship between literature and location. Many of the documents in the collection were composed within a thirty-mile radius of the Jerwood Centre; some items in the Dove Cottage Manuscripts were written out by Dorothy or Mary Wordsworth twenty metres away in Dove Cottage itself. Wherever possible the link between writing and place is emphasised. Here you can connect the descriptions in Dorothy's Grasmere Journals with the surrounding views, and to stand in her half-underground parlour and appreciate the difficulty of writing in near darkness, or to walk up a path behind the Centre and work out where the 'Evening Star' cottage of 'Michael' might have been. When Sara writes to Edward Quillinan how annoyed she was that her daughter Edith was allowed to climb Skiddaw, or Dorothy that they've walked to Keswick to visit the Southeys, it's possible to both walk the twelve miles to Keswick and climb Mount Skiddaw. There is a direct connection between the material in front of me in the Jerwood Centre reading room and the hills I can see through the window that gives me some understanding of how the local geography shaped their lives and their literature. Considering the central importance of nature and the landscape to Romantic literature, the location of the Trust's archives provides for more than imaginative identification with the Lake Poets - it materially affects how we interpret their work.  

Archives are a reminder, finally, that every text has an original physical existence, that despite the editions and versions and reprints it's been through, it began a tangible existence when someone scribbled it down on a piece of paper. This isn't to say necessarily that we should privilege the original manuscript as in some way 'the best' or the 'correct' version (as anyone who's familiar with Wordsworth's practice of constant revision will know), but that handling original documents can bring us up against the beginning of their life in a way that even the very best digitisations can't: a digital copy of a manuscript, for all its usefulness, is yet another version. The great value of the archive, and why we still should value the physical document, is that it allows us to get at the origins.





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