archives


At the end of September I went down to London to hear a paper by Chris Marsh at the Royal Historical Society, so I took the opportunity to travel down a bit ahead of time and spend the afternoon in the British Library.  This is something I haven’t done for a couple of years, for one thing because it isn’t all that easy for me to get down there, but also because up to now I’ve been working mainly on the documents that I found while I was carrying out my doctoral research.  But with the submission of the manuscript to Routledge, the time has come to move on.  This post is less about what I found when I was there and more about the process of carrying out the research itself.  It’s about how I work.

IMG_20170922_121859874

I only knew that I would be going to London a couple of days in advance, so I had to drop everything and start finding something to look at when I was there.  The first job, in fact, was to check up on how to renew my reader’s pass, as it had expired since I last went.  Once I’d got that sorted out, I knew that I would only have a few hours in the library itself. This affects the way I work, I think: I need to make sure that I am well prepared with a list of exactly what I want to look at.

I ran a search on the British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for ‘ballad’, up to the mid-seventeenth century, and read through the descriptions of each result (of which there were many).  If I thought it looked potentially interesting, I copied the entry into Word, making each manuscript number a heading and including the descriptions for each entry.  It makes for a long document (at the moment, it’s 45 pages long!), but at least every item was easily accessible and the descriptions mean that when I’m in the library I know what I’m looking for and where to find it in the manuscript itself.  Next, I sorted the descriptions into the order that I wanted to look at them – by which I mean I put the materials I wanted to see first at the top of my list, running right down to the ones I considered to be less urgent.  Finally, I logged into my British Library account and pre-ordered as many as I could for the day of my visit.

way I work image 1

 

IMG_20170922_211455954When I arrived at the library I renewed my reader pass, had a quick brew and then settled myself into the Western Manuscript Reading Room with my tablet (much easier to carry than my laptop), my camera, notepad and pencil.  My trips to the British Library are a bit like a smash and grab…  metaphorically-speaking, of course.   This visit was going to be a particularly short one.  My priority is to accumulate as much evidence as I can, so that I can then work on it at home.  I looked at the documents that I ordered ahead of my visit and made notes on their features which I added to my Archive Research Document.  Then I photographed the relevant parts of the manucript. Often, I took several photos of the same folios, showing the overall layout on one and the detail on others. For each document that I’d looked at, I added a tick before its title in my list.

IMG_20170922_125155155What I didn’t do much of when I was in the library itself was to make transcriptions.   As I mainly work on 16th century documents, they are often in secretary hand, which can take a bit of deciphering at times (and yes, I suffer palaeographic jealousy when I look at the people working on beautiful italic hands!). I usually do my transcribing at home.  So when I’d looked at all the ones I’d pre-ordered, I prioritised working on what I thought was the most useful manuscript.  I kept this out, sent the others back to storage and called up some more.  While I waited for them to arrive, I started to transcribe the document that I’d kept, making the transcription in the big document but in a different colour of text so that I knew that it was my own transcription.  I then repeated the process until I’d looked at as many items as I could that afternoon – it was the bell that stopped me!

Once I got home, I transferred my archive photographs to dropbox and a mobile hard drive, putting each document into a separate folder under the heading Archives/British Library. Then I spent a relentlessy boring day renaming each individual file by the name of its folio number – I have learned in the past how difficult it is to find the relevant image of a particular folio later if I don’t do this.

I’m now in the process of transcribing the document in which I was most interested – I open the image on one screen and use another, usually my tablet, to make the transcription, making sure that I mark any words about which I’m uncertain with a question mark and each new folio with it’s number.  I am doing this in a new document, which I save alongside the images in the relevant folder.

 

 

 

I was2017-09-20 19.31.33

 

I was fascinated by this series of posts on Twitter by Bradley Irish…  It’s true, I think.  I was reminded of some interviews done by the Marine Lives project last year which looked at the way historians carry out research using electronic databases.  I wrote a short blog post at the time, which made much the same point that Bradley did – we rarely talk about the ways in which we carry out the research that leads to our outputs, be they books, articles, websites, even blog posts…  Okay, we might (and probably do) mention our methodology in the output itself, but not in the level of detail that Bradley and I both meant.  There are students out there who might find this sort of openness helpful.  Heavens, I might find it helpful.  The way that I work as an academic morphed out of the way I worked as an undergraduate 20 odd years ago.  There was nothing planned, and certainly nothing taught, about it. I can only remember one single conversation about how to sit down and do the research I do, and it consisted of something like this:

‘Prof. X keeps all their research notes in a single, huge file – it makes it really easy to search for a key term or a person…’

And that was it.  Thinking about it, it wasn’t really a conversation at all.

As I embark on finding something new to work on over the next few months (plenty of ideas, by the way, just nothing concrete yet), I’m going to write a few posts about what I’m doing along the way, subtitled ‘the way I work’.  If anyone felt moved to join me, or to respond, that would be great.  I’m absolutely sure that I’ve got plenty to learn.

After a couple of dodgy days at the beginning, the week has definitely ended on a high.  I spent quite a lot of time at the beginning of the week consolidating the ideas that my trip to the British Library generated and I wrote a thousand words in a couple of hours, bringing together my thoughts .  It was very satisfying, especially in the light of the 6 months I’ve been struggling with the 7000 words of the commonwealth chapter.  In a sense, it made the chapter all the more frustrating.  Although the chapter had improved, I was still really struggling  to make it flow.  Everything was there, in vaguely the right order, but with no grace and no flow.  Cue accusations that the naughty child in me didn’t want it to flow yet.   My response was along the lines of ‘get lost’.  There is nothing fun about spending six months messing with the same set of words.  But at least writing about London proved to me that I hadn’t lost it (whatever ‘it’ is) completely.

On Wednesday night I did something a bit different.  I read the chapter aloud.  Perhaps I should have done it a long time ago, because it was so obvious when I thought about it, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me.  I printed the chapter out and attacked it with a red pen and scissors.  And it worked.  Bashing it out line by line, aloud, showed exactly where the  problems were and what didn’t make sense, what needed more explanation and what would be better broken down into more sentences.   Thursday I spent typing up all the changes that I had made and by 2.30 that afternoon, I was a very happy girl.  It’s not ready, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will do as a first draft.  What’s more, it has lost its hold on my nightmares and no longer causes me feelings of guilt and insecurity.  Maybe it won’t be the best chapter in the thesis (who knows, maybe it will), but at least I’ve now got something down that I’m confident about.

I celebrated by unpacking a box-load of books.  I’ve inherited another library, he second in three months, so my brand new shelves are now groaning under the weight of scholarship I could never have afforded to buy.

Today I checked through the results of some searches that I ran on State Papers Online and found a perfect little nugget to help with one of my arguments, so I am very happy indeed.

Finally, I’d like to pass on my very best wishes to Glyn Redworth who retires from the University of Manchester this week after more years than either of us probably cares to think about.  Time to start a new chapter, in more ways than one.

I spent this week working in the British Library, looking at lots of old manuscripts and some printed music.  I’ve been looking for ballads in commonplace books and found some really interesting stuff.  Yesterday I looked at the two oldest known pieces of English sheet music, which was amazing.  Highlight of the week, though, had to be studying the Shirburn ballads, an early 17th century collection of ballads, some with music, which had been taken off display in the Ritblat gallery so that I could work on it.  Absolutely fascinating.

I’ve written before about how much I love the British Library building.  I just wish it were further north and there was a bit more natural light – I’ve hardly seen daylight all week.  I made some very useful discoveries while I was there and the  amount of resources that I was able to look at because I was there all week instead of just a couple of days really helped me to gain an understanding of the bigger picture.  I’m now able to see the manuscript miscellanies that concentrate on ballads within their wider cultural framework.  Having the time to look at so many different manuscripts helped me to develop my ideas.

Every evening I wrote myself a long email describing what I’d been working on and how it fitted into or helped to develop my ideas about early modern ballads.  As well as the excitement, there was a lot of frustration too.  I started to suffer manuscript envy when I looked round to see lots of people typing away on their laptops, transcribing manuscripts in beautiful, legible, italic hands while I struggled with minute, rushed, secretary hands.  But I’ve always loved the early modern period; it’s always seemed to me to have the right balance between too few resources and too many, so envy didn’t last long.  What was really noticeable, though, was how tiring it was.   It’s a special sort of concentrated effort, sometimes a bit like code-breaking, trying to read through all those manuscripts.  There’s no one to talk to and not enough tea breaks, especially for someone whose PhD is fuelled by tea.

You may remember that last week I was dreading going.  Well, as I suspected, I thoroughly enjoyed myself when I got there.  Now all I need to do is to weave all my findings into my research.

[I’m told that for some people this dangled mid-sentence and never got to the point I wanted to make, so I’m trying it again]

 

It  has been a relatively quiet week.  I spent two days working on my chapter, determined to get something that vaguely resembled a draft ready before I went to London.  At the moment it contains several claims that I can’t really substantiate without a lot of extra work reading through all the ballads again and tagging them.  No bad thing, probably, but very time consuming when

a) you realise with hindsight that it was obvious you should have done that from the beginning,

b) according to all the plans, the chapter should have been finished well over a month ago,

c) according to the current plan, the chapter should be finished by the end of January and

d) I’m away all next week in London, working in the British Library.

On Wednesday, I spent the day in Manchester having a long chat with a friend, discussing life, the universe, my husband’s upcoming retirement, my job prospects and my thesis.   On the way home I felt an unaccustomed sense of peace – whatever happens is going to happen regardless of how I feel about it.  But it didn’t last – by yesterday afternoon I was pretty down in the dumps.  I’m trying to put it to one side, but the prospect of the trip to London doesn’t help.  More on that later.  I spent Thursday and Friday doing some of the fiddly little things that needed doing, such as looking through some of my findings from the State Papers and cataloguing some of the ballads.  All things that really needed doing, but somehow, as they don’t produce much in the way of writing, they don’t feel like they add up to much.  It’s good to know that I’ve made a bit of progress with them, so that gives me some satisfaction.  Yesterday morning I even submitted an abstract for a music conference in Manchester, which will be a bit of a change.

So back to the subject of the trip to London and the dread of the post title.  This causes me genuine confusion.  I know that I will enjoy being in the archives once I’m there and I know that I will enjoy seeing friends and family while I’m down there, so why do I feel not one spark of enthusiasm for this trip?  Instead, all I feel is an almost overwhelming sense of dread.  It makes no sense at all.   I can only assume that it’s something to do with the depression.  I can see why people might be worried about supervision meetings and perhaps why panel meetings might cause anxiety, but to have such an aversion to doing something that I enjoy is incomprehensible.

I’ve been rather unpredictable in my blog posts lately, mainly because I used to write them on Friday evenings as a review of what I’d done during the ‘normal working week’ (Show me a scholar who works a normal working week?  No? No, me neither…), but since the summer the whole family has been going to choir practice on a Friday evening.  That has thrown out my blogging routine completely and it has yet to settle in to a new one.  My child-free time (the school day) is so precious for work that I’m loathe to use it to write the blog.

Anyway, the other reason that I haven’t given many reports on what I’ve been doing lately is because I haven’t been doing all that much work.  It doesn’t seem all that interesting to report that I’ve read a few books.  I finally finished Steve Hindle’s The State and Social Change in Early Modern England.  I started on it before I had my nasty infection, which finally forced me to take a day or two off to recover, then I finished off and submitted the article I’d been writing.  When I went back to work I started reading Ethan Shagan on Popular Politics and the English Reformation.  My supervisor asked me what I thought about the Hindle monograph, I confidently gave a reply, he asked if I’d finished reading it, I said ‘yes’ and then as the conversation progressed I began to doubt myself…  When I hung up the phone, I went and picked the book up and, sure enough, I was only half way through.   So that put the wind up me.  I genuinely thought I’d finished it.  I had finished it by the end of the next day!

I catalogued 50 more ballads.

I organised another research trip to the British Library for January.

I had yet another telephone conversation about the abandoned common weal chapter, another ‘wobble’.   It was a conversation with my husband that gave me the starting point that sent me running to my study to grab a notebook and start scribbling ideas.  He unwittingly found me the angle I’ve been missing for the last 2 months and I filled a couple of pages with scribblings about how to turn the disparate ideas into something resembling a chapter.  I then had only a few days before the children finished school for Christmas in which to get started.  I decided to write a plan for the chapter and develop it from there.  So at the moment I have a file on my computer called ‘Developed Chapter Plan’ which lists in order all the points I want to make.  It includes a chunk of writing I’d already done on some manuscript miscellanies and several useful primary and secondary quotations that I’d already come across.  My intention is for the chapter to grow from the plan.

So then the break for Christmas.  Father Christmas brought me a large stack of books.  Alexandra Walsham on Church Papists, Hiram Morgan on Tyrone’s Rebellion, Landlords and Tenants in Britain, a book on the Aztecs and one on Mindfulness.  Plenty of reading material there for the new year.

Next Page »