Starting in the Archives

In early February 2009, I found myself heading to Cheshire Archives and Local Studies to take a look at an item in the collections there. Just a few days earlier, I’d been working my way through an online catalogue in search of early modern (i.e., sixteenth and seventeenth century) literary manuscripts, when I’d come across a reference which seemed intriguing, to say the least. I wasn’t at all sure that the trip was going to be worth it – the catalogue description wasn’t detailed enough for me to be sure that it was at all relevant. Still, worth a train fare, anyway.

The catalogue in question is Access to Archives, which contains listings for collections of papers held in record offices throughout England and Wales. It’s a brilliant resource – not just because of the sheer volume and scope of the records it lists, but also because it allows you to get a good overview of individual collections once you’ve come across items within them that seem interesting. So you can always get to see where a particular item fits within any larger collection, and get a quick grasp on the extent of a collection and how it’s been catalogued. As a student of early modern literature, I’ve long been used to working with the collections of big research libraries, which are often particularly strong in their holdings of literary manuscripts, and it’s easy to overlook other repositories; but the strengths of the record offices lie not so much in a concentration of literary materials as in their inclusion in more miscellaneous collections, often of family papers. Rather than a manuscript that’s passed through the hands of several sellers and buyers on its way to its permanent home, you can find yourself holding something that is still part of a collection that might have been assembled over centuries, and put together too not by a connoisseur or collector but in the course of everyday life. Of course, that’s not always going to be informative – but it can also give you a powerful sense of provenance that can be very helpful to the researcher.

On top of that, this way of organising the data means that you can explore the holdings of the archives by browsing as well as searching. So once you’ve come across something useful in a collection of papers, you can zoom out, as it were, to learn a bit about their history and extent, and you can see the major headings under which they’re organised. Lots of collections of family papers focus, for obvious reasons, on documents relating to property and its transmission down the generations – deeds, wills, marriage settlements and so on. So those are often grouped together. Then you get things like correspondence, in which business affairs can also often predominate. The fun, though, starts once you get to the personal papers, or enticing categorisations such as ‘Miscellaneous’ or ‘Literary and Miscellaneous’. It was while browsing through just such a category in a collection of family papers that I’d been brought up short by the description of this one particular item…

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James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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