The Ins and Outs of Archival Research

Part-time postgraduate researcher, Antonia Saunders, kicks off our series on the PhD journey and beyond with her reflections on a recent trip to Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. As Antonia reveals, her visit not only furthered her research into how 19th-century historians and novelists constructed an idea of Jewishness, it also offered broader and more unexpected rewards.

The Bodleian Library” by malias is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As a part-time PhD student with a full-time job in corporate banking, I sometimes feel as if I am snatching snippets of time to follow my aspirations of becoming a full-time academic.

So, when my supervisors suggested that I use some of my Support Grant to facilitate a three-day research trip to the Bodleian Libraries, I got onto it straight away. The prospect was overwhelmingly appealing: access to materials relating to my research on Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disraeli, and George Eliot; accommodation in college rooms; an uninterrupted period to focus on my research.

I needed to apply for a Bodleian Reader card ahead of my visit, and my supervisor very kindly supplied me with a letter of introduction. I could order materials for my visit up to five days before. My list of archival materials has over forty items, and you can only order up to ten items at a time. So, I selected what I thought might be the most relevant ones to look at on my first visit.

These included handwritten manuscripts and typed proofs of Disraeli’s novels, and one of George Eliot’s notebooks from 1861, and two for 1868 when she first conceived the idea of her long poem The Spanish Gypsy. I also wanted to consult Gordon S. Haight’s seven volumes of George Eliot’s letters in the Old Bodleian Library as these have not, as yet, been digitized.

I spent most of my visit in the Weston Library with the resources I had ordered. The ability to search through Disraeli’s papers and George Eliot’s notebook was thrilling. At first, I found Disraeli’s handwriting illegible – horizontal lines in brown ink with occasional bumps and tails. I had a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be able to make out anything. But I tried comparing his handwriting to his novels on Project Gutenberg, and – slowly, very slowly – I began to be able to decipher his handwriting, and to note some changes between the manuscript and the finished novels.

George Eliot’s handwriting in her notebooks was meticulously neat, but she had written some pages in Latin, German, and Italian, so I copied down some passages with names and words I recognised to translate later on. I also spent some time in the Old Bodleian Library reading through Haight’s volumes of George Eliot’s letters.

I didn’t get through all of the material I ordered for my visit. Now that I know what is held there, I am planning my next trips with a more focused approach to specific materials – perhaps visiting for one day at a time,

I do, however, highly recommend staying overnight in college rooms. I booked into St. Stephen’s House, a theological college, about a twenty-minute walk from the centre of Oxford. The students were welcoming, and I had some very interesting conversations over breakfast. One of the students had a diamond pin on his lapel with the figures 1897. I asked him of the significance of the year, and he told me it was from the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria and that he collects Victorian merchandise from the golden and diamond jubilees. I also spoke to a visitor who is an Egyptologist translating a ceremonial text held at the Ashmolean Museum.

I completed both my BA and my MA at the Open University, and I am passionate about the egalitarian principles the university is founded on, especially because of the opportunities it has afforded me. However, the chance to sit down and meet other students in a relaxed atmosphere, and to talk about interests beyond my own research, gave me a feel of what it might have been like had I attended university in my youth.

The benefits reaped during my visit went beyond the academic. I also experienced a boost to my mental health. I found it invaluable to clear space in my schedule to focus on my research, to be able to think a thought through without being interrupted by pressures of work or home life, and to be surrounded by such a wealth of learning and knowledge.

Magdalen College, Oxford” by interbeat is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

One of my supervisors, who lives in Oxford, met me for a walk on two of the days. She gave me a tour of Magdalen College, including a walk around the deer park and through a field of snake’s head fritillaries. She also took me to her own alma mater, New College, where we heard the choristers practising.

I started my research in 2020 during lockdown, and I think I have inadvertently adopted sedentary habits – always a potential risk for bibliophiles. But it felt so good to be out and about, walking in the fresh air. It made me reflect on my use of time and to commit to getting outside each day, rain or shine, to clear my mind.

Antonia Saunders

Antonia Saunders studied for both her BA and MA at The Open University. Her primary interest is in the novel in all its forms with a particular concentration on the nineteenth and early twentieth century. She began her part-time PhD at the OU in October 2020. Her thesis, The construction of a Jewish Identity in histories and novels of the nineteenth century, considers the literary and historiographical contexts of representations of Jewish people and Jewish Identity.

About Emma Claire Sweeney

Lecturer in Creative Writing at the open University, Director of the Ruppin Agency Writer's Studio (a nationwide literary mentoring programme), and award-winning author of novel OWL SONG AT DAWN and co-author with Emily Midorikawa of non-fiction book A SECRET SISTERHOOD: THE HIDDEN FRIENDSHIPS OF AUSTEN, BRONTË, ELIOT AND WOLF.
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1 Response to The Ins and Outs of Archival Research

  1. Comment from Sara Haslam:

    Antonia, it was a great pleasure to read this inspiring, fascinating and practically supportive post. You offer many good reasons for taking focused time to work on the PhD in a library setting, and one where you can work with original source materials and manuscripts to boot. (Your handwriting struggles will speak to textual editors everywhere…) I appreciate what you say about the challenges of working part-time, but also the rewards of diving in for a few days if and when possible.

    Great suggestions on the accommodation front – I hope others in our PhD community can follow them up! Thanks very much again for sharing your experience in this post!

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