Raiders of the lost archives

In the age of digitisation, the ‘search’ part of research has become a virtual experience. Although progress has many advantages, John Sutherland laments the end of the scholar-adventurer and the thrill of discovery amid dusty, uncatalogued manuscripts

June 28, 2012

She was going to a conference on biography at the University of Southern California, Sarah Churchwell said, and intended to make her first trip to the Huntington Library. Did I know it?

Yes, I muttered, I worked for 25 years half a mile down the deodar-arched road. When I first went there, you had to walk through the institute’s fragrant orange groves to get to the reading room. After I secured a job at the California Institute of Technology (a post that elicited awe, until your interlocutor realised you were not a rocket scientist), I spent eight years virtually every working day (classroom “work” was not crushing at Caltech) on a labour of love, an encyclopedia of Victorian fiction. Yes, I knew the place.

It is the most civilised library anywhere, set as it is in the finest dry gardens outside Mexico (cactus rustlers are a constant threat) and the best art gallery on the West Coast. One of my friends said that if she died and went to Heaven, she would expect St Peter to ask for her Huntington reader’s card at the pearly gates.

Churchwell is the scholarly equivalent of an electric storm. Ten minutes with her is a Christopher Walken hair-job. She has a book on The Great Gatsby coming out soon. Careless People will hot-cake off the Kindle e-shelf and the Amazon warehouse so fast that Little, Brown will be reprinting before Times Higher Education gets its review out.

That book, she promises (I believe her), will contain lots of hitherto unpublished material. But whatever of that there was at the HEH (as it is known, after Henry E. Huntington, the railway magnate and philanthropist) she would already have in her efficiently plumped-out files - thanks to Professor Google, Dr Xerox and the email Hermes. Dropping by HEH, if she has time from the conference, will probably be like spending a relaxing afternoon at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or the La Brea Tar Pits.

As we spoke, my mind wandered back to my first trip to the Huntington - when, metaphorically, dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In 1973, that is. By metaphor, I mean before research was digitally enhanced. If nowhere else, Lenin’s instruction (“Electrify! Electrify! Electrify!”) has been adopted by the academic professions. It was the universities that were first to adopt email as it span off from military agency the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (Arpanet), and Tim Berners-Lee’s hypertext World Wide Web as it span off from Cern. That was all in the future in the early 1970s.

An assistant lecturer (a rank now abolished as humiliating to its possessor), I scraped the money together for the trip to California from A-level marking (30p a script, I recall) and British Council summer schools (£60 a week, plus bed and board and lots of jolly carousing with Eastern Europeans, enjoying a brief saturnalian furlough from their glum regimes).

The air ticket cost me £90. That represented 5 per cent of my annual salary (it pro-rates at £2,000 in the current valuation). The reason it was so “cheap” was because it was a “charter flight”. I had to pay a couple of quid to join something like the Plassey Street Wirepullers Club, or whatever. I prudently bought a Greyhound Bus “travel everywhere” pass for use in the US, which I had never before visited.

The Boeing 737 couldn’t make it all the way to LA, so there was a wretched stopover in Buffalo. The long-haul jumbo jet, god bless it, has since made it as easy (after navigating the security mazes) to get across the Atlantic and the American land mass as to take a 168 bus across London.

In real currency, Churchwell could probably travel Virgin Upper Class for what steerage class cost me in 1973. When I finally made it to Pasadena, lodging at the Athenaeum (aka the Caltech-Huntington Staff Club) was packed out and I was bedded down on a “mezzanine” (ie, a balcony). It was January. The stars glowed brightly above me. And freezingly.

But when I got to the library itself it was Aladdin’s Cave. There were manuscripts and rare books (the world’s best collection of Victorian novels in serial, for example), many of them uncatalogued. It required a certain nerve to ask the librarian to cut the page of a monthly serial of - say - a William Harrison Ainsworth part that had been sealed for 110 years. All the stuff I was interested in was untrod snow. And, of course, you had no way of knowing the full riches within the collections unless you were there in person (the same was true of the British Museum’s “rare books and manuscript” department, which lagged years behind “accessing” its vast holdings. It was a scholarly bran tub).

Forty years on (a full academic career) and everything is different. Professor Google, Dr Xerox and Mr Jumbo Jet (not to say email and dirt-cheap telephony) have created the research equivalent of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Things are moving at ever faster speed. Within the foreseeable future, the British Library (successor to the old BM, with its elephant folio catalogue) will have all its contents digitised and text searchable. No more days out (lunchless, typically, given the non-existent refreshment facilities) at Colindale. Once the Google Books Library Project sorts out its copyright problems, one will be able to access a whole copyright library from one’s iPad. Electronic cataloguing now has the amazing utility of a car’s GPS system. It takes you wherever you want to go, no fuss whatsoever. And once you have it, you can’t imagine what it was like not to have it.

It makes for huge efficiencies. But somehow, to paraphrase Bob Seger, it don’t have the same thrill. “Dramatise it! Dramatise it!” instructed Henry James. Where’s the drama in “calling up” things, never having to move a yard from the keyboard? There was something genuinely exciting - the thrill of the hunt. Modern techniques make one feel like Jabba the Hutt. Let the fingers do the research.

The first serious effort I made in scholarship, in the late 1960s, was an edition of William Makepeace Thackeray’s three-volume novel, The History of Henry Esmond. I picked up from somewhere the fact that the manuscript had been donated by Leslie Stephen (Thackeray’s son-in-law, by his first marriage) to Trinity College, Cambridge. Both men had been students there.

It is the Esmond manuscript that Stephen’s daughter, Virginia, was forbidden entrance into the college library to view - on grounds of gender - that detonated that most explosive text, A Room of One’s Own. No prohibition for me. I was politely informed by the keeper of manuscripts at the college, Philip Gaskell, that - with the provision of the necessary letters of introduction - I was free to examine it. I spent three weeks motoring daily from where I was staying in Essex to do so. I think I was the first, in 70 years, to collate the manuscript with the printed text.

A year or so later, in the New York Public Library I came across what was obviously (but not then described as such, and vaguely catalogued) Thackeray’s memorandum and sketchbook for the novel. The copyright libraries (I was using the National Library of Scotland mainly) had the 1851 Smith, Elder first edition, printed - with some difficulty - in “Queen Anne” print. It had interesting misprints and proof changes.

I found the contract for Esmond - a most interesting document - on another visit to New York (funded by the British Academy) to the Pierpont Morgan Library. Again it was an accidental discovery (that word seemed appropriate). The 17th-century Burney Collection of newspapers was used by Thackeray for his historical novel. The BM librarian, Antonio Panizzi, gave Thackeray free run of the journals. He actually marked passages he thought interesting in ink. I think now they are preserved from acidic fingers and rough page turnings by digital-only accessibility. Inking them is probably a capital offence.

My Esmond jigsaw took me years to assemble and a good chunk of my personal treasure. I suspect it could now be done, by a resourceful PhD student with quick fingers, in a couple of weeks. For pennies.

In the Army, as I recall, the obstacle course was a necessary element in training. It made you a better soldier, the authorities believed (they still do). I wouldn’t necessarily argue that obstacles made one a better scholar. They just made you feel better about the kind of scholarship that put you in apostolic touch with primary materials. There was adventure and zest to it.

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory - attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds - has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective - if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

It’s progress, of course. But I still think the orange groves, the mattress on the mezzanine - and that wonderful smell of old MSS - was more fun.

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