Exploring the Depths: Working with Archives at the National Library of Scotland

In this week’s post, PhD student Steven Harvie tells us about his placement at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, continuing our series on working while doing a PhD. Steven tells us about the serendipity of the archives and the great pleasure of actually going into an office (especially one as beautiful as the NLS).

As someone whose PhD is part of SGSAH’s Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme, I work closely with an institution beyond, although intimately connected with, academia. In my case, I’m collaborating with the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in Edinburgh to research the writing of Scottish author Muriel Spark using the library’s vast Spark archive. The NLS is housed in a beautiful building on the George IV Bridge. My only complaint is that in order to reach it, you have to climb an ungodly amount of stairs, though I think that’s the case for getting around anywhere in Edinburgh (whenever I alight from the train back to Glasgow, I become ever more grateful for the relative lack of verticality here). Nonetheless, it’s totally worth it, and whether you live in Edinburgh or are visiting, I’d highly recommend passing through; they have a great, lively café and a wee bookshop too!

Of course, I go there for reasons beyond caffeine – though that is a cherished part too – and from October to December last year, I was working on the first half of a placement with the library as part of my collaborative programme. Usually, I visit the library to consult materials from the Spark archive in the Special Collections room, a room high up on the 15th floor. The room is very quiet and solemn, but with a fantastic view of the city’s sprawling network of peacefully aging buildings, their rooftops exhaling lazy wisps of smoke and looking generally indifferent to the hubbub below. You might say, given the length of that description, it is something of a distraction, but no, it’s all part of the serene and scholarly ambience of the place, gently encouraging me, I like to think, to get on with the work ahead. This is an environment and atmosphere, I might add, that is hard to replicate at home, and one that I sorely missed during those first months of lockdown in 2020.

The main stairway of the National Library of Scotland (NLS).

However, for my placement, I was invited by my supervisor, Colin Mcllroy (a curator at the NLS in charge of modern Scottish literary manuscripts), to share his office space and work on recording and documenting unlisted parts of the Spark archive, which will eventually be sorted into a database that will allow the public to search for and request materials to look at. Essentially, I was working on a spreadsheet, filling in information relevant to the archival materials that make up a particular accession (that is, one section of the archive; Spark’s is massive). That may not sound especially glamorous, but it was actually a really interesting and far more complex exercise than I imagined it to be. For one, I got to see parts of the archive that I hadn’t yet explored, uncovering some delightful items, like the batch of letters written by French and German schoolchildren to Spark responding to her novels, an exercise set by their English teachers. One kid was bold enough to tell Spark how he would improve the novel Memento Mori by changing the ending. These ‘letters’ were sent over by their teachers hoping to receive a response from Spark to show their students. Spark wrote back with gratitude and her signature dry humour, praising the German children’s illustrations of alternative Jean Brodie cover art by saying she only wishes publishers were as open to new ideas and experimentation.

When it came to the task of describing these materials, I was guided by Colin as well as archivist Steve Ridgen, whose expertise in digital technology is crucial for how the archive is sorted and accessed. I won’t bore you with the thrilling details of data entry but there were parts of it that any curious (or nosey?) scholar would revel in. For instance, part of the job required me to note any and every name that Spark either corresponded with or was contacted by. Alongside names and titles of honour (I am now unexpectedly well-versed in the frankly Byzantine system of the Orders of the British Empire), I included details on their occupation as well as their relationship to Spark, plus the dates of their birth and death, or at the very least the timeframe within which they were active in Spark’s life. Often, I had to investigate (read: Google) these names to glean information about their career and in doing so, I would go down all sorts of rabbit holes reading about the lives and achievements of various characters: writers, artists, actors, journalists, academics, publishers, politicians and even royals. Spark kept interesting company, and it’s these little narratives – hidden within the depths of the library – that makes the work of archiving and curation all the more important. Archivists both preserve deep histories and, more importantly, sort and arrange them in such a way as to make them accessible and useful for posterity. It felt good and rewarding to be a small part of that process, if only for a while.

The Miss Jean Brodie Steps in Edinburgh, named after the Muriel Spark novel.

The other pleasure of the placement, however, was simply interacting with a professional work environment. As postgraduate researchers, our work is, for the most part, naturally quite lonely and unstructured – one day you’ll be reading a lot, the next writing, the next editing, the next too overwhelmed to do anything, and the next thinking anxiously about the future, rocking back and forth in a catatonic daze (not necessarily in that order). It was a huge relief when I got to actually leave the flat, catch a train, walk (okay, the stairs I still dislike) to an office and work away while chatting to Colin and other staff about everything archival. Colin even showed me some recently acquired artworks by renowned Glaswegian author (and one of my favourite writers) Alasdair Gray. Another colleague showed me an original letter from Mary Shelley writing to Sir Walter Scott to correct his mistake in attributing the authorship of Frankenstein to her partner, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Alongside these wonderful impromptu exhibitions were plenty of stories and conversation about the day-to-day activity and the broader concerns of curation: visits to people’s personal archives, the tricky subject of valuing collections, deciding and anticipating what is of cultural significance in the first place, and the more practical questions about how to arrange and present collections, with related concerns over storage for all this stuff and the role digital archiving will play in the near future. My placement, the second half of which begins in March, taught me not only about the skills and experiences of curatorial work and the important public role of institutions like the NLS, but also that there’s many opportunities in this area and PGRs unsure about their future in academia should consider the possibility of alternative careers in the heritage sector. 

If you would like to contribute to the SGSAH Blog, please email Vesna (vesna.curlic@ed.ac.uk) with your idea.

Steven Harvie is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow. His research investigates the writing practice and publishing contexts behind the work of Muriel Spark using the archive materials held at the National Library of Scotland. You can find Steven on Twitter at @steve2603.

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