Guest Blogs

Library Champion Project Demystifying Archives and Manuscripts: A Journey Through the Special Collections

Written by Chloe Cicely Chandler (MA English Literature)

 

In March of 2019 I somehow found myself within the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room with my eyes delighting over the sprawling handwriting within Coleridge’s notebooks. Ever an inspirer of wonder in me, it was magical to see his mind come alive; the thoughts seeming to burst onto the page with frantic imagination. I was especially fixated by Coleridge’s sketches of the Lake District that recorded the walks he had adventured on with his fellow Romantic visionaries: William and Dorothy Wordsworth. I often reflect on the fact that I touched the paper upon which Coleridge had scribed over 200 years ago. Now, it seems as if it were a distant, hazy dream. This was the first ever encounter I had with physical archival research, and one I would never forget. The research was undertaken during my English undergraduate degree for my third-year dissertation on altered states of consciousness in Romantic literature. In addition to Coleridge, I also focused on the writings of Sir Humphry Davy and Thomas De Quincey. This led me to take a separate journey where I also travelled to the Morrab Library in Penzance to learn more about Davy’s poetical and chemical experimentations from the archives in his Cornish hometown.

Both of these experiences were incredibly rewarding and put into perspective what I most enjoyed about studying English literature: that ability to peer into history through the words that individuals have left behind; as if the gap in time between the past and the present has been momentarily suspended. Such opportunities for research were the highlight of my entire degree – they made me feel more connected to the research I was conducting, and encouraged me throughout the difficult process of writing and editing my dissertation – providing my work with a greater sense of purpose.

Out of these explorations, I became very interested in the ways in which I could make the most of being an English MA student at a research-focused university and partake in opportunities to delve into the archives. This academic year, I joined as one of the Library Champions for English. As part of this role, I act as a liaison between library staff and students, passing along feedback, suggestions, and making book requests on behalf of students within my subject area. I had the opportunity to develop a project of my choosing relating to library services. Consequently, I decided it would be valuable to concentrate my project on the Special Collections based at the University of Exeter. Specifically, I wanted to consider the ways in which students could be made more aware of the unique primary resources available to them in order to increase their engagement with the archives during their degree.

 

Surveying Student Feedback

It was important for me to first gather insight from my fellow peers, so I put together a survey that was open to students from across the disciplines. This survey aimed to get a sense of general student knowledge of the archival services that the university offers, whilst also offering a space to make suggestions for how the Special Collections could be more integrated into the student experience. Although the responses ended up being mainly from Humanities students – with a majority from English undergraduates – their experiential highlights and suggestions were immensely helpful in terms of evaluating the current dialogue between students and the Special Collections.

Of those who had used the archives, their memories were very positive. One student relayed their enthusiasm as such: “I have only accessed the archives as part of a workshop on accessing them and it was really interesting! [The] Staff [were] great and very informative, I will definitely be in touch if there is something I need to access.” Speaking of the online catalogue, a student mentioned how valuable it was for their research: “I loved it, I accessed it almost daily to complete my assignments.” Others recall their use of the archives as: “[an] Intriguing and … exciting experience”; additionally: “I found the archivist very helpful and friendly and enjoyed the experience.”

The main areas that could improve student engagement with the Special Collections, as suggested by those surveyed, related to the following:

– Accessibility: student responses highlighted how the process can appear daunting, whilst other students were less aware of where to begin researching.

– Visibility: students highlighted a need to increase overall awareness of the collections through visual displays and marketing throughout the university. As a fellow student expressed: “I’d love for more people to handle and see these manuscripts.”

Following this initial feedback collection from my student cohort, I wanted to get a more informed perspective of the process behind performing archival research: this required me to find archival works of interest from the catalogue and then arrange a viewing of them.

 

The Process

As a starting place, the Collection Highlights page is especially helpful as it presents intriguing items within the university’s collection which you can then search for on the Archives catalogue, or use as a springboard for other research ideas. My personal interests for my MA dissertation relate to Romantic and Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I am also interested in kindred areas such as the supernatural and folkloric. From our discussions, the Special Collections team gave me some fantastic suggestions to consider based on these research topics.

Of particular interest to me was the Theo Brown Collection that comes with its own helpful collection guide. Brown was a renowned folklore researcher and Research Fellow within the Philosophy and History Departments at the University of Exeter. Her immense research collection has been in the university’s archive since her death in 1993. Brown had a particular focus on folklore rooted in the South West of England, and, as an individual born and raised here, this sparked my interest. From within the vast collection, I needed to specify particular items, each of which is given a name relating to the overarching topics they contain. I finally decided upon the boxes that covered ‘Fringe Lore and UFOs’, ‘Guising and Hobby Horse’, and ‘Devon and West Country witches and witchcraft’. In addition, there was a fascinating object under the Rare books and maps section that I felt compelled to see as a Gothic researcher: a 1st issue, 1st edition of Bram Stoker’s legendary Gothic novel Dracula from 1897 housed within the Lloyd Collection. This edition is renowned for its strikingly coloured cover. As one of my favourite literary works, I was delighted to hear that the university had such an item available for viewing.

When I went about making my request via the Visiting Heritage Collections webpage, I first had to find the necessary codes for the Collections, which you can search for on the archive database: archival works have a title and MS number; books have a title and call number; journals have a title and volume/issue number. After making my request, I received an email promptly confirming my reading room booking. Before attending my booking, I read up on the handling procedures laid out in the Special Collections handling guide which provided some really useful information about how different types of materials are to be treated. This was practically helpful when I was searching through Brown’s archive as it included an array of different materials, including many pictures, for which I needed gloves. One interesting piece of information which often surprises people is that, in most cases, when handling rare books, it is preferable for you to not wear gloves as this decreases your physical sensitivity to the material itself, making it more likely that you might damage it.

When I arrived at the Old Library on the day, I went over to the Special Collections desk to inform of my arrival. My selected items had already been prepared behind the desk for viewing and were promptly brought out. The items displayed within the Ronald Duncan Reading Room itself were instantly engaging. To one side was a writing desk that had belonged to the much-beloved author Daphne Du Maurier, which came as a wonderful surprise as I was able to sit near it whilst I researched. I had seen one of her writing desks only once before at the Jamaica Inn’s Smugglers Museum on Bodmin Moor. I was also particularly fond of the artworks on the back wall by the artist Leonard Baskin which depicted various birds, including a variety of crows – a favourite Gothic symbol of mine!

I first went about exploring Brown’s items: from memory, a news story she had collected that was immensely intriguing was about a so-called ‘witch bottle’ that had been discovered in a basement. The bottle, under examination, turned out to be filled with a concoction of items that suggested its use in a baneful, magical working, containing nails, human urine, and thorns, amongst other items. Although I had only engaged with a small part of the entire Theo Brown collection, I was amazed by how much was contained within each box and managed to spend the entire afternoon slot searching through an amalgam of pictures, newspaper clippings, and letters – how the time flew by! In light of this, I would suggest to potential Special Collection users to allow themselves ample time to view resources and not try to cram too much into one visit. Rather, take the time to enjoy researching and making notes. And, if needed, return for another visit.

Following this, I handled the 1st edition of Dracula, for which I was given a book snake weight and cushion to use, so that the spine and fragile pages would be supported. I was instantly amazed by the vivid yellow cover that adorned the book. The cover was made even more pronounced by the red lettering that spelt out the book’s title, as if written in blood; very befitting given the contents. There was something strangely modern about the book’s palette of colours that made it feel out of place for the time period in which it was written. The aesthetic choices made about the design seemed to highlight the very alluring nature of the work, presenting the book itself as a kind of fantastical object. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to handle these items from the Special Collection and shall remember the experience fondly.

 

Call For Archival Research

In recent years, I have found that research of both primary and secondary sources for assignments tends to be confined to online databases. And, although this is undeniably helpful in terms of providing greater access to works from other institutions and aiding in the search for specific terms, I find there is something inherently missing from this experience of research. When you are there in person, there is a certain magic and fascination that can be kindled, which is more difficult to attain through a digitised source. It puts you back in touch with the physical history of these sources – the feel and sensation of them – such things are often lost when searching purely within digitised collections. Whilst at university, we have the unique chance to use these resources which might otherwise be unavailable or more difficult to access were we not students.

I highly recommend my fellow students give the archives a go! You may not have a particular text or subject in mind for your research, which is completely fine; using the archives is actually a fantastic way to discover an area you might be interested in. It also incentivises you to produce more distinctly original research to present to your subject area. The archivists, with their expertise in the collection items, are also on hand to provide helpful suggestions, as they did in my case.

 

Future Prospects

In response to student feedback, the Special Collections team have been putting these suggestions into practice, such as, updating the website pages to make them more accessible and user-friendly. We are also planning some further collaborative projects to improve accessibility and visibility over the next academic year – so make sure to watch this space!

I would be delighted to hear from my peers: if you have any feedback or suggestions you would like to make with regards to the library services, including the Special Collections or book requests for English, please feel free to contact me at cc725@exeter.ac.uk. For more Library Champion information visit: Find your Library Champion – Library Champions – LibGuides at University of Exeter

 

Helpful Special Collection links

Main website: Special Collections | Special Collections | University of Exeter

Special Collection Highlights: Highlights | Special Collections | University of Exeter

LibGuides: Home – Archives and Special Collections – LibGuides at University of Exeter

Special Collections catalogue: Home Page (ex.ac.uk)

Handling Guide: Handling Materials – Archives and Special Collections – LibGuides at University of Exeter

Bill Douglas Cinema Museum: http://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/

Digital Collections: http://specialcollectionsarchive.exeter.ac.uk/collections/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/UoEHeritageColl

 

‘This direct contact with history was unlike anything I had ever experienced before…’: Reflections on work experience in Special Collections by Alice Dunn

We were delighted to be joined last week by Year 12 student Alice Dunn for a week of work experience in Special Collections. Below Alice shares some of her impressions and reflections on her experience. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Alice for her excellent work and wish her every success for the future.

My name is Alice Dunn, and I have spent a week in a work experience placement with the special collections and archives department of the University of Exeter. I am a year 12 student at King Edward VI Community College in Totnes, and very luckily for me the special collections team have been kind enough to facilitate my fascination with literature and history, and by extension with the vast collections kept here! 

Map of Devon from an atlas of the counties of England and Wales [Rare books B 1590/SAX/XX]

My placement began on Monday with an introduction to the collections and the work done regarding them, including their preservation and conservation. I measured the temperature and humidity in each of the rooms archives were stored in, and recorded these daily observations to ensure these conditions were optimum; extremes of either temperature or humidity can damage the items. What was particularly exciting was learning to handle the materials – there were a number of different items with which I was able to practice, including a 1579 hand-coloured Atlas of the counties of England, produced by Christopher Saxton! I learned that the best way to handle these materials is not, in fact, with gloves (with the exception of photographs), as their role in reducing dexterity increases the risk of tearing pages, but instead with clean hands. This direct contact with history was unlike anything I had ever experienced before; while I have learned about these time periods in history, or read new editions of texts, to handle materials which are hundreds of years old brings a sense of connection with the past that I do not think I could have otherwise felt. Down to the very knowledge that the ink on that page was handwritten by someone who experienced the things I have learned about from books, or to read the annotation of readers, like me, who annotated books they read, but in the 16th century (not like me!), my experience with archival materials has allowed a cohesion of my knowledge, ensuring enrichment in my future learning. While looking around the collections, I was also fortunate enough to be shown materials such as a sheet from a 1478 Caxton print of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and Golding’s handwritten manuscript of the first draft of The Lord of the Flies, (though, due to its fragility, handling is avoided), both of which resulted in vast amounts of excitement on my part!  

Bills relating to elections in Devon, 1835, and to a concert in Exeter, 1858 [EUL MS 269]

Over the next few days, I was given a few projects to work on. On Tuesday, I sorted through letters to, from, and regarding, Agatha Christie, (some of which were handwritten by Christie herself!), selecting those that were relating to Poirot for an exhibition to go alongside a talk on him. After this experience I feel I am justified in stopping anyone from criticising my handwriting again, or else admitting that Christie, despite her literary genius, may not have been popular among teachers or A-Level examiners! I also looked at a collection of political bills from 1835 and researched the context behind these to aid the writing of a social media post about them, and the information I learned from this seems since to appear in my day-to-day life with astonishing frequency (namely in Middlemarch, which is active in its discussion of 19th century politics!). Throughout the week, I also accompanied team members in receiving and unpacking new materials that had arrived in the post, learning about the process of ‘accession’ before cataloging, and how to write titles and descriptions for these so that they can be best found by researchers. As part of this, I studied a recently received item which has not yet been cataloged, creating resources like a map on which all the places mentioned are flagged, as well as using university records to find out more about the individuals mentioned. This will ensure the item is better understood, so that when it comes to cataloging it can be organised in the collection more easily, and so that its description will be as accurate as possible, making it more accessible to researchers.  

Archives in the strongroom

In aiding retrievals to accommodate researchers’ requests, and reshelving after the resources have been used, I also came to learn about the organisation of the archives themselves. The breadth of the collections means the system in place is integral to ensuring they can be fully utilised by others, and thus learning about the system of cataloging here, and the differing one in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum where I was fortunate enough to be able to get a tour and speak to staff, has given me a much deeper understanding of the day-to-day process of keeping archives.

On Thursday, the staff at special collections had arranged for me to visit the closely interlinked Digital Humanities Lab at the University. I was given a tour of the building, and was fascinated to learn the role technology can have in the study of humanities, both in relation to archival materials and not. Due to the fragility of many of the items, including wax figurines and skulls, many objects will have 3D printed copies made to enable hands-on interaction. The intersection between archives and photography was something I had never thought about, but constitutes much of the work done by the Digital Humanities Lab – they have two purpose-built photographic studios, enabling photos to be taken in such high-quality, flakes of paint can be seen on the surfaces of pages. The Exeter Book (a book of Old English riddles from the 10th century, some of the oldest surviving pieces of English literature today) is owned by Exeter Cathedral, and while it is not linked to the university nor their collections, it was recently photographed and digitised by staff at the Digital Humanities Lab using their specialist photographic equipment. Having attended seminars and lectures with universities on the poems and riddles in this book, the accessibility created by technology is of importance to me, and thus it was fascinating to discover the work that is done to aid this.  

While I was initially most attracted to this work experience placement from more of a researcher perspective – I’m always fascinated by materials which can tell me more about my areas of interest – it has resulted in a better understanding of what it means to be an archivist, and, as a consequence, an interest in the role for its own sake; whether or not the collections I have looked at in my placement have been relevant to what I want to study in the future, they are intriguing in themselves, and not because they relate to what I already have knowledge of. I have had the most enjoyable week learning new skills and information – I don’t think I could’ve found another placement that so well supported my interests, while expanding my knowledge of everything! A big thank you to the Special Collections and Archives team for being so accommodating! 

Collage of images from the University of Exeter Special Collections

Behind the Scenes at Special Collections: A Week of Work Experience

The new display outside the Ronald Duncan Reading Room

We were delighted to recently welcome Rosie and Scarlett, two Year 12 students from Colyton Grammar School, for a week of work experience at Special Collections. Their task for the week was to create a new display focusing on the Syon Abbey Collection, which involved handling, researching, digitising and curating a selection of rare books and archival items.

The new display is open to everyone and can be found by entering the Old Library on Streatham Campus via the main entrance, turning right at the barriers and walking down the corridor towards Seminar Room A/B. The display is located on the right outside the Ronald Duncan Reading Room.

Scarlett and Rosie have kindly sent us their thoughts and impressions of their week of work experience in Special Collections, which you can read below. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Rosie and Scarlett for their excellent work and wish them every success for the future.

Scarlett’s impressions:

Rosie and Scarlett handling books from the Syon Abbey Library

When I first started work experience at Special Collections, the only time I had seen books older than two hundred years was behind a glass case but by the end of my time I had handled plenty of rare, old books safely.

During my time there I had the opportunity to research extensively and explore their Syon Abbey collection and helped develop a display on it with the other work experience member.

To start with, we began to research Syon Abbey and looked into the vast history of the abbey, its community and the nuns there. As one of the oldest English Catholic communities to continue meeting throughout the Reformation there was much to cover and explore and our research was well aided by the vast collection of such treasured books that brought to life the history of Syon Abbey in our hands.

We also learned how to handle old and delicate books and spent time making sure we would treat them correctly whilst researching. Well accompanied by our book snakes and cushions – tools that help support particularly old books – we began our research.

Installing the new display

To find a starting point, we searched for inscriptions made by the nuns in their books and made note of them. At times handwriting was indecipherable but that difficulty was rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing one nun’s distinctive handwriting or name in multiple books. Their inscriptions ranged from jokes regarding piety, descriptions of nieces getting married or just their own names.

Next, we decided on four nuns to focus on, each of us researching two in great detail for the display. This gave us a wide scope of the abbey as the nuns were from different times and fulfilled different roles for their community. We both created biographies for our nuns which gave a broad overview of what their day to day life would have been like and what they did in the abbey.

Finally, we began putting the last touches together for the display which entailed photographing documents, mounting them on boards and arranging our text and images to create an engaging display.

Rosie’s impressions:

Reshelving books!

I spent the last week with the Department of Special Collections at Exeter University for my Year Twelve work experience, and it was amazing. I was a bit nervous when on the first day, and took a lot of comfort in the fact that one of my friends from school, Scarlett, had the same work experience, but I really shouldn’t have worried. My supervisor for the week was Annie Price, who was absolutely lovely and so helpful, and while I didn’t speak to the other members of the department as much as they were working on their own projects, I still felt so much like part of the team.

Special Collections works with significant historical documents and manuscripts, especially from people who were connected to the South West. For example, there is an extensive William Golding archive – author of Lord of the Flies – , which contains artefacts such as correspondences between Golding and publishers and his friends, as well as the original manuscripts of some of his works, like the Lord of the Flies manuscript.

Scarlett and I, however, were working on the Syon Abbey collection, which involves a great majority of the extensive library of the nuns of Syon Abbey. They had a fascinating history originating in England, traveling around Europe due to external pressures, significantly to Lisbon, and finally returning to England, mainly based in Chudleigh and South Brent, which is where the link to Devon comes in. During our stay, we got to look at and handle books from as far back as the seventeenth century, which was an amazing opportunity. I almost couldn’t believe it! Before we were allowed to handle these precious artefacts, we were trained in the correct way to take the books out of shelves and read them without damaging the spines or the pages. There were a load of things that I had never considered, like what we called book snakes, which are soft weights to hold the pages flat while you read, while not putting oils into the pages like holding it with your fingers would.

Planning the new display

Our task for the week was to create a display about Syon Abbey, so we took quite a few old books and manuscripts out of the library to help us. We went through each book to see which nun had owned each book, and if they had written anything particularly interesting. The majority of them only had a name at the most, but the few that had more were intriguing and occasionally hilarious. My personal favourites of each were, respectively, an account of Napoleon invading Portugal and the subsequent consequences, and one joke about not being able to trick God, but by keeping a religious book she could trick her peers. We narrowed down our options of nuns to research, and chose two nuns each to focus on for the display. I chose Sister Constancia Sorrell – who recorded Napoleon invading – and Lay Sister Mary Gomes – who joked about not being able to trick God.  I think that one of the best parts of the week was constructing the actual display, and seeing the outcome of all our hard work, which I, at least, am very proud of. It felt a bit like being an interior designer, as we wanted the display to be eye-catching and visually appealing while still conveying the interesting things that we learnt in the week, and hopefully getting other people interested in the subject and the monastery. We had to establish a title for the display, and while I’m disappointed that my various nun puns were vetoed, – I was particularly fond of “Nun so Faithful”- I thought that “Her Book” was equally effective, with the reference to how they wrote their names in their books, for example, “Mary Gomes her Book” and also with the extra reference to the “Book” as the Bible.

In the end, the week was so fun and interesting, while also feeling productive and like we achieved something, and I have definitely gained a new respect both for the nuns of Syon Abbey, and for the archivists at Special Collections who work with so many precious artefacts and make them accessible to people like you and me.

I would like to thank everyone who works at Special Collections for being so helpful and welcoming, and especially Annie who made our week there so memorable.

I hope that this has encouraged anyone reading this to think about visiting or researching either Special Collections or the amazing history of the nuns of Syon Abbey.

You can find out more about the Syon Abbey Collection in our blog posts and online guide

 

Transcribing the Letters of John Jarmain: reflections on a remote internship project

Earlier this year, Special Collections launched its first remote internship for University of Exeter students. Unable to run our usual in-person work experience programme, and knowing that another lockdown at the start of 2021 was highly likely, we were pleased to offer an opportunity for students to gain valuable archive experience whilst working from home.

The collection we chose for this remote internship was the Letters of John Jarmain (EUL MS 413). William John Fletcher Jarmain (1911-1944) was a novelist and poet. He served throughout the Second World War as a gunnery officer with the 51st Highland Division during their campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. He took part in the D-Day landing and was killed in action on 26 June 1944. The collection comprises 120 manuscript letters that he sent home to his wife Beryl between June 1942 and November 1943. 

EUL MS 413/1/66 – Aerogram dated 10 March 1943

Digitised images of all of the letters are available to view online through our Digital Collections website, making them ideal for our interns to access and transcribe from home. Once proofread, the transcripts produced by the interns on this project will be uploaded to the website to sit alongside the digitised letters, enabling letters of interest to be more easily identified, accessed and understood.

We would like to take this moment to thank our interns, Beth Howell and Ruby, for their hard work, diligence and enthusiasm for this project. Through a combined effort, they recently completed the transcription of all 120 letters – an amazing achievement! Below you can read their reflections on the project.

Reflections by Beth Howell

Transcribing the letters of a person is always a very involved experience, and working on John Jarmain’s war-time correspondence has proven to be no exception. However, perhaps because Jarmain was so engaged with the process of writing, (often demonstrating himself to be an almost obsessive editor of his own poetry), he always seems to write with a real sense of how his words might be read and interpreted in the future, making his letters a real privilege to read. Though most of his correspondence is addressed to his wife, Beryl, he often appears to imagine a reader beyond her, documenting the world around him with a real sense of capturing the present moment. His letters are therefore not only interesting because of what they reveal about his poetic practice, but also the landscapes he found himself in, the relationships he fostered, and his hopes and anxieties for a future after the war.

My favourite element of Jarmain’s writing, though, was probably the way in which he balanced larger concerns with little details. His ability to find joy in the spaces around him, even though the vision of those landscapes necessarily meant his separation from home (and, of course, were imbued with the ever-present anxieties of potential battles), is really heartening and beautiful to read. He loved birds, and many of his letters are preoccupied with identifying species from a little bird book he bought and carried around with him. (Though I have to say that deciphering rare specimens from his sometimes quite hastily-scribbled writing presented a few challenges- I had certainly never heard of a rufous warbler before!)

EUL MS 413/1/85 – Letter dated 30 April 1943, in which Jarmain writes about birds, including the rufous warbler (highlighted)

I also admired his confidence in informing his wife that he had fallen in (platonic) love with various women during his time in service- including Yone May, the subject of one of his poems. Jarmain presents a tangible picture of contemporary technologies (or quite the opposite), which affect his writing in a very material way- he finds himself scribbling in pencil, writing by candlelight in the wee hours, hastily penning an aerogram when he knows the post is leaving soon. He laments his ability to construct suitable diagrams of views and barracks, continues to marvel at unexpectedly quick postal deliveries, and to agonise when the opposite proves to be the case. His letters are a fascinating and absorbing insight into his life away- checked only by the knowledge that his observations would be tragically cut short. Jarmain died, killed by a fragment of mortar shell, on Saturday 26th June, 1944.

EUL MS 413/1/19 Letter dated 11 October 1942, next to transcript by Beth Howell

Reflections by Ruby

It hardly seems right to call this internship “work”. Work refers to something laborious, something that has to be done, but I found transcribing John Jarmain’s letters delightful. It saddens me that the World War II poets don’t receive the same attention as the World War I poets. Jarmain, though brilliant and sensitive, is far from a household name and does not even have a poetry collection currently in print. This is what makes me so genuinely honoured to have been involved in this project, typing up his letters, so that we can start to make Jarmain’s literature more accessible for more people. I hope that, going forward, people will read these letters and be touched in the same way that I was. 

This internship has shown me that there is a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading to transcribe. Transcribing Jarmain’s letters has forced me to read them carefully, sensitively and attentively. I have had to pay attention to punctuation, names and form which I might not otherwise have paid much attention to. When I’ve read letters from authors in the past, I don’t tend to focus on people who are off-handedly mentioned (cousins, distant friends, colleagues etc.), and only really focus on those they are closest to. However, when writing up these letters I had to pay attention to every name — zooming in to make sure that I got every surname right — and, in doing so, I noticed certain people who popped up time and time again (his friend, Harry, for example). Jarmain’s handwriting also means that it’s easy to mistake a semicolon for an exclamation point. At first glance, his semicolons can look like exclamation points, but when you look more closely, they’re usually not. If I were reading these letters at a glance, I would think that he was just heavy-handed with exclamation points, but this project showed me that he is not, and that he actually uses exclamation points quite sparingly. Over the course of the internship, I became more familiar with Jarmain’s writing style and more attentive to quirks in his handwriting. For example, when writing “a”, he tends to attach it to the word in front (i.e. if he says “a ship”, he will write “aship”). This led to some tenuous guessing at the start of the project; however, I was familiar with this by the end, and found transcribing his letters much easier. 

EUL MS 413/1/14 – Aerogram dated 28 September 1942, mentioning his friend Harry (highlighted)

The internship showed me how important it is to read letters attentively and slowly — to savour them and their images and their kindnesses. This is what Jarmain’s wife, Beryl, would have done, and so we perhaps get closer to the experience of these letters when we read in this way. Having to read Jarmain slowly was probably my favourite part about and, as a consequence of having done this, I feel like I know him better than I otherwise would have done. 

One particularly striking part of Jarmain’s letters is just how little he refers to the actual events of war. He hardly talks about what his troops are doing, and any danger they might be in. Rather, he documents domestic experiences — for example, how he spent his time on leave, or how he goes swimming in the morning before starting work, or a joke told by one of the men. Jarmain separates himself from his identity as the “soldier” and presents himself as a real man, the same husband to whom Beryl waved goodbye. Though this is humbling to see, it also points to the separation between war and home which he documents in his poem ‘El Alemein’. The separation between Jarmain as husband and soldier in these letters makes the dramatic irony of his death all the more upsetting. Reading the letters, I knew that he would never come home and safely settle back into domestic life. In one of his last aerograms (EUL MS 413/1/153), he writes of the Christmas presents he plans to give them, clinging to the possibility that the war will end soon and he will be home with Beryl and Janet-Susan. When the letters abruptly stop, there is no warning and, since he was so secretive about his life as a soldier when writing to Beryl, it seems strangely incongruous that he could have been killed in war. 

EUL MS 413/1/33 – Aerogram dated 8 December 1942: draft of poems ‘For Alamein’

Possibly my favourite parts to transcribe were his descriptions of nature — and, in particular, his descriptions of Italy in his final aerogram (EUL MS 413/1/154): “Away to the right, tier upon tier lit in streaks of sun and shade and clotted with white clustering towns, were the hills of Italy across the strait. In England you cannot imagine such beauty, such a scene”. You can feel the wonder in his voice here and the sheer extent of the view he relays. These nature descriptions are occasionally shown in his poems, but only fleetingly, and I enjoyed reading this different writing style from him. It is also so illuminating to see the poems embedded within these letters because the poems will often refer to images he’s already described for Beryl. For example, in letter one (EUL MS 413/1/1), he writes that he “was struck suddenly by willows, English willows, how they stand in rows like thick-handled powder-puffs, grey-green in the evening”. Then, in a poem in letter two (EUL MS 413/1/2), he writes that the train “Passed willows greyly bunching to the moon”. In this, we can see his poems as snapshots of real, personal experience. Indeed, the fact that they are embedded within letters shows just how intimate and personal they are, which can and should encourage us to read them contextually in new ways. 

Ruby has very kindly recorded herself reading John Jarmain’s first letter (EUL MS 413/1/1). Click on the play button below to listen to the recording. 

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Rent receipts and ‘spiritual summes’: using modern languages in Special Collections

In July 2019, a week-long summer residential programme for Year 12 students took place at the University of Exeter. As part of the Modern Languages strand of the programme, PhD student Edward Mills led a translation workshop using French- and Spanish-language material from our Special Collections. We were delighted to be involved in this workshop and would like to thank the students and Edward for their ingenuity and enthusiasm in working with the material.

In this guest blog post, Edward Mills shares some of the students’ translations and explores how modern language skills can be used to unlock archives and bring history to life…

 

What makes Special Collections ‘special’? There are many ways to answer this question, and as the University of Manchester notes in their introduction to their own collections, ‘there is no simple, catch-all definition’ that neatly encompasses all of the material that we keep here in the Old Library. One common thread that does emerge from our colleagues’ reflections, though, is that of uniqueness: many of the items in Special Collections, whether in Manchester and in Exeter, are one-of-a-kind items. This may be because of the way in which they were produced, as is the case with the medieval manuscripts in the Syon Abbey collection, or owing to how they were used later, as we can see in Jack Clemo’s unique treatment of his Boots annual diaries.

These unique items often require the reader to have specialist skills in order to be able to interpret them. This might entail training in palaeography, or else an understanding of how patterns of book-binding changed over time; equally important, however, are language skills. Many of the documents in Special Collections here at Exeter are written in languages other than English, and while being written in (say) French or Latin isn’t itself enough to warrant inclusion in Special Collections, many of the otherwise-unique documents that we preserve and maintain are, by dint of their language of composition, much less accessible to monolingual English speakers.

How, then, can modern linguists use their language skills in the specific context of archives? Questions like these formed the backdrop to a workshop run last week with Year 12 students from across the country, all of whom were taking part in the Modern Languages strand of the University of Exeter’s Summer Residential Programme. Accompanied by Edward Mills (a PhD student at the University) and Angela Mandrioli (a Special Collections assistant), the students spent the morning of 23rd July investigating French- and Spanish-language material in Special Collections, using their language skills to transcribe and translate these documents and working to make them available to a wider audience. In this blog post, we’re delighted to share some of the students’ work; we thank them for allowing us to reproduce their work here, and hope that it will go some way towards demonstrating the key role that languages play in the everyday life of the Special Collections Reading Room.

 

EUL MS 36 (box 2, item 111)

Pour le terme échu le 1er ______

Le soussigné Propriétaire d’une maison, sise à Paris, rue Montaigne no. 22, reconnais avoir reçu de Madame Mariette de Vileblun la somme de quatre cents cinquante francs pour une terme de loyer des lieux qu’occupe dans ladite maison, ledit terme échu le premier ***. Dont Quittance, sans préjudice du terme courant et sous la réserve de tous mes droits. À Paris, le 15 janvier mil huit cent cinquante six.

For the term elapsed on 1st _____

The undersigned owner of a house, located in Paris, at rue Montaigne, No, 22, acknowledges having received from Madame Marette of Nileblun the sum of four hundred and fifty francs, for one term of rent of the rooms that [she] occupies in the aforesaid house, the said term having elapsed on 1st ***. This we accept, without any effect on the current term [of rent] or my own rights. Paris, 15th January 1856. 

Transcribed by Danielle Tah

This partial transcription and translation of a rent receipt is from a series of three such official documents within the Mariette family papers, which includes similar items for the months of April and July in the same year. The term ‘quittance de loyer’ might initially give the impression that the document was intended as a notice of eviction; in reality, however, the sense of ‘quittance’ here is closer to the modern English ‘calling it quits’. That’s because this document is, quite simply, a rent receipt, acknowledging that the renter (locataire) has paid their dues for the given month. Like the notarial document shown above, a rent receipt such as this also problematizes any ideas we might have about archival documents being either ‘printed’ or ‘hand-written’; it’s clear that this document is largely printed as a pro-forma, with names and amounts of money left to be written in later.

A keener look, however, reveals that the landlord didn’t quite do their due diligence in filling in all of the information required. The clue here is in the phrase ‘pour une terme de loyer des lieux qu’occupe dans ladite maison, ledit terme échu le premier’, which would translate into the distinctly odd-sounding ‘for one period of rent for the lodging that occupies in the said house, up to the first’. Who’s doing the ‘occupying’, and until the first of ‘what’ are they staying there? Judging by the gaps between some of these terms, it appears that the landlord didn’t bother to fill out a couple of blanks that are easy to miss: namely, in this case, ‘qu’elle occupe’ and le premier mars’ (‘which she occupies’ and ‘the first of March’). Whether this was due to convenience or simply laziness is something that the archivist can only guess at, but it’s not something that we’d recommend pestering your own landlord about.

A student working on documents from the Mariette family papers

EUL MS 389/HOU/1/8/1 (first letter)

Ma bien chere Soeur Cecile,

Nous avons bien reçu vôtre aimable lettre du 23 octobre 92 et n’avons rien pensé du retard que vous avez mis à repondre à nôtre precedante, parce que comme que vous voyez il nous arrive la m[em]e chose ; nous avons tout nôtre temps pris nous n’avons une minute de disponible ayant comme vous de difficultées pour nous faire comprendre en français ; pour ecrire une lettre dictionnaire en main nous avons de beaucoup de temps et n’ayant pas d’occasion de pratiquer nous oublions chaque jour un peu plus le fraçais. Nous aussi nous vous ecririons beaucoup plus souvent si nous puissions le faire en espagnol.

My dear Sister Cecile,

We have received your letter dated 23rd October [18]92, and have thought nothing of your delay in replying to our last letter, since (as you can see) the same thing has happened to us; we are very busy, and don’t have a single minute free, given as how we, like you, struggle to make ourselves understood in French. It takes a very long time for us to write a letter with a dictionary in-hand, and without the opportunity to practice, we forget a little more of our French every day. We too would write to you far more frequently if we could do so in Spanish.

Transcribed by Alice Manchip and Elaria Admassu

This letter, dated 7th January 1896, was written by Dolores de Marie Immaculé to her ‘sister’, Cécile. The term ‘sister’ here refers not to a family relationship, but instead to their shared membership of a religious order: specifically, the order of the Brigittines, which had religious houses in both Azcoita (modern-day Spain) and Syon Abbey (at the time located in Chudleigh, Devon). The archives of Syon Abbey now reside in the University of Exeter, and it’s in from this collection that the letter is taken. (For more information about the Syon Abbey collections, see this earlier blog post by the Project Archivist, Annie Price.)

As modern linguists, one question immediately springs to mind when reading this letter: why would a Spanish nun write to an English nun in French, especially if doing so is much harder than writing in Spanish? (After all, she needs to have ‘a dictionary to hand’!) The most likely explanation is that French is, in this instance, a vehicular language: since neither group of nuns speaks the other’s first language, French takes on the role of a common code that they can both communicate in (however awkwardly). This difficulty may also explain the four-year delay between the receipt of the English nuns’ previous letter and the arrival of the reply from Spain: the sentence immediately following this transcription reads ‘nous vous écririons beaucoup plus souvent si nous puissions le faire en espagnol.’

Incidentally, if that last sentence sounds slightly odd in French … that’s because it is. Dolores is exhibiting what linguists call ‘language transfer’, as she calques grammatical forms from her native language. Spanish uses the imperfect subjunctive in second-order conditional sentences, whereas French uses the imperfect indicative:

Les escribiríamos más frequentamente si pudiéramos / pusiésemos hacerlo en español.

Nous vous écririons beaucoup plus souvent si nous pouvions le faire en espagnol.

We would write to you far more often if we were able to do so in Spanish.

This letter, then, is interesting for all sorts of reasons: while it does provide a glimpse into personal correspondence between women in the late nineteenth century, it also, for modern linguists, shows some rather charming examples of linguistic stumbling-blocks. There are several other errors at various points in the letter, from mis-spellings to absent accents, but by and large, it’s clear here that French as a lingua franca is very much serving its purpose.

EUL MS 262/add1/3 (title page)

Suma espirituall en que se resuelven todos los casos ÿ dificultades q[ue] hay en el camino de la perfeccion. Compuesta por el Padre Figueras, religioso de la companía de iesus, confessor del conde de Benevente

A spiritual summe in which bee resolved all the difficulties and cases that maie happen in the waie of perfection. Composed by the Reverend Father Figueras of the Societies of iesus and Confessor to the Earle of Benevente

Transcribed by Muning Limbu

This manuscript is also from the Syon Abbey collection, but predates the letter to Cécile by almost 250 years. Datable to 1657, it’s surprisingly small — measuring approximately 145 x 100mm, and featuring clasps — and contains three ‘treatises’, each of which has been foliated separately by a contemporary hand. The extract above is taken from the title page, which presents both the original Spanish title of the work and its translated title in English; it is not, however, the first page of the book,  as it is preceded by a dedicatory epistle from the translator. Naming himself as ‘Brother Francis’, he explains that the work was produced at the request of Sister Ellen Harnage, ‘in the Monasterie of the most devout religious English Nunnes of Syon in Lisbone’. he apologises if his work seems a poor substitute for the original: ‘there is a great difference betwixt a tailor and translator, yet sure I am, the loome is the same, though not the lustre, the substance, though not the varietie of colours, sweetness of speech, and quaint language’. These linguistic anxieties may go some way towards explaining Francis’ decision to retain the original title on the following folio, but from a linguistic perspective, the co-existence of multiple languages also provides a valuable insight into the early modern orthography of both Spanish and English.

In addition to this volume, which was produced for her benefit, Special Collections also holds her (bilingual English-Portuguese) vows of profession to join the community, in which she spells her name ‘Ellin’ (dated 1st January 1642). In 1681, as a collection of miscellaneous Syon Abbey documents records, she became Prioress of the Abbey, a position that she held until her death in 1683.

A student working on a manuscript from the Syon Abbey Collection

EUL MS 56 (opening folio)

Venta de nueve minas de oro sitas en termino de la Nava de Jadraque. Ayuntamiento del Ordial partido judicial de Atienza en la provincia de Guadalajara. Otorgada por Don Mancino Magio y Castillo, y otros a favor de La Compañia Española Limitada de minas de oro y Plata de Guadalajara, representada por los Señores Don José Morrell y Earle y Don Juan Hennon y Hackworth; ante Don Ramon Sanchez Suarez, Notario del Colegio de Madrid.

Sale: of nine gold mine sites at the edge of the Jadraque flatland, within the jurisdiction of the borough of Atienza, in the province of Guadalajara. Given by Don Mariano Magro y Castillo, and others, to the Compañia Española Limitada de minas de oro y Plata de Guadalajara, represented by Messrs. Don José Morrell y Earle, and Don Juan Hennon y Hackworth; before Don Ramon Sanchez Suarez, Notary of the Colegio de Madrid.

Transcribed by Joe Sene

Mining documents might not, at first glance, appear to be the most riveting of the Spanish-language material held in Special Collections. Nevertheless, this particular piece part of a much larger collection of items relating to mining operations throughout the nineteenth century — is intriguing for several reasons. The most obvious of these is its size: as a large document with clearly defined borders (310 x 220mm, with the enclosed area totalling 255 x 165mm), it serves a clearly-defined purpose as a frontispiece for the collection as a whole. Also of note is its construction: while the border, the  name of the notario, and the seal of the Colegio de notarios are printed, everything else is carefully written by hand in a legible, italic script. This is a document designed to illustrate the legal status and authority held by Don Ramón Sanchez Suarez, and it does this elegantly through a mixture of print and manuscript. One can almost imagine Don Ramón reaching for a stack of these forms from his desk as he begins to draft the document itself.

The story behind the Guadalajara Gold and Silver Mining Company of Spain is, incidentally, an interesting one (stay with me here). The company — based out of the UK — was formed in 1879 in response to a promise of a gold rush in the area; unfortunately, these claims turned out to be optimistic, and the Company seems to have folded in 1895. This document, then, was woefully optimistic; hopefully modern linguists making use of their language skills in a business context will make better decisions than Messrs. Morell and Hackworth.

EUL MS 207/2/1/1 (mounted ink drawing and letter)

Chère Carrey,

La nuit, l’imagination de Georges prend le costume d’un chasseur antique, pardessus lequel il met une paire de caleçons […] affublé de la sorte, il va à la chasse […] dans les vastes forêts de la memoire […]. Ces curieuses forêts sont peuplés d’êtres fantastiques et d’arbres singuliers …

Dear Carrey,

At night, George’s imagination dresses up like an old-time hunter, over which he puts on a pair of leggings […] suitably dressed-up, he goes out hunting the […] in the vast forest of memory […]. These curious forests are populated by fantastical creatures and remarkable trees …

Transcribed by Temi; reproduced by kind permission of the Chichester Partnership

This nineteenth-century letter from Georges du Maurier to the unidentified ‘Carrey’ is dominated by an ink drawing, which portrays a Robin Hood-esque figure resplendent in tights and carrying a bow as he looks upon three figures (likely those named in the letter  itself). While the current presentation of the item — mounted on cardboard — does help to foreground the intricate image, it has an unfortunate side-effect: namely, that many readers leave unaware that the letter also has a verso side. This verso side offers something of a counterpoint to the vivid, imaginative dreamscape painted on the recto side, as Georges apologises for writing ‘toute pleine de bêtise[s]’ (‘all kinds of nonsense’) and thanks Carrey for her previous letter. Even if the drawing dominates the item today, then, the content of the letter itself — which Modern Languages researchers are uniquely well-suited to unpick — illustrates a side to Georges du Maurier’s personality that might not otherwise be visible. His whimsy and active imagination are on full view here, as he imagines this vivid scene and escapes from the noises and distractions that surround him.

 

The five items investigated in this blog post are, of course, only a snapshot of what’s accessible in the archives. Even in and of themselves, though, they go some way towards demonstrating the range of languages and genres that can appear in a Special Collections reading room, as well as illustrating the essential role that language skills play in helping to interpret them. For the Year 12 students, it was precisely these language skills that unlocked the documents, and brought history to life, whether professional mining transactions or deeply personal letters. Archive work might not be what most students are expecting when considering studying Modern Languages at university, but as this session showed, the skills developed by a languages degree – from the obvious linguistic aptitude to the lesser-anticipated intercultural competence and ability to place language use in context – can be applied in a wider range of areas than one might think.

Transcriptions and translations by students on the ‘Modern Languages: Translating Cultures’ strand

of the University of Exeter Year 12 Summer Residential

Text by Edward Mills, PhD student (Department of Modern Languages)

 

Visiting the archive

As an Archivist it is always a perk of the job to share our collections with a new audience. GCSE student Cate Horrell came on a tour as part of a placement and was kind enough to write us a short blog below about her impressions on visiting an archive for the first time.

While visiting the University of Exeter for work experience, I was lucky enough to be taken around the special collections archive. I’d never been to an archive before and I wasn’t even sure exactly what it would be like.

My first impression was that it was like the huge, historic libraries you see in films. I was shown around the archive, and I found the strong rooms particularly interesting. They hold some of the oldest and most valuable items; my favourites were an old atlas of England and Wales created by Christopher Saxton, and a first edition of Dracula. The books range from the beautiful, old style that have been bound in vellum to more modern books that look more like the typical ones we would read today.

The archive has a huge range of items, and I really enjoyed seeing some different examples of the kinds of things it stores. I also saw an old sketch book which had drawings of Devon in it, alongside an old theatre set plan and a case of glass photographic negatives.

I really enjoyed looking around the special collections archive and seeing some rarities. It was a new experience for me and I’m very grateful for the opportunity.

Saxton Atlas and first edition of Dracula

 

Thoughts of a GBP intern: my internship in Special Collections

From January to March 2017, we were very lucky to have Emma Burman working with us as an intern on the University of Exeter’s Graduate Business Partnership scheme. Now Emma looks back at her internship and reflects on how working in Special Collections has helped her on her chosen career path…

 

My name is Emma and I worked as a GBP (Graduate Business Partnership) intern in the University of Exeter’s Special Collections for three months from January to March 2017. GBP is a scheme designed to help get graduates into paid internships in organisations usually based in the South West. Before you ask, ‘isn’t an internship just slave labour?’, the answer is no; the best part of these schemes is that you truly are valued. You gain paid work experience, and you are assigned a job role with its own projects and responsibilities. So they really are the perfect opportunity for any graduate!

I graduated from the University of Exeter in July 2016 with a BA honours degree in History. I had known that I wanted to work in the heritage sector for a couple of years, and I had already gained voluntary experience within several museums and heritage organisations. However, after completing my university degree I found it really difficult to find a job. Most roles required relevant work experience, but in the typical catch 22 scenario, the only way to get the experience was by securing one of these jobs. As a result I ended up working part-time in customer service, trying to gain more work experience by volunteering, whilst also applying for countless jobs.

As a recent graduate of the University of Exeter, the Career Zone had regularly sent internship opportunities to me. They were generally science, geography, marketing or student services related roles, which didn’t suit my interests. However, one day I saw an advert for two heritage and museum roles. They looked perfect, so I applied for them both in the hope that this could be my chance to get some paid experience. Lo and behold, I was offered the role of Heritage Collections Support Officer, working within the University’s Special Collections team.

So for three months I worked full-time within a heritage organisation – my dream come true! And it really has been a wonderful experience. My main role when I arrived at Special Collections was to update the Heritage Collections website with information about various collections from the archives. I really enjoyed this project as it required a lot of in-depth research into the collections, and it provided me with the opportunity to look at and handle archival material. I also used social media and other forums, such as articles for the Arts and Culture Magazine, to advertise these updates and the work I was doing for Special Collections.

The updated Collection Highlights on the University of Exeter’s Special Collections website

My final project was to design, research and curate an exhibition on the Norman Lockyer collection, which went on display in July as part of the International Astronomical Union symposium at the University of Exeter. It was a real honour to be entrusted with the responsibility of independently curating the exhibition for this event.

The exhibition of material from the Normal Lockyer archive for the International Astronomical Union symposium

Through these projects I have learnt a lot more than just the basics. As an intern, everyone on the team has offered me the opportunity to learn about their role. I have learnt skills such as cataloguing, website maintenance, and copyright procedures.

Helping an archivist to catalogue material from the Syon Abbey archive

I was even invited on a trip to the South West Film and Television Archive in Plymouth by one of our archivists to research and listen to reel to reel tape recordings from the Ronald Duncan Collection, and I became a bit of an expert on using the machines! As a result I have gained many new and different skills that are really useful in this profession.

Using a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the South West Film and Television Archive

I think the GBP schemes are invaluable as they offer university graduates the opportunities that many employers ordinarily might not be able to. They give them a chance to get their foot in the door, gain new skills, learn about the working world, and earn a good salary. I feel the importance of these schemes is evident in the fact that since being employed by the University, I have been offered a job in a heritage institution and I now feel optimistic about the future. So for any graduates, my best piece of advice would be to apply for a GBP scheme internship, because the skills and experience you will gain from it will really help you to pursue your career and achieve your goals.

Click here to find out more about Graduate Business Partnerships at the University of Exeter.

Click here to view some of the collection highlights held at the University of Exeter’s heritage collections.