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February 18, 2011 6:08 PM   Subscribe

I just received a grant to conduct original research on Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Yay! Now what?

I just got word that I have received a grant for $2500 to spend two weeks in Brighton conducting research at the University of Sussex Special Collections. My research will center around the Woolfs' marriage, concentrating primarily on Leonard, and examining the critical/literary ramifications of community and mental illness. The final product of my work will be a talk I present at my university in the fall.

I am currently in my third year of undergraduate studies and I have never done research of this kind before. For the past year I've worked at my college's (small) Special Collections, but that consisted mostly making finding guides, describing materials, painstakingly discussing whether there should be a comma in that bibliographic entry, etc. How do I go about this? What does a researcher actually do? Is there some procedure beyond reading whatever I can get my hands on and trying to form a narrative from that? How many hours a day will I actually be researching at the university, and how many hours working on my own? What kind of notes should I be taking? I figure my next step is to email the people at the Sussex Special Collections - is this correct? I am currently studying abroad in Prague, so I can only communicate to people at my home university by email. So far I haven't been given any specific instructions.

Thank you for your help.
posted by rabbitbookworm to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a faculty adviser on this project? If so, all of these questions should be answered by them.
posted by Think_Long at 6:15 PM on February 18, 2011

Congratulations! It's great that you are coming to this experience with archive experience. Since you know your way around a finding guide, can you look through U Sussex's? What kind of stuff do they have? What interests you in that finding guide? Make lists of things that you would like to see, and try to group them into categories. Go talk to your advisor, and chat about what you can reasonably see in your allotted time.
Then when you get there, wallow in your own crapulence! Enjoy the overload of the archive, take tons of notes. While you are there, you should start to define research questions that will turn into a paper. Like, convergences between Leonard and Virginia's editorial work-- did they share notes? Or how did their nicknames for each other show up in the animal imagery of her novels? I guess the guiding principle should be to let the archive surprise you.
posted by pickypicky at 6:19 PM on February 18, 2011

Also ask the University of Sussex librarians in charge of the Woolf special collections. Librarians everywhere seem to be underused and undernoticed (despite their often considerable skills and knowledge) in our internet age and I'm sure they will be eager to suggest research projects for you - they must have a whole bunch of ideas of things they *wish* researchers would do with the materials in the collection. Also, they might have a knowledge of who else has been conducting research in the collection, so that will help you avoid duplicating other research efforts needlessly (or perhaps even joining those efforts officially!).
posted by Bwithh at 6:20 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The basic rule of archival research is that you really don't know what the archive will provide until you start looking, and you have to let the materials show the way. Still, there's value in preparation.

Have as much catalogue information before you start, and if you can gain access to the microfiche, even better, but be open to serendipitous discoveries in material that isn't explicitly catalogued in line to your topic. The librarians/curators of the collections will be good guides here. Definitely try to accumulate a list of theses, articles and books that refer to archival material: they are the equivalent to your finder's guide.

It goes without saying that you'll be paying your respects at Monk's House, but you might also want to consider blocking out some time for supplementary / contextual research that can't be done in Brighton -- obtaining a British Library reader's card shouldn't be a problem, the Charleston papers are in Cambridge, and the Wellcome Library may also be worth a visit for contemporary material relating to mental health. Looking at the summary of the collections, you might also need to chase up the odd bit of material in the Berg collection, which is available on microfiche.

(Since this isn't a doctorate we're talking about, you don't need to look at everything, but you do want to cross-check whenever you reach the edge of the documentary evidence you have in front of you, just to avoid going out on a limb.)
posted by holgate at 7:22 PM on February 18, 2011

Obviously you need to start with the handlists of the two big Bloomsbury collections at Sussex, the Monks House Papers and the Leonard Woolf Archive. To save yourself time, you also need to be aware of the material that's already available in print: e.g. you probably won't need to look at any of Virginia Woolf's own letters, as these will be found in Nicholson & Trautmann's edition, just as many (though not all) of Leonard's letters will be found in Frederic Spotts's edition. It may be sensible to focus your research at Sussex on the letters written to the Woolves by other people, which are less likely to have been published.

The Sussex Special Collections website gives information on preparing for your visit, and the staff at Sussex will be able to advise you further. You can help them, and yourself, by making your enquiries quite focused and specific, i.e. not just 'I'm studying Leonard Woolf and I wondered if you had any material that might be useful to me', but giving some detail of the research questions you're asking and the sort of material you're hoping to find. You should also ask your academic supervisor to write a letter of introduction, with a brief description of your research. Other libraries (the BL for example) may require this even if Sussex doesn't.

Sussex Special Collections is only open four days a week (Mon to Thurs). That means you'll only have, at most, eight days in the archive, so you need to plan ahead carefully to make sure you're making the most effective use of your time -- and maybe start thinking about other research visits you might want to make on the Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. For material in other libraries that might be useful to you, try the Location Register of Twentieth-Century Literary Manuscripts and the National Register of Archives. I second holgate's excellent suggestion of a visit to Monks House or Charleston.

Finally, for light reading on the plane, get hold of a copy of Regina Marler's Bloomsbury Pie, a gossipy history of the Bloomsbury industry which will tell you a lot about the archives you're going to see.
posted by verstegan at 4:43 AM on February 19, 2011

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