Blog Post

A Radically New Definition of Archival Research

What is the value of traveling halfway around the world to visit an archive, especially when so many primary resources are now available online?  The Chawton House Library has the answer. 


Typically, scholars visit an archive to look at books in an archive.  And until quite recently, that made sense.  You might live in a dormitory-style room near the campus or library, or a hotel or hostel nearby; you might eat out or carry PB&J in your backpack; you might spend days, weeks, or months caught in the Lonely Scholar lifestyle in the pursuit of some hidden gem. 


This summer, I had the opportunity of conducting research at the Chawton House Library, a small specialized archive in rural England.  The town had a library, a museum, a pub, a teahouse, and a handful of homes; the local bus came five times a day, and you had to travel to nearby Alton for a train or a grocery store.  It seems like a typical recipe for the “solitary scholarship” model, but in fact, this archive is radically redefining what it means to conduct archival research.


The archive itself includes books and manuscripts by British women writers, dated 1600-1830.  Just a short walk away from Jane Austen’s home, now converted into a museum, the research library is housed in a manor house that was owned by Austen’s brother, and the stables became lodgings for visiting scholars. 


Renovated into a beautiful B&B-style home, the Stables have a shared office space, a spacious kitchen, a cozy parlour and a glass breakfast room on the first floor, with private bedrooms and bathrooms for each scholar upstairs.  Scholars share the home for one-month visits, cooking together, sipping tea together, and talking together about their projects before and after library hours. 


Researchers, including faculty, graduate students, and an occasional creative writer, are assigned a month to visit partly based on their research interests, so that June might have four scholars who are interested in the publishing history of early women’s writing, while July might have half a dozen who study science in 18th-century literature.   Through these shared lodgings and shared interests, the scholars are encouraged to build a sense of community amongst themselves.  And, it works.


During my stay,  I talked with an author of historical fiction about the relationship between authors and literary critics;  I talked about my job search with graduate students who were soon going on the market; I wandered the countryside with a professor in search of groceries, gardens, coffee, and good conversation; I had late-night talks over tea with another professor about what it means to be a strong woman today. 


We talked about what we found in the archive that day, what we were going to present at the month’s concluding public forum, what we love about teaching and research, and what we want in life.  Everything that I found in the archive—which was wonderful, and exciting, and new, and as I discovered in the end, incidental—was made richer by the relationships I formed with the people who were there with me. 


The digital age is changing the future of archival research.  Programs like 18thConnect allow archival materials to be open-access, searchable, digital archives, anytime and anywhere, and this is a good thing, for academics and non-academics alike.  Places like Chawton House Library, that redirect the focus from the objects to the community, show how this change can be a good thing for the archives, too.  


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