Category Archives: Libraries & Archives

The Body on Display: A Day at the NYAM Medical History Festival

Late eighteenth century physicians (for the most part) increasingly L0025772 A. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum.embraced the wisdom of learning anatomy directly from a dissected corpse. Feeling the textures and depths of the body’s interior and seeing it all firsthand became an invaluable tool for beginning physicians. However, this method of teaching ultimately relied on the advancements in medical thought demonstrated in the sixteenth century by one man: Andreas Vesalius. The brief version of his contribution to this field is that he turned a system in which the physician dictated dissection from a space removed from the actual body, and a surgeon performed what he was told on the body. Physicians, in this system, rarely encountered the actual interior of the body. Vesalius changed all that. Not only did he dissect his own corpses, but, by doing so, he corrected many of the errors in previous anatomical texts based on an assumed closeness between human and animal anatomies. His most famous work is the beautiful, fully illustrated De Humani Corporis Fabrica (often referred to as just the Fabrica). You probably recognize the frontispiece pictured here. Continue reading The Body on Display: A Day at the NYAM Medical History Festival

Experience: I Served in the British Army of 1812

My introduction to the geopolitics of British Romanticism came about in a highly unusual way. In the summer of 2007, I had a job as a historical reenactor: six days a week, I became a foot soldier and musician in a Drum Corps of the British Army during the War of 1812. My one-time service for the honour of the Prince Regent took place at Fort York, a National Historic Site located in downtown Toronto, Canada, and in this post I will share my lived observations of what the daily experiences of colonial military service would have been like for a British soldier at the height of the Romantic period. Continue reading Experience: I Served in the British Army of 1812

Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

Participants on the Heath.  Not all of us, but quite a few!
May 3, 2014: Keats and His Circle Conference participants on Hampstead Heath. Not all of us, but quite a few!

Hello and happy summer!  Since I last blogged, I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams and spent two weeks in England.  I presented at the Keats and his Circle conference along with my fellow blogger, Arden Hegele, and of course the conference was everything a Keatsian (or Romanticist) could wish it to be. Our weekend at Wentworth Place came complete with three days of really smart and innovative Keats studies, phenomenal featured lectures, and a “Keats walk” through Hampstead. But what I will talk about today is what I learned in the week after the conference. Continue reading Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

Books Are Good. Ebooks Are Good. Both are Better: Avoiding the Word “Versus” in the Future of Libraries

We bookish types are worried about our books. Articles, conferences, discussions, podcasts and references in all the social media about the future of libraries and of reading have become common and seemingly endless. Physical books versus internet sources, libraries versus digital texts, bookstores versus ebook orders, even letters versus emails. It seems that, when we talk about the increasing popularity of the digital humanities, the word “versus” inevitably comes into use, despite our best intentions. But, should it, and why? That’s one of the many questions that came up throughout a one-day conference at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on December 6th in celebration the astounding 225th anniversary of its library. The conference was titled, “Emerging Roles for Historical Medical Libraries: Value in the Digital Age,” and was comprised of five speakers from different perspectives, all dealing with historical medical libraries in some capacity and highlighting what they considered to be the values and stakes of this “versus” debate. Below, I’ve gathered some of the points made during each scholar’s talk, points that I found relevant for anyone invested in libraries and research. For more detail about the conference program, visit the library website.

Jacalyn Duffin on the archive as treasure hunt:

Dr. Duffin presented her experiences with texts that had been reprinted through several editions across many libraries as she stumbled across other texts and historical figures through library exploration: she spoke to archivists and librarians, poked around shelves, and paid close attention to marginalia and illustrations. Sounds like the typical book-loving-researcher’s story: reassuring to hear and gratifying with which to agree. She also discussed the cost of knowledge, however: how does digitization affect cost, and is this effect positive or negative? Editions of the books she was researching went from expensive, to print on demand, to digitized on ECCO (though only for a university audience). Despite these changes, she reiterated that space and place are still incredibly important in understanding the book and its contexts. Duffin ended by posing a familiar question, with a haunting response: “Why libraries? Maybe we won’t know why we need them until they’re gone.”

Jeffrey Reznick on methods of assessing libraries from a national perspective:

Dr. Reznick brought the perspective of the National Library of Medicine and discussed methods of assessing libraries as well as his own experiences as a reader. Much of his talk referenced other books and sources on the topic, showing a myriad of different perspectives. Some of the many I found myself furiously copying into my notes include: IndexCat, Library 2020, and Circulating Now.

Nancy Cervetti on the library as place of creative power:

Dr. Cervetti brought perhaps the strongest literary perspective to the conversation, providing a list of exciting texts about literary depictions of archives and written materials, peppering her talk with quotes from Foucault and Derrida. She herself had begun as a scholar of literature who, through archival digging, started leaning towards history of medicine, particularly related to Weir Mitchell (who famously invented the “rest cure”). As Duffin did, Cervetti stressed the importance of being present in the archive in order to interact with librarians and to make discoveries through exploration, creating a multidimensional understanding of a subject rather than simply gathering information.

Mary Fissell on books as records of readers and readership:

Dr. Fissell shared her experiences using the College of Physicians Library collections in order to trace the readership of books through marginalia, looking at the book as an artifact that has its own subtext hidden in individual detail. Her work with recipe books showed readers interacting with the text and using it to keep track of experiences. She reiterated previously-made points about respecting and valuing the physical book for its differences among editions and the information its size, texture, and material can bring to our understanding of it. At the same time, she could not have pursued her project without the aid of digital archives and resources. The digital can help us use the archive and vice versa. They should be seen as tools to aid each other.

Simon Chaplin on rebuilding the library:

Dr. Chaplin is the head of the Wellcome Library in London, a “free library for the incurably curious,” its strength in the medical humanities. The Wellcome is in the process of remodeling its library and museum space, and Chaplin discussed the techniques of the library to boost its readership to match its museum patronage. The library will intertwine the library with the museum, making it easier for visitors to stumble upon (a key phrase throughout the conference) and make discovers by whim, according to a thematic organization. This new design speaks to a re-prioritization of the library to include more things. Accessibility and applicability will make it a place visitors want to explore. “Libraries don’t have to die!” he claims. They simply need to be willing to change and help people recognize what they already do so well: to “create questions where none existed previously.”

While all five speakers lauded the advantages and the joys of archival research, celebrating the place, space, contacts, and objects of books, some of the questions posed by the audience spoke to the dangers of denying the practicalities and the benefits of digitization in favor of over-romanticizing the rare book archive. I have heard sessions at conferences and by visiting speakers, either in vague praise of ever-changing technological advances in the humanities or full of anxious or romanticized defense of libraries: however, it seems both more useful and more difficult to discuss how these two archival methods complement each other. When questions arose pleading the necessity of digitization and online research, the speakers were very eager to admit that, of course, they never could have done their research without preliminary or follow-up investigation.

Yet, why does this feel like a concession? We’re worried about our books and their disappearance. Yes, libraries are in danger, for many reasons that I will not go into here, but perhaps it’s time to ease back from the admirable and protective tributes to libraries and focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the two types of research as they work together. This topic would be extremely complicated and (perhaps) contentious but would perhaps also help us to cement an inseparable relationship between the two and to achieve a vocabulary for talking about that bond that can support libraries better than a spirited defense. We don’t need libraries or online archives. What we need is both.

Dr. Brandy Schillace has also covered this event on her excellent blog, The Daily Dose!

How To Do Archival Research (Report of the NGSC-sponsored professionalization roundtable from NASSR 2013)

If you happened to be at the NGSC-sponsored roundtable at the NASSR conference in Boston two weeks ago, you know that it was one of the best events we have organized so far!  Truly, it was probably the highlight of the whole conference for me, and that’s saying something.  Fun, Interesting, and amazingly useful, the panel brought together five incredibly accomplished (and let’s just say it: frickin’ cool) scholars in our field for a mini-course in archival research.   I’ll do my best in this post to translate my notes (along with Kirstyn’s, thanks, KL!) into an efficient reference for anyone preparing to spend quality time in some alluring repository  of old books, papers, and objects.  If you’re like me, then even if you don’t have a research trip in the works right now, you might just find yourself itching to plan one.  Anybody want to meet up at the British Library?

Special thanks again to our panelists Michelle Levy, Devoney Looser, Andrew Burkett, Dan White, and Jillian Heydt-Stevenson for sharing their insights.   I have taken the liberty of organizing this post according to topic (rather than strictly by speaker), but have noted broadly who covered what.  Now, here we go!

How to integrate archival research into your studies (Michelle Levy)

Before you embark upon archival research, take some time to approach it thoughtfully and deliberately.

  • Consider what types of research actually requires the use of archival materials—that is, stuff that has not been republished in other more readily-available formats, or that contains vital information in its original material makeup.  Book History and Material Studies projects require this, as do many kinds of academic side-projects such as critical editions, biographies, or edited collections of letters.  Though these types of publications will not qualify a person for tenure, they become very useful resources; you might ask an advisor if they have such a pet-project in the works that you could help with—or eventually, you could do one of your own. (Also, think about where/how you might publish such a project, including in digital formats—check out PMLA’s “Little-known Documents” as an example).
  • Be sure to build in TIME; archival research cannot be done at the last minute.  You need time to sift through materials before you find the gems that matter.  You need time to write applications for research fellowships, including the lead-time for letters of recommendation.  You need time to learn the research techniques that reveal the documents’ secrets (see next item).
  • Build research skills before you go. Take a course in book history or bibliography if you possibly can.  Use the Special Collections of your home institution to get a sense of how they work, how often they contain non-catalogued materials, and how vital it is that you form a good relationship with the librarians.
  • Take time to figure out WHERE you will need to go in order to look at the documents you need, and whether that institution provides any research fellowships.  Some large institutions in the US do (like the Huntington, the Pforzheimer, and the Harry Ransom Center); most institutions in the UK do not (in which case, you might apply for a fellowship from your own university or some other funding body).

How to apply for research fellowships (Devoney Looser — see full text of her very useful handout HERE).

  • Remember, the surest way to not get funding is to submit a shoddy application.  You are in competition with lots of other smart people.
  • Give your advisors plenty of lead-time to write you letters of recommendation (a month is polite).
  • Show that you have specifically researched the holdings of the institution you plan to visit.  Use their online catalogues and finding aids, talk to others who have researched there, and even consider calling and talking to the librarians and curators (as long as you’ll be asking them smart questions, and not ones you could have answered yourself if you had just looked at their website).
  • The Project Narrative is the most crucial part. Don’t let another critic’s voice take center stage.  Explain WHY your research is exciting and important.  It is not enough to “fill a gap”—you must explain WHY the gap needs to be filled. And never begin your narrative with a quote from someone else!
  • Remember that you’re writing to a committee that comes from several disciplines, not necessarily including Romanticism.  Be sure that an educated non-romanticist could understand the importance of your project.
  • Don’t give up if you don’t get the fellowship!  Seek feedback, improve your application, and keep trying.

Tips for planning your research trip, including some packing essentials (Michelle Levy et al)

  • When planning your research trip, travel off-season if you can; it will be cheaper and libraries will be less crowded, which means you will get your books faster and librarians will be more available to help you.
  • Learn the archive’s rules and procedures before you go, so you don’t waste valuable time when you’re there.  You can usually order your books in advance, and occasionally you have to do so.
  • Read as much as you can before you go, including electronic forms of your primary documents, so that you can focus your precious time on the info you can’t get otherwise.  Software like Adobe Professional is useful for taking notes on PDFs.
  • Use a number of resources to plan the trip.  Contact the archivists (with smart questions, of course); they are really helpful.
  •  ALWAYS get a letter of endorsement from your advisor, printed on university letterhead and signed in BLUE ink.  Some institutions will not allow you access to their archives without this. Also, be sure to check whether they have other requirements, such as more than one form of ID, or a passport, or proof of current address.
  • Every institution will have its own rules and restrictions on what you can bring into the archives, (be sure you understand their policies involving photography and reproduction)  but pack yourself a basic “research baggie”—it will probably include pencils, a ruler, some paper, a magnifying glass, your laptop, a camera, and a jacket or sweater—libraries are CHILLY!

How to get the most out of your time in the archive itself (Andrew Burkett and Dan White; check out the full text of Andrew Burkett’s talk HERE)

  • Have a plan, but be open to discovery!  Let the archive drive you, but have a clear sense of your research questions (start with the broadest one, which is “I want to learn everything about _____.”)
  • Expect to be overwhelmed completely by the avalanche of information you might uncover.
  • MAKE FRIENDS with the archivists and curators. They can help give you a roadmap through those materials and focus your search.  Some archivists will be very helpful, others markedly frosty; kill them all with kindness!  They hold a lot of power, and if they decide they like you, their input can radically impact your work.
  • Allow yourself to enjoy your time while searching through the materials. Talk to other people working there. These work sites are dynamic and alive and exciting.
  • Embrace the fellowship in your fellowship!  Think of time at the archive as professionalization through sociability.  Learn how to talk about your work in a way that excites other people who are not necessarily in your field.

How to manage the notes and pictures you gather (Dan White)

  • Approach your note-taking systematically; essentially what you’re doing is amassing a body of notes from which, at a later point, you are going to produce scholarship.  The more clearly and obviously you can organize and tag what you gather, the more you’ll thank yourself later.   You’ll likely develop a system that’s unique to you, but as you do, imagine how your future self will be using your notes.  You want your notes to help you create ideas for scholarship.
  • ALWAYS record full bibliographic information for every item you look at!!
  • Have a system of naming your electronic files; long names are useful and perfectly acceptable; include key info such as author surname, keywords from title, date, other keywords.
  • Include cross-references for yourself, as you think about linkages you’re finding.  Within the file of notes on a given item you can include items like  “See ‘full name of file’ and ‘full name of file.'”
  • In your file for each item, clearly differentiate your transcriptions from your meditations (perhaps with different-colored text?), but definitely include BOTH!  Your epiphanies will be easily forgotten in the deluge of information you gather, so cherish each fleeting thought and keep a running narrative for yourself.
  • Don’t forget that there are different kinds of notes; if an electronic copy of a given text is available, you can download it and (with proper software) take notes on the PDF.  i
  • On a shorter visit (one month or so), it’s probably best just to spend your time gathering as much info as you can.  If you have a longer research period, you’ll probably want to work in some more formal writing/processing sessions for drafting the chapters or articles you’re working on.  Keep in mind, though, that the research narrative you produce in your notes is part of that drafting process.

How to go about locating and working in private, lesser-known, and otherwise unconventional archives (Jill Heydt-Stevenson)

Occasionally you might find yourself searching for texts or objects that don’t end up in academic institutions.  (Professor Heydt-Stevenson spent her summer researching collections of Paul and Virginia memorabilia, everything from handkerchiefs to cuckoo clocks, things that have mostly ended up in the hands of private enthusiasts who have all sorts of different reasons for collecting, and house their collections in their homes).  So, how do you go about finding such repositories, and how can you prepare to use them?

  • Search for clues about these kinds of collections on the internet, and definitely ask anyone you can think of who might know about anything useful.  If you have friends locally, they can give you a spring board for people who won’t be on the internet.  When trying to set up a visit don’t be afraid to use the phone!  Keep in mind that some private collectors are older, and may hail from an era before email was so prevalent, or may live in the countryside with spotty internet access.
  • Be prepared for the personalness of the research, and of your interactions with the collectors and their space.  Keep in mind that you may be in someone’s home, going through their prized possessions, and your people skills will be very important.
  • Be prepared for a huge difference between what the private collector does, versus an institution.  What matters to them may not be what matters to you, and you must respect this.  There will likely be no catalog, and little recorded information or analysis for each object.   You will also likely not have a lot of time with the collection.  These are huge challenges for a scholar.
  •  Bring notepaper as well as a computer to take notes in this house. There may be no wifi.
  • Have a really good camera on you – not an iPhone camera. Take lots of photos!
  • Be sure to ask the curator and owner if they want to be cited.  Some do, and others feel intensely protective of their collections and do NOT want publicity.
  • Be prepared to see one thing, or 300 things, depending on the situation.
  • Be prepared to do a ton of socializing and talking, like a job interview.  The curators will likely be thrilled that someone is interested in their collections, and will want to know all about what you’re planning to say about them.  All this talking will take up some of your research time, but be gracious and keep in mind that  it will likely enable you to do more research with the collection in the future.


Happy researching, everyone!  And if you want more information, be sure to check out our collection of posts on Libraries & Archives.  (You can access this from the drop-down menu for “Categories” on the right side of the page).


Archival Research at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

2780793238_998cdcb399 — This post is dedicated to the very, very sweet student who I met on the escalator who helped me tremendously at the library. Without Ed’s very patient and good-humored help finding my desk and reserving materials I could not have had such a productive day at the BNF. Thank you, Ed! You’re the best! —

I am in Europe on a summer research trip for my dissertation and have primarily been working at the British Library. It now feels like a breeze to find via the tube, order materials to read, and take notes all day in one of the reading rooms. My comfort with the British Library emboldened me. I felt sure, as I strode toward the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) from the metro, that I would be able to find the lockers, get my reader’s pass, order my list of materials, and read all day, sans aucune problème, from 930am to 8pm. After all, the instructions online for registering as a reader seemed very straightforward, even in French. Silly, silly me.

It turns out that getting settled to do archival research in the BNF (the François-Mitterrand building — the newer and main branch) is extremely difficult. Most of the process felt designed to swallow new BNF researchers, and their precious research time, whole. Donc, le voilà, a how-to post for archival research at the BNF. It is, after all, a magnificent collection of archival resources and provided me with valuable research material that I have been unable to find elsewhere.

[Note: In this post, I tried to cover the basics of how to start your research here. Please add to this post any other advice or helpful anecdotes you have about navigating or working in the BNF.]

Step 1: Prepare These Materials Ahead of Time and Print Them to Bring With You

  • A printed, signed, and dated letter, on letterhead, from a professor at your institution who is your superior. The letter must state that you are a doctoral-level researcher and that you kindly request access to read archival material at the BNF. Your adviser or chair will know what this letter needs to say. Provide the rough dates that you will be there. Also provide a sentence that describes the subject you’ll be researching in very broad terms. Don’t leave home without this. If you do, email professors you have worked with in your department who might have a digital signature and letterhead on file – perhaps they can help you while you’re already abroad.
  • A printed bibliography of the materials you wish to order and read in order of priority. Be sure that this list is downloaded from the BNF website catalog and contains the catalog numbers for each item. This does not have to be a complete list — of course you are going to find things while researching that you didn’t at first know you would find. However, you do need to present the list to show your interviewer that the materials you wish to read are (a) available at that library location (there are several others), and (b) only available in the downstairs library archive (“Rez-du-jardin”) and not, say, available in the upper parts of the library (“Haute-du-jardin”) that are accessible to the general public at all times. Having this organized bibliography printed with catalog numbers saved me a lot of time!
    Note: for making this list, it may help to create your own account (“espace personel”) on the BNF website and save your bibliography there for easy retrieval. This is what I did.
  • Your passport for identification.
  • Money to pay for your reader’s fee. Unlike the British Library, the BNF is not free to use. You can either pay for a 3-day reader’s fee (around 8 euros) or an annual reader’s fee (around 40 euros).

Step 2: Pack for the Day and Head to the BNF


Getting to the BNF is not too difficult. You can find it via the metro by taking Lignes 6 (Quai de la gare), 14 et RER C (Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand). There’s a stop called “Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand,” so as long as you look for that, you’re all set. Once you arrive above ground and leave the metro, follow the signs to the library. When you get close, you will find yourself walking on a high wooden platform toward a very modern building. It looks as if it is next to a movie theater. For this summer, you will have to access the library through the West entrance (“le hall Ouest”) due to construction. If you get turned around — this is easy to do especially with all the construction — don’t be afraid to ask pedestrians with laptop bags marching toward the building in the distance.

Here are the directions on the main website: Addresses et transports.

Don’t forget to bring with you:

  • Your laptop charger cord and a French plug adapter
  • A snack and maybe a small water bottle (more on this below – I know it sounds wrong to bring this to an archive)
  • Any reference books you will need, such as an English-French dictionary, to help your research. There is NO wifi access in the research rooms to obtain these reference materials online. There are some tables that have ethernet cables that you can plug directly into your laptop, but these tables fill up quickly.
  • Some warm clothes in case the temperatures in the Rez-du-jardin are cold. (It was pleasant while I was there and felt warmer than the British Library.)

Step 3: Obtain an Interview for Access to Research Rez-du-jardin.

If you enter by the “hall Ouest” there is a welcome (“acceuil”) desk just across from the metal detector you must walk through and across from the small gift shop. Go there and tell the gentleman that you would like to interview for a reader’s pass for Rez-du-jardin research. He may ask you a question or two – explain that you are a graduate or doctoral student and that you are doing research for your dissertation or degree. The person I talked to was extremely friendly. He walked me behind his desk to a small office with two library employees. Here, an employee will conduct your interview.

My interviewer was lovely. I told her immediately that I spoke some French and could understand French well and she told me that she spoke a little English if I needed her to clarify something in English. She was clear and patient and I completed my interview almost entirely in French. I gave her my letter and my bibliography and explained briefly what I was researching and that I am a doctoral student writing my dissertation on romantic literature. She asked for a few pieces of information: my mailing address, my passport, and my phone number and email address. She then took my photo and made me a BNF reader’s card. *Do not lose your BNF reader card — it provides your way in AND your way out of the library and you cannot reserve or read materials at the library without it.*

That concludes the easy part – from here on, things were more difficult. She then gave me a set of maps and an oral list of instructions that were very confusing. I followed her as best I could. It will help if you take notes when your interviewer gives you your set of instructions for how to proceed. The instructions you’ll receive will be something like the procedures I’m telling you in this blog post. (Note: Please double check and don’t follow these instructions blindly — this library loves procedures and they may change rules between my visit and yours.)

Step 4: Pay Your Reader’s Fee.

To do this, walk back out of the interview office area and head to one of the tellers (à “la caisse”) to your left. Pay your fee and they will print you an entrance ticket – save this ticket in a safe spot.

Step 5: Head to the “Vestiaire” to Check Your Coat and Bags.


This step is mandatory. There is no locker option (as there is at the British Library), to the best of my knowledge.

Here, you will give them your coat and bag to keep for the day. Take out everything you will want with you for the day, including laptop and charger, wallet, snacks(!) and a small water bottle, pencil and paper, and clothing. These items must ALL fit in the clear case they give you that looks like a transparent plastic laptop case. Hold on to your vestiaire ticket as you will need it to retrieve your belongings at the end of the day. There is no additional fee for this service.

Vestiaire location: It is on the same floor on which you entered, interviewed, and paid, at the other end of the hall on your right if you’re walking away from the tellers.

Note on food and drink: Though you cannot eat or drink in the archives while working, you will notice that many researchers bring snacks and drinks with them and keep them in their cases. I was shocked (SHOCKED!!) that this was allowed but everyone seemed to do it. Just be sure to take food/drink out of the clear box ONLY when you are in one of the designated eating/drinking areas. Otherwise, food and drink must remain in the box. (I am terribly afraid of getting in trouble with the BNF librarians.)

Step 6: Descend into the Reading Rooms Rez-du-jardin

This is more complicated than it sounds, as the turnstiles you must pass through require your reader’s card as well as completing your seat selection online as well as your book reservations online before they admit you. Here is what I learned on my journey into the depths — and this is where Ed, the student to whom this post is dedicated, came to my rescue!

Vestiaire is on the right and your first set of turnstiles are on the left in front of the firs set of giant metallic doors. Turnstiles only operate with your card.
  1. Use your reader’s card (“la carte”) to go through the turnstiles next to the vestiaire. You must hold the card on the sensor, like you would do with an Oyster card at the tube, and it will read your card and tell you when you gain access. When you do, the turnstile will enable you to walk through it and then through a gigantic set of double metallic doors.
  2. You’ll proceed down an escalator in a metallic hallway with a red carpet. You will feel as though you are in a bank vault, casino vault, or a spacecraft.
  3. When you get to the bottom of the escalator, you will find another set of turnstiles to walk through by swiping your card. There’s a catch: if you have not registered yet, declared your seat online, and reserved your materials on a library computer, this turnstile will not admit you. Don’t panic! So then . . .
  4. Find the computer to the right of the turnstile and pull out your bibliography with the BNF catalog numbers. (Here’s another link to the BNF catalogs.) Put your card into the indented reader’s slot at the computer — the machine will read your card and pull up your account. You will need to select a reading table seat, or “votre place.” Pick a table letter where you will be working for the day — my interviewer at the BNF recommended section “L” because there is lots of space there and it is comfortable. Once you select your table letter, the machine will assign you a desk number (you can change this later if you like). Then, enter the catalog number for each item on your bibliography list, one at a time, and reserve them. Be sure to hit “confirmez” after each reservation or it will not be complete. Your maximum is 10 items. When complete, log out at that computer station.
  5. Wait a full minute after you log out before trying to turnstile again. After a minute, your card will be updated and you will be able to swipe it on the turnstile, pass through the turnstile, and proceed through this set of giant metallic doors into the Rez-du-jardin.
  6. High-five yourself. You’re almost done.

Step 7: Find Your “Place” (your desk).

Rez-du-jardin reading rooms and desks
Rez-du-jardin reading rooms and desks

This is the desk you chose and section that you selected on the computer. It will be a letter with a seat number. Your interviewer should have given you a map of the archives Rez-du-jardin to help you locate your section letter.

Here is a link to this map online – it might be a good idea to print and bring with you, in addition to your bibliography and other printed materials for your interview.

Drop your plastic case there at your desk and then proceed *with your reader’s card* to the nearest information counter. Check in, give the librarian your card, and make sure that your online requests are being processed. You will need to wait a little bit – it won’t take long. When your items are ready to pick up, the light at your desk will turn from red to green.

I was advised that I had time to grab a cup of coffee while waiting for my request to be filled. And this is where things temporarily went awry because I did not know this very, very important piece of information:

If you leave the Rez-du-jardin the way that you came in, and go back through the turnstile with your card, you are telling the computer that you are leaving forever (whether or not you actually are) and it CANCELS all of your reservations for the day. Any books that were waiting for you at the desk by your seat Rez-du-jardin go back to their shelves immediately. Doh! Gah! Quelle dommage!

There are two pieces of information that would have prevented this frustrating error that I made.

  1. Yes, there is a way to leave the Rez-du-jardin temporarily without canceling your reservations. (See the next step, below)
  2. I didn’t actually have to leave the Rez-du-jardin to find coffee. There are cafes located on this level of the library.

Thus, Step 8: How to Temporarily Leave the Rez-du-jardin (and return later the same day) and How to Permanently Leave the Archives Rez-du-jardin for the Day

Leaving temporarily: If you want to leave the Rez-du-jardin archives temporarily just to run upstairs and grab something out of your bag or to take a lunch break outside the library, you must check out at one of the computers by the turnstile and indicated with your digital account that you are leaving temporarily. Note again that if you fail to do this and you swipe your card at the turnstile and walk through it will CANCEL all of your material reservations for the day and think that you are leaving permanently for the day.

Leaving for the day: If you want to leave the Rez-du-jardins for the rest of the day, go ahead and walk out the way you walked in by swiping your card on the turnstile and heading back up the escalator in the metallic hallway. You will need to find your vestiaire ticket to reclaim your coat and bags upstairs (you cannot leave them overnight).


dark and metallic escalators and hallways
dark and metallic escalators and hallways – the hallway has more light than this but is definitely not cheerful


See Leon’s flickr photostream of the BNF for more images.

New Collection: Libraries and Archives


New York Public Library

This post announces a new Collection of posts that we are building on the NGSC Blog on working in archives and libraries. The Collection strives to create a place where we continue to share our experiences and questions about applying for fellowships and conducting research in libraries or archives that have holdings of interest to Romanticists.

We are working on a way to redesign our front page to feature a few Collections of posts, but for now it’s best to use the Categories drop-down on the right side menu. Look for Libraries & Archives.


Here is what is in our blog’s Libraries and Archives Collection so far:

  1. Kelli Jasper has a great introductory post on the early Spring Semester (January through March) as the season for applying for research fellowships to libraries, including the Newberry, the Huntington, and the Beinecke.
  2. Michele Speitz wrote a post about her adviser’s recommendations and her time researching at The Huntington Library. The part about this post that sticks with me the most is how to get your writing done while on fellowship reading in an archive. What a great reminder that time does not stop while we’re basking in the aura of primary source material.
  3. I’ve written a couple of posts about working in CU Libraries Archives and Special Collections on the Women Poets of the Romantic Period Collection and a little introduction to the Stainforth manuscript. I’m intimately familiar with our collection here at CU, so please send any questions you have my way.
  4. Jacob Leveton–our resident Romanticist art historian–posted on how to use the Yale Center for British Art while working with a William Blake manuscript–the sole complete copy of Jerusalem, no less!
  5. Jacob also posted on how to use the Art Institute of Chicago Prints and Drawings Department. While it looks like he used his research trip to study George Stubbs’ piece “Horse Frightened by a Lion” (1777) and other works featuring horses, there’s a lot more there.
  6. Kelli wrote another post that I will be using to help me navigate researching at the British Library. I am planning to research and “dissertate” there this summer from late May through mid-June.

Forthcoming for this Collection: I am drafting one post on working in the Musées d’Art et D’Histoire and another one on the BGE (Bibliothèque de Génève) in Geneva, Switzerland. Each of those institutions/libraries had their own conveniences and challenges related to research.

Do you have plans to work in a library or archive soon? Maybe a summer research fellowship or a research trip abroad scheduled? Or have you worked in a library or archive that has particularly wonderful materials for Romanticism research that you would like to report on? I’m thinking that perhaps we should write about home institutions as well — they all have a lot to offer that tends to be less visible because right under our noses.

Using The Art Institute of Chicago [Prints and Drawings]

Back in early August 2011 I wrote a piece on using the “Yale Center for British Art.” For the first time ever, I finally understood why book and art historians talk about how enjoyable “working with the object” is. There’s something exhilarating about being in close proximity with the cultural documents we study–whatever the medium. This term, I dropped by the Art Institute of Chicago to conduct research. The institution’s collection presents phenomenal opportunities for visual studies scholars (Art History, English, or otherwise) of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries to engage in direct object study. While this post will be followed by a sequel this spring–when I’ll be looking at some paintings in the collection for a seminar on the interior in art–this autumn’s primary course research falls on animals. Since the Art Institute has a wonderful impression of George Stubbs’s “Horse Frightened by a Lion” (fig. 1),

Fig. 1. George Stubbs. “Horse Frightened by a Lion.” Etching with Engraving on Paper, 13.59 x 18.11 in. (34.50 x 46.00 cm.), 1777. 1982.498. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

I found myself in the Art Institute’s Prints and Drawings Department. In what follows, I’ll describe how to best access the Prints and Drawings Department at the Art Institute, what information to assemble beforehand to use this resource effectively, and describe how the Art Institute structures visiting scholars’ interaction with their prints and drawings collection. From there, I’ll close with some remarks on what I got out of visiting the Art Institute for my own research this first time and by sharing some advice based on what I’ve gleaned from direct object study. In the end, what I hope you get from reading this blog post is an impetus visit Chicago and the Institute and, for some readers, a new way to think about how to approach visual art objects in your research.

Getting There: What’s the best part about the Art Institute of Chicago? Its central location in the Midwest. With Southwest Airlines’s third-largest hub positioned at Chicago-Midway and with United Airlines’s headquarters at Chicago-O’Hare International, getting to Chicago is easy given the number of inexpensive non-stop flights between these two airlines’ route networks. Both airports are directly linked to the Art Institute by the CTA “L” line (the paradigmatic Chicagoan mode of public transportation). What this all means is that one can catch a direct flight that leaves for Chicago early in the morning, arrive for the only appointments that the Prints and Drawings Department offers in the afternoon, spend about three and a half hours viewing artworks, and then still have time for dinner downtown before heading back to the airport for an evening flight home. Traveling to the Art Institute can be incredibly cost efficient.

Amassing Information Beforehand: In my experience doing direct object research it’s best to have a primary object of interest in mind, and then subsequently stage other objects in a given collection next to it to create meaningful avenues of comparison to bounce ideas off. I knew I wanted to look at this particular Stubbs work, and knew it was in the collection. So in building my trip I spent some time researching what other prints were in the Institute’s collection that matched up to a project on “horse art” (I chose two: Eugène Delacroix’s Cheval Sauvage and Albrecht Dürer’s The Small Horse, but you can view up to ten works on a single visit). Upon selecting the prints to look at, I used Zotero to sketch my preliminary ideas on why I was looking at what, and to make note of the accession numbers which match the object with their location in museum storage (these typically take the form of the year the work was acquired, followed by another number—for location purposes). I returned to these numbers when I emailed the Prints and Drawings Department to make an appointment, since this is the data the curatorial staff will use to pull the art you want to look at (as opposed to title/artist).

Arriving at The Art Institute & The Experience of Viewing: Upon arrival, you’ll want to check in at the front desk, as opposed to purchasing a ticket to view the museum exhibitions. A fellow from Prints and Drawings will escort you to the department. You’ll first receive a brief introduction to working with objects, after which you’ll enter the study room. Here, the works you and your colleagues of the day are set to study will already be put up on easels around the room’s periphery.  There are tables in the center of the room were you can leave your laptop and/or pad of paper and pencil while you look closely at your chosen selections. In my experience, at this point, I grabbed my magnifying glass and was off to the races. While I was used to having the works I’ve looked at presented right in front of me, I ended up appreciating the time it took to walk back and forth—from the art to my laptop on the center table—between taking notes, since it forced me to meditate a bit more on the ideas the objects were generating for me. It was a different structure of interaction, but I liked it.

Conclusion: Even with the fabulous facsimiles and reproductions we’re privy to as 21st-century emerging scholars, I still always end up finding things in person I don’t see under any other circumstances. In this case, it was the sense of facture in terms of the organization of the print according to diagonals that lead the viewer’s eye in certain ways across the pictorial surface. But, in the end, what can I say? As much as I love to read theory, there’s just something about reveling in objects that moves me in a way that nothing quite else does–even when it comes to reproducible media, like prints. So while I recognize that most of the NASSRgrads readership has engaged in some form of direct object study in England, or elsewhere on the continent, I’d encourage everyone—who hasn’t, already—to visit some visual art objects. Indeed, one might even be surprised by what’s accessible at your own institution’s library special collections and university art museum (I was astonished at how many Blake holdings there are at Deering Library here in Evanston, for instance). In the end, seeing prints that weren’t on show at the Art Institute was a valuable experience for me—and I can’t wait to do the same with some nineteenth-century paintings in the spring.

And (last): looking forward to seeing many of you and hearing your papers in Tempe next month!




Processing the WPRP Exhibit; Or, Making an Argument with Books in Cases

The Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) exhibit, called “Landmarks,” is just a few weeks away from opening in CU Libraries. The opening is set to coincide with the June 7 start of the 20th-Anniversary British Women Writers Conference, an international professional-level conference that I am co-organizing this year. When we’re done curating the WPRP exhibit, we’ll have an in-house exhibit in 8 enormous cases in the Rare Book Room as well as an online exhibit of around 20 scanned works and extended explanatory captions, photographs, and a video production. I’ve been feeling less like a dissertating PhD student and more like a contestant on Project Runway lately, working with fabric, mylar, props like shells and even a preserved spider, a museum exhibit designer, photographers, a period music consultant, and even videographers. The cast of collaborators is long and brings together librarians; graduate students in English, musicology, and museum studies; undergraduate library assistants; computer scientists and media artists; literary and art historians; and more. And thanks to the extremely friendly and collegial tone set by Debbie Hollis, the head of CU Libraries Archives and Special Collections, we are happy and very busy collaborators.

At this point, the cases are full and designed and objects are most likely in their final places, though I will no doubt futz with them more as we near the exhibit opening. My current task is to compose the script for the photographer/videographer of the exhibit and to serve as the general editor of the large collection of captions that will describe these objects online and in the video. In other words, I’m documenting the argument that I want the objects on display to make. Or rather, as I’ve found, I’m documenting the argument that the objects on display create. (I will publish these on my blog when they are complete and my collaborators are ready to release them.)

When making arguments with objects in cases, the objects, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, are anything but silent. The objects seem to arrange themselves first and the argument reveals itself afterward. This process is more physical and far less of the purely cerebral process that I have grown so used to with writing essays or dissertating. Trying to make the objects’ display conform to the argument I imagined for them did not work for me. After working with them for a year, I’ve been influenced as much by the physical and visual qualities of these books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and letters as I have by their textual content. I have spent far more time working with some of them than with others — for example, I painstakingly transcribed Mary Cockle’s letter and then worked with Susan Guinn-Chipman, another colleague in Special Collections, to piece together the parts that were difficult to read. Due to the time spent handling and reading these artifacts in cradles, in the stacks, on shelves, and on tables in Special Collections, and also the occasions I used them to teach my undergraduate literature classes, I have been influenced by their physical properties and arrangements in space and these traits have influenced my attentions and the argument I feel that the exhibit makes.

My argument for this exhibit, therefore, is based heavily on physical constraints and visual properties of the exhibit as well as my research gathered from reading these literary artifacts and thinking about them in the context of the Romantic literary era. Curating the exhibit was a mixed process of object placement based on:

  • the 200+ works in the collection that I read from June 2011 through January 2012 (my reading list was based on numerous factors, including titles and spines that grabbed my attention, ability to find them on the shelves, recommendations from other scholars, personal interests, and more)
  • pragmatism (certain objects only fit in certain cases)
  • aesthetics (certain objects only show well in certain cases)
  • my personal research interests (visual media, travel writing, the picturesque, and the gothic)
  • the arc of my desired argument as the path from one case or section to the next
  • the arc of the argument that the objects, when placed in the display cases, created and that influenced the argument I set out to make.
  • other factors I’m unintentionally leaving out

For example, the argument that I set out to make was focused on the collection as one that lent itself to the study of travel writing in the Romantic era, how print traveled, and what that had to do with women authors and complex relationships between form and gender in print culture. However, when placing objects in the front of the exhibit, in the cases closest to the door, I realized that the exhibit is as much about changing ideas of what constitutes the domestic as it is about that which lies beyond the home. This realization grew out of thinking about the Stainforth’s position in the case next to the literary annual with the beaded cover, and after pulling the Taylors’ Rhymes for the Nursery out of this case to place elsewhere. This led me to rethink the thematic organization of the exhibit. Originally, there were just two categories–natural destinations and social destinations–but these quickly expanded into three to include the domestic as our starting place. Furthermore, between the domestic and natural destinations, I noticed a collection of works, including the Taylors’ numerous works of children’s literature, that engage the Gothic aesthetic and provide a link between home, nature, and social destinations. I settled on four categories and a flow from book objects representing the domestic and home, to the gothic, to nature, and finally to social destinations and social movements. (Of course, many of these books could be placed in multiple categories.)

Perhaps a good question to ask is: where is the argument in this exhibit? Does it emanate from the objects’ placements, the path of the visitor/viewer through the exhibit, or my textual explanations of the relationships between these objects and their home in the greater collection? How does the digital exhibit and collection influence or affect the in-house exhibit, and vice versa? And what about the additional documentary components of video and photography of the exhibit? It’s a lot to curate and even more to interpret. I admit that from where I stand right now, I’m lost in the process and on deadline, to boot.

As we know, readers and interpreters will read and interpret how they will; one cannot force readers’ paths of critical attention any more than I can control which case visitors to this exhibit will want to look at first. The case by the door is the obvious choice, but who knows, a viewer may be drawn to the red cloth in the Gothic case in the back of the room, or the promise of the spider specimen hidden therein. Despite my lack of control, I will offer my exhibit argument as a way to thoughtfully present a microcosm of the magnificent ~500-work WPRP collection. The argument and the path from case to case will, in theory, lead scholars, readers, and visitors into the collection either in the Rare Book Room or online and will draw renewed attention to Romantic-era women poets who are have changed print culture and literary history.

[Author’s note: this post was originally published on my research blog:]

‘Tis The Season to Apply for Research Fellowships

It’s that time of year… and no, I don’t mean for busting out the Holiday music (for that please refrain until after Thanksgiving.  Thank you.).  This, my friends, is the season to consider applying for research fellowships!  With so many thrilling archives around, full of material ripe for analysis, it would really be a shame for scholars like us not to use them in our research—especially because libraries often offer us money to do so!  Both short- and long-term fellowships are available at many major libraries and archives, and although some of these are reserved for scholars who already have their doctorate degrees, others specifically aim to help PhD candidates complete their dissertations or research for a specific article they plan to publish.

Of course, to get a fellowship you have to apply, and the competition is stiff—which is exactly the reason I’m posting about it right now.  If you’ve found a specific archive with which you want to spend some quality time, it behooves you to start NOW, drafting your application and asking people to write your letters of recommendation.  For the libraries I’ve looked at, most fellowship application deadlines fall between December 1st and March 1st.

I’m still new to writing research fellowship applications myself, but I’ll pass along a few pieces of advice I’ve been counseled to keep in mind.  They’re pretty intuitive, but worth mentioning nevertheless.

First, define your target.  There’s no sense in visiting a specific archive if it doesn’t have the materials that will be useful to you, or if those materials are also available somewhere closer to home. Also, libraries will see no sense in supporting your visit if you don’t have a specific project for which to use their materials.  Thus, it’s imperative that you clearly articulate both the nature of your specific research project, and what role the library’s holdings play within that project.  The former is (I think) one of the most challenging things we do in this profession, but the latter is pretty easy to manage: comb through the library catalogues and start making lists of items you would look at if you could.  Although many library catalogues are not comprehensive, searching them and making wishlists will help you get the lay of the land, so to speak, and plan future academic projects and research trips, whether or not you get the fellowship.  In your application, mention some of these specific items from your list (and check in Worldcat to make sure they’re not also at the library of your home institution!).

Second, know your audience.  Most committees assessing applications consist of librarians  whose job it is to match their knowledge of the library’s holdings to projects that will use these holdings to develop exciting new ideas.  Even if readers do have training in your field, it is unlikely that they will be experts in your specific area.  Therefore, your project description should eschew all jargon, so as to be lucid and interesting to an intelligent general reader.  Preserve your sense of the project’s intervention and be specific about what’s at stake, but craft it for people who are not necessarily Romanticists.  (This is a useful skill to hone for the job market as well!).

Third, write with authority. While avoiding jargon, show that you have a solid understanding of what your work will accomplish, as well as the competence to accomplish it.  Avoid passive voice: instead of saying “It will be demonstrated that…,” go for “I will demonstrate that….”.

Fourth, specify expected outcomes.  What will this fellowship enable you to do?  Finish a chapter? Complete an article for publication?   You don’t need more than a sentence or two, but you should show that your research will result in production of a tangible piece of scholarship.  Your readers aren’t going to pay you just to think about stuff—they need to know your work is going somewhere.

Fifth, organize, organize, organize.  Most of these applications are quite short, meaning you must pack a serious punch in very few words.  Have a thesis statement, clearly articulate your project’s intervention and importance in your field, and be as clear and precise as possible.  Ask colleagues and professors to read your proposal, and then be willing to revise (sometimes repeatedly).  Again, whether or not you get the fellowship, this process is useful just for your yourself! It will help you comb through the tangled web of thoughts and find the golden thread that holds it all together—the ultimate quest of any project, right?

There are big, comprehensive archives, and small, specialized archives, so I thought we could start building a list of favorites!  Below I provide links to three fellowship-offering biggies: huge institutions with something for everyone.  But there are so many others!  If you know of a great archive, or have experience using it (like Michele at the Huntington, or Jacob at the Yale Center for British Art, or Kelli at the British Library), please leave a note in the comments!

Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) – Dec. 12, 2011

Huntington Library (San Marino, CA) – Dec 15, 2011

Beinecke Library (Yale) – March 2, 2012 (also, they have a Fall application in October)

Others for you to look up, or comment on: New York Public Library, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, The American Antiquarian Society, Winterthur Library, the Library Company of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dumbarton Oaks Library, the Getty Research Institute, Kew Library (Royal Botanic Gardens), RHS Lindley Library. . . .

Again, we’d love to hear your recommendations or personal experiences with any useful archives! Thanks for sharing.

Happy Application Days to All!