Hallo from London, Canada! So happy to be back with you for my third year of writing for H&E. In September, we think about new beginnings, setting new academic and personal goals. Melissa has already shared about the benefits and challenges of transitioning into the new AY on the #altac path (no shame hangover!), and Erin has given a big high five to the blog and offered some thoughts about slow academe. Since I happen currently to be in England for a bit ‘o manuscripts research, I want to share a little bit about my history with the archives, and my love of libraries, and hopefully use some of my story to inspire you, dear readers, to take a few more risks in your own research paths.
I first registered as a British Library Reader when I was 23, a young Masters’ student sent over to the UK by myself for three months of research. It was a strange trip: I spent much of it sequestered in my tiny flat in Leeds, a city where I knew no one, though I met once with an advisor, a major scholar in a different field, who seemed visibly concerned about my ability to function in this new country. I rifled through boxes of loose seventeenth-century papers at the Brotherton Library, knowing I was supposed to be looking for something, but never quite grasping what it was. I didn’t know how to differentiate between which materials were important and relevant for the large research project I was part of, and which were just *cool* because they were old and rare. So I would amass long catalogues of books and papers, complete with photographs and descriptions and scribal analyses and research questions, which I would then send back to my advisors back in Calgary, letting them be the ones to identify whether something was interesting, or supposed to be finding and reporting back on.
My time in London was different: I needed a personal topic for my Masters thesis, separate from the larger collaborative research project which sent me over in the first place. Somehow I was both more unmoored and more focused in this quest–I would search manuscripts catalogues for medieval devotional manuscripts that seemed remotely interesting and understudied, and then call them up willy-nilly, energized by the now-faded mystique surrounding handling materials hundreds of years old (the rustic smell, the withered parchment, the stains and fingerprints and signs of love). My excitable bouncing around between manuscripts proved lucrative, and I found a small illustrated volume that had only been touched upon by scholars in a couple articles and books which then formed the basis of my MA thesis and my first published essay.
This trip taught me the value of taking risks in my research–of taking time to make mistakes and search around through unfamiliar and unknown material, and of doing so independently, without express guidance from one’s advisors or higher-ups. My MA advisors trusted me, and gave me much more intellectual license than I’ve found to be the norm for MA supervision, especially in the States. Maybe they trusted me too much, but I think it worked out.
Occasionally throughout my career, I have been told that I have a roguish attitude toward the established program, and need to stick to normal procedures and rely upon official consultation before planning any major trips. This is true in general, of course–we can’t just do whatever we want within an academic institution. But I’m back here now, in the British Library, having planned yet another (albeit short) trip before telling my advisors (they’re okay with it this time), and I’m more hopeful at this late stage in my dissertation. I work better in the BL, feel safer and more academically secure here, than anywhere else in the world. Even when the research itself proves frustrating and hard, I love the transactional exchange of materials, old books for seat number and Reader’s card. I love (if occasionally resent) the fastidiousness of detail here, how the primary materials are treated with such respect and proprietorship. I love how conversations overheard in the local Peyton & Byrne cafes are consistently interesting, engaging, smart. And I love the familiar faces–librarians whom I recognize from over the years, who never seem to change hairstyles or fleece vests, as well as strange patrons of the library who seem by all appearances simply to live here. I love that sometimes, when you peer over a noted academic’s shoulder, you see that while they have a stack of valuable materials sitting next to them, in reality they are covertly poking around on Facebook or Twitter like the rest of us.
I guess what I’m trying to say with this post is: figure out the work environments that make you happy, that motivate you to think your best thoughts and do your best work, and do whatever is in your power to make those environments happen (not everyone has the resources to take overseas research trips on a regular basis, I understand). And while this is not a post promoting pure individualism–ie. a neoliberal bootstraps narrative about setting out on your own and taking hold of your own future–I would encourage you to take some risks this year, to do things for yourselves that (perhaps?) your superiors might disapprove of, because they don’t know you as well as you do. Try to absent yourself from the usual, and you might be surprised at what happens.
In fact, why not grab a pen right now and jot down two out-of-the-ordinary things you plan to do in the next week?