Last week, Professor Robert Stanton from the English Department brought his class in to explore some rare and unique materials housed at the Burns Library. I usually give Professor Stanton’s “Introduction to Advanced Research” an overview of the Burns Library’s collections in hopes of stirring up some possible paper ideas. By the end of the semester, the students in this class complete a major research project, usually based on archival sources. The assignment gives them three options from which to choose – writing an edition, a literary biography or a reception history. In this post, I’m going to focus on how to write your own edition using archival sources at the Burns Library. Future posts will feature examples of the other two types of projects in this assignment, i.e. literary biography and reception history. An edition may involve transcribing the text of some documents, e.g. letters, diaries, meeting minutes. Students doing this type of project usually work with a small group of documents (8 – 10). In the final paper, the student must present the transcriptions with explanatory footnotes and an introduction. Good introductions concisely explain the history that surrounds the documents so that a reader will gain a deeper historical appreciation of the materials. Many of the footnotes explain references to people, places or things in the documents. Students do research for these footnotes in all kinds of different ways – books, articles, online databases and archival sources. An example of one such project would an edition of the letters between Anglo-French Catholic author Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953) and Winston and Clementine Churchill. You would have most likely found out about this piece of correspondence by looking through the finding aid for the Belloc Papers.
Since the Belloc Papers is a very large collection containing many letters, perhaps you were intrigued by letters between the well-known Churchill and an Anglo-French author about whom you might not have heard. Upon further investigation of the relevant box and folders in the Burns Library Reading Room, you discover that the main subject matter of the letters revolves around Belloc’s assistance in setting up a wine cellar for the Churchills. You also discover that the correspondence not only consists of letters – for instance, there are several telegrams and a couple of nicely printed invitations. While you might spend some time deciphering the handwriting on a few of these letters (although many of these documents are typed), you also try to piece together the story that these letters tell you about the Winston and Clementine Churchill, Hilaire Belloc and that small part of British society that these people represent in the early twentieth century. In an attempt to gain more background knowledge of the historical events of 1917, you might make use of the BC Libraries’ research guides for History and English. Whatever story your paper ultimately unfolds, this research process will teach you quite a bit about the work of professional scholars. If you are interested in the Hilaire Belloc Papers then take a look at this finding aid or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Justine Sundaram, Reference Librarian, John J. Burns Library