British Library Doctoral Open Day

After a few weeks of gently easing myself out of the Christmas slump, I was sprung back into action by waking up at silly o’clock in the morning to head to British Library.

Every year the British Library hold a range of Doctoral Open Days, targeted at early stage PhD candidates looking for sources of data. Different days are based on different collections, from Nineteenth Century to Early Modern to Asian and African. If in doubt, get in touch with organiser Robin Saklatvala, who was incredibly helpful in deciding which would be most relevant to my research. 🙂 I ended up attending the News & Media day, which upon reflection, was definitely a wise choice. I’ll be discussing the News & Media specifics here, but some of the material is used across the open days.

After a slightly difficult start (not being a morning person) and a large mug of tea, the first talk began. Maja Mericevic, head of HE, started things off by outlining the history of the library – bringing together the resources of the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, and the British Museum reading rooms as late as 1976! Given the immense quantity of holdings I had always assumed the BL to be a much older institution, but here we are. She made a quick point about EThOS (E-Theses Online), which currently has 80% of UK PhD Theses freely available to read. Whether you’re looking for the work of a particular researcher or simply want to see what a completed PhD thesis looks like, it’s a great resource to know.

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British Library newspaper vault in Boston Spa. [Image Kippa Matthews/British Library]

The rest of the day was devoted to exploring the specific News & Media collections, and specifically, the issues of access that pertain to these materials. Newspapers, being designed to be disposable, are tricky to preserve due to the paper, and consequently all of the Library’s paper copies are kept in a dark, low-oxygen, temperature and humidity controlled vault in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. Because of this, paper copies are extremely hard to access, although most of the collection has been backed up onto microfilm, and approximately 3% is digitised on the British Newspaper Archive (although that 3% is still about 18 million issues!). These include complete runs of The Times, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian, with Scottish editions having recently been aded. They also collect one of every regional newspaper published in the UK.

 

The Sound archives are another of the Library’s strengths, with a greater focus over the last few years on collecting oral histories, separated by subjects including food, early spoken word recordings, conversations between people and folk music. There’s also a very interesting section for accents & dialects, including dialect maps of the UK, and wildlife recordings from all over the world.

Since 2013 the Library has begun to archive all public UK web content – anything that ends in a .uk web address, or is uploaded from UK-based servers, with different frequencies according to subject matters. They’re now backing up approximately 60TB worth of data every year, and compiled it all into a searchable database on the webarchive.org. Periods including general elections and the run-up to the EU referendum last year were archived more regularly, in order to give the most potential data to sociologists, media researchers, and historians.

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Finally, the day concluded with a note from the Digital Research Support group, whose job it is to support researchers in using computational methods to get the most out of the Library’s holdings. Digital Curator Nora McGregor shared a couple of examples of their annual British Library Labs projects, including fellow Chartist (Historian) Katrina Navickas, on the potential uses for the library’s data to get us thinking.

The day was an informative, but by no means exhaustive guide to what the Library has to offer doctoral candidates. What it offered was a bouncy springboard from which to jump off and explore according to our own research, offering contacts and guides for different sections to seek specific support as and when I need it while working on the Library’s collections. I’ve already been in touch with the Digital Research team to help with my own Digital Humanities work. All in all, a useful day for beginners.

 

I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.

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To Walk Invisible: the Branwell BrontĂ« myth

Fifteen years after the publication of Lucasta Miller’s acclaimed biography The BrontĂ« Myth, Sally Wainright’s To Walk Invisible is a welcome sight to BrontĂ« fans and scholars alike.

Wainright’s biopic explores some of the most turbulent years of the BrontĂ« sisters’ lives at home in Haworth parsonage during their brother Branwell’s descent into depression, alcoholism, and laudanum addiction in his last years of life. If Miller’s biography was an attempt to uncover the realities of the BrontĂ« sisters’ upbringing and home lives masked by Elizabeth Gaskell in an attempt to save her friend’s respectable reputation in The Life of Charlotte BrontĂ« (1857), Wainright’s aim was to bring it to life. Indeed, Branwell BrontĂ« until recently has remained something of a myth in BrontĂ« scholarship. Although he appears in literal shadows in the portrait of his sisters on display at Haworth Parsonage (he painted himself out) and figuratively in the form of abusive alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), he is largely absent from the historiography of the parsonage. Thanks to Wainright’s beautiful script, a strong performance by Adam Nagaitis puts this to right.

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John Brown (Mark Knight) and Branwell Brontë (Adam Nagitis) walk through central Haworth. (BBC, 2016)

I’d studied the BrontĂ«s as part of my MA degree (it was, in fact, the reason I came to Leeds), but Wainright’s drama illustrated the struggle the sisters faced trying to publish their writing, alongside a very disruptive home life. The sisters, as Wainright shows, were most concerned about their art being real, and deflected accusations of ‘coarseness’ and ‘vulgarity’ in their writing because of this: life is coarse and vulgar. Reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or Agnes Gray remains a powerful experience because of their liminality between fantasy and reality, their varied narration devices maintaining some secrets for the plot, while remaining unapologetically frank about the unpleasant realities of Victorian society. Apparently the 21st Century public has yet to learn anything, amid complaints of “quite inappropriate obscenities” in the script. It is this realness that Wainright represents best in To Walk Invisible. From the loud screaming matches between Branwell and his ailing father Patrick, to the filthy streets of 1840s Haworth (where the average life expectancy was just 25 years), the film put struggle at its centre, the daughters’ strive for financial self-sufficiency and creative autonomy at a time when they were advised that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”  Where Elizabeth Gaskell represented Haworth as a small country town with a “lawless, but not unkindly population” (p. 8), and the BrontĂ« sisters as wallflowers with overactive imaginations; Lucasta Miller moves some way to correcting this through use of population statistics, and Wainright by literally reconstructing Haworth as it was: a small industrial town, whose population were well known to the sisters through their father’s work as parish curate.What makes To Walk Invisible a welcome part of BrontĂ« historiography and outreach is that it is actually biographical, refusing to sex it up or shy away from the dirt (physical, linguistic, and moral) that plagued Victorian industrial life, as other period dramas often do. In dramatising the unseemly, Wainright’s tale of three skilled women reaching unprecedented literary success in secrecy, silencing their ambitions so as to further upset and upstage their brother demonstrates their personal sacrifices and strengths. Like the sisters’ work, To Walk Invisible‘s devotion to realism ensures that it will endure.

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Emily (Chloe Pirrie), Anne (Charlie Murphy), and Charlotte Brontë (Finn Atkins) in the parsonage living room. (BBC, 2016)

Sources

  1. Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (London: Vintage, 2001).
  2. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Leipzig: Bernaud Tauchnitz, 1857) [Google Books].
  3. ‘[Letters] To Walk Invisible: Withering Heights of Gloom and Mizak,’ The Guardian, Monday 2nd Jan 2017.
  4. Benjamin Hershel Babbage, ‘Public Health Act, (11 & 12 Vict., cap. 63.) Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the hamlet of Haworth,’ (London: Clowes & Sons, 1850) British Library [C.T.159.(6.)].
  5. Letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (12 March 1837), Letter, Brontë Parsonage Museum [BSIXSou.1837-03-12].