In 30 years as an archivist at the John Rylands Library, I have curated many important collections and manuscripts. Many, like the letters of John Wesley, enjoy international research significance, while others have public recognition value like the manuscript of the carol “Hark the herald angels sing”.
As enjoyable as working with these headline collections are, a different level of satisfaction comes from collection discovery – a box on a dusty shelf with unrealised potential and archival X factor. Such a collection is the Buffalo Bill scrapbook, which I came across by chance in 2012, when a colleague, aware of my interest in the American West, mentioned in passing that the Rylands had some papers relating to the impresario William Cody (1846-1917).
William Cody, more popularly known as “Buffalo Bill” is not a name that one would normally associate with the John Rylands Library. My interest was sparked, especially as the collection was undocumented and its existence largely unknown, even to library staff.
It was several weeks before I found time to track the collection down. At first sight, the scrapbook had little to recommend it. But inside its tatty cover lay a wealth of rich visual material – unique photographs of the groundbreaking British tours of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, rare magazines, illustrated calendars and news cuttings. It soon became apparent that the scope and extent of this collection was unrivalled in the UK and possibly anywhere outside of North America.
Since 2012, the collection has become recognised as an important scholarly resource for many subject areas from American Studies to anthropology and the rise of mass entertainment. It has also aroused a lot of public interest. Most people have heard of Buffalo Bill and since its discovery and the digitisation of a selection of the contents, the scrapbook has became a popular feature of public tours and close-ups.
It is a privilege to play a part in revealing and promoting a collection that has lain undisturbed for over a hundred years. It represented the perfect opportunity to combine personal interest with professional insight. My area of curatorial responsibility might be Christian religious archives, but one of the delights of working at the Rylands is that there is always the opportunity and encouragement to open a box on another shelf and peek inside – that buzz of anticipation is one of the reasons why I became an archivist. The John Rylands Library with its rich and eclectic collections is the perfect place for finding the unusual and the unexpected.