Collections Guest post

A Novice Archivist and the Papers of R. H. Wilenski

Hannah Smith, a student from the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies, writes about her cataloguing placement at the John Rylands Library earlier this year.

Hannah Smith
Hannah Smith, Liverpool archive student

What and Who?

A long time ago, in a time that seems far, far away, but was only January 2020, I was a postgraduate student on a placement with the Special Collections at the John Rylands Library.

I’m a University of Liverpool student on the Masters of Archives and Records Management postgraduate course, or to quote the head of the John Rylands Special Collections, part of the “Liverpool Massive”.

I have worked in business archives and records management, so I hoped for experience within an established and respected institution such as a local authority or an educational environment. I was fortunate to be placed at the John Rylands. As a very excited Mancunian, I was familiar with the neogothic building on Deansgate and was excited to get two weeks behind the scenes and have a nosy at collections, but also get a chance to see how the archive works in comparison to the other organisations where I had previously worked.

For anyone reading this who may not know, there is a lot of confusion in public understanding of the difference between archivists and librarians because superficially there are some overlaps in the separate roles.

The way I explain it to those who do not know the difference is that we as archivists and records managers are information professionals who deal with primary sources that are not necessarily published as secondary sources. We can deal with original records which may range from papyrus, to born digital records. When I say ‘deal’, this can involve the life-cycle of the item and when I say item/record that too could be anything. Very simply put, archivists: collect, appraise (which is to determine whether an item is institutionally relevant and historically pertinent), and catalogue the items for future users to find and access easily. We then take care of the collection.

Upon my arrival, I was warmly welcomed by EVERY member of staff and made to feel welcome within the department.  I was shown around behind the scenes. The building continues to be aesthetically pleasing throughout.

I was given the task of sorting a collection of personal papers by artist, art critic, historian and lecturer R. H. Wilenski lands has the collection as Wilenski was a lecturer at the University of Manchester in the 1940s. Fortunately, the collection had already been box listed. What archivists mean by ‘box list’ is that the archive has not been appraised but the items have been briefly but broadly arranged and described.

I was not familiar with the subject areas therein of sculpture, painting, art history, or art criticism. I had just two weeks to work on the project, and I wanted to get as much done as I could! I had to get to know the collection before I could even start cataloguing it. This was the first time I had led the arrangement and cataloguing of a real-world collection: no pressure! I managed to organise the collection in a way that I hope was thematically and organisationally accessible for future researchers. In an ideal world I would have had time to organise every single document within the collection, but this would not have been feasible, even in a more generous time-frame.  A project archivist does not necessarily have to be familiar with the area, but they must be able to recognise themes and subjects in order to categorise them for users.  Not only did I have to familiarise myself with the collection in order to arrange it, but I had to describe it accurately and consistently across many different topics. And I had to master EAD XML computer coding. Thankfully I had great guidance.

Now for the exciting bit…

Within the collection there was some excellent early twentieth-century modern art history material. For me, some notable items in the collection were letters to Wilenski from many notable artists in the modern art movement (and in some cases friends of Wilenski) such as Jacob Epstein, Eric Kennington, Patrick Heron and Stanley Spencer, amongst many others. One of my particular favourites was finding personal correspondence from the composer George Gershwin!

Wilenski was an expert on the artist and critic John Ruskin and published books on him, and on topics such as modern sculpture and Flemish painters and there are drafts and proof copies of these books present within the collection. There are cuttings from Wilenski’s Evening Standard and Guardian critiques of exhibitions relating to modern art. The collection captures much of the early movement within modern art, and reveals not only Wilenski’s opinions but also public perceptions of the work of modern artists such as Jacob Epstein and the memorial to TUC members lost in war (people hated it).

Pieta by Jacob Epstein
Pietà by Jacob Epstein, 1956, TUC Congress House, London. Photograph by mira66, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

Overall, it was an honour to be able to work on such a notable and satisfying collection. It clarified how important primary sources – special collections and archives – are for illuminating lost narratives from such a remarkable area as the growth of the modern art movement and its contemporaneous society within the early twentieth century.

P.S. I got to see the Gutenberg Bible.


2 comments on “A Novice Archivist and the Papers of R. H. Wilenski

  1. Hilary Smith

    Very interesting. Much more to the world of archivism than I had appreciated.

  2. Charlotte Starkey

    Fascinating and really instructive post. I now know the exact difference between a librarian and archivist, too. Thank you.

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