Behind the scenes Collections Guest post

Cataloguing the Papers of L. P. Hartley: MA student placements at the Rylands

MA Student Placements at the Rylands

Flora Chatt writes:

My name is Flora, and I’m a student on the Masters in Archives and Records Management (MARM) course at Liverpool University. As part of our course, we complete a two-week placement, and Megan and I were placed at the John Rylands Library.

Obviously, this year’s placements were carried out a little differently. Due to Coronavirus restrictions, the whole placement happened virtually, over shared documents and Zoom calls. It feels strange to say I’ve completed a placement at the Library, without actually having set foot in the building (although I hope to visit as soon as I can!)

Megan and I were given the job of cataloguing the papers of L. P. Hartley, a 20th-century novelist and essayist perhaps best known for his book The Go-Between. These were quite a challenging set of papers: a large collection, which has gradually built up over the past 40 years through various acquisitions, donations, and purchases. It was made even more challenging by the fact that we couldn’t see the papers in person, and instead were working off various box lists.

We managed to divide up the papers into categories: correspondence, Hartley’s works, personal papers, and cuttings and publicity materials. After that, we divided up the sections between us to start cataloguing them on Oxygen, the Library’s archives cataloguing software: I took the correspondence and personal papers. This was my first experience of using XML to build a catalogue, and although it was initially intimidating working with so many numbers and symbols, it was surprisingly easy to get the hang of!

Hartley kept extensive correspondence with a wide range of people throughout his life, including prominent 20th-century figures such as Aldous Huxley and Daphne Du Maurier, and some of it even continued after he died, redirecting to his younger sister Norah. What survives at the John Rylands library reflects this: there are so many different groups of correspondence, some large and defined, some one-off letters, some already ordered and some not, that it was difficult to catalogue them in a coherent way, without imposing an unnatural order on them. The end catalogue in a way reflects this, but this is how Hartley’s correspondence has arrived at the Library: in bits and pieces, with some more well defined groups of papers, and some individual letters. I regretted not being able to work with the correspondence in person, not just because it would have made cataloguing it easier, but because even in the box lists Hartley’s character, and his extensive links to the 20th-century literary world, are evident, and I would have loved to have seen them.

His personal papers were a little simpler to catalogue, as they made up a far smaller proportion of his papers than his correspondence. They were quite disparate, and some slightly surprising items found included a strip of fabric name tapes, and a selection of 15 household bills. However, given that this was a much smaller category of items, this didn’t matter so much, as it didn’t affect the navigability of this section to have things largely listed by item/file level, rather than having several clearly defined subseries.

Cataloguing Hartley’s papers was a fantastic experience: not only an insight (however distant!) into a fascinating character, but also cataloguing such a large collection in its entirety is something I have never done before, figuring out the broad groups of material and how they arrived at the Library, in order to catalogue them. Thank you to Jess Smith, the Creative Arts Archivist, for all your help with guiding us on this project!

Megan Grainger writes:

In January 2021, I was afforded the opportunity to undertake a placement at the John Rylands Library. During a two-week period, I worked in tandem with another MARM student to catalogue a collection of records pertaining to the author L. P. Hartley.

The aim was to convert a box-list of records into a semblance of logical order, so that the collection is navigable and its records accessible. Contrary to some belief, it is not the intention of archives to hoard or store documentation, it is instead the endeavour of the archivist and records manager to ensure that through arrangement and description, the relevant records can be found by users and can therefore be used to inform whatever their undertaking may be.  In regard to the L. P. Hartley collection, it had undergone several acquisitions and it was important that these acquisitions were able to become a part of a collective whole, paramount to usability. Ultimately the collection was divided into four series that we believe best reflected both the aspects of L. P. Hartley’s life and the genre of the records within the collection.

What was lovely about the L. P. Hartley collection was that it was based on an individual and as with many literary figures, one that was both astute and compelling. The collection accommodates all things L. P. Hartley, from correspondence to school notebooks, to novel drafts, and while I was not able to read the records myself, I found it especially intriguing that there is the opportunity to see the thoughts and process that an esteemed author went through to create his stories. Whether you are an avid L. P. Hartley reader or not the collection is an excellent contributor to our understanding of the history of British literature.

When I say the placement was undertaken at the John Rylands Library, of course this comes with the Covid-19 disclaimer we have all become acquainted with, and the placement was carried out via the medium of Zoom. As the collection had already been box-listed, this reduced any limitations we may have had, as all of the key information, such as genre, dates and creators was already accessible and ready to be arranged and catalogued.  There were minor drawbacks, such as we were not able to see the extent of the collection and the arrangement we have created has had to remain an intellectual one, as we have been unable to physically arrange it. The records therefore all have two references at this time.  However, it is certainly the case that the limitations were far more fanciful than they were practical, as of course I missed not being able to interact with the records, peruse some of the content and get the feel for the records and their history, past the barebones of dates and names, and it was of course a disappointment to not see the imposing and neo-gothic building for myself. Luckily, though, this had little impact on the catalogue itself.

Overall it was a brilliant opportunity and I was supported wonderfully throughout. It was undoubtedly satisfying to see the completed collection at the end of two weeks’ hard work. Finding a source of ghost stories (a speciality of L. P. Hartley) has only been a bonus.

For more information on the L. P. Hartley Papers, please see our collections guide.

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