Volunteer voices: Heather Richards on Norman Shrapnel

One of our volunteers, Heather Richards, talks about her experience at the Rylands and working with the Norman Shrapnel archive

I’m Heather Richards and I’m thrilled to be a volunteer for the John Rylands Research Institute and Library. I’m currently pursuing a MA in Archives Administration via distance learning at Aberystwyth University. I’m delighted to work at the John Rylands because of the impressive wide-ranging collections, the beauty of the building itself, and the friendly, knowledgeable archives staff.  It’s a genuine treat to be here.

For my volunteering project, I am assisting with the box listing of Norman Shrapnel’s collection. The box listing will enable researchers to quickly find out the content and scope in the collection. The chance to do hands-on archival work on a new collection of an inspiring figure like Norman Shrapnel has been one not to miss. It is exciting to immerse myself in the beautiful reading room with the collection and open archival boxes full of newspaper cuttings, original writings, notebooks, correspondence and more from Shrapnel’s impressive legacy of work. It is like being a detective piecing together the record of a famed public figure. The work requires an ability to describe concisely what you have found. I’m learning how to do this and hope to get quicker, but it is hard not to want to pause and read everything. This is made extra difficult because Norman Shrapnel was a beautiful and engaging writer.

Sepia photograph of the journalist Norman Shrapnel smoking a pipe.
Norman Shrapnel, photo provided by his family and described by them as “quintessentially Norman”.

Norman Shrapnel was the Manchester Guardian and Guardian’s parliamentary correspondent throughout the 1950s to the 1970s. He was well-respected by his peers and loved by readers. His work is at once funny and intellectual, yet also cuts straight to the point. In addition to parliament, Shrapnel covered obituaries and provided book reviews for the Guardian. The collection includes Shrapnel’s numerous articles for multiple newspapers, radio show transcripts, personal correspondence, and his own draft novels. His work covers many of the period’s key political moments. It’s wonderful that Shrapnel’s family have asked for the collection to come to the John Rylands because he is an excellent fit for this location. Shrapnel was a quintessential Manchester Guardian reporter and his collection fits well here close to the newspaper’s roots. The John Rylands holds the Guardian (formerly Manchester) Archive and it is superb to now also hold Shrapnel’s wonderful work here.  You can find out more on Norman Shrapnel in an insightful post by fellow intern Sophia Louise Lee: The Norman Shrapnel Collection – Nostalgia in the past and present.

Front view of a brown paper file, held together with string. Entitled 'The Colonel takes in washing by Normal Shrapnel', with a note to Stephanie in pencil underneath.
“Draft manuscript for Norman Shrapnel’s novel “The Colonel Takes in Washing” with note to Stephanie requesting her observations”. JRL230100098.

Sometimes I have people in my life ask “why do you want to be an archivist?” and I find it difficult to explain eloquently. Sometimes I say, “I love history, I love research, and I love manuscripts”, but when I’ve had a little time and I’m allowed to be a little grand, truly, I think, archives are crucial to humanity. Archives are powerful, they enable justice, they document culture, they record an ideal version of who we hope to be and the sometimes-conflicting record of how we have behaved. Since I started working on my MA, I find references to archives everywhere: from pop culture settings to news headlines. So, whilst archives may not have an exciting reputation, they have an impact everywhere. It’s fun. I challenge you to think about a recent political event that has not depended upon recordkeeping for the truth to be discovered. I’ve not been brave enough to watch Archive 81, the horror series, but the trainee archivist in me should probably watch it to learn the true perils of the profession! 

A black and white cartoon entitled 'to hoard or not to hoard' with handwritten comments by Shrapnel underneath in blue ink.
Shrapnel’s draft caption for an Emmwood cartoon accompanying his 1970s Guardian article on inflation. It gave me a little déjà vu finding this and reading today’s news on inflation. JRL230100097.

Ultimately, it is an honour to be involved in the work of the John Rylands in this way and I will endeavour to do the Norman Shrapnel collection proud.

Heather Richards

0 comments on “Volunteer voices: Heather Richards on Norman Shrapnel

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: