Reconstructing Archives with Tim Raylor

The last of this season’s SCEMS Visiting Speakers was Tim Raylor, Professor of English at Carleton College, Minnesota. A literary scholar who has spent a career developing keen archival skills, our visitor used this occasion to share work-in-progress. Sheffield postgraduate (and Chatsworth: Servants to Staff researcher) Hannah Wallace reports on the Friday masterclass:

Masterclass discussion on aspects of the title page.
Discussion on aspects of the title page. Photograph (c) H. Wallace

Following on from his lecture on Thomas Hobbes and his relationship with the Peak District, Tim began his masterclass with a discussion on Hobbes’s history reading. Arguing that Hobbes was reading different historians’ work to other civic humanists of the period, the first part of the masterclass discussion centred on Thomas Cecill’s title page to Hobbes’s translation of Eight Bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre by Thucydides.

Attendees to the masterclass were lucky enough to read a draft except from Tim’s upcoming work on Hobbes. Drawing upon this, the group questioned if we should read title pages from top to bottom, left to right or taken as a whole to provide a narrative. Tim’s comparisons to other seventeen-century engravings made it clear that this title page was as much a product of Hobbes’s own time as it was a depiction of ancient Greek history. An animated discussion produced numerous different readings as well as solving the mystery of why there were too many people sat at the Spartan council meeting.

Raylor and screen showing digital resources.
Looking at digital resources. Photograph (c) H. Wallace.

In the second half of the masterclass, Tim reflected on his journey as an academic and shared with the group advice he had learned along the way. His first piece of advice stressed the importance of referring back to original source documents. Tim asked the group to look at a page from the Google Books digital copy of An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins where they were teased with faint images of a fold out table. Unable to support a scan of a fold out page, this case showed how digital versions of books taken from poor microfilm copies can restrict the reading of a text and make different inks, changing fonts and fold out pages easy to miss.

The importance of the materiality of sources was a theme continued in Tim’s other tips. As well as promoting thinking outside of disciplinary boxes, Tim also encouraged students to ‘look at the box’ itself: to touch it, feel it and smell it. He argued by fully examining and questioning the sources we work with we can better understand the story of how they came to be. When discussing his work on the Hartlib papers, Tim described his desire to reconstruct Hartlib’s storage system. Using the dirt patterns on letters and matching up wormholes, it would be possible to see what might have caught Hartlib’s eye when he reached for something and in doing so shed light on his thought process.

Reconstructing collections and understanding how documents were once archives formed part of Tim’s final piece of advice. He encouraged the masterclass to read through catalogues of manuscripts and books to better understand personal library collections. With each researcher bringing their own expertise and interests to their reading of such sources, new connections between collections are waiting to be discovered. In promoting the use of these catalogues, Tim’s advice was to cast a wide net whilst researching and to question its parameters by not just focusing on what you think you should be.

From his work on the Hartlib papers to his current research on Thomas Hobbes, Tim’s research into individuals with wide ranging interests has encouraged his own explorations into different fields and disciplines. Speaking at the masterclass about his career, Tim’s research route appeared an embodiment of his advice to not be blinkered when researching, to not only approach sources with one aspect in mind and to look in unexpected places.