Sonia Khan in an undergraduate student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Over the summer, Sonia has spent almost two months in Sheffield Archives, undertaking a placement as part of the Sheffield University Research Experience (SURE) scheme. Sonia’s placement saw attached to the Sheffield: Print, Protest, Poetry, 1790-1810 Project, assessing the character and content of large collections of archival material pertaining to the influential Sheffield poet, journalist, abolitionist and statesman, James Montgomery. In this post Sonia reflects on her time in the archive and offers her advice to anyone intending to undertake archival research for the first time!
Hi Sonia! What have you been getting up to in Sheffield Archives?
I’ve been unearthing relevant material related to James Montgomery and the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society. Mostly, I’ve been looking through his letters, memoirs and newspaper cuttings that came after Montgomery’s death.
Of all the materials you’ve been looking at, did you have any favourites?
There are three items that I particularly enjoyed looking over. The first is an original collection of manuscripts once exhibited by J.H Brammal. This item has unpublished material that tells us about Montgomery’s feelings when he was put on trial for dubious charges of seditious, libel and treason. Of all the items I looked at, this one gave a real sense of how important Montgomery was to the people of Sheffield.
The second is an item titled ‘Minutes of the trial of Montgomery for a libel against R.A Athorpe at Doncaster’. There are better known documents out there in which Montgomery speculates that the authorities were out to get him for editing the Sheffield Iris (1794-1825), a newspaper thought of by many as being radical, dissenting and openly critical of local and national government. In a letter to a friend Montgomery once lamented that even though he hadn’t done anything illegal the authorities would likely charge him for criminal activities anyway, just to silence his newspaper. Montgomery was right and these Minutes confirm it. Whoever wrote the minutes was clearly biased against Montgomery and stated that it was impossible to not find him guilty. When you look at the evidence that Montgomery’s defence had put together you realise that the prosecution really was grasping at straws.
The third of my favourite items is one that warrants an awful lot more critical attention: The Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery. It is an extraordinary resource that describes Montgomery’s life before he entered an apprenticeship with Joseph Gales (editor of the Sheffield Register, 1787-1794), his trials, his works, his time in prison and his many reviews of poetry and prose. It becomes more extraordinary when you compare it to Montgomery’s own description of his life. It becomes clear that the Montgomery described in the Memoirs is a heavily fashioned, overtly mythologised vision of who Montgomery thought was. The ‘Rough notes of the Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery’ are equally fascinating. These hold newspaper cuttings where certain words have been crossed out or have had something added to them in order to elevate the status of Montgomery. Some of them are even written in Montgomery’s hand.
What were the biggest challenges that you had to overcome whilst conducting this research?
From the start of this project, I was very anxious about reading handwriting. I felt as though I would not be able to get through enough items, because I would be too busy struggling to decipher the hands. Sometimes, Montgomery would purposefully write in a ‘weak hand’ because he wanted to prevent others from seeing valuable information. Clever on Montgomery’s part, but very challenging for me!
I was also overwhelmed by knowing just how much information there was in the archives. I knew that everything had the potential to be incredibly interesting and valuable, but I only had a dim notion of what was inside each individual item. Initially, I felt pressure to make sure that I managed to get through all the items that were situated in the archives. I quickly realised that that would be impossible (and that it was not what was expected of me). The pressure fell away, which was a relief.
I also faced a personal challenge. I have disabilities and because they are chronic illnesses the effects of them fluctuate. My chronic illnesses especially effected me at the outset of the project. This meant that I got tired and in too much pain to do the research. At the start, I honestly thought I would have to back out of the project because they were giving me such a hard time. The people at the Sheffield Archives were very helpful with accessibility needs. Having a bus that went almost all the way to the Archives and back was also really helpful, and I’ve very happy that I’ve managed to complete this project.
Are there any tips you would give to researchers entering into the archive for the first time?
- Have a clear plan of what you’re going to research once you’re inside the archives. One way of being less overwhelmed is going onto the online catalogue to identify key materials before you arrive.
- Order your items the day before. The first time I went to the Archives was on a Saturday at ten am, and the trolley for items came at 11 so I essentially wasted an hour of valuable research time.
- Follow your nose. Some of the most interesting items I discovered weren’t in the date range specified by the project, nor were they listed in the two key areas that I was meant to be researching.
- Know your limits. There are some days where you might be able to do a 9-5 day and other days when you can just do three or four hours. That is still three or four hours more than doing nothing though, and some items are harder to decipher than others. So don’t be discouraged and have fun.
Has this experience changed the way you think about Archives?
I was pleasantly astonished by how much material there is in Sheffield Archives surely of interest to people of all disciplines (not just historians!). I will definitely be going there in the future, they are a valuable resource.
You can read more about Sonia’s research on the Sheffield: Print, Protest, Poetry (1790-1810) blog.