Serendipity, or, Why There’s No Such Thing as a Waste of Research TimeFebruary 21, 2013
Today my main goal is to complete the marking of the Historical Bibliography essays submitted a week and a half ago, and I am rewarding myself (and keeping my focus) by breaking after every four essays and sorting through some of the extra research photos I took in Oxford a couple of years ago.
What do I mean by “extra” photos? Well, the purpose of the trip was to build up a swatch of handwriting samples from the de la Mare papers to compare with the writing in the annotations in the books at Senate House. I finished this with a couple of days to spare and instead of heading off into the summer sunshine like any normal person might, I took some photos of some of the pocket books in the archive. I didn’t need them for the handwriting sample, but I thought they might come in useful at some point later in my research.
Analysing de la Mare’s handwriting proved to be pretty dismal as far as dating is concerned. There’s a clear shift in the last couple of years of his life, and his teenage writing is very like his mother’s and becomes more distinct when he starts work at the oil company, but that leaves a span of around fifty years in which nothing changes so drastically that I would like to look at an annotation in one of his books and date it with any feeling of confidence beyond “not very old and not young either”.
So, in the end, the trip felt a little bit of a cul-de-sac. I proved a negative: that handwriting analysis was not going to be helpful to me. I learned a little bit more about that sort of analysis, and I got some good practice in the palaeography of de la Mare’s quite distinctive hand. Nothing more.
I assigned sorting through the “extra” photos to be my marking displacement and wake-up task. (It’s really important to refresh yourself regularly while marking, so that no student suffers impact from boredom with the process on the part of the marker).
Fast forward to this morning. And lo! Notes from one of the early notebooks about what he’s reading. The very thing I have on my seek and locate list for the summer, as described by Whistler:
At about this time too he began making exercise books on waste sheets of paper from the Oil Office. The first is in an alphabetical notebook for November 1892. (The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart. Duckworth, 1993 (2003 imprint), p. 50)
I’ve not got images of them all, and I hope the years I don’t have are waiting for me in the boxes at the Bodleian, but it’s pretty exciting to find some of the very things I am seeking sitting on my own hard drive.
Thank goodness for the Bodley’s policy for researchers to take their own images. And thank goodness I didn’t go off in the sunshine once I’d finished my main research task. What was the focus then turned out to be not so important, while the marginal, the extra activity, could be really very useful indeed.
Image: flicking through images on my hard drive