Blogging the Archives: ‘The Writing Lives Project’

By Tawny Whitfield

On Sunday 23rd November, Kim Edwards Keates and I were invited to give a presentation at Gladstone’s Library Victorian Studies Colloquium. Our discussion shared Helen Rogers’ ‘Blogging Beyond the Classroom’ project, which is an online forum for students and tutors to exchange ideas about the use of blogging as a teaching and learning platform for academic studies. I briefly explained my experiences at University while part of a newly established third-year undergraduate module, ‘Writing Lives’, a collaborative research project that enables students to transcribe, research and publish online blogs about nineteenth and twentieth-century working-class life writing.

Gladstone's Library
Gladstone’s Library

‘Writing Lives’ was different as a module because it did not seem to be just about producing an essay every semester, but rather, a new research project that developed student skills in researching, writing, editing, proofreading for the web, and enabling students to gain experience of using print and electronic information sources. ‘Writing Lives’ is a project that aims to make information accessible to all, creating online access to archival materials for people who may not have the necessities to travel to museums or libraries, and to encourage people to be active in their local community, giving a voice to everyday people and promoting an interest in culture and heritage. On the other hand, we also provide information for people who may go to museums and libraries for work, study or pleasure and choose to conduct their own research in the comfort of their own home. Starting to self-educate, they become autodidactic, realising their own potential.

I wanted to work on the ‘Writing Lives’ project because I want to become an archivist or librarian, and this project came across as a perfect opportunity. I personally have always found social history fascinating, but also, ‘Writing Lives’ provided a chance to demonstrate a high level of commitment to continuous personal and professional development within Humanities. For me, the skills I wanted to gain as a result of the project such as data, information management, preservation of digital resources, using social media, and sharing heritage in the modern world, was certainly realised. The project involved a hands-on approach to research. This developed a sense of freedom, taking ownership of our work, becoming detectives of the social history world.

The module was designed to enable students to develop advanced literary historical research. We ‘adopted’ an author from The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies housed at Brunel University Library, and worked on transcribing their memoir (some were handwritten, others typed) and conducted research on their life and writing, hence becoming literary detectives. The purpose was to examine what their writing tells us about working-class lives and culture, including childhood, education, politics, religion and their working lives. The memoir I chose to work on was that of a man named James McKenzie. Because this handwritten memoir was 50,000 words long, and we only had technically a few weeks to produce the blogs and an annotated introduction, I shared the work and study of McKenzie’s memoir with a colleague; we thought on this occasion teamwork was wise. The title of his memoir is ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man.’

James McKenzie

While transcribing his memoir, we learnt about the writer and we followed his narrative and expression; we preserved what he had to say and how he said it. WE DID NOT CORRECT any spelling mistakes throughout the memoir as that told us about his identity and development – learning to read and write – his handwriting, and even the history of spelling and grammar. But what does this say about his autobiography? Why did he want to write an autobiography?

Back when we first started his memoir, what interested us the most was the fact that he called himself a circus showman. Circuses are not often seen anymore and travelling fairs are seen less by the year because of the rise in technology and the other ways we entertain ourselves. It was interesting to research the popularity of the circus in the late nineteenth century and the many forms of the travelling fair, which were significantly for the masses. McKenzie was orphaned at a very young age and raised by his fortune-telling Grandmother; did his wanderlust come from family influences? He lived with various other relatives throughout his childhood, suggesting his thoughts on family life and why he wanted to live life on the road, dedicating his life to travelling. Despite having no formal education, his writing was articulate and formative, which raised questions about his education: was he home-schooled or did he eventually go to school, for instance?

Oxford St Giles Fair
Day’s Menagerie. Oxford St Giles Fair. 1895.

There was a lot of research conducted by all the ‘Writing Lives’ students; the majority consisted of online research from sources such as Ancestry.co.uk, for example. We referred to previous web-based research from other blogs and archives from Universities, too. Michelle Whittle and I travelled to Sheffield to visit Dr Vanessa Toulmin and the National Fairground Archive which was a major help for us in conducting our research.

Since graduating, I took the liberty of managing the ‘Writing Lives’ Facebook page. Going back to my thoughts about making information accessible, I think social media is a fantastic way to encourage people to participate in the cultural world, and it was only a matter of time before we turned to Facebook or Twitter to help make that influence. For me, as someone who used Facebook socially in the past, managing this page has certainly helped educate me in how to use social media as a marketing tool and as a scholarly source. As a result of working on the project, it has made me realise that I would like to continue with my research on this project, and my next step is to work with the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. I have volunteered to go to the library to work through the volumes of the Burnett Bibliography to compile a list of the memoirs that they hold, and also those not in the Bibliography. Hopefully, the purpose of the outcome is to see if we can identify the WCML holdings and cross-reference it to the autobiographies that we already hold, so then Helen and the team can budget for digitisation, to enable the ‘Writing Lives’ project to expand. I will investigate if any of the libraries holdings are already available online to ensure we don’t digitise works that are already publicly available. This will also help as part of my own personal development, in eventually becoming a librarian and an archivist. All of this will enable me to gain experience before starting my MRes next year in working-class reading and autobiography by focusing my research on one topic – reading and writing and looking at authors from the archive, interpreting their experiences, and discussing how reading is shaped by class experiences, education, even gender.

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