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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

Making sense of a complex collection

Archives Assistant, Lucy, is currently studying alongside her position at the Jesuits in Britain Archives for a professional qualification in Archives and Records Management. Having the practical experience to complement the theory and principles taught on the course is invaluable, however the reality of tasks such as cataloguing are in practice not always as straightforward as the theory would have you believe. In this blog post, Lucy tells us of her experiences, as she tackles a particularly complex collection.

Archival cataloguing ought to be straightforward. The collection of material to be catalogued should divide naturally into series, reflecting the way it was created and used. It is often not that simple. I have spent the last few months trying to find order in a large, complex and extremely jumbled collection of papers, which belonged to Dr Alfred Thomas SJ, a Jesuit priest and scholar, who died on 3 December 1985.

A black and white photograph showing a group of men some in clerical dress standing facing a man squatting down putting a plaque on to a large floor tile inscribed Gerard Manley Hopkins (inverted for viewer).
The Hopkins Memorial Plaque being unveiled in Westminster Abbey. Thomas is in the centre of this picture.

Alfred Thomas’ life’s work was the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ. He researched every aspect of Hopkins’ life and poetry in great detail. He published a book, numerous articles and letters (especially to the Times Literary Supplement), wrote a PhD thesis, and at least three more books, which were not published, all on Hopkins or on subjects relating to Hopkins. He founded and ran the Hopkins Society, dedicated to the academic study of Hopkins’ work, and to the promotion of his poetry via lectures, sermons and publications. Thomas campaigned, lobbied and fund-raised for the plaque to Hopkins to be placed Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. In the course of all this Hopkins-related activity, he corresponded with poets, priests, politicians, actors, academics, eminent Catholics, literary critics, librarians, lovers of Hopkins’ poems, and many, many others. He kept copies of his own letters, and took copious notes in almost-indecipherable handwriting, sometimes in near-code. These were made on any available paper – the backs of envelopes, receipts, library tickets, magazine wrappers, as well as on more conventional notebooks or lined paper.

Several pages of manuscript writing overlapping
Thomas' notes

This material, about 20 boxes of it, is very disordered. One box may contain papers created 30 years apart and on entirely different aspects of Thomas’ work, and papers relating to one project are often spread across many boxes.

Archival principles insist on the primacy of the original order of archival material, and respecting the way it was last used by its creator. Archivists are not supposed impose their own order. This is a fine ideal, but not so helpful when there is little apparent order in the papers in the boxes. Allowing and facilitating access to archives is another archival principle, and one of the ways that archivists fulfil this is by cataloguing the material so that researchers can discover what it contains. To catalogue an extremely disordered collection, order needs to be imposed. This has proved a difficult balancing act; to make the material accessible, to work out what its original order might have been, and to maintain a flavour of Thomas’ working patterns and habits of mind.

Yet it has its rewards. Precisely because Thomas was so passionate about Hopkins, his papers are extremely interesting. His correspondence with poets means I have found letters from W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, C. Day-Lewis. The actors he wrote to include John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Judi Dench. Thomas was in touch with stars of the academic world, including Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis and Oxford Marxist historian Christopher Hill. His fundraising and promoting activities led to correspondence with politicians such as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, celebrities like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and the leaders of other churches including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the heads of the Methodist and United Reformed Churches.

Correspondence with W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and Sir John Gielgud

I have also learned a lot about Hopkins’ poetry, gained insight into academic rivalries in the 1970s (always interesting!) and increased my knowledge of the history of the Jesuits in Britain, both in the later twentieth century and the nineteenth.

Manuscript with feint annotations
Copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'The Windhover' in Thomas' collection

Please note that access to this collection is at the Archivist’s discretion, however please do get in touch if you are interested in this or any other of the collections held by the Jesuits in Britain Archives.


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