Archivists and curators of Special Collections possess a detailed knowledge of the collections in their care and are always delighted to share this. To mark Ask an Archivist Day we provide a brief breakdown of the process involved in responding to researcher enquiries…
Enquiries come by four main routes: by email, phone, via post, or in person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these days the majority of enquiries we receive are by email. The Archives inbox is managed on a rota, with Archivists taking turns in dealing with enquiries. However, if there is a large volume they will be shared out among the team. Enquiries come from a range of users both national and international, including students, scholars, educators, authors, family historians, genealogists, and filmmakers. The nature of enquiries can vary dramatically and they continually highlight the richness of the resources housed in Special Collections. While some enquiries can take minutes to process, others can take significantly longer. Below are examples of two relatively straightforward enquiries: one relating to a broad topic and the other with a more specific focus.
Enquiry #1: I’ve found material relating to the slave trade listed on the Wellington Papers Database. What other material do you have on the slave trade in the 19th century?
The topic of slavery and the slave trade is covered by both our manuscript and Printed Special Collections. Turning first to the manuscript collections, material can be found among the papers of two nineteenth-century politicians: those of the first Duke of Wellington (MS 61) and of third Viscount Palmerston (MS 62).
As was noted by the researcher, material on the topic can be found listed on the Wellington Papers Database. The database contains item level descriptions of material from the collection, enabling the researcher to narrow their focus to specific letters or documents. Meanwhile, a look at the catalogue for the Palmerston Papers shows there is a series of letters and papers relating to slavery and the slave trade (MS 62 PP/SLT) among the Papers on Foreign Affairs. Having identified these, a search of the Palmerston Papers Database highlights other parts of the collection containing material on the topic. Again, the database contains item level descriptions for identifying relevant documents.
It is now time to turn to the Printed Special Collections. Two collections immediately spring to mind: the Oates collection and the Wellington pamphlets. The Oates collection contains over 220 books and pamphlets on the West Indies and the abolition of slavery, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. While the Wellington pamphlets cover a broader range of topics, the pamphlets on the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies complement those held in the Oates Collection.Material from both of these collections can be searched on WebCat, the library’s online catalogue. As with the manuscript databases, this will help the researcher identify particular items relevant to their research. Additionally, a selection of pamphlets from the Oates collection have been digitised and can be accessed remotely on the Internet Archive.
On replying to the researcher’s enquiry, they are invited to visit to consult the collections and access details are provided.
Enquiry #2: My grandfather was a student at the university sometime between 1900 and 1905. Can you provide me with further details?
This is quite a specific enquiry and relates directly to a single manuscript collection: MS 1 Records of the University of Southampton. The first step is to examine the collection’s catalogue for listings of material relating to students covering the date range provided. PDF versions of catalogues for each collection are available to download on the Special Collections website.
At this point, it should be noted that the University manuscript collection does not contain personnel files for individual members of staff or students. However, a quick search of the catalogue provides a number of potential resources:
MS 1/3/476/3/1 Record of students, 1870-1900
MS 1/3/476/2/5 Register of students of the day training department, 1899-1915
MS 1/3/476/2/6 University examination results, arranged alphabetically by student name, 1905-36
Now it’s time to have a look at the records in the strongrooms! A location guide provides details of where items from the collections are located as there are several kilometres of shelving to navigate.
A search of the first volume doesn’t yield any results. The dates covered are possibly too early. The second volume, however, does contain an entry for the individual. Having graduated in 1905 their examination results are also listed in the third volume. As the individual is deceased, data protection rules do not apply and a response it sent to the researcher. They are invited to visit to consult the material themselves or, if they prefer, to order copies of the records (for the purposes of private study and research) through our reprographics service.
So please feel free to contact us if you have any questions regarding our collections or service. We are always happy to hear from users! Contact details can be found on our website at: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/archives/contact.page