Archives and Writing Lives

Funded by the AHRC

  • Principal Investigator: Dr Alison Wiggins
  • Institution: University of Glasgow, College of Arts, English Language & Linguistics
  • Category: AHRC, Leadership Fellowship (AH/P009735/1), 2017-19
  • Funded Value: £125,923 

The AHRC Archives and Writing Lives Project considers how we access and analyse handwritten historical documents in the digital age and the next steps for the future. The way we use archival sources (letters, inventories, legal documents, receipts, wage lists and financial accounts) has undergone profound changes in recent decades as a result of the web and digitisation. Yet many challenges remain. Vast areas of the archive, in fact, most historical documents remain unread and unanalysed. Furthermore, in certain respects, the web could be said simply to replicate certain older research paradigms, rather than transform them. Where should our priorities lie next? How do we bring to life lesser-known and never-read archival materials and shed light on their traces of past lives? Archives and Writing Lives focuses on Early Modern handwritten archival sources. These are an especially challenging category of archival material, being both voluminous in quantity and difficult to decipher and interpret. This project will argue for and illustrate the benefits of:

  • collaborative and inter-disciplinary models of working in order to progress knowledge
  • the potential of digital scholarship to transform research and to communicate widely research findings 
  • the particular gains to be made through analysis of sources for women's lives, which include fresh insights and more accurate versions of the broader historical narrative.

The findings of this project have the potential to shape the agenda for how archives are used and interpreted in the future. The project will develop a suite of open-access research publications alongside and linked to innovative digital outputs, which will stand as reference points within the field for many years to come.

Research Themes

Archives and Writing Lives is organised around three Research Themes that address the question that runs as a thread throughout: how does digital scholarship change archival research? This question will be addressed in relation to Early Modern handwritten sources, with a particular focus upon gender and materiality. The outputs of the three Research Themes will stand to demonstrate the imperative to model metadata and mark-up in alignment with the most recent scholarly findings and critical agnedas, as well as with an awareness of the cultural implications of encoding. There is a danger that encoding protocols (which, after all, constitute the structure that underpins how we sort, search and index information) can elide or gloss over cultural factors, or can implant out-dated taxonomies or embed outmoded assumptions into search and browse functionalities, such as would distort the accuracy of the output research findings. The project outputs will therefore interrogate, among other topics, the gendering of encoding that underpins how we search archival texts. More details about each of these themes, and their associated outputs and activities, will be posted in due course as the project develops:

Research Theme 1: Tudor Financial Accounts

One of the outputs of Archives and Writing Lives will be an interactive online edition of previously unpublished household financial accounts. This hybid edition will exploit the potentials of digital technology to combine: a database, live calculations, visualisations, textual editing, mark-up of material features and cultural categories, responsive web design and generous interfaces. Included will be financial accounts from Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall (c.1548-1603) that provide, in spectacular and compelling detail, the everyday comings and goings of a grand Elizabethan household. The project will collaborate and share core data with the Early Modern Manuscripts Online Project (EMMO) at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.

Research Theme 2: The Letters and Documents of Mary, Queen of Scots, 1550-87

Another of the outputs of Archives and Writing Lives will be a catalogue of around 800 letters and documents to and from Mary, Queen of Scots. Last edited in the 1840s, the Scottish Queen's letters offer one of the most powerful cases for shifting the focus of analysis back to the archival materials in order to produce more realistic and accurate portrayals of the historical and political situation. The project will collaborate and share data with the projects Women's Early Modern Letters Online (WEMLO) (Universities of Plymouth and Victoria) and Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO) (Bodleian Library, Oxford) to host the letter catalogue and develop methods for modelling and sharing metadata.

Research Theme 3: Early Modern Archives and Digital Transformations

During the project the PI will host a series of events, workshops and seminars, which will bring together academic researchers, archive and library professionals, digital developers, institutional policy-makers, third sector personnel, performers and the public. Through these events, the PI will create opportunities for a range of potential archive users to engage with questions about the practical challenges, as well as the interests and opportunities, presented today by Early Modern archival sources. A key outputs of this Research Theme will be the scholarly collection of essays, Archives: Power, Truth and Fiction, co-edited with Prof. Andrew Prescott for the series Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature.

People and Partners

Alison Wiggins (PI, English Language & Linguistics, University of Glasgow)

Jade Scott (PDRA, English Language & Linguistics, University of Glasgow)

Brian Aitken (Developer, English Language & Linguistics, University of Glasgow)

Grafworx (Web consultancy, Glasgow)

Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC)

Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO; Bodleian Library, Oxford and University of Oxford)

Women's Early Modern Letters Online (WEMLO; Universities of Plymouth and Victoria)

The Chamber Project (Arts festival, Glasgow)

Quadrivium (PG/ECR training network)