JW: I was presenting a book here that I wrote with a colleague at Gladfest last year [Marie Duval Rediscovered with Simon Grennan], and I think it was there that I met Irina [Schmid - Digitisation Technician]. I'd heard that volunteers were needed. I work part-time so I thought this sounded like a nice thing to do, I got in touch with Elizabeth [Fife-Faulkner – Digitisation Project Manager] and here I am!
JW: I started in October, so I’ve been here about five months now. It’s a six-month minimum commitment time so I’ll stay at least that long but I’m really enjoying it! It’s like a little pool of civilisation in my week. I do love my job – I lecture in Drama at Chester University Monday to Wednesday, and that’s lovely but it is quite demanding and all-embracing - when you’re there that’s all you’re doing and quite often it flows over into the rest of the week. So to come here and do something completely different has been really therapeutic.
JW: Well it is great isn’t it? I did a research project a few years ago where we made an archive of a nineteenth-century cartoonist called Marie Duval which was funded by the AHRC [Arts and Humanities Research Council] so if you go online to marieduval.org you will see our archive! One thing I really like is that this is almost more significant in a way because you are physically handling manuscripts. With Marie Duval only her printed stuff survived so there’s no originals of her work. This is mostly because she probably did all her designs straight onto woodblocks so there probably weren’t actually any drawings to keep. So myself and my colleagues used to say that perhaps in an attic somewhere we would find an original Duval but so far we haven’t and I don’t think anyone ever will sadly – unlike Gladstone obviously! His letters of course were immediately valued and treasured so the archive here is clearly a very important thing, and digitising it is as important. Marie Duval’s work is available in various places so our plan was to put it all together and sort of reclaim her and have this lovely digital archive. We had a guy scanning - exactly as Irina is doing on this project - so I was very aware of the idea of scanning and making things accessible which is something happening in libraries throughout the world.
So when I heard this project was going on here I thought that I’d really like to help out. All my life I’ve particularly loved going and looking at drawings –I’ve spent a lot of time throughout the world in print rooms with the right gloves on looking at drawings - I did an MA in Illustration and part of that was to study drawings and how people have drawn and how that’s been changing throughout the centuries and that was all really interesting but it meant that I spent a lot of time in print rooms. So it’s really lovely to be handling letters and thinking ‘Wow, Gladstone really wrote that and I am actually dealing with it!’ And doing a bit of transcription as well – the job I’m doing here includes transcribing the first sentence of every letter and the first line of each subsequent page. So that’s been fun as well.
In between putting in all the factual details for the catalogue there’s that little bit of creativity when you’re puzzling over what Gladstone wrote all those years ago. I’m finding that really interesting. I believe the next step will be to fully transcribe the letters so we’ll have the letters online. Fundamentally – your question was what do I think of the project and I think it’s really valuable and important, making these things accessible, and accessible forever.
JW: Well I hope so if I’m still around! It is fun, and I get a big kick when I’m doing a bit of transcription and I think ‘oh no this has been misinterpreted.’ Because when you’re going back adding or correcting sometimes you pick up that it has previously been transcribed wrong. I had a brilliant one the other day when Gladstone would refer his secretaries to something he wanted sending, he said ‘the thing I need is in my top right hand drawer’ and the previous transcriber had read it as ‘top right hand divorce’ which was obviously transcribed out of context, so when I see something like this, it feels like I’m doing a crossword puzzle and gives me a bit of a buzz, it’s a lovely moment!
JW: This is an interesting thing, it’s a bit like Cox and Box, the Victorian play turned into an operatic by Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s about two people – one who does a day shift and one who does a night shift - and a naughty landlord who lets the rooms to both of them without the other knowing and then the story of the operatic is that they both arrive at the same time and meet each other and go ‘oh my God this is my room!’, ‘No it’s my room!’ etc and it’s a bit like that with the volunteers. There’s only one desk for volunteers so by necessity if I’m there the others aren’t. I do sometimes have lunch here and you get into these casual conversations here with people who are working in the library doing the sort of work I’m doing – so I do meet people, but specifically volunteers, no, weirdly we cross like ships in the night and just hear about each other.
JW: I think the Marie Duval project was useful in having an understanding about what this project is about and so I think I had quite a good idea about the overview of the project before I started. I think the key thing is just being very meticulous, and with the academic background I have, obviously part of academia is being meticulous. Which is why I get on with Elizabeth because she was slightly apologetic when I first arrived, she’d say stuff like ‘I’m sorry but this really does have to be exactly the same’ and I’d be thinking ‘No no no that’s fine because I’m a bit the same myself!’
As for volunteering in the past, I’ve never volunteered for a library before but I’ve done some voluntary work. In my first career I was an actor, and still to this day I work on street theatre on my weekends off. And I have volunteered for hospitals - there was quite a nice project actually at the hospital in Chester which involved talking to people with Alzheimer’s and it was interesting because they had a new idea where you could play old songs or clips from films so you could be talking to the person and if you felt like you could steer this towards talking about songs you could see if the song was available to play and you could just play them a bit of it. So yes, over the years I’ve done various volunteer work when I could.
JW: No, I was aware of it but apart from when I did the presentation at Gladfest I hadn’t been before. I mean I do live in Chester but I don’t have a car so there is a little bit of distance. Coming to Gladfest was quite a revelation, it’s such a beautiful place isn’t it?
JW: Gladstone himself? No, and I don’t know that I know much about him politically now. I mean I know an awful lot of weird personal details about him because we have the personal letters here, but the political ones are stored somewhere else. I did find an amazing letter where he’d done little drawings and sketches. It was only about the second or third week I’d been here, and I thought ‘Oh maybe he does little sketches all the time’ but no, that’s the only one I’ve found. I think that’s the nice thing about doing this, because I haven’t sat down and read a biography, but there’s all these little names that keep coming up. I was doing a whole sequence of letters to his daughter and now I’m doing some from his secretary and you get these weird little insights into aspects of his life. For instance there’s all these details about him renting out a farm which he seemed to be absolutely obsessed with. I’m reading letters over quite a long period to his brother and he’s obsessing over this farm so that’s quite a niche insight which might be one line in a biography but seems to be really important because it just kept coming up. But of course that was over about ten years of letters and I’m just honing in on that theme.
JW: Well, we don’t wear gloves, but we do have to make sure we wash our hands and so on. I had a good walk through of how to lay them out and how to lift particularly fragile items. It’s not incredibly complicated, but there are those things that you must do. There was one very large piece which we wanted to look at and Elizabeth came over and we both sort of unfolded it together, it was a poster from his days in Oxford, and it was a bill of all the people who had voted in the Oxford Union and how they’d voted on particular motions which he’d proposed. And that was quite a large sheet and obviously on quite fragile paper, but generally they’ve been very well kept so it isn’t a white glove situation. I’ve been reassured that they are all handleable with clean hands so that’s good.
JW: All the time, I think it depends how quickly he’s writing. Essentially it’s context that’s the key to this, which is true to reading any handwriting isn’t it, that actually you rely on context and nobody fully forms letters even today. So there’s the sort of archaic nature of some letters, his particular habits with some letters which you get used to and then primarily it’s the context like the weird drawer/divorce issue I mentioned earlier on - with the context of that it was pretty clear that it couldn’t have been ‘divorce’ because that just didn’t make sense. It is fun, and it does remind me of doing a crossword puzzle because you know, you often have a part of a sentence that makes sense, but sometimes it’s only when you’ve read further into the letter that you are able to go back and fill in the blanks.
Another thing I found was that names are quite interesting, I’ve taken to googling names – Lord Derby comes up quite a lot so initially it was ‘LD’ for Lord – which can be quite confusing - and then when there is this ‘D’ with a sort of squiggle after it you can be pretty sure it’s Lord Derby. There’s all sorts of little things that you have to put in place once you’ve found them out, to then be able to read the letters.
J: The pictures! I’d really like to go back and look at the pictures because I thought I’d find more of these little sketches but I haven’t. The very first letter I did was from childhood, they were notes from when he was at Prep School. To be honest with you there are some boring ones! But it is nice to find little gems like these.
JW: It’s very much confirmed it yes. I was thinking of it - one of the reasons I wanted to be a volunteer here. I’m a mature student, but I’ve got 10 years of working life left and I thought I’d like to try something different. I mean I have changed career quite a bit, I did my first 10 years as an actor, then I started teaching abroad, then went to university teaching, but I really like the idea of trying something new and starting again
I’ve had a hopefully modestly successful career, you know written a couple of books, so that’s been nice. I’ve kind of ticked everything off my ‘bucket list’ that I wanted to do as an academic. I’d love to work in archives but actually there’s a lot of appeal for working somewhere like a council library, again a lot of my work as been facilitating and I’d love a role where I was also involved with getting groups of people in which obviously is a big part of council libraries, I’ve got some liaison through the university with Storyhouse and that’s a library and theatre and so I’ve been doing work with students while they’ve been doing things for kids in the library and those roles as well where you’re not only working on the collection but you’re also getting the community involved and it really ticks those boxes that I love doing, just a sense of service to people and a community. So for me working in a library is just ticking a lot of boxes and I’m really excited to do more.