A look into the British Archive for Contemporary Writing

The archive on the 02 floor of the UEA Library is a hidden gem. I found out about it during my first year, at an opportunity event where I met the archivist Justine Mann. Justine’s job is to deal with “the geeky cataloguing side of things” as she calls it, but she is also responsible for working with students, authors and academics “to bring the collections to life”. Students can make an appointment to visit the archive, and can request specific material to research. “We have a range of writers’ archives,” she tells me, “from scriptwriters to novelists and biography/ memoir writers.” She explains that these involve collections on “Lee Child, Doris Lessing, Naomi Alderman, Tash Aw – too many to mention here.”

One of the collections at the archives is that of writer, comedian, and actor Charlie Higson, known to many as the author of the extremely successful Young Bond series. I asked Higson why his Archives are at the UEA: “I was a student here, and someone rung me up from the archive and said: would I be interested in having my archive looked at”, he said. “I’d never really thought of my work in an academic context before,” he admits, explaining that this was the first time he realized that “people might find it useful to study” this material. “Not to necessarily study me and what a marvelous genius I am, but if you’re studying the history of British comedy, entertainment, or whatever, this is an artifact that sheds light onto certain aspects of that.”

Justine informs me that “Academic staff use the archive for teaching and research… We have researchers from all over the world who visit to write papers that are published in academic journals.” But why would someone want to explore loads of unpublished documents? “It’s fascinating primary source material – that sheds new light on their subject,” Justine explains. Emily Walker is a comedy researcher who is involved with Higson’s archive. “I’m on a placement at the moment,” she tells me, “and what I do in that is I go through all the sketches that he’s written.” Her job is to name, describe, and put a title on the material, in order to facilitate academics who may potentially have an interest in writing their papers on the collection.

Describing her own research on Higson’s Randall & Hopkirk, Emily explains that “I’ve been looking at script-drafts, comparing them, pulling out differences, and then using textual analysis to make deductions about why those things have changed.” I ask Emily what she thinks is the benefit of working with archive material, and she points me to the same reason that Justine gave earlier: “no one else has looked at it.” “Quite often,” she tells me, “it’s new material and no one has made any deductions from it yet, and in humanities, sometimes it’s very hard to find that one new thing.”

I recognize this feeling; it is what drew me to the archives in my first year. As a fresher, I was part of the archives’ ‘Unboxed’ project, aimed at giving students the opportunity to discover the collections, and optionally write an article which was then published on the blog. I remember the delight I felt as I sat in an exquisitely lit room, where Justine has set out the various material I had requested, as well as a trolley with two big boxes full of other folders for me to delve into. I went through file after file of letters and diaries, speeches and official documents.

I examined the correspondence of two eminent Suffragette sisters, Jessie and Annie Kenney. This year, the archives have set up the project Suffragette Stories, in celebration of the women who won the vote 100 years ago. “We are creating a short story anthology inspired by the Suffragette archive,” Justine explains. It is in this way that the UEA archives celebrate the past in enabling us to explore the documents that shaped our understanding of history- both known and yet to be discovered.

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Melina Spanoudi

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January 2022
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