Nancy is presenting a paper this weekend at the inaugural conference of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, being held at Bryn Mawr College. The conference will feature presentations of digital humanities projects and discussions about issues connected with conducting historical research in a digital age. Here is a little taster from Nancy’s paper, which is entitled “What’s it all about, Alfie?: conducting research in a digital age – Sensuality, Serendipity, and Sources.” Please don’t reproduce any of this material without her permission.
There is something about the smell of dust in the archives that represents research. Learning to negotiate the physical space of the archives is a rite of passage for historians and remains an essential part of “what we do.” I am sure that all of us remember our early experiences doing archival research–the mysterious soft lighting, the smell of old paper, the gloves required to examine photographs, and yes, the dust of elderly pages– all of our senses engaged in the process of research. There is a certain sensual allure to the archives and we can hardly deny the attractions of archival research.
Yet there are negative features as well–the distances we must travel to access materials and the costs of getting there, the restrictions that must be imposed on handling rare materials, not having the requisite pencil for note taking, the inaccessibility of key sources, the limited hours. All of obstacles to research frustrate the historian, and the increasing availability of digital collections certainly helps to reduce some of the challenges inherent in research. Does utility trump sensuality? Does working with digital sources change the way we interact with them?
So, how do we go about “doing” history in this digital age? History traces continuity and change over time, and our digital world contributes to both these aspects of the field. Clearly access to terabytes and terabytes of resources offers the opportunity to conduct research in different ways and possibly on a different scale. But the process of research continues – as I have drilled into my students for many years, HISTORY IS AN EVIDENCE BASED DISCIPLINE. Whatever turn our research interests take – the biographical turn, the affective turn, the transnational turn, to name but a few – we rely on evidence to make our arguments. The process of digitizing archives has broadened our ability to access and use a much wider range of sources, from the comfort of office or home. But, with all these gains, do we not lose something of what drew us to history in the first place – unfolding a letter with the greatest of care, turning the pages of a diary unread since its author closed its pages, finding a photograph that perfectly illustrates a key point of our argument? What is the effect of quicker access to more?
Stephanie has two articles being published. The first, ‘Just a book in a library? The Sybil Campbell Library Collection fostering international friendship amongst graduate women’, will appear soon in History of Education and can be viewed online. The second, ‘Boarding School Fictions: schoolgirls’ own communities of learning’, is forthcoming in the Women’s History Review. Carry on reading for the abstracts of each article.
‘Just a book in a library?’: In 1927 the British Federation of University Women (BFUW) established Crosby Hall in London as a hall of residence for women graduates from overseas. The Federation aimed to foster international understanding and peace at a time of social and political turmoil. Accessions to the library at the Hall were on a somewhat ad hoc basis and provide an intriguing historical source. Crosby Hall was sold, but the much loved library travelled first to Bloomsbury and ultimately to the Special Collections of a university. This article discusses the sensory power of a book collection for the historian drawing on recent reflections on the affective turn in history of education. Is it more than the sum of its parts? Does the collection hold more meaning if held separately rather than integrated onto the general shelves? What are the possibilities inherent in research on rather than in a collection such as this?
‘Boarding School Fictions:’ This article explores the fictional world of the schoolgirl annual in the interwar period and the significance of the imagined girls’-only spaces for their intended readership. The article takes the year 1929, the year of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and focuses on two annuals designed for the 12–15 market: School Friend and Schoolgirls’ Own. The annual compendium of stories, a very British invention, drew on characters whose adventures were followed in the weekly schoolgirl comics and was published at Christmas, a time when there was little personal space available as families gathered together. The imaginary world of boarding schools such as Cliff House or Morcove offered readers an escape from the hierarchy of family life and expectations of girls’ participation in the home. Using the background of Woolf’s feminist polemic and a framework informed by the theoretical framing of space by feminist geographer Linda McDowell, the article teases out the meaning of the multilayered nature of stories created by men with no experience of single-sex girls’ school, writing as women.
Nancy has just recently completed collecting reading copies of the entire run of the Chalet School books. I am steadily working my way through the series, which numbered fifty eight books total. Elinor Brent-Dyer published the first book, The School at the Chalet, in 1925. The last of the series, Prefects of the Chalet School, appeared in 1970, the year following the author’s death. I have nineteen books to go and am already sad knowing that the series will end. Yet there is a certain timeless quality to the books and their characters that enables the reader to return to them, as one does to a conversation with old friends.
Collecting the series has been challenging, as I have sought reading copies rather than pristine first editions. I have bought only editions published by Chambers, Brent-Dyer’s original publisher, or by Girls Gone By Publishers, a wonderful firm that produces lovely reprints of several series books. Acquiring the books has also been made possible by used booksellers who make their inventory available online.
I have yet to pick a favorite book and want to reserve judgment till I have finished the series. So, watch this space!
Nancy heads off soon to present a paper entitled “Creating a Transnational Family: The Early Books of the Chalet School Series” at the annual Women’s History Network conference in Cardiff. This paper considers how the experience of being a Chalet School student transcended individual and national characters and blended the girls into a transnational community. It focuses on the first five books of the Chalet School series: The School at the Chalet, Jo of the Chalet School, The Princess of the Chalet School, The Head Girl of the Chalet School, and The Rivals of the Chalet School. This cover is one of my favorites, as it features Jo and Rufus, the St. Bernard she rescued as a puppy.
Welcome to the relaunch of the Transnational Femininities: Fictions for Teenage Girls in the U.K. and the U.S., 1910-1965 site. The timing of this change coincides with our travels to Switzerland to present a paper at the International Standing Conference for the History of Education in Geneva. Our paper will consider some of the national, international, and transnational aspects of the Chalet School books published between 1925-1954.
I wonder what Marjorie Dean, Grace Harlowe, and their chums would make of women’s basketball today. As the Final Four of the NCAA Division I tournament unfolds, one thinks of how much the game has changed since its introduction in the 1890s. Certainly the uniforms are quite different, as are the rules. According to the Spalding Guide published in 1911, “When a ball has been caught with both hands it shall not be bounded on the floor, but must be thrown within three seconds … . If a player catches the ball with one hand she may bound it on the floor with one hand, once only, in order to catch it with both hands securely” (p. 18). No such thing as a fast break! Players could only move within one-third of the court.
But, despite the limitations imposed by the rules, basketball provided both fictional characters and their real life counterparts with opportunities for physical exertion and competition, as well as new opportunities to socialize with other young women.
Girls’ series books have been the subject of several papers at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture conference being held this weekend in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Several papers, part of the Childhood Studies strand, have featured US stories with a WW1 connection. Nancy’s paper, “Children and Adults in American and British Schoolgirl Fiction” is a modified version of the paper she recently gave at the Center for the History of Women’s Education at the University of Winchester.