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Tuesday 31 May 2022

What is the 'correct' number of archives to visit?

I was, I may say, as both an archivist and a historian, somewhat beswozzled to encounter, yesterday via Twitter, an account of one historian putting down another after the latter had given a talk at the former's institution: 'asked me how many archives I had visited. Less than 10 was not enough'.

What on earth, I thought.

It would be, I tweeted, rather more pertinent to ask 'how many collections' had been consulted, rather than the number of repositories, since there are repositories which are the go-to sites of pilgrimage for the fields in which they collect.

Certainly one should not focus on a single personal or institutional archive to the neglect of all others. When I started my PhD, back when dinosaurs roamed the Euston Road, and primeval word-processors for the home user only came along when I was partway through the endeavour, I had one large and rich primary source in the letters received by Marie Stopes from the public (Wellcome Library, PP/MCS/A). However (although one reviewer of the subsequent book claimed I had only looked at one archive: because there were just so many firsthand accounts from the early C20th by British males of their sexual troubles that I could have used*?) I did consult other sources. Looking at the bibliography of my thesis I consulted seven other collections in the Wellcome, the Stopes papers in the British Library as well as those of her first husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates, the Mass Observation 'Little Kinsey' survey, records of the Church of England Purity Society and the papers of Lord Baden-Powell. Also, since I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Australia during that time, the Norman Haire papers at the University of Sydney.

That's still only half-a-dozen actual archival repositories, poor show?

However, counting up the places I visited in order to write my biography of Stella Browne, it comes to over 30, though I will concede that there were 2 or 3 I didn't visit in person because the kind archivists provided me with copies of the relevant materials. (I'm not totting up the number of actual collections, which would be considerably greater). Three continents. 6 countries.

Do I win? Do I?

It's not a game. You don't get points for visiting X number of archives, it's not a Quest where you have to gather up a certain number of plot coupons. You gain points for knowing where to go and finding relevant material.

I concede that there may be fields of study where seeing the various angles and sides of the issue - I think particularly of anything to do with international affairs - will involve going to different places (though again, is there an as it were canonical number?). However, the extent to which individual scholars can cover the ground is going to depend on a lot of factors not necessarily in their own control.

Even with a fairly local study a certain amount of going somewhere else to follow up the trail may be involved. E.g. the hypothetical case of  'Muck, Brass, and Subterreanean Passions: Sewage Reform in [Victorian industrial centre] 1855-1865'. Yes, doubtless the local record office has the records of the local authority, of local worthies involved, of local bodies agitating for or against sanitary reforms, of the Medical Officer of Health if there was one. Maybe records of the local industries, though with time and change these may have been taken over and amalgamated and if their records survive they may be somewhere else entirely. Ditto for records of local landowners, which may be held at their other estates.

Then, of course, The National Archives and the Parliamentary Archive will have something to offer. There may have been contacts with sanitation reformers whose archives are preserved elsewhere.

And no, not everything is all online now! Physical visits may still be involved. But if you can do it from the comfort of home, no points get deducted.

*Since then, of course, oral historians such as Steve Humphries, Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter and others have undertaken significant work in this field. As a part-time PhD researcher I didn't really have the resources for that. Also, while I think this sort of work is excellent and important, it cannot have the immediacy of the letters written by Stopes' contemporaries.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

I am somewhat cynical about his claims to expertise

I have over the last year or so become intrigued by the popular - at least, from the number of copies of his works that turn up on the secondhand market, I assume he was popular - writer of works in the general field of sexology in the early twentieth century, George Ryley Scott (1886-1955). This was partly due to discovering a somewhat startling assertion in one of the entries in Scott's Encyclopaedia of Sex (1939) which made me want to explore how authoritative one might consider him.

On the whole I think he can be put down as somebody who made a good living (one presumes) from churning out works of advice on sex, marriage, birth control, and venereal disease, studies of Curious customs of sex and marriage, Phallic worship: a history of sex and sexual rites, The History of Torture, The History of Corporal Punishment, A History of Prostitution and Far Eastern Sex Life. He also wrote on nudism, the laws of obscenity, poultry-keeping, cock-fighting, and tips for writing. Many of his works were first published by T. Werner Laurie, characterised by Wikipedia as 'a publisher of books that were avant-garde in some cases, racy in others' or Torchstream, which seems to have concentrated on the racy.

He does not seem to be what one might call a practising sexologist: he was not a medical doctor and does not seem to have been part of the circles in which these discussions were taking place. He did apparently apply for membership in the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology in 1927 but there is no mention of proposer or seconder and the application does not seem to have been proceeded with (Minutes of the British Sexology Society in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin).

The National Birth Control Association was not prepossessed by his work on birth control. EF Griffith reported to the Medical Subcommittee on 3 March 1935 'that "Birth Control" by G Ryley Scott appeared to be in every way unsatisfactory and inaccurate'; it was decided to recommend to the publishers to withdraw the book, offering a list of the current literature on the subject  'which might cause him to be better informed'. In May the Executive Committee sent a letter to Ryley Scott suggesting that he should refer anyone needing information to NBCA. Griffith undertook to try getting into personal touch with publishers to find out if the book had already been published; if not to consult a solicitor about writing a letter to publishers concerning the author's inaccuracies and suggesting publication was inadvisable (Family Planning Association Archives in the Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A.5/2).

He did sport Fellowships of the Philosophical Society of England, the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Zoological Society, but these were all, at the date in question, open to any individual with a demonstrable interest in the subject, in the case of the Zoological Society provided they could obtain a proposer and seconder from among existing fellows.

However, these qualification were very probably sufficient to obtain him the entrée to the materials in 'Cupboard' in the British Museum Reading Room that would have been necessary for his endeavours. His obituary in the Central Somerset Gazette, 4 Feb 1955 mentions his 'intensive research (he spent hours in the British Museum)'*.

All this inclines me to scepticism. Maybe he was sounder on chickens?

*A further thought: I read somewhere - memory suggests it was a comment by the narrator in Hunter Davies' novel Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1968) - that if you copy from one book it's plagiarism; if you copy from two or more, it's RESEARCH.