Romance, Research & Archives

See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As a cataloguer who has worked mainly on literary archives, the second highlight of the first few days of October (the GLAM meeting being, obviously, the first) was the 2nd October edition of the DBSA podcast (transcript here).

The DBSA podcast is hosted by Sarah Wendell, co-founder of the romance novel review site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Normally focusing on interviews with romance authors, editors, and readers, this episode featured an interview with Rutgers University (New Jersey) digital archivist Caryn Radick, and raised some fascinating questions about the intersection between the romance genre and the archives world.

It’s probably fair to say that the usual concerns of a literary archivist are on collecting, cataloguing and outreach – how do we acquire archives, and how best to describe and promote them?  Interestingly, Caryn Radick has flipped this script and is working on a project investigating how romance writers use archives for research.

The interview ranges widely-topics covered include what an archivist does; the research resources that might be of interest to romance authors; how to find and access archives, and how they differ from (and can be more intimating than) libraries. The discussion also touches on digital archives and online access; the way that certain people’s voices are just not captured in the archival record; novels and TV shows that feature archives and manuscripts (namecheck: Dracula); and, importantly, whether the often-denigrated romance community is being adequately documented.*

On the original question of the kinds of archival research that romance authors do, Caryn’s research indicates that:

A lot of them just really, said they really want to get those details of time and place correct, but they also like to get a voice that represents the time period or place that they’re looking at.?One of the things I really appreciated was there was a certain amount of reverence and enthusiasm for using archival materials which reflects what it was like for me when I was first getting into the profession. The aspect of, wow, this is a diary that somebody wrote in the nineteenth century, and I can’t believe you’re letting me touch this.”

 Caryn is a terrifically eloquent advocate for archives (the podcast is worth a listen for that alone) and Sarah Wendell, for her part, is a very sympathetic interviewer. In fact, Sarah’s summary of what archivists do by way of accessibility and outreach is one of the best elevator pitches I’ve ever heard for the profession:

So part of your job is, we have all this old stuff, and we need to make it available to people who are curious about all of this old stuff, and it’s not just for us at the university; everybody can have access to all of our old stuff.

 I found this multi-faceted approach to the ways that the romance genre interacts with archives very stimulating. Just some of the things I was left wondering…

 ->How are we doing when it comes to collecting genre fiction archives and documenting those communities?

->Would it be helpful to create a list of literary archives sorted by genre?

->It’s now common to use story-telling when interacting with kids, but could we do more to market our story-rich research collections to creative writers? (One outlet or inspiration for that kind of outreach might be Two Nerdy History Girls, a history/writing blog by Loretta Chase and Isabella Bradford, two well-known historical romance authors.)

->The eternal bugbear: what can we do to make archival research less scary?

And if you’ve been wondering yes, but what have romance writers ever done for us? well, it turns out that there are, indeed, archivist romance heroines. Take a listen to find out more…

(Lucky librarians: this list by Wendy the Super Librarian has librarian heroines covered.)

*If you’re interested in the reception of romance as a genre, Kelly Faircloth’s article How Romance Novelists Got Such a Silly, Sappy Rap is an excellent introduction and her article on How Harlequin Became The Most Famous Name In Romance is a must read for anybody interested in publishing history.

Charlotte Mash, Project Archivist, Bodleian Library

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