National Library of Scotland: Research Trip

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I prepared for my research expedition to the National Library of Scotland by entering my information into the online reader’s card application. When I arrived at the National Library the next day, I headed straight to the registration desk. The staff were very helpful and efficient. I showed my student ID card and my passport to confirm my identity, address, and student status, then my picture was snapped. My card was ready in no time. I was given brief instructions on using the archives and the reading rooms and directed to the locker room, where I could check my bag and any other non-approved items (such as ink pens). Fortunately, since we had been acquainted with this information during our class visit to the National Library, I came equipped with my pencil and was prepared to divide my items and check the non-acceptable ones. I headed up the stairs to the reading rooms; this is when things got more complicated.

I have to confess that I had never used an archive before this, so, although I had heard some instructions and tips from class visits and other students and academics, I was a little uncertain about how the process worked. This was complicated even more by the fact that the majority of the items pertaining to Robert Louis Stevenson were not catalogued. So what did this mean to me that day? It meant I didn’t really even know what I was looking for! A bit of a problem when you have to fill out a form stating exactly what you want to see.

My first attempt at making sense of things was to ask at the first floor enquiries desk for suggestions. Wrong choice. I was directed to look through some resources in the reading room, and after that to check upstairs in the Special Collections. After some research in the reading room, I did learn a bit about the contents of Yale’s RLS collection, but not much more. Upstairs in the Special Collections, after some trial and error, I had a bit more luck.

I finally found some tiny books that had one citation printed on each page, with a typewriter, it appeared. Using these books I was able to locate the items in a set of inventories. One of these collections was missing its inventory, but the librarian at the inquiries desk was able to print the inventory out for me so that I was able to request items from it.

Some of the items I looked at were a lot more helpful than others. There were wills of RLS and his mother, Margaret, financial records, and a good bit of correspondence relating to extra funds not included in Margaret’s will. The most thrilling, without a doubt, were the items written by RLS himself – it’s not every day that you get to touch items that came from the hands of famous authors!

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John Murray Archive – National Library of Scotland

After reading The Seven Lives of John Murray before leaving for London, I became a little bit obsessed with the story of the John Murray publishing dynasty; I was thrilled to learn that we would be visiting the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland. There are a lot of interesting aspects to its history, starting with the publishing house itself. It was begun in 1768 by John Murray I, a Scot who moved to London to seek his fortune. It was passed down through seven generations of John Murrays, moving early on from its first home on Fleet Street to its famous location on Albemarle Street, until it was finally sold 242 years later. It was the longest-lived privately-owned publishing house in the world, a feat which had become more and more difficult over the years as business changed with the times.

John Murray Fleet Street

The original home of John Murray Publishing on Fleet Street in London.

One of the most colorful characters in the Murray history came during the time of John Murray II: Lord Byron would prove to be not only one of John Murray’s most popular authors, but also a close friend of John Murray II. The letters between them have been a rich resource for Byron biographers as well as historians of the John Murray dynasty and publishing history. In addition to the many poems written by Lord Byron during his short life, John Murray had an opportunity to bring yet another Byron work to the public, but that manuscript met a mysterious end. Shortly after Byron’s death, there was some dispute over Byron’s memoirs, which he had instructed to be published posthumously. However, they were considered so scandalous by the few who had read them, that a small group, including John Murray II, met in John Murray headquarters on Albemarle Street to discuss the situation. The memoirs were burned in the drawing-room fireplace in order to protect Byron’s memory. One can only guess at the contents.

After the sale of the publishing house, John Murray VII insisted that the famous and priceless Murray archives should not go along with the rest. Instead, it should go to a special collection where it could benefit many people. Therefore, in 2002, part of the John Murray archive was donated to the National Library of Scotland. In 2006, the NLS bought part of it for 31.3 million pounds. Though this is a large sum that NLS needed a great deal of support to raise, it is a mere fraction of the actual value of the John Murray archives. In addition to that, the money raised from the sale went into a charity trust for the upkeep of the John Murray collection, the NLS, and others.

The four million items of the John Murray Archive are a great draw – they are exhibited so as to engage visitors with the stories of John Murray and the famous authors published by them. As well as the ever-popular Lord Byron, Dr. Livingstone, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley are popular characters, among many others. Some items are displayed in the NLS, while at times others go on tour or out on loan to other locations.

At the NLS, most items are in storage, but there are always some on display, with an interactive tablet program to help engage the viewer. Authentic artefacts combine with contemporary set pieces in large glass cases, where John Murray treasures are displayed in specially lighted and climate controlled conditions, where they can be carefully protected. They are very careful to preserve the items in the collection, but not at the expense of destroying accessibility. There is even a reconstruction of the infamous fireplace where Byron’s memoirs were burned, complete with bookshelves stocked with period copies of John Murray books for the public’s perusal. Though the original furnishings from the famous Albemarle Street residence are still in their original location, in Edinburgh they try their best to recreate the feeling of being in the legendary drawing room. They seek to draw people in with the perfect balance of history and drama, which is fitting, really, when you’re talking about a collection in which so many different cultural threads intersect.