Double-date Conference

A few weeks ago I attended a conference that marked a couple of firsts for me. It was the first combined conference I’d been to (that is 2 different groups co-hosting) and the first time I’d been to either association’s get-together. I came away thinking that this sort of thing really needs to happen more often. Both the John Gower and Early Books Societies are smaller organizations, which makes sense given the specificity in focus of their interests. It also makes sense for two smaller organizations to combine resources. What made the conference a really good experience was 2 related factors: first, its size, and second, the collegiality.

There was one question that was almost sure to come up when first meeting someone: are you a Gower person or an early books person? Frequently the answer was something like “I’m really more of X, but I’m presenting here on Y.” People would often open their talk with some kind of apology for not being as expert in their topic as the audience, but the great thing here is that people were trying new things, not just sticking to the areas they were comfortable in. It also meant that the audience was already primed to get into discussion during and after the sessions. Most academic conferences are parodied for containing “questions” like “You make an interesting point about X. I work in Y (and spend a lot of time detailing my own work here). Have you considered that?” There were noticeably fewer speeches framed as questions here, and more actual discussion both with panelists and among the audience members.

The size was another great benefit. Because this was a smaller conference, there weren’t 20 potential sessions to choose from at any given time; at most, you had 3 choices. This means that every session had a fair number of audience members. For the record, I define ‘decent audience’ as more people in the audience than the panel. A smaller conference also means you have a better chance of meeting and getting to know people you didn’t before you arrived. During the remarks at the opening reception, one of the conference planners mentioned that a lot of the student helpers (all 5 or so of them) were excited about meeting their footnotes, and could everyone please be nice about it if approached for that reason. The thing is that it wasn’t just the undergrad helpers who were meeting their footnotes; it was some of the graduate student and junior professors (attendees) who got to do that too. There’s also finding out that you and your former professor now know some of the same people independently. It feels a little like growing up again.

The professional networking possibilities at a smaller conference are actually really good, something that surprised me a little bit. There’s also just the random ending up together at a table moments, such as when I ended up having lunch with a post-doctoral fellow from Oxford, and a late career graduate students from the University of Victoria. When you have an American, a Brit, and a Canadian together, the conversation gets pretty interesting when the subject turns to institutional structures. The university systems in the 3 represented countries are really different, which I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done some reading on British universities, but I hadn’t realized the Canadian systems was as different from either the UK or US as it is.

One of the nice things about a lot of academic conferences that I’ve been to that are non-generalist is that they include time for exploring the area and sightseeing. In this case that meant tours of Durham Castle and Cathedral (both of which have medieval components) and the associated libraries. It was during these tours that I found out that some iconic bits in the early Harry Potter movies were filmed in these locations. There’s a hallway in the cathedral cloisters that was used as a part of Hogwarts, and in the Cathedral library nearby, they had Professor McGonagall’s inkwell. Apparently a producer noticed it, and asked if they could borrow it. Supposedly it’s clearly visible in the first movie when Harry and friends are in her office about to be scolded for hijinks. I may need to re-watch those movies to look for this stuff. We (meaning myself and a few fellow conference-goers) also considered the possibility that the Great Hall in the Castle might also have been used as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We never could decide for sure, and none of us felt like trying to look it up (I did that later when I got home, and it’s just the similarity between medieval great halls; Hogwarts was modeled more directly on Christ Church college at Oxford, which makes sense because part of the Bodleian (Oxford’s library) was the used for the Hogwarts library). The second option for exploration was a bus trip to Alnwick Castle, also used in Harry Potter filming, most notably the flying lessons and Quidditch playfield. The outside of the castle and the gardens were more interesting to me than the interior which didn’t have a lot of medievalness to it. There was also a large used bookstore nearby, although I didn’t find anything I needed to have.

The tours weren’t all just fun though; the Palace Green library had some unexpectedly cool stuff to show the tour group, including a holograph of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend. It was a pretty basic looking codex, but it had some pretty gold initials, and it was actually, physically written by a fairly well-known medieval literary figure. It was also pretty cool to get to visit not only St Cuthbert who I knew had a connection to the area (his tomb is in the Cathedral), but also Bede. I hadn’t realized his tomb was in the Durham Cathedral, or rather in a side chapel.

This trip turned into something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage without my actually intending it to. I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and did do some of the requisite Harry Potter visits, including the Elephant House café (where interestingly, the most visibly Harry Potter connection is in the ladies restroom), and the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk (where you can count on at least one or two groups trying to find the relevant headstones). I just hadn’t realized the Harry Potter connections to Durham. I was a big fan of the books, although I only got into them right as the third novel came out, so the trip wasn’t all work and no play.

I heard on NPR a while back a discussion of Jane Austen’s opening line to Pride and Prejudice, and how it’s often repurposed without retaining the original snark and social commentary; there’s something to that. It’s like the difference between “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the conference book seller room will tempting” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors don’t go on vacation; they go to conferences”. The first statement is true and probably mean sincerely without irony. The second statement is also true, but could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, including the point that a conference may be travel to somewhere interesting, but it’s also work. And then there’s the expectation of doing research (ie- work) at the relevant historical sites and libraries that might happen to be in the general area. I bring this up because this particular conference did indeed mean some expected research in either the Edinburgh or London libraries (the 2 nearest international airports to Durham), and nearly everyone I met was indeed planning on researching after the conference was done. I myself had some research to do at the University of Edinburgh library, and I discovered some interesting potential resources at the conference. As it happens, the Durham Palace Green library is in the process of digitizing its manuscript collection which may prove useful in the future for research or classroom applications, or both. I do find it a little funny that in both libraries we were warned not to touch anything, even though the group of us were professionals trained to do just that.

Researching medieval books in early summer

I’m a little behind with this for the month of April, but I’m going to blame prepping for exam season.

Because I am in the process or re-starting a project due in conference paper form by early July, I am going to review the general research process, and consider where to proceed from here. The project involves early printed editions of Chaucer’s collected works, tracing the inclusion of or references to a poem now viewed as not by Chaucer.

One of the things that comes with the end of the semester, especially in the spring, is the approach of about 2 weeks without teaching or other university duties; in other words, time for scholarship and preparing for summer conferences. But in my case there are 2 related complications: 1) my institution is shutting down their more efficient ILL system for a software change-over, 2) right when I need to be regathering my materials. There’s this rule that for material borrowed from another institution can only be renewed twice, and I’d reached that limit right at a point when I knew I was going to be too busy with essay grading and exams to do much of my own work (and so did not immediately re-request my key secondary sources). I take no issue with the library rules or the software update, but the timing is terrible. I understand it’s for the convenience of students, who will not be in classes during that interval, but it’s terrible for the instructors because that gap between terms is prime research and writing time.

Nevertheless, I persist. I have learned from past experiences to keep records of the titles and authors I know I will need to get back. But, I have also found that by looking up these titles again in the catalogues, I can also get a sense of what other similar titles might be out there. The digital equivalent of shelf-browsing is useful because I think it might be useful to work it into teaching research, but also because I have limited direct physical access to the kinds of texts I might find useful in my own research. This is in addition of course to the usual scouting of works cited and footnote citations of texts I already need or have on hand.

All of the above is useful for general research in any area, but given my particular specialty of medieval literature and manuscript studies, I also need to consider how to get to primary original sources. Thankfully, increasing digitization of medieval books in print and manuscript helps, but especially with more obscure texts or manuscripts, this is not always an option. Secondary sources have been highly useful in providing editors and edition titles, but tracking the locations of everything necessary does require some work. Thankfully, nearly everything I want to check is available at the research university libraries in Atlanta, which is only about an hour and a half drive away.

The only catch is I haven’t used Emory or Georgia Tech’s special collections before, so I also need to look up the rules and regulation for viewing. This is standard practice for visiting any library special collections, but each institution is a little different. The British Library (big public research library) is different than the Newberry (small public research library in Chicago) is different than a university library in terms of gaining general access and access to specific items in the collection. Rules might cover making an appointment, as well as what is or is not allowed in the reading rooms. Particularly with manuscripts, some places have rules concerning photography, and all have rules concerning the use of ink or handling or personal possessions while using the materials.

Once I get to the original early print editions I need to find the following: do they include the text I’m looking for, is it attributed, and/or is it mentioned. This information will help me construct a stemma for the text, which is already done for the manuscript tradition (all of 3 codices). Looking into the provenance of the particular editions will likely become necessary as well, particularly if a specific book has any marginalia or other details specific to that copy of the book.

Once all this is done, it will be back to the secondary literature to locate the rationale behind the editorial decisions, including why the new edition was felt necessary, and what reviewers had to say about the new version.

Putting everything together will, I hope, result in fairly comprehensive textual history for a now rather neglected poem. From there, who knows…….

London: The Tourist Part

This month will be a 2-parter. Today will be tourist; next time will be professional. The situation that merits both of these possibilities at the same time is an international conference, in particular the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society 2016 in London, England.

I have been to London before, but it’s always fun to come back and see old favorites and find new ones. I am glad that I kept good notes from last time, otherwise I never would have figured out that my favorite bubble tea place (Up-T) in Chinatown was gone, and in its place was fried chicken fast food type place. The other bubble tea place (a small chain) I know of at least still had my favorite (rose-milk) so it evens out. Thank you, Bubbleology.

I also had to go back to Brixton, even though I prefer the markets at Camden, because Brixton has 2 things Camden doesn’t: Ms Cupcake and market kitties. There’s a lot of grocery vendors, butchers, and fishmongers in the Brixton market, and last time and now there’s a few friendly resident presumably stray kitties hanging out. Ms Cupcake is a vegan cake shop (apparently the first vegan bakery in London) and while I’m not fully vegan myself, I do like that kind of baking. Plus, who doesn’t like a cupcake? I was a little disappointed that the day I went, they didn’t have my favorite flavor (Jaffa cake) but that just means I had to find a new favorite (strawberries and creme). I was a little disappointed in the Bounty-inspired cupcake though; there was as much frosting as cake, and the chocolate cake was a little dry.

If you have a smart phone, I would strongly recommend getting a UK SIM card so you can use your phone; it’s particularly handy for data. At least on my plan, it’s cheaper than using international rates with the original (US) SIM. Google to find addresses and Google maps to get to them are great tools to have. The only down side is that it’s a little more expensive now than it was almost 3 years ago. Then again, the pound was much stronger last time I was here, so maybe the additional 5 is not all that much more. Either way, 1 month’s worth of data, text, and phone is worth it, although this time I won’t be using anywhere close to all of it, and the calling capacity is only local (beyond can be added but of course that’s extra).

Last time I was here, I was staying for 5 weeks, so I decided it would be worth it to rent a small studio. This time, I’m only staying 11 days. The conference location is a university which opens up the dorms during the summer, but the few days I’m in town before that, I’m at a hostel. It’s been a while since I’ve done that. Thankfully, the one I’m at seems to be a good one (clean, reasonably quiet, people who know the etiquette). There’s always a few things without which a hostel stay is not complete, including walking in on or being walked in on by a roommate of the opposite sex, waking up in a room with more people than when you went to sleep, bad techno pop playing in the lounge, a room about the size of my office that’s supposed to fit up to 5 people and their belongings).

Since I was here for a while last time, and I planned on visiting some old favorites, I decided to see how well I remembered how to get around. The route I traveled the most was walking from the British Library back to where I was staying. I was able to use the same path this trip because the hostel I’m at this time is on the way to the flat I had last time. It’s about a 4 mile hike, but since I don’t have a gym here, the exercise is necessary. Also, on my first full day in town, exercise is also a known help with jet lag. I recommend it. It’s nice too to be able to to check out the local shops and scenery. I only got lost/turned around once, and even then I was able to figure my way back pretty quickly. I also remembered enough to be able to give directions off the top of my head to Harrods. I was kind of proud of myself for that. Then I got to the grocery store I’d been heading to, only to find it overrun with what I’m guessing was a school trip. The students were loading up on soda, chips, cookies, and candy. Not that I was much better, being there to stock up on trifle mixes.

In addition to at least seeing Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and the British Museum, the other thing one must do when in London is visit the Globe Theatre and see a play. Even if you’re not a literature person, everyone should see live Shakespeare at least once, and why not do it in the original style? Especially since Macbeth is on right now. I have to admit I’ve never considered that play as a horror story but that’s how it was presented. On one hand, it was genius because so much of that play is psychological (lots of soliloquies) and the horror-suspense genre works very well in presenting that in a non-boring way. On the other, the way it was done obscured the best parts, i.e. the wyrd sisters. On the plus side again was that during one of the comic interludes with the porters, they worked in a Trump knock-knock joke.

The other cool thing about the Globe is that it’s near some some neat places to explore, including an open air market. After the show, there’s a branch of one of my favorite UK chains nearby for dinner. I double checked the Wagamama website to remind myself exactly where the place was in relation to the theatre, and it looks like they’ve changed some of my favorite menu items. I was a little nervous about that, and rightly so. It wasn’t that the food was bad, but it was not what I remembered, and I really liked what I remembered. The Boroughs Market though was just as I remembered it with all sorts of tempting yummies (it’s mostly food vendors), and a great place to go for lunch before the show. In the other direction, towards the Tate Art Museum, there were 2 young men with typewriters set up as “Poet for hire”, “Poetry, short stories, suicide notes, whatever you want, while you wait”, “Pay whatever you g*dd**n please”.

The British Library has got to be one of my favorite places, and main reasons to visit London. It’s certainly the main reason I flew in almost a week before the conference started. I’ve never been there in the summer though, and this is their busiest season, since most of the researchers are out of school. I don’t remember where I got the idea, but I was worried about getting a seat, as the manuscript reading room is not terribly large (at least compared to some of the other reading rooms). I knew enough to call up the manuscripts I needed in advance, so at least that wasn’t a problem. The first time I was here, during non-peak research season, there was a line to get into the building about a half hour before they opened, and when they did open, everyone ran to the lockers, and then booked it to wherever in the library they were planning to work. I was expecting the same, only ten times worse/busier.

I got there almost 2 hours before the library opened just to see how bad it might be, but at this point they hadn’t even opened the gates into the courtyard. So I went back to a favorite coffee shop nearby to relax a little. When I checked back about an hour before the library opened, the courtyard was now open, but practically empty. The line didn’t really start forming until 20 minutes or so before the building opened. The one part of all of this that I was right about was the length of the line right before opening. It was at least twice as long as I remember it getting. Thankfully, I was near the front. There wasn’t quite the mad rush to the lockers and then onwards that I remembered either. It all worked out in the end. After the conference, instead of going to Canterbury, I went back to the library to go back to 2 of the manuscripts. The biggest difference this time was that I recognized half of the full reading room as conference attendees.

Transitioning to the conference venue went fine although hauling a suitcase through the Tube system is always an adventure. The venue itself (Queen Mary University) was easy to find, and the dorm housing is pretty nice. There’s a good sized desk, and private bathrooms. This was a really nice surprise, coming from the hostel setting. Even though it’s tiny, as in I had to stand in the shower to brush my teeth over the sink, the privacy and convenience is nice. I met my across the hall neighbor when I got in (also here for the conference) and then I realized that I could hear her having a phone conversation while we were in our respective rooms. I’d forgotten how little sound insulation there is in college dorms.

I spent most of Sunday before the conference opens (1pm) exploring the area a bit more. I found 2 promising coffee shops. The closer one has pretty good coffee. I got to The Coffee Room maybe 30 minutes after they opened, and they weren’t too busy. By an hour after opening, it was (busy that is). People watching in places like this is always fun. Two men came in for coffee, one American and one Scandinavian (I think; I couldn’t quite place his accent). They proceeded to have a mock argument in front of the Italian barista on the correct or at least permissible ways to pronounce “croissant”. It was entertaining.

Coffee Shop 2 is Mouse Tail. While not as ideal for hanging out in (due to the general set up), the coffee might actually be a little better than Coffee Room. The problem is that Mouse Tail is about a 15 minute walk vs 5.  Not really a problem, unless you’re in a hurry.

The day after the conference officially ended (Friday) it was back to the BL for some final research and shopping my way back. I returned to the Twinnings shop to buy the teas I was looking at the first time, and some tourist shopping (for myself and friends-family). Once again, I got to the library early, so this time, I spent some time in King’s Cross station where they have an actual Platform 9 3/4 along with a Harry Potter shop. I may have made a small purchase for myself. Somehow on the way back, I convinced myself that it was 2 hours later than it actually was (my watch strap broke the second day of the conference, so I was relying on my phone which never figured out I was in a different time zone), so I was rushing for a while.

Getting back to the airport went well enough even if the first station I was in didn’t specify which trains went to which terminal at Heathrow (it matters), and I had to do an extra switch which wasn’t hard, just a little annoying. The flight itself was all on time, but my entertainment screen was the only one on the full flight that didn’t work, so no movies for me. I had a book that turned out to be pretty good, but since the entertainment panel on this aircraft also controlled the light above you, that was a bit of a struggle too. I made it through customs etc and got to my shuttle home on time, but there was an ugly crash on the freeway, so what should have been just over an hour trip was 3 hours. But I made it back, and I’m pretty sure everything in the suitcase survived.

Cambridge University and a few Colleges

Cambridge University Libraries, Special Collections

Links to searching the collection, brief subject guides, and ‘image of the month’.

Special Collections blog (CUL)

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

This page contains information on the library in general. Of particular interest is the Early Manuscripts link which contains access to the James catalogue, and names of other resources for using the collections.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Special Collections at the Bodleian

This is the homepage for Special Collections (this designation includes manuscripts). Links include access to digitized versions of the Quarto and Summary Catalogues, the two main catalogues of the medieval manuscript collections.

Online Collections Catalogues

Many of the collections detailed here are well known. The information includes details about the collections in general as well as individual manuscripts.

British Library

British Library Homepage

The home page for the British Library is the gateway to all kinds of information about manuscripts, books, and scholarship.

The Manuscript Catalogue

The place to start exploring the manuscript collections.

Digitized Manuscripts

The place to explore digitized versions of manuscripts held at the British Library.


A list of all the blogs for the British Library.

Medieval Manuscripts Blog

My personal favorite.