One of the best bits of my job as a reference librarian here at the Folger (oh, who am I kidding? They’re all “best bits”) is answering research questions from scholars who are not on site. I really enjoy being someone’s hands and eyes, to look at our collection materials when they cannot. These questions have sent me off in directions I never would have dreamed of; there is no better way to learn a collection than to use it, and I am certainly getting the opportunity to explore the depth and breadth of our collection. Here are a few of the research questions I have been allowed to delve into recently. Many thanks to all of the researchers mentioned herein for their gracious permission to post this!
Henry Wotton’s The Elements of Architecture, 1624
Richard Foster, the Fellows’ Librarian at Winchester College in England, wrote to us asking if someone could take a look at sig. L4v of Wotton’s The Elements of Architecture, since it was noted in the Hamnet record that there were manuscript corrections to the text. Indeed there are, and so I dutifully took a picture and sent it off, not thinking too much of the request—until I got Mr. Foster’s reply.
There are several copies of The Elements of Architecture, it seems, with the same annotation, in the same hand (possibly Wotton’s own).
Mr. Foster has written again with an update, saying that he has now seen three additional copies with the same annotation. If it is indeed Wotton’s own hand, one wonders how many copies he was able to make this correction in!
Tate Wilkinson letter, September 22, 1789
Sometimes, the form of a source can yield as many surprises as the content. When Lyn Cross, a researcher in New South Wales, Australia, wrote to us asking exactly what the references in a Tate Wilkinson letter (Y.c.2553) were to his “servant unfortunate Edward Robinson,” the “fragment” notation in the Hamnet record barely registered. After all, many of our manuscripts are in less-than-pristine condition, despite the extraordinary efforts of our Conservation Lab.
However, after pulling out this manuscript letter, it became immediately clear that “fragment” really was the only word for it.
Somehow, the middle third of this letter has gone missing. It’s as if it was folded in thirds and the middle section got torn away at some point. I find it fascinating that somehow the unattached top and bottom pieces of the pages were able to remain together and find their way into our collection.
Fortunately for Ms. Cross, the first mention of Edward Robinson appears on the bottom of the first page and seems to have taken up the bulk of the letter. Despite the missing sections, there is a treasure trove of information regarding Edward Robinson—in particular, Ms. Cross writes to me that “It has long been thought and recorded that Edward Robinson’s date of birth was c1754, which would put him at around 36 years when transported to Australia… The fragments are dated 1789 and Tate writes “he [Robinson] is only 27″, so that puts his birth year at 1762.” Not an insignificant difference, especially if one is trying to track down genealogical data!
John Parnell, An account of the many fine seats of noblemen etc…, 1763
Sometimes, even a “failed” search can lead you down lovely garden paths. Such was the case when Dr. David Hancock, of the University of Michigan, asked us to investigate the 1763 travelog of one John Parnell (M.a.11). Dr. Hancock is working on a biography of the 2nd Earl of Shelburne, whose estate, Bowood, was well known for its lavish gardens. Parnell, it seems, was something of a garden aficionado, and so it was a logical question to wonder if Parnell had stopped at Bowood on his visit to England.
Of course, the manuscript only has the barest of indices, and so, armed with Google Maps and the manuscript, I set out to discover if Parnell had in fact visited the Bowood estate. Fortunately, it was not a particularly onerous task, as Parnell’s writing is a thing of beauty, and his skills as an artist are not to be discounted.
Unfortunately, although Parnell paid visits to what seemed like every other estate between London and Bath, he did not stop at Bowood—or if he did, it did not make it into his travelog. Dr. Hancock speculates that “the omission is due to the fact that in 1763 the gardens by [Capability] Brown were not really fully realized (they were just being designed and the first changes being implemented) and so the gardens such as they were didn’t elicit much interest from garden enthusiasts.”
Despite the relative failure of this search, it was a joy to have a reason to look through this manuscript. I must say, my grasp of English geography is much improved after this exscurion! Perhaps mapping Parnell’s journey will be a task for the future…