Shelley and His Circle at the NYPL

By: Chelsea Wall

In the interest of full disclosure (and because I was probably the only one of us who had such an encounter), my experience with the New York Public Library archives began with a rather strange email exchange with one of the curators, whom I suppose should probably remain nameless. I filled out a request form to access the archives of Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, to which this (slightly touchy) curator responded with a lecture on the vagueness of my assignment as well as a semantics lesson on the uses of “archive” vs. “archives.” This semantics lesson turned out to be incorrect, as I learned in a further email from said curator, however if anyone is interested in its nature, the singular form of “archives” is, in fact, “archives.”

Semantic quibbling aside, upon filling out the form, I received response rather quickly from multiple sources, though I was directed by the curator of the Berg Collection to consult the archives of Shelley and his circle, rather than the Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley archives, as vastly more of her papers are contained within the Pforzheimer Collection. The curator of that collection further requested that I consult the volumes of Shelley and His Circle before looking at the holdings of the archives, as many of the manuscripts are already published there, and I could potentially find them more useful than looking at the originals.

This brings me to draw upon a point that Sarah made in her posted assignment on her experience in the archives of the NYPL – it seems that access to manuscripts is quite guarded, and the filtration system to keep out the “riff raff,” so to speak, is rather extensive. While I fully understand the necessity of protecting two hundred year old documents, I remain discomfited by the privileging of access to and production of information and knowledge being restricted to those in higher-level education. The fact that I was asked to provide a reference in order to visit the archives speaks volumes to this point. As was pointed out in class, the creation of knowledge isn’t restricted to the institutions of academia, though we seem to have established a monopoly on primary sources and documents. I worry about what this privileging and micromanaging of access is doing to the production of knowledge through alternative avenues by denying access to primary documents to “amateur enthusiasts,” as if someone without a college education couldn’t use these sources in an appropriate manner.

Therefore, my search for information began in the second floor research area, where I, again like Sarah, was struck by the level of touristic noise and hullabaloo from the first floor below. Despite the nature of the library space as unconducive to quiet study and reflection, I did indeed find the volumes that I was instructed to look through quite informative. I focused on Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley’s correspondences rather than any manuscripts, in the interest of finding any reference to her neuroses regarding her failed pregnancies and determining their influence on the genesis of Frankenstein, which is rife with creation anxieties and motherless figures, intertwining life forces and death forces that are correspondent with Shelley’s lived experience. While I found nothing of this nature, after rifling through the 8 or so volumes of Shelley and His Circle, I decided to take a look at the letters written by Mary Wollestonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother) to her childhood friend Jane Arden, written from 1773-1783. While they didn’t prove pertinent to any of my current work, I found it quite interesting to be privy to a private childhood squabble between Wollestonecraft and Arden, as if I was hearing a piece of juicy gossip some 225 years after the fact.

Though I didn’t find what I was looking for (though maybe I am an inadequate researcher), I was thankful to have some small experience with the daunting processes of archival research, and this assignment was effective in mediating my reluctance to engage with such processes. I refrained from taking pictures as I got the sense from our presentation on the archives at the NYPL some weeks ago that picture-taking is frowned upon, at least within this particular institution. However, I look forward to conducting research more pertinent to my work in other archives as well!