As usual, I’m late. In my sort of defence, on the Monday when this post was due to go up I was sitting in an archive working through texts for my latest research project. But I guess it’s better late than never and I do want to participate in A Playful Day’s Love Your Blog Challenge.
While finishing things is usually the problem with my crafting (Made in Oxford has a lovely post about getting things done), I find starting things is often more difficult in my academic work. My problem, generally, is not that I am reluctant to begin things but rather that I want to begin too many things. We call it “ferret-shock”.
I often warn my students about the dangers of ferret-shock.
It goes like this. If a ferret gets into a henhouse it goes a little crazy. There are so many chickens. All the chickens. The ferret wants to eat the chickens and so it runs around the henhouse biting and clawing and grabbing chickens. Feathers and panic everywhere. In the morning, you will find the poor exhausted, confused ferret sitting in a pile of feathers. It won’t have managed to eat any of the chickens. If it had been calm and sensible – like a fox – and crept in to steal away one single chicken, all would be well. But there were so many chickens. Too many chickens. And, in trying to have it all, the ferret ends up with nothing.
Researchers are more like ferrets than you might expect.
Especially when we get into an archive which, let’s be honest, is basically a henhouse for books.
I felt ferret-shock descend on me last week when I made a visit to the Pollard Collection in Trinity College Dublin.The collection houses about 10,500 early children’s books. Some of the books go back to the 17th century but, for this new research project I’ve been working on, my focus is children’s texts published in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. I’m particularly interested in stories that are told from the point of view of objects.
One of the biggest problems I faced when starting this research project was not knowing exactly what books I really needed to read. So many books. Too many books. Research-ferret-shock starts to kick in.
It goes like this: you feel that there must be a book published about such-and-such a topic. You don’t know when or where it was published, who wrote it or what it was called. But you have to find it. Usually, this involves days of working through catalogues and indices and making lists of texts that might be useful. It’s particularly hard to locate texts that are published anonymously or texts that are not catalogued accurately (for instance when children’s novels are listed as school-books). The solution – you think in your crazed state – is to order up everything. And read everything. But that’s not a useful or sensible way to spend your time in an archive. Especially when texts often don’t have useful titles. For instance “Dolly” by Frances Hodgson Burnett is not about a doll but about a young girl who is nicknamed ‘Dolly’. After waiting an hour and a half for “Dolly” to arrive (a remarkably short wait for an archive, mind) only to discover the book was no use to me, I was ready to kick Frances Hodgson Burnett in the shins.
After the first day in the archive, I realised that I had to scale back my ambitions. I could not succumb to research-ferret-shock. I valiantly fought down my instinct to rip open all the boxes and sit on the floor reading random things and instead made some hard choices about what books I really wanted to consult and pared my list of hundreds down to dozens.
And so my beginnings were smaller and more humble that I had expected.
But I still got to look at some wonderful and weird books.
Now that I’m back in England and starting to write up my research from the archive, I have a little more time to reflect on the archive as a place for beginnings and fresh projects. These are not the crafty kinds of books I normally post about but I’m sure I can find inspiration in there too…The Adventures of a Watch has a section about watch-chains made from hair as love-tokens. I don’t think I’m likely to try making things from my own hair any time soon (my hair is like badly-behaved wire anyway) but it does give me some ideas for other posts for this blog…let’s see where the #loveyourblog challenge takes me over the next few weeks!