Journey to the Centre of the Archive

Our research assistant Anna McFarlane has just returned from a trip to the Wellcome Library and the National Library of Scotland as part of a Wellcome Trust-funded project entitled ‘Nursing, Reproduction, and Writing: Naomi Mitchison’s Science Fiction as Activism’. Here she tells us about her experiences.

As I embarked on my first archival research trip I experienced some trepidation. Given that I had written a thesis on contemporary literature, I never felt the need to look into the archive before and I didn’t quite know how to go about it, or what to expect. Even the experience of writing a funding proposal for this kind of work was alien to me: the process of spelling out projected outcomes when I hadn’t yet read the material felt like I was working back-to-front, given that I normally read everything I can get my hands on relating to my chosen subject and then see what comes from it.

However, I needn’t have worried. The experience of archival research is an invigorating one, and genuinely feels exciting. Handling old books and documents, many of which have lain unread in library stores for some years, makes research feel like a magical process of discovery, and this was what I experienced at the Wellcome Library in London. My subject was Naomi Mitchison and I had the pleasure of seeing some of her rarer books, such as An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents (1932) which gives children an introduction to human knowledge and the history of ideas; including an account, disturbing to the modern reader, of contemporary attitudes to eugenics. I was particularly interested in Mitchison’s time as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse (VAD) during World War I and found that her aunt Elizabeth had begun the VAD programme, something that I had not realised prior to my visit but that I was able to read about first hand in her history The British Nurse in Peace and War (1923).

Studying at the Wellcome Trust was also a pleasure thanks to the exhibitions in the building. Showing during my visit were This is a Voice and States of Consciousness, as well as the permanent exhibition Medicine Man which shows some of Henry Wellcome’s diverse collection of medical artefacts from around the globe. Wandering round an exhibition after a day in the library was a great way to unwind and to allow unexpected exhibits to spark new thoughts, and new directions for the next day’s research.

The second leg of my trip was to the National Library of Scotland where I looked at some of Mitchison’s correspondence. I was very excited to find some gory descriptions of her time as a VAD which she had sent (perhaps surprisingly) to her mother. I’m now looking forward to distilling these discoveries into a paper to be given at the upcoming Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) conference in Liverpool and at least one journal article – though who knows how many articles may come from this research, both directly and indirectly. I would recommend this kind of concentrated research to all scholars: the excitement of discovery will carry into the writing and take you on scholarly paths that may otherwise have been missed.


To read more about Wellcome Trust Small Grants for the medical humanities, see their website.

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