Researcher’s Notebook: On Making Discoveries

The printer’s mark of William Caxton. Late 15th century. Reading University Special Collections JGL 1/2/3. Attribution: By BabelStone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.
When historical humanities research makes the news, it is often because a document or object has been ‘discovered’.  To take one very recent example: fifteenth-century English book publishing made a rare excursion into the headlines of late, thanks to the work of Erika Delbecque, a librarian at the University of Reading.  She has made the remarkable discovery of a rare set of pages believed to have been published in the 1470s by William Caxton, the man who brought book printing to England for the first time.  Part of me was delighted to see this story in the news, not least because it put a spotlight on the brilliant but all-too-often overlooked work of the librarians and archivists on whom we rely so much.  

But part of me was a little uneasy too.  The interest in these stories, it seems to me, lies in two rather old-fashioned preconceptions of what humanities research should look like.  Firstly, there is the fetishization of the dusty archive as somehow essential to ‘real’ research, with the scholar as a pioneer who brings back new objects for our communal collectors’ cabinet of cultural and historical goods (a narrative palpably brimming with potential colonialist subtext).  Secondly, there is the notion that progress in research happens in bite-sized eureka moments of brilliant individuals (Archimedes’ bathtub, Newton’s apple) as opposed to the less romantic, but probably more realistic picture of a slow slog of collective effort over a number of years.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘discovery’ stories can do much to make research accessible to a wider audience, the example of the Caxton print being a case in point.  But is there also a danger that these narratives might hinder more effective communication of what humanities researchers actually do and why it matters?  It is with these anxieties in mind that I want to talk about my own experience of making a small ‘discovery’ of sorts.

It happened like this: my PhD research examines the series of annual festivals staged in various European cities by an organisation called the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in the 1920s and 1930s.  The programme books for these festivals are orderable from the British Library as separate items like any other book – with one exception.   In order to look at the programme book for the 1927 Festival held in Frankfurt, you have to order in a box from Special Collections.  As anyone else who has done this will know, using BL Special Collections material involves a certain inconvenience: as well as needing to get permission for any photography, you also have to hand in your reader’s card while you are using the material, which makes getting lunch, taking a phone call or just going to the toilet rather a hassle.

Yes, these are all reasonable security and copyright protections, but they did lead me, somewhat irrationally I admit, to rather resent the poor 1927 festival.  That is, until I made my little discovery.  Wrapped up with string in a dusty old brown paper package, this programme book had a small and secret gem folded inside its pages: the guest list and seating plan for a dinner for over 400 guests organised as part of the festival.  Now I would never claim that these documents have anything like the wider significance of the prints found in Reading.  But for my own very particular project and the questions I’ve been interested in, they present a rich seam of potential stories and information.  What might this tell us about the demographics and hierarchy of festival attendees?  Who was, say, Carl Nielsen sitting and chatting with?  And, more whimsically, did Theodor Adorno enjoy his ‘international’-themed bombe glacée?

My curiosity was also piqued by another question: who did this programme book belong to and how had it ended up in the British Library?  The answer is that I owe a great deal to a man called Ernst Henschel.   He was a Berlin-based lawyer and he loved music, especially contemporary music.  He attended literally thousands of concerts ever since his teenage years in the 1890s and he kept everything, amassing a staggering collection of materials that covers many of the major musical events of the early twentieth century. 

British Library St Pancras Reading Rooms.

In 1938, Henschel left Germany and arrived in London.  Given that ‘Henschel’ was a typical German-Jewish surname, it’s probably safe to assume why he moved.  Astonishingly, he managed to take his vast collection of concert programmes with him.  He stayed in England after the war, his enthusiasm for attending concerts undimmed, and eventually he donated his collection to the British Museum.  It’s thanks to this generous donation that I ended up learning about the dinner held in Frankfurt.  To me, the Henschel Collection is a reminder that our sources not only record particular moments, but can also be shaped by the displacements, traumas and accidents of all the things that have happened since.

Faced with the scale of the historical events involved, however, I did feel somewhat sheepish to have inadvertently stumbled upon all of this.  In his 2015 article ‘Quirk Shame’, the Cambridge-based musicologist Benjamin Walton reflects in honest, insightful and sometimes very funny ways on the feelings of scholarly shame that come with the hidden act of discovering a particularly potent source using the internet (who hasn’t looked around to check that nobody’s looking before a furtive search of Google Books?).  I think my sheepishness about the unintended ease with which I made my own little discovery is probably analogous.  If finding things is so important, shouldn’t it have involved a little bit more effort and skill?

In some ways, this shame feels like the strange counterweight to the very public esteem and praise that sometimes falls the way of discoverers of previously unknown manuscripts and so on.  Finding things is an important scholarly skill, at least for some of us, but it doesn’t necessarily seem healthy to get so hung up about it.  What matters surely is not who unearthed a particular source, but what we do with it.  Regrettably, my menu and seating plan show no signs of turning themselves into a chapter without me doing any work.  Perhaps one way to start tempering the excesses of both our veneration for and our shame about making discoveries would be to foster a public discourse which acknowledges that such occurrences mark a moment of beginning, not an end.

A postscript: in a less optimistic mood, we might note the depressingly instrumentalised and monetised view of culture that our current political climate engenders.  Maybe framing humanities research in terms of accumulating valuable material objects represents the best means of communicating it in a way that the holders of the purse strings can understand.  It may or may not be a coincidence that news stories in this genre always seem to include a reference to the financial value of the object in question; the Caxton prints were valued at £100,000, apparently.  I’m dubious about the ethics of the following statement, but perhaps – for now at least – the best thing to do would be to keep up the ruse.  In which case, it’s probably best we pretend that this blogpost never existed.

Giles Masters is a PhD student in the Department of Music at King’s College London. His research focuses on the festivals organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music in the 1920s and 30s. He is especially interested in studying the social networks facilitated by this transnational organisation, as well as the ways in which it interacted with local musical cultures and enabled musical imaginings of place. Follow him on Twitter: @giles_masters

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