St Andrews University Library Visiting Scholarship – Thoughts from an initial look at the McIntosh Papers

Today is the first day of my 3-week Visiting Scholarship in the University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections. As my archival visits are often spent diligently snapping away on my phone, desperately trying to make a photographic record of everything I won’t have time to read or transcribe until a later date, I want to use this blog as a space where I can think critically about those trips and my experiences, something akin to a research journal. I figure that this practice will encourage more reflection during as opposed to after the research trip, and might (one can only hope) make the writing up of said research a little easier. This is particularly important during this trip, as I have to give a 40-minute presentation of my findings in my last few days, so it’s essential that I think through the material, not merely photograph it.

As I’ve posted about previously, I’m in St Andrews to conduct research as part of my Collage before Modernism project, in both quite broad and quite specific terms. More generally, I’m interested in a number of the scrapbooks, commonplace books, albums and examples of photocollage that they have in the collections here, and I’ll detail these at greater length as I come to look at them over the next few weeks.

More specifically, I’ll be looking at the Papers of William Carmichael McIntosh and his family. McIntosh – aka M’Intosh – was professor of natural history at St Andrews University from 1882 to 1917, and a renowned marine biologist. His sisters, Roberta and Agnes, were also intimately involved in this work. Roberta was a noted natural history watercolourist who illustrated many of her brother’s works, whilst Agnes, William’s lifelong companion, devoted much of her time to documenting William’s work through the production of 13 family scrapbooks (I’ve looked at five of these so far today, and I can confirm that they are incredibly rich documents). These scrapbooks can be contextualised as part of a broader familial production of manuscripts, including commonplace books and other scrapbooks, as well as a broader correspondence between and beyond the family.

My interest in these materials is three-fold. Firstly, I’m interested in how the familial scrapbooks allowed both their maker and those they documented to enact the affective and emotional connections that they experienced as family members, asking questions such as in what ways do the books reflect this aspect of the family’s experience? how do they commemorate losses and grief? and how do they materialize familial bonds? Secondly, I’m interested in how these volumes relate to a number of interrelated identities, specifically national, professional, and maritime. The books often specifically document the family’s broader and explicitly Scottish history, with visual and textual references to ‘Clan McIntosh’ and to Scottish worthies like Scott and Burns. In the albums, this Scottishness takes on a notably local character, with many of the volumes dedicated to St Andrews, Fife, and the surrounding area, and many of their inclusions record events attending  in Aberdeen and Edinburgh. With photographs reproducing these sites, and plants from these regions cut and pasted into the volumes, Scottish identity is grounded within the local natural landscape, one that was also specifically maritime in nature. This interest in the sea of course, also relates to William and Roberta’s professional identities, as natural history writer and illustrator, respectively. Recording the publication and reviews of William’s books; featuring Roberta’s hand-drawn and published illustrations; and documenting William’s career as a lecturer, the volumes intermingle the personal and professional lives of those to whom they are dedicated, whilst Agnes’ own archive-like processes of documentation and recording might be thought of as her own kind of professional practice, especially given her role as William’s companion – and the proximity to his work this engendered – throughout his life.


Finally, I’m interested in how paying attention to the collaged nature of these texts – that is, their composition from a range of fragmentary images, objects and texts (such as photographs, newspaper clippings, small drawings, and swatches of fabric) brought together  to create a distinctive whole – allows us to rethink the generic porosity of such manuscript books. All too often this type of idiosyncratic archival material is subject to quite random groupings and categorisations, with some objects labelled commonplace books, some albums, and some scrapbooks.  Arbitrary divisions aside, what links these volumes is, of course, the complexity of their collaged forms, with each formed from many parts which make a new whole. By thinking across these volumes within the McIntosh collection then, we can think beyond conventional categorisations in order to get at a deeper understanding of a diverse yet interconnected manuscript culture being enacted within this family.

So, these are the things that I’ll be thinking about as I examine the McIntosh collection over the next few weeks, and I’ll post more as I get through a little more of it!

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