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 The Diasporic Literary Archives Network: an interview with David Sutton

(University of Reading)

You are responsible for the Leverhulme Diasporic Literary Archives project, which aims to establish a network of literary archives all over the world.  Can you tell us more about it?

The Leverhulme Trust is one of the UK’s biggest charities. It has a separate funding stream for building up international networks, a really progressive and creative idea. A group of colleagues in the University of Reading decided that it might be possible to put together a proposal for an international network on literary manuscripts, which would fit the Leverhulme Trust’s criteria and establish an exciting new project. The aspiration would be to cover all aspects of literary manuscripts (their nature, their origins, their uses, problems and challenges) in all parts of the world. We felt that the biggest difference between literary manuscripts and other types of archives is that literary papers often travel far from their place of origin, are dispersed and divided, and end up in disparate and unpredictable locations. To describe this phenomenon, we chose to use the striking word ‘diasporic’.

When and how did the idea of such a network come to your mind?

My own work as Director of Research Projects in the University of Reading Library has had a major focus on literary manuscripts in the UK and Ireland (see, and over the years I have entered into international cooperative projects, especially with colleagues in the USA and France. From 2010, I became President of the Section for Archives of Literature and Art within the International Council on Archives (ICA), with responsibility for matters concerning literary manuscripts in all of the 195 countries and territories which are in ICA membership. My colleagues in the English, French and Italian departments in Reading immediately saw the opportunity for moving beyond the usual international links into a much wider and more exciting network. Within ICA, some of the leading players in literary manuscripts have come from countries including Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago, Namibia, Portugal and Brazil, as well as the UK, France, Italy, Australia and the USA.

What are in your opinion the project’s main challenges and difficulties?

The first big challenge was to decide which countries should be represented in the inner team at the heart of the network. With the leading role being played by Reading’s English, French and Italian departments, it was clear that the UK, France and Italy should be represented, and we quickly had expressions of interest from the Centro di Ricerca sulla Tradizione Manoscritta di Autori Moderni e Contemporanei at the University of Pavia and the Institut Memoires de l’Edition Contemporaine in France (Caen and Paris). That gave the network an excellent starting-point. There followed discussions within ICA circles. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University agreed to join the network, and the network was significantly enriched when colleagues from Namibia and Trinidad also expressed their willingness to participate. We knew then that we had a strong and distinctive team of participants. The support of UNESCO, ICA and other national and international bodies strengthened the network further. With this starting-point achieved, the biggest challenge then facing us was to find ways of covering all aspects of work on literary manuscripts worldwide within the three-year timescale and the five international workshops which the Leverhulme Trust would agree to fund.

The network’s first meeting has taken place in Reading in July 2012. What were its main outcomes, and what feedback did you have on it?

The aim of the first network meeting was to provide an overview of all the big issues within the world of literary manuscripts – all the issues which the network would have to address during the three years 2012-2014. So we had sessions discussing matters to do with privacy and copyright; the special problems posed by literary authors within business and publishing archives; ‘split collections’ – the way an author’s papers can be divided between distant repositories; competition and cooperation between literary archivists, and some intriguing new models of collaboration; digitisation and born-digital archives, and capturing emails, texts and tweets; issues of value and valuation (some literary papers attract enormous sums at auction); users of literary archives, and their particular needs and preferences; and, with appropriate sensitivity, questions of wealth and power: acquisition of the papers of authors from poorer countries by libraries and archives in richer countries. The meeting gave special attention to some of the practical problems facing archivists in Grenada, Trinidad and Namibia, and discussed ways of providing support and solidarity.

What about the other workshops?

The second workshop has been held in Pavia in last February 2013, and had a special focus on ‘split literary collections’. It has also continued the discussions about international solidarity, with presentations from our Namibian and Trinidadian colleagues; and, naturally, it shared information about some of the particular issues relating to literary papers of Italian authors. One session covered the papers of translators of Italian literature into English, reflecting a view that the collecting of translators’ papers has often been neglected.

The following workshops will develop other themes. In May 2013 at the Institut Memoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, Caen, we will be reviewing issues to do with public and private ownership of literary papers. The two workshops scheduled for 2014 will tackle very large topics. The first, in Trinidad, will cover ‘the politics of location’, and the final workshop of the series, to be held in Yale, will cover all aspects of digitisation and born-digital archives.

The progress of the network can be followed on our website:

David Sutton is the Director of Research Projects at the University of Reading; he is the editor of the Location Register of 20th Century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters and the UK editor of the WATCH copyright project. He has published extensively on literary manuscripts and on ways of tracing copyright holders. He is the Principal Investigator for the Diasporic Literary Archives Network.


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This entry was posted on April 22, 2013 by in Academia.
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