Using Archives and Special Collections in Creative Writing Research

By | June 5, 2019

This post was provided by Katherine Hughes, Academic Liaison Librarian at York St John.

Background to the session

In Spring term 2019 I delivered a session on using archives and special collections in Creative Writing research. This session was embedded within the third year Creative Research in Practice module, which focuses on different research methods used in creative writing. Students are assessed through a research project including a professional proposal, sample of creative work, and an annotated bibliography.

This session provided us with a great opportunity to showcase YSJ’s special collections. Helen Pleasance, the module tutor requesting the session, was eager that students should have the opportunity to interact directly with archival objects, something we are very happy to facilitate. We wanted to let students know about the practicalities of using archive resources, as these are often unfamiliar and can be intimidating. We also wanted to give them an idea of the wealth of other archive resources available, both as physical archives and online.

Research and preparation

In preparation for the session, I researched different approaches to using archives and special collections in CW research. According to Croome (2009), archives are usually used in two ways by writers, for background research and to add realistic detail, or for inspiration. Archival research can be used to verify the facts about a particular time period, setting or local area, ensuring the author’s depiction is accurate, and to immerse the researcher in detail of the past. However, an unusual resource or object from an archive or special collection can provide the spark for a new story, or to ‘inspire imagined detail’ in an existing work (Lonie 2017). St Germain (2017), for instance, ran a workshop making use of early 20th century mugshots as writing prompts. Sometimes the most tantalizing and inspiring things in an archival resource are what’s missing. Both Mantel (2017) and Wilkinson (2016) reflect on gaps in the historical record and how their writing is about filling those gaps with imagination and guesswork.

As students hadn’t yet chosen their assignment direction, I decided that the activities should focus on the use of archives for inspiration, although I did discuss other other uses. I consulted fellow librarian Tom Peach, who looks after our special collections, about which resources were likely to inspire writers. Some of our archival resources, while of interest to historians, can be rather dry – the university’s financial records, for instance, are unlikely to fire anyone’s imagination. However, our archive also includes photograph and letter books that provide a snapshot of life at YSJ over the past century and a half. Our Rees-Williams collection of Victorian and Edwardian children’s books includes both classics and texts that haven’t stood the test of time, but which are interesting for what they tell us about contemporary attitudes to gender, race, and the British Empire. We also selected some playbills and posters from the York Theatre Royal and Yorkshire Playbills and Posters collections. Given that the contents of some of the resources were controversial, it was clear that the session would need to address the problematics of archives and changing historical attitudes, and prepare students for what they might encounter in both this session and other collections. My research also highlighted a need for students to think critically about archive collections, about what had been chosen for preservation and what might be missing or excluded.

Session design

The session was scheduled to last around 50 minutes. It started with an explanation of the uses of archives for CW research, based on the literature I had consulted. I provided some examples of texts that had used archival research and explained the practicalities of using archives and the rules and regulations involved. We then moved on to the student activity exploring archive collections. In pairs or groups, students chose and examined one of the example resources from our archive and discussed how they could be used in CW research. I provided the following questions to stimulate discussion:

  • How might you use this resource for Creative Writing research?
  • What can you learn about the historical and local context in which the resource was created?
  • Who was the author/creator of the resource and what can you learn about them?
  • Why do you think this particular resource was preserved by its creator and/or by the archive?
  • What gaps or absences can you detect?

After time spent discussing the resources, I concluded the session by letting students know about other physical archive resources in the local area, online archive collections we subscribe to at YSJ, and free digital archives available on the web. Finally, I let them know where they could go for further help and advice on using both our and other special collections and archives.

Session outcomes and reflection

I ran two back-to-back sessions with two different groups of students, with around 15-20 students in each group. The sessions went very positively, with students engaged in the activity and involved in critical discussion about the resources. They seemed to enjoy having an opportunity to look at the resources and several came up with new ideas for writing and research. After the session, Tom and I had appointments with several creative writing students who had decided to use archives – whether ours or other collections – in their assignment. However, there were some students who were less engaged with the resources. On discussion with them, it emerged that their research interests didn’t really fit with the contents of our special collections, which are all 19th and 20th century artefacts.

On reflection, I felt the session had gone well and the majority of students appeared to find it of interest. I was glad I had been able to spend some time researching archive use and that my activity had highlighted the importance of considering gaps and exclusions, as this led to some of the most interesting ideas and discussions. One student noticed that the pages in a Victorian children’s book had not all been cut, meaning that the pages were still joined together and some contents couldn’t be read. She suggested an idea for a project where she would fill in the missing parts of the story with her own writing.

However, I felt that the session could be adapted to provide more options for students whose research interests fell outside the scope of our archive. Booking the session in a room with some computer terminals might allow students to browse online archives for inspiration as well as looking at physical resources. Discussion with the module tutor indicated that there were likely to be changes to the module next year – currently it runs concurrently with students’ dissertations, so students are effectively doing two research projects. If moved to an earlier point in the course, there might be scope to expand the archive session and link the activities more directly to the assignment brief.


Croome, A. (2009) ‘Document Z: creating fiction from the Archives’. Memento, Issue 37, pp. 3-5. Available from [Accessed 22nd Jan 2019].

Lonie, E. (2017) Fonds or Fiction? Archives as Inspiration for Creative Writing [Internet]. Available from [Accessed 15th Jan 2019].

Mantel, H. (2017) ‘Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist’. Guardian [Internet], 3rd June. Available from [Accessed 15th Jan 2019).

McLaughlin, C. (2017) ‘Adelle Stripe on her debut novel “Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile”’. Northern Life [Internet], 18th October. Available from [Accessed 15th Jan 2019].

St Germain, J. (2017) Cubic Footnotes: Hidden Stories in Archival Collections [Internet]. Available from [Accessed 15th Jan 2019].

University of Westminster Archive Services (2016) Finding and using Archives for Creative Writing [Internet]. Available from [Accessed 15th Jan 2019].

Wilkinson, M. (2016) Exhumation: how creative writers use and develop material from an archive. PhD Thesis, Newcastle University. Available from [Accessed 22nd Jan 2019].

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