Digging In In a Library Basement (Pt. 2)

In summer 2017, I was awarded a T. Anne Cleary Dissertation Research Fellowship to travel to the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University. My dissertation focuses on Russell’s philosophy of logical atomism. So visiting the Archive was a real treat, and truly helpful in getting a more complete picture of Russell’s logical atomism. I am grateful to the University of Iowa Graduate College for their generous support of my first archival adventure! In this series of three posts, I will give an overview of my trip, talk about what it was like to work in the Russell Archives, and then discuss the historical data I found that aided my research. (This is Part 2. Part 1 is here.)

Standing in the picture, from right to left: Ken Blackwell, Bill Bruneau, and Michael Stevenson. I am the one seated with long hair. It’s shorter now!

This time I wanted to talk about the Bertrand Russell Archives itself. That means talking about the Archives’ staff, and about its holdings!

The staff were the most important aspect of my visit: they were quite kind, and that was worth more than any rare or revealing document about anyone, even Bertrand Russell. Ken, Bev, Bridget, Jen, Renu, and Myron were all terrific and patient with my many requests. Myron even gave me a tour of the Archives! (He’s the one holding Russell’s Nobel Prize in the below picture.)

One neat fact about the archive at McMaster University was that they allow folks to handle documents without gloves. I did not at all expect to have the historical feeling of touching Russell’s papers, which he held in his own hands about a century ago, with my own hands. That was a fantastic feeling for a first-time archival visitor!

I should include among the Archival staff the folks upstairs in the Russell Research Centre! Andrew Boone, Arlene Duncan, and Sheila Turcon all extended many kindnesses to me. Chief among them was being invited to daily coffee chats: anyone that knows my rates of coffee consumption and my garrulousness will know how much of a treat coffee and conversation is for me.

Now for the Archive itself! It holds tens of thousands of records relating to Russell—143 meters of textual records. Even the online BRACERS database of just Russell’s correspondence has 133,000 records with over 44,000 correspondents. There are also many documents and artifacts related to Russell’s life. Of particular note is Russell’s 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature! (Also, you should read his Nobel Lecture!)


There also is Russell’s reading chair and desk from his study!


The chair looked a little low to the ground to me, especially because Russell seemed rather tall.


Incidentally, that Box on Russell’s desk is quite standard—many of his papers, letters, and other documents are archived in boxes like that.

Another terribly exciting bit was Russell’s personal library! The books remain in the order that Russell put them in.

Yup, he had a lot of books. One of the neatest ones was this edition of The Principles of Mathematics — signed by Ludwig Wittgenstein!DSCN0475

And of course I have to post a picture of Principia Mathematica!


In the third and final post of this series, I will talk about what I found in the Archive that helped my research on logical atomism. See you next time!

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