A few weeks ago, Sotheby’s was supposed to start auctioning off a hugely significant Brontë collection (consisting of the works of the sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily), but they bowed to public pressure and postponed the auction. The sale would have redistributed these peerless holdings into other private hands, likely never to be seen again by students and scholars. A consortium of British heritage institutions, hoping to stave off that fate, has come together to raise the funds to purchase the collection and share it among libraries and museums.
Initially, the auction house insisted that “Private collectors can be great custodians of such material.” Twitter sprang into action in response to Sotheby’s snub, with one academic posting his reply which reads in part: “It’s repulsive that Sotheby’s would treat the manuscript like any other commodity, trying to pump up its value by creating false scarcity, when an open-access policy is clearly in [everyone’s] interests.”
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My students would agree — with a disclaimer. They are undergraduates studying English literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a senior liberal arts college in The City University of New York system, and a Minority- and Hispanic-Serving public institution. In other words, they are a constituency rarely given access to archives and original documents, but they delight in them when they are. After I brought a class of budding Victorianists to the Berg Collection to see its Brontë juvenilia, one student reflected, “I was most surprised to learn of how much … is accessible to the public and how much further students like me could dive into … personal and academic use.”
The Berg Collection is housed in the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, a place most of the students had never been. And by that, I mean they had never been to the main branch of the library, never mind the Berg Collection. Introducing them to the archives wasn’t just about getting to know the primary documents; it was an experience of occupying and utilizing that most democratic of public spaces: the library.
The materials in the Brontë collection should not only be public but digitized and freely available online like much Brontë juvenilia already is. That said, my students will continue to be excluded even from the digital archives unless they are empowered with the knowledge and expertise to use them. Any archive is only accessible to those who know it’s there, know how to find it, and know how to use it. Decolonizing the archive includes mobilizing students like mine to be the decolonizers.
In John Jay’s special collections room, we’d been told that the card catalogues remain only for decoration. But after the Berg visit, where they are still in use, one student (originally from Haiti) wrote, “Seeing the card catalogs took me back. In that moment, I realize that [they] were not foreign to me. I had referred to [them] in my younger years in my home country. It all came back to me: the knowledge and a memory I had long since forgotten.” For her, the archive became a place of postcolonial recovery and remembering.
If my students benefit from public largesse and access, it’s because they challenge public institutions, asking why they are not free (like CUNY once was), demanding access to them, and questioning the way they work. This was true as they explored the digital and physical archives and became concerned with the Brontës’ privacy and the ethics of the archive as a place where anyone can peer into private worlds that had never been intended for public consumption. These worries come to a head in their field notes: “Seeing how small her desk [and] manuscripts were along with the scribbles and drawings really showed me how personal these were to her. It did feel invasive in all honesty since … she did not want them to be published but in the end, it was still fascinating to see.”
This student struggles with the ethics of looking, a problem the collection raises again, since it contains Emily and Anne’s 1841 diary papers and the manuscript of Emily’s poetry that Charlotte “accidentally” discovered in 1845.
We brush off any qualms about looking at their writings now, valuing academic access above all, but my students called out the moral conundrum, and in their final projects, when asked to intervene in an archive, they were moved to protect the children’s privacy. One added an agreement users would have to check off before entering a site, throwing a digital veil over the Brontës’ texts (itself a very Victorian move).
My students agree that open access to the manuscripts would enlarge their scholarly horizons. But they would also point out that “access” is contingent on time, money, and education. And they would insist that access isn’t necessarily in everyone’s best interest — it potentially does a disservice to the Brontës themselves.
Instead of advocating for private ownership, they’d challenge us to stop and reflect on what it means to put these items on display; what it means for them, as postcolonial digital natives, to read the secret stories of little colonizers; and what it means for this writing to be made public.
The consortium has bought time to divert the archive from the private sphere into the public domain, but it still needs to raise the funds to buy it. It plans to do this through philanthropic donations and crowdsourcing — and we should all give if we can — but the public shouldn’t have to rely on private money to gain access to this literary treasure trove. Let’s take possession of this collection and then treat it the way my students would want us to.