An academic from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has been awarded over £1m as part of a fellowship to undertake new research into the journeys of English and Scottish scholars to early-modern libraries from North America to the Middle East.
Dr John-Mark Philo, from UEA’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, has been awarded £1.2 million by UKRI’s (UK Research and Innovation) Future Leaders Fellowship Scheme, designed to support exceptional innovators and researchers in universities and businesses across the UK.
His project, “English and Scottish Scholars at the Global Library: From Aleppo to Massachusetts 1500-1700”, will undertake research across 25 libraries worldwide, tracing the activities of English and Scottish readers across Europe, North America, and the Middle East. By reconstructing the journeys of these scholars, the project examines the early-modern library as a vibrant meeting point of people, languages, and cultures.
At the heart of the project is the question of what these in-person exchanges in the library space allowed scholars to achieve that they could not through written correspondence. What was gained, for example, by debating ideas face-to-face? What kinds of collaboration were possible by the physical presence of international scholars in the same library space?
John-Mark explained: “Over the last two years or so, we’ve all been thinking about the kinds of things we can achieve and do in-person that we can’t at a distance. This project puts the social dimensions of knowledge-exchange back into the early-modern library.”
The project will also show how these travelling scholars contributed to the intellectual communities they visited.
John-Mark said: “Usually in this period, England and Scotland are seen as receptacles for knowledge and art received from mainland Europe. This project examines how English and Scottish scholars, by travelling between libraries abroad, actively contributed to the progression and spread of cutting-edge thought.”
Another key aspect of the project examines how the library functioned, and functions still, as a place of refuge. Working with the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, this stage of the project explores how the library space can enable knowledge-exchange between refugees and local communities today.
John-Mark explained: “The early-modern library shows us a way of sharing knowledge, as far as is possible, on an equal footing, of trading ideas and sharing experience in a two-way dialogue. Early-modern thinkers knew they had a lot to learn from the refugees who studied in their libraries – I think we do too.”
This approach will be put in to practice through collaboration with Norwich’s own Millennium Library, who have long played a fundamental role in welcoming those seeking refuge in Norfolk.
Rachel Ridealgh, Community Librarian for Local Studies at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, said: “We are delighted to be part of this important and timely project led by Dr John-Mark Philo, which will build upon our existing collaboration with UEA and the Unlocking the Archive project. Norwich has a significant history of being a place of sanctuary for those seeking refuge and asylum and libraries have long played a key role, currently running Community Help sessions for people arriving in Norfolk from Ukraine.
"The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library is working towards a Library of Sanctuary award, prioritising our work with refugee communities, and being part of this project will be a fundamental part of this. Congratulations on securing the funding and we’re so excited for the positive impact that this project will have on our libraries, historic collections, and local communities.”
The project has found an ideal home at UEA. Professor Sarah Barrow, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Arts and Humanities, said: “This is fantastic news for Arts and Humanities at UEA, and speaks to the wider research cultures underpinning the Faculty: interdisciplinary, innovative, and guiding public policy with integrity.”
John-Mark’s research made global headlines in 2019, when he identified Elizabeth I as the mystery translator behind a translation of Tacitus’s Annales.