AHA Member Spotlight: Mary Robertson
Mary Robertson is the retired curator of medieval and British historical manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She lives in Los Angeles and has been a member of the AHA since 1968.
Alma maters: BA (English and mathematics), UCLA, 1966; MA (history), UCLA, 1968; PhD (history) UCLA, 1975
Fields of interest: early modern Britain, modern Britain, archives and manuscripts
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I was finishing my dissertation at the Huntington Library, after archival work in England, when a part-time clerical position opened in the Manuscripts Department. I enjoyed learning to catalogue a wide variety of British manuscripts while answering queries from the researchers who used them. I never left. In 1975 I became the curator of British historical manuscripts, and from 1979 until 2010 I was the chief curator of manuscripts and head of the Manuscripts Department. In retirement I now have the luxury of using the Huntington purely as a reader, with far more time to undertake my own research in the fascinating manuscripts I have managed over the years.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? More than 1,500 scholars visit the Huntington each year to conduct research in its collections, which specialize in British and American history and literature and the history of science from the 11th century to the present; still more correspond from afar with the curatorial staff. The opportunity to talk with, assist, and learn from this wide range of researchers provides a fascinating overview of the profession, as well as early notice of new discoveries and interpretations from the many books, articles, seminars, and conferences that are generated from work undertaken here. The atmosphere of scholarly inquiry, excellence, and collegiality among the staff and readers at the Huntington, and the opportunity to have worked with the manuscripts and rare books in one of the world’s great research libraries, is a never-ending delight.
What projects are you currently working on? A series of articles on three generations of the Hastings family, barons Hastings and earls of Huntingdon, in the context of the changing nature of aristocratic power and influence during the reign of Henry VIII; these are based largely on the Hastings family archive at the Huntington.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? They have not so much changed as broadened: I have always been drawn to the nature of political and administrative power in early modern England, but my time frame has expanded. At the same time, working as an archivist and assisting other scholars with their research projects has increased my interest in the survival, management, and scholarly use of the written records of the past, and in how the discoveries coming from these collections can be shared with the both the profession and the wider public.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? Let me give a slightly different answer: not so much something I found in the archives as something I found for them. Among the many manuscripts I have acquired for the Huntington during 35+ years as the British history curator, two stand out: I especially treasure the 37-volume autograph journal of English composer and musician John Marsh (1752–1828), whose engaging personality and wide cultural interests make his journal a joy for social historians as well as musicologists; and the 6,800-piece archive, primarily 17th-19th century, of the Townshend family of Frognal, Kent (viscounts and earls Sydney), whose papers had until then remained in the family’s hands and were largely unavailable to historians. Although neither of these acquisitions was from my own favorite 16th century, they are both rich and fascinating research collections that will appeal to a wide range of scholars for years to come.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? J. Gunn’s Henry VII’s New Men & the Making of Tudor England (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016): it is an analysis, to quote from the jacket, of the king’s new men, “low-born ministers with legal, financial, political, and military skills” and of “the offices and relationships through which they exercised power.” The bibliography alone provides a master class in thorough meticulous archival research.
What do you value most about the history discipline? That it encourages a habit of mind that tries to understand and interpret the past—and the present—through a thorough and unprejudiced examination of all available evidence.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? It helps me stay current with the work of historians outside my own field, and I strongly support its role as an advocate for the continuing value and importance of the profession of history and the humanities in general.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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