Celebrating Letter Writing: The Letters of Bertrand Russell

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Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections

In celebration of Universal Letter Writing Week, January 8-14, we look at one of the world's most comprehensive letter collections and its continuing value as a research tool.

In the first half of the 20th century, letters, postcards, telegrams, and telephone calls were how people communicated when they weren’t together. A person’s physical archive of letters can reveal their connections with others, their thoughts, and a record of their actions.

Bertrand Russell’s Archives were purchased by McMaster University in 1968. These holdings include his extensive library and massive correspondence. Over the last 23 years students and staff, supervised by  Dr. Kenneth Blackwell, currently the Honorary Russell Archivist, have catalogued most of Bertrand Russell’s letters. Retired as Russell Archivist in 1996, Dr. Blackwell continues to volunteer most days. It is important to note that Russell’s letters are still actively being collected, and cataloguing will continue as new letters are acquired.

The letters range from the Victorian era until Russell’s death, that is from 1884 to 1970. Included are some 40,000 letters from Bertrand Russell, written from over 400 addresses in twenty countries, as well as from a prison. The letters touch on an almost inconceivably broad range of topics including world politics, technical philosophy, and Russell’s private and family life. Russell corresponded with both the general public and world statesman.  There are 43,000 persons and groups who corresponded with him. His correspondents included: Albert Einstein,  Muhammad Ali, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Lester B. Pearson, and F.D. Roosevelt. 

Researchers can search through the thousands of letters in the BRACERS (Bertrand Russell Archives Catalogue Entry and Retrieval System) database to find specific items about a subject or a person. Talks like "Russell’s 1918 Prison Correspondence" presented by Archivist Sheila Turcon at the Bertrand Russell Society Conference on May 22,  2010, were researched with the help of BRACERS.

Dr. Blackwell says, "BRACERS is an unusual archival catalogue, a letter by letter catalogue that includes physical descriptions, locations and annotations to serve researchers." As of January 6, 2011, 118,422 records have been created.

Andrew Bone, from the Bertrand Russell Research Centre, reports that "Progress continues; the first Russell Archives has been digitized. James Chartrand, project manager and head programmer for the digitization project,  has developed techniques to link the digitized images to BRACERS. Soon it will be technically possible to click on a BRACERS record and get a digital copy of the letter. The Bertrand Russell Research Centre is working on a scholarly apparatus that will supplement the digitized images with accurate transcriptions of the letters and detailed annotations of their contents."

The Bertrand Russell Research Centre has a long tradition of forging ties with undergraduate students. Currently student assistant Richelle Capriotti is using the software Chartrand developed to add transcriptions to Russell’s letters. Richelle is in her fourth year of a combined honours history and French program and this is her third academic term working for the Russell Centre. Richelle says "It has been great to be a student and work at the same time through the McMaster Work Study Program. The experience has allowed me to see the practical application of a history degree and given me the opportunity to work alongside scholars.  I have learned a lot of great things about Russell and working as a historian which has improved my research and writing skills as a student."

Numerous publications have utilized Russell’s correspondence, and countless scholars have used it for projects reflecting the diversity and scope of the collection.

You can consult the original Russell correspondence in the reading room of  the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections.

by Bev Bayzat

Special thanks to Carl Spadoni, Ken Blackwell, Andrew Bone, Sheila Turcon and Richelle Capriotti for their assistance with the writing of this story.

PHOTO: Dr. Kenneth Blackwell, Honorary Russell Archivist, and student assistant Richelle Capriotti examine Bertrand Russell’s letters.