Strange though it may sound, I owe my job to J.R.R. Tolkien. I picked up The Hobbit as a seven-year old and was swiftly drawn into Tolkien’s legendarium. I read my father’s paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings to pieces (I don’t think he’s quite forgiven me yet) and moved on to devour The Silmarillion. Unbeknownst to me, my love for Tolkien would lead me to the Marion E. Wade Center.
When I walked into the Wade Center as a prospective Wheaton student, I knew only that it contained more Tolkien and Lewis books than I had ever read. Standing in awe before Tolkien’s desk and the intricately carved Lewis Family wardrobe, I was convinced that I had stumbled upon a magical place. Not until I worked there as a Wheaton student did I realize that the resources on display in the Wade Center Museum and Reading Room were just the tip of the iceberg. From dissertations to fanzines, manuscripts to oral histories, first editions to unpublished letters, where else can you find such a wealth of resources from such an influential group of British authors?
During my four years working there, I transcribed selections from Lewis’s letters and oral histories on Sayers. I learned how to describe archival collections as I updated the Wade Center history records. When supervising the Reading Room on the weekends, I attempted to explain the vast array of collections to visitors, but even four years isn’t enough time to become an expert on everything the Wade Center holds.
I was drawn to the Wade Center because of my love for J.R.R. Tolkien, but my attention was soon captured by the ways in which the Wade Center and its staff present their resources to the world. Too often archives are thought to have—to borrow an image from Tolkien—Smaug-like archivists jealously guarding dusty collection hoards. Thankfully, the staff at the Wade Center are not dragon-like; on the contrary, they approach their work with the cheerful goodwill of hobbits—eager to share their treasure with all who come.
I learned that significant effort goes into preparing documents before a researcher ever arrives. The Wade Center is loved by scholars not just because of the fine collections, but because the archivists and student workers have invested many hours into preserving the original documents, organizing them, and describing the contents of collections. The work can sometimes be a daunting task, but that labor is rewarded when researchers make crucial discoveries because the preparation was done well.
When I first visited, I was daunted by the usage policies for Reading Room users, though I soon learned the purpose behind them. When, for example, researchers are asked to leave their food and drink outside the Reading Room, the reason for the request is to preserve materials and promote access for future generations of visitors. If a latté is spilled on an original Chesterton manuscript, that manuscript can’t be replaced; everyone loses the chance to see and enjoy it.
The beauty of the Wade Center is that it is accessible to everyone. Now, as an archivist myself, I know that in some countries, only serious researchers are allowed to use archives and often they are required to present a letter of introduction from an academic sponsor. Not so at the Wade Center; it is freely open to the public and offers something for everyone: young or old, casual fan or dedicated scholar.
What started in me as youthful enthusiasm for the beauty of fantasy turned into a passion for preserving history, for providing access to the unique voices captured in archival records, for promoting critical thinking through the study of primary sources. My experience at the Wade Center led me to the conclusion that I, too, needed to become an archivist. I now work at a university archives, teaching students to think critically as they explore the raw materials of history. In many ways, I owe my work to the Wade Center for sparking that passion, and to Tolkien for leading me to the Wade in the first place.
About the author: Abigail Nye is the Reference and Instruction Archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She holds a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies from Wheaton College and an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She worked at the Wade Center as a student worker from 2004 to 2008.