Wednesday, June 17, 2009


On Saturday June 27, I will be interviewing Dee White about the research process behind her soon to be released YA book: Letters to Leonardo, published by Walker Books. [Release date July 1, 2009].
My interview with Dee is only part of her sixteen day blog tour with Letters to Leonardo. I hope you will follow her tour and gain further insights into the various aspects of the amazing journey that writing this book has entailed.

Blog Tour Schedule: Letters to Leonardo
23/06/2009 An intro to the tour by Dee White at
24/06/2009 Sally Murphy at
25/06/2009 Sally Odgers at
26t/06/2009 Susan Stephenson at
27/06/2009 Mabel Kaplan at
28/06/2009 Vanessa Barneveld at
29/06/2009 Dale Harcombe at
30/06/2009 Claire Saxby at
01/06/2009 Robyn Opie at
02/07/2009 Adele Walsh at
03/07/2009 Brenton Cullen at
04/07/2009 Sandy Fussell at
05/07/2009 Dee White at
06/07/2009 Dee White at
07/07/2009 Overseas stopover

The research process has always both intrigued and excited me. Some years ago I wrote a number articles on Joseph Jacobs, best known in Australia (at least) as an English folklorist. These were subsequently published in various magazines. The research process led me down some fascinating roads - and I used my work on Jacobs by way of example as the basis for a follow-up article: In Search of Joseph Jacobs printed in a 2004 edition of The Swag of Yarns: Australia’s National Storytelling Magazine (now defunct) - and which I now reproduce here.

In Search of Joseph Jacobs: The Research Process
by Mabel Kaplan (c) 2004

Until January, 2003 I had known of Joseph Jacobs only as an English Folklorist and through a smattering of children’s folktales from his collections. I assumed he was English - born and bred somewhere in the British Isles.

An entry from the website: set me off on a search for the boy and the man: 'Joseph Jacobs was born in Sydney in 1854, but soon emigrated to England and USA. He was a preminent scholar and literay critic, and published many books on Jewish history and tradition, but nowadays he is best remembered for his contribution to children's literature.'

I was intrigued ... and so began my search. I found information rather thin on the ground ... from the internet ... just the barest facts emerged. I use the word ‘facts’ here somewhat loosely as the deeper I looked the more I came to realise that material on the internet is far from reliable.

Jacobs, the boy, still eluded me. If he was born in Australia, who were his parents, did he go to school in Australia, did his parents accompany him to England, how old was he when he left Australia? So many questions!

During several days spent at the Alexander and Battye Libraries (Perth, Western Australia) I found the gem of information I needed, hidden away in Dorson’s 1968 book: The British Folklorists: A History, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
'Of all the versatile scholars ... none proved more committed that Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). Born in Sydney, Australia, he was educated at Sydney University, at St John’s College in Cambridge University, and at the University of Berlin.'

As I mulled over where to go from here, it struck me that if Jacobs attended Sydney University it was reasonable to assume that he went to a secondary school somewhere in Sydney at around ages 12-16. So my next question became: What secondary schools existed in Sydney between 1866-1870.

Some further research threw up two: Fort Street and Sydney Grammar.
It took some courage to go out on a limb to contact someone who didn’t know me from a tin can and ask an impossible question. After some hesitation I wrote to both schools to enquire whether Joseph Jacobs had been a student there. And BINGO! Back came a reply from Sydney Grammar dated 25/02/2003

Dear Ms Kaplan
Joseph Jacobs attended Sydney Grammar School from April 1867 - December 1871. His parent/guardian is listed as J. Jacobs, Post Office Hotel, Sydney.when at school he won the Senior Knox Prize 1870-1871; and was Captain of the School 1871. Although he was well known for his folk stories he is listed here as "historian".
Regards, Anne Jarman, Archives

With this information as a starting point, I formulated my next questions:
1. Is there any significance to only one parent/guardian being named on his enrolment? I mean, does it suggest he may have had only one parent?
2. Would the school record show any details of his birth?
3. Did Sydney Grammar have a year book during the period of JJ's enrolment there; and, if so did Joseph get a mention in them or even write something for them? Would there be any other school records e.g. school reports that offer any further insights such as subjects taken and teachers' comments?
4. Would there be any record of what schools he may have attended prior to coming to Sydney Grammar?

In response to my followup questions, I received another message from Anne Jarman of Sydney Grammar to say that she had some photocopied material of interest.

On 14 March, 2003 the eagerly awaited package arrived. In it were two cover pages of articles on Jacobs: one by Graham Seal (ironically a Western Australian academic, whom I had met) and, the other by Mary Shaner in Writers for Children. (a name that had also been included as an end reference elsewhere) Each of these contained significant information regarding Jacobs’ life and family background. But the greatest prize of all was a copy of a letter written by Jacobs (and published in the school’s magazine, Sydneian (1910), March 10, pp.15-16) to his old headmaster at Sydney Grammar, Mr Weigall to congratulate him on being named in the King's Honours List.

Bouyed by the success of contacting Sydney Grammar, I decided to try the same strategy with Sydney University and St John’s College Cambridge.

Win some, lose some! I never did hear back from Sydney University but after a little ‘to’ing and ‘fro’ing with St John’s College Cambridge, I was put in touch with a retired academic Professor John Stewig who had previously undertaken some research into the work of Joseph Jacobs. Through his secretary, he sent me two articles of considerable interest. While not all of the material related to my current project it was certainly of value for some future research into the actual processes by which tales enter into folklore.

Friends, acquaintances, former colleagues were also rich sources of information about where to look for material. Several, when they could help in no other way, were able to access journals etc on my behalf that would have been difficult for me to obtain directly.

Those readers of ‘Swag’ who are familiar with the Storytell* a listserv discussion about storytelling set up by theTexas Woman's University in Denton, Texas will also be familiar with names that regularly appear - Tim Sheppard (UK), Vicky Dworkin (University of Hawaii), Karen Chase, Lois Sprengnether, Kathy Pierce and Doug Lipman (all of USA). These people not only proved a great resource by bringing references to useful materials to my attention but for the encouragement they gave to keep me on the trail. At one point Doug Lipman wrote: “Gosh, I had no idea it was so hard to find out about Jacobs ... I find nothing easily available. ... Sorry I can't help more at the moment.”

One of my early searches had led me to the Oxford Companion to Fairytales ... ... ... Was I disappointed? On first reading it appeared to tell me nothing about what I wanted to know; told me nothing about the man -just ...

Jewish historian and folklorist. Educated and long resident in England, he was from 1900 an American citizen. His earliest writings were on Jewish anthropological studies; this led to a general interest in folklore. From 1889 to 1900 he edited the British journal Folk-Lore.

BUT it did! The penny dropped ... Jewish historian. Of course! The places I should be looking for information included the Australian Jewish Historical Society. And folklorist ... what about the Folklore societies?

But there was more. The Companion provided me with a list of what turned out to be very useful sources. An end reference to an article by Mary Shaner on ‘Joseph Jacobs’ in Writers for Children (1987) edited by Jane Bingham led me to Jacob’s daughter, May, and an article she had written about her father. It provided a rare glimpse of the man.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society and the Sydney Jewish Museum provided valuable materials. The1949 volume of the Journal of the Australian Historical Society (Vol.111, Part 11, December 1949, pp.72-91) included the article: Joseph Jacobs by David J Benjamin.

The death certificate of John Jacobs, Joseph’s father, dated 8 February, 1885 yielded a list of five of Joseph’s siblings still living in Australia. (This prompted me to place an advertisement in a Sydney newspaper - the Daily Telegraph - seeking descendents of Sydney Jacobs. I received no replies ... but then, not being a Sydney-sider, I may well have placed the advert in the ‘wrong’ newspaper to reach my intended target audience). But the greatest insights into Jacobs, the man, were to be found in obituaries posted in The American Hebrew following his death in 1916 ... nine pages in all. From these, I was able to gather snippets of information about his life and something of the regard in which he was held, as much for his character and personality as for his work.

My strongest impressions of Jacobs are of a man who from his school days never lost his intellectual fervour. His energy pursuit of knowledge was indefatigable. He was also an intensely private man who never spoke publicly of his personal life, his family or his apparent financial struggles.

Shaner alludes to his lack of financial security and his need to earn extra income from translations and reviews. Gary Alan Fine (1987) in his article “Joseph Jacobs: A Sociological Folklorist” in Folklore 98:2,183-193 also suggested that “until he moved to America , he had no teaching position, and probaby lived off his earnings.”

From the obituaries I learned much about his pleasant temperament, his wit, compassion and generosity of spirit. I learned too, of his constant battle with health, and of his being stranded in Germany at outbreak of WWI- an event from which he never really recovered

But of all the references I sought, the hardest to find was the one by his daughter:Hays, May Bradshaw (1952) Memories of my Father, Joseph Jacobs in The Horn Book Magazine, December, 1952 pp.385-392 .

Three times I searched for it in the Alexander and Battye Libraries. Three times I was told it was not in the librarys’ collections. But each time I returned I kept the reference on my list ... just in case. In the meanwhile, I enlisted the aid of one of my American ‘Storytell’ friends. She found it in a local library in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, photocopied it and posted it to me on June21, 2003.

The following week, back at the Alexander Library, what did I find but the whole collection of Horn Books shelved in an unexpected section of the library? Just goes to show even librarians don’t always get it right! Though, of course, most times they do.

What a breath of fresh air it was to discover the article by Jacobs’ daughter, May Bradshaw Hays, written in 1952. She painted a delightful picture of a fun-loving father who took time to enjoy his children, his books and his friends.

1. Be cautious of information gleaned from the internet. In the absence of other external collaboration much of what is found there is suspect. Many accounts, through well-intentioned, contained inaccuracies and (a great deal of supposition). Hypothesis written as fact!!! True also of some of the articles I read

2. Research needs imagination - divergent and lateral thinking - and above all persistence.

3. Research needs context e.g. Brief history of Australian Jewry provided feeling/immersion in topic.

4. Research requires meticulous recording of documents and referencing as you go along.

5. Research can be greatly aided by others in the field

6. Research uncovers much more than can be used. Importance of being able to focus on specific aspect/s

7. Never underestimate the value of an entry in an encyclopedia/year book or an article or essay that doesn’t seem to cover the ground you are seeking. You may find the ‘gem’ you want hidden in the list of sources at the end.

8. Not all the rides are free! For some of the materials, the institution holding them required payment for research, photocopying and postage. On several occasions I discovered after the event that I would have been wise to either have sent a list of what I already had to the institution from which I was seeking material or asked them to specify what they had so I could be more selective in what I wished to receive. In any event, on occasion I ended up paying twice.
* Website to find out about ‘Storytell’:

Postscript: A few months ago I had an email from a writer living in Israel who had come upon one of my original articles on Jacobs and wanted further information. When I checked on the internet I discovered information not available to me at the time I did my research - but the greatest treasure of all was the photo I discovered of Joseph Jacobs' father's grave in the Jewish Rookwoord Jewish Cemetry in New South Wales, setting Joseph's roots firmly back in Australia.

So I learned the research never ends!


  1. very good article, Mabel. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Very interesting article re: Joseph Jacobs - he is my great great great uncle, and I am descended from his older brother Edwin. Mabel can contact me on if she is still looking for descendents.