John Purves began his teaching career as a lecturer in English under Professor Emile Legouis at Lyons University in 1902, having graduated M.A. at Edinburgh University in 1900, He was a Carnegie Research Scholar in modern languages in Rome and Siena from 1903 to 1904, then lectured in English under Professor Herbert Grierson at Aberdeen University from 1904 to 1906. He became Professor of English at Transvaal Technical Institute, Johannesburg and at Transvaal University College, Pretoria from 1906 to 1916. He served in the Ministry of Information in London during 1917 and 1918, being latterly in charge of the South African Propaganda Department, and then lectured in English and Italian from 1919 to 1920 at Cologne Army College. He was appointed lecturer in Italian at Edinburgh University in 1920.
The bulk of the papers are notebooks used by Purves for lecture notes and private research.