Research Across Borders: Charlie Thompson, AHRC Library of Congress Fellow 2014

When I was asked to write for the USSO blog and share some of my thoughts about my six months in Washington, DC, I had no idea where to begin. I left last October wanting to lose myself in another country (think coming-of-age teen drama) and come back with enough material to finish a PhD. Unsurprisingly, trying to tick off even that short list in the American capital gave me a quite a lot to write about, so at least I won’t have to write about the weather.

I stayed in Washington as part of a Library of Congress and AHRC funded fellowship scheme to use the Library of Congress’s archives. The Library of Congress is one of several U.S. organisations the AHRC and ESRC partners with to offer AHRC and ESRC funded PhD students long term fellowships to undertake archival research abroad. For a historian desperate for primary sources, the programme’s substantial stipend was a wonderful opportunity to develop my research into how American conservatives used and understood the concept of centralization of power in the 1850s.

The application process can be a bit tricky, so if I had to offer any advice, it would be: take care over the application process. Look at the Library of Congress catalogue, identify collections you would like to consult and demonstrate how they will contribute to your project. This is an absolute must. The word limit for the form is extremely short, so make sure you can summarise your research and its significance in a few sentences. It is also a good idea to check the AHRC IPS website for any pre-application showcases or workshops for the fellowships. When you get round to applying, you have to apply through the AHRC’s JES system. This may sound simple but PhD students need a surrogate to submit the application and the approval of two approval pools. Make sure you check with the free JES helpline that it has been submitted and approved before the deadline. It can take a long time for the AHRC and library to make a decision, but it’s definitely worth the wait.

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charlie2The Library of Congress

Unfortunately, on the first day I landed on U.S. soil there was a federal government shutdown and the Library of Congress closed for over two weeks. Advice for future fellows: you can’t trust the Republican Party. Instead, I worked at Georgetown University Library for a while, which was great – even if the Dupont Circle Metro escalators were always broken. Like all major American universities, their resources are the best. Imagine being able to browse the shelves of a library better stocked than the British Library. Georgetown is a wonderful neighbourhood too. If you try the great Ethiopian food there, make sure you take a good friend: it’s shared finger food.

Once the Library of Congress opened, I was able to jump into the archival material I had travelled several thousand miles to study. For a British Americanist used to Google Books previews and trips to remote libraries to gather material, the range of material is truly amazing. For a history geek, there is something quite exciting about having real nineteenth-century pamphlets delivered to your private desk, rather than having to rely on online PDF copies. Spending that long in an archive – rather than a week of quick photocopying in the British Library, as I was used to – was incredibly liberating. Being able to follow up leads, rather than drop everything or save it for ‘if I can get some more funding next time’, meant I could develop some important ideas that might find their way into my thesis (fingers crossed), or even postdoctoral study. As a researcher who specialises in  the centralization of power between institutions and space, and the role of cities in a republican polity, the materials I consulted in the Library of Congress have helped me identify several projects that could emerge from my thesis, that I may one day get the chance to explore.

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The Library of Congress has its limitations as a place to study though. Thanks to government cutbacks, they don’t have enough shelf space for all their material and their elderly equipment looks like something out of a steampunk novel. This means things often get lost, or ‘not on shelf’ in librarian-speak. As amazing as American university and government archives are (free reproductions!) it makes you appreciate how well funded and user-friendly the British Library can be.

Being away for six months also meant I could travel to other nearby archives for research. Intercity coach travel can be quite cheap if you book in advance, and I was able to visit New York and Philadelphia for research. Other fellows travelled as far as New Haven, Connecticut and Florida. At the Historical Society of Philadelphia I was able to get my hands on something I had wanted to look at for a long time: the diary of Sidney George Fisher, a nineteenth-century Philadelphian, whose upper-class rants against democracy make entertaining reading. Writing in 1851, for example, Fisher declared, ‘Democracy has ever had and must ever have…one course and termination – popular violence – anarchy – and military despotism. Wherever it has tried it has wholly and signally failed…the experience and wisdom of mankind are opposed to it.’[1] Documents such as these can help uncover conservative critiques of democracy during an age that historians assume was reconciled to white male suffrage. By contrast, my trip to New York turned into a holiday, which is why I’m leaving the research I did there inconspicuously absent.

A page from the diary of Sidney George Fisher, a prominent Philadelphian, on January 15, 1862. In it he discusses the abolitionists within the Republican Party who were attesting “that as slavery caused the war, so it will forever prevent harmony and peace between the sections… therefore slavery should be destroyed by right of war… Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, contends that we have offered to the South protection in all their rights if they will return to their allegiance, and therefore to destroy slavery would be a breach of faith.”

As amazing as my six months in America was in terms of research, it was the feeling of having truly experienced America that turned a research trip into something truly special. Few of us British postgraduates get to spend that long in the States and really get to know the country we study. George Bernard Shaw’s description of the USA and UK as ‘two countries separated by a common language’ slowly started to make sense after a confused Halloween conversation about what a ‘vest’ is and repeated requests to repeat words in an English accent. (‘Doctor’ and ‘awful’ were popular requests!) But it’s quite hard to get across how different America really feels. American movies and television really don’t prepare you for the unfamiliar turns of phrase, the different urban form, and the bizzareness of American food.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, was run by hundreds of enslaved African Americans in his lifetime. Image courtesy of Monticello.

I found out just how different America can be when I stayed with my housemate in rural Virginia, not far from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. As part of my Reconstruction course I had studied this Southern back country, far from the tidewater plantations, never expecting to find myself in it. While it is beginning to come under pressure from housing developers, today it is still a place where people build their own homes, grew tobacco in recent memory, and have shotguns in abundance. To see a small section of the old America was a real privilege.

I would love to indulge myself by recounting anecdotes about a day out in Baltimore, the British Thanksgiving, and the White House Christmas tree lighting. (I owe my life to the guy who got me two tickets. You know who you are!) But, for Americanists applying or thinking of applying for an AHRC IPS fellowship, I will leave with this advice: Go. Pack your bags now. But you shouldn’t just see it as the opportunity to sit at a convenient desk and research – although it is an excellent place to do that. A long-term fellowship really gave me the opportunity to jump into the country I have studied for so long but never set foot in for more than a few days. It might sound trite, but I found I study a place and a people that exist beyond the world of books, TV and Floridian theme parks.

As I flew out of Heathrow last October, I had tickets booked to fly home for two weeks to see my family over Christmas and New Year. By December, I had cancelled those tickets. I had met people I wanted to stay with in DC, had research I wanted to continue doing, and had made plans for events and things I wanted to see and do in and around Washington. For a trip which, according to my application, was just to photocopy newspapers, that seems quite impressive. My final piece of advice for anyone applying is the same advice I was given: apply for longer than you think you need. Like me, you really won’t want to take that flight home.



[1] Historical Society of Pennsylvania, call number 1462, Sidney George Fisher Diary 1851, p. 57.

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About Charlie Thompson

Charlie is in his second year of his Ph.D programme at the University of Sheffield. His thesis, 'Imperialism in Power: Centralization and its Discontents, c. 1848-1860', explores how Americans in the 1850s used a concept of centralization to understand the institutional and spatial distribution of power at a local, national, and international scale. He has just returned from a six-month Fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
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