Conferencing at the British Library

This week, I attended a British Academy event organised by Dr Andrew Johnstone of the University of Leicester for Early Career Americanists. The first part of the event involved a two-day conference held in September 2016, which produced fascinating discussions about research and teaching. The final event was a one-day conference at the British Library on Monday. The conference was accompanied by a fire-alarm prompted evacuation and a chilly half an hour in the rain, some really excellent cake and stimulating conversation.

The British Library, photographed in rather better weather…

After braving the rain to make it to St Pancras, the packed schedule offered interesting considerations of the limitations – and potential – of studying American History in the UK. Archivists and librarians from the US and UK provided valuable insights into both the progress and frustrations associated with the digitisation of resources. In the afternoon, a panel exploring Digital Humanities highlighted the value of interdisciplinary collaboration for facilitating new and exciting approaches to studying the past.

Three archivists from the US offered a view from American Archives. Heather Cole, of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, Dan Linke of Princeton University’s Mudd Library and Kirsten Carter of the FDR Library gave us their perspectives on the role of digitisation in preserving archival material and widening access. Each reflected on the challenges, but also noted the developments that have already radically changed the way research can take place. Collaboration between Google and the FDR Library, for example, has resulted in the development of a virtual tour of the FDR Museum. At the Theodore Roosevelt collection in the Houghton Library, digitising is a slow but ongoing process and is providing fascinating insights into rarely seen materials. In the Public Policy Papers of the Mudd Library meanwhile, valuable Cold War archives have already been digitised, including some of the papers of George Kennan, James Forrestal, and hundreds of political cartoons.

Matthew Connelly, Professor of History at Columbia University opened the discussion of digital humanities with an engrossing presentation about the challenges of declassification in the age of big data. In collaboration with his Columbia University colleagues, Matthew Connelly created the History Lab. Containing the largest online database of declassified, the History Lab employs data-mining and uses innovative tools to provide new insights and context for the millions of documents, from FRUS to over 50,000 Clinton emails. Andrew Prescott, Glasgow University’s Professor of Digital Humanities provided an overview of Digital Humanities, shedding light on the multitude of uses for such techniques. His talk encompassed early projects exploring early twentieth century Harlem and two cities in the Reconstruction era to more recent applications of digital humanities, offering much inspiration.

The day concluded with a discussion of archival resources available in the UK, led by Mercedes Aguirre of the British Library and Jane Rawson of the Vere Harmsworth Library at the University of Oxford. Despite the problems associated with access to digital resources, particularly in the age of diminishing library budgets – and HE funding more broadly – both librarians pointed to a breadth of valuable resources in print and online for UK-based scholars of the US.


Emma Folwell


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