Usually I hate working in an office. The feeling of having to be somewhere each and every day, having to start work at a certain time and stop (or ‘stop’) working at a certain time fills me with dread. One of the joys of doing a PhD is that I have the freedom to plan my own work week. For now at least. Yet, every day for the past three weeks I have cheerfully left the house at a reasonable time in the morning, walked two miles across town and settled down in my cubicle to study. So what’s changed?
Two words: archival research. Having passed through the fire and torment of the First Year Upgrade (“No, please, no more edits. I’ll do anything: clean the gutters, hoover the cat, pretend to enjoy someone else’s paper! Please…”) I now find myself poised to strike out into manuscripts unknown. I’m not just in any old archives, either. I am among twenty or so lucky people to have been awarded this year’s slew of AHRC/ESRC International Placement Scheme grants to research at the Library of Congress. The IPS is a scheme for PhD students and Early Career Researchers, providing funding on top of the AHRC/ESRC stipends for a research visit of two to six months at one of seven institutions around the world, including the Yale Center for British Art, the Huntingdon Library in California and the Library of Congress here in Washington DC.
It’s a pretty good deal too. Research Councils UK (the umbrella organisation for the AHRC, ESRC and NERC) won’t send it’s stipendees just anywhere. For instance, the IPS used to fund placements in India, until RCUK got fed up with the lack of support provided by the institution in question and pulled the plug on that partnership. I can’t speak for researchers on other IPS placements but at the Library of Congress things are pretty well set up to make sure you have a good (research-filled) time.
It was a relatively long road from my first encounter with the IPS at the AHRC’s showcase in London last November to sitting here in my cubicle in the Library’s Kluge Center with shelves of books and stacks of research papers taunting me to read them. (“I’ll get to you, wait your turn!”) When I first heard about the scheme my own PhD project was still a hazy concept to me. I was caught between the halcyon days before my course started, when I thought I had a grasp on what I was doing because I hadn’t read anything yet, and the darker days of my second full term, when the true size of a PhD really smacked me in the face. Though I was holding on to the basic shape of my project, outlined in my original application, I had no real idea of where I was going or what ‘there’ looked like.
Looking back, it would have been tempting to argue that I knew too little to make a convincing case for an IPS grant; that I should wait until I knew more; that I didn’t stand a chance against second years, thirds years and postdocs. Little did I know then that the feeling of ignorance never really goes away, it just gets applied to new and different things. (The Thesis Whisperer has a great guest post on the levels of academic knowing – I’ll put it here when I rediscover the link.) With a great deal of positive encouragement from my supervisor, I set my cheek to the wind (or something) and tried to sort out a decent archive research proposal. Throughout my career I have seemed to do better when a display of potential is called for: university admissions, applications for entry-level jobs with advancement possibilities, grant applications and so on.
The IPS falls squarely into the ‘potential’ category. Not only are research grants made before the research is ever done, the IPS institutions have collections so vast and custodians so knowledgeable that a measure of flexibility and potential in your application is probably a key to success. You can’t come to the Library of Congress, with its thousands of uncatalogued items, reems of uncharted research territory and Librarians who know more than the ‘Finding Aids’ could ever tell, with a day-to-day schedule of pre-planned research. You’d never find the really juicy stuff that makes the research truly worthwhile.
At the moment, three weeks in to my research, I am finding it difficult not to wallow in the Library’s collections. IPS fellows at the Library of Congress are hosted by the Library’s Office of Scholarly Programmes, in the John W. Kluge Center. This is a huge two-level wooden structure built inside one of the four massive rooms originally designed to hold the Library’s book collection, before it was all moved into closed stacks. The Center hosts and funds it’s own Chairs – senior researchers in particular fields – who get proper, closed-door offices on the ‘lower deck’. The ‘upper deck’ is given over to seemingly endless cubicles for Fellows. Cubicle doesn’t really do the space justice – it’s a office in all but ceiling and door.
Kluge Fellows have the privilege of ordering books from the main reading room collections to their cubicles, up to 350 in all. This often leads to ‘reservation overload’ as it’s all to easy to fill a break in reading or writing by logging on to the catalogue to have a poke around and before you know it another cart-load of books is heading your way. Thus is the researchers’ guilt kept freely flowing.
Surprisingly, however, research at the Kluge isn’t all about reading books. One of the Library’s greatest assets is its people, from the researchers it attracts to the Librarians it employs. IPS Fellows in the Kluge have unparalleled access to both. As a research centre the Kluge brings together academics from across the world. Through working and socialising together it’s hard not to learn about each other’s projects. It’s hard to overstate how useful it can be to talk about your own work to group of scholars with diverse interests, especially when you get so many different questions and suggestions in return. The Librarians are key to really understanding the collections, for IPS applicants and for those who make it to the Kluge.
So a year after I first wrote my IPS application, and almost a month after I landed in DC, my period of being ‘clueless in the Kluge’ is probably turning a corner. I’ve started writing a very generalised plan for the next five months, which includes three additional fieldwork or archive visits, drafting three articles and one chapter and tracking down as many relevant books as I can find. I’ve also come to really feel a part of the Kluge community. For those of you who are now in the midst of the application process, I can only hope that this time next year (or whenever you chose to go), you get the thrill of being clueless on another continent – all at the taxpayers expense, of course.