[Editor’s note: this piece was written on 12 October. If the headlines on the 16 October are correct, Charlie may get to the Library of Congress soon.]
On October 7 2013, I officially became an AHRC-funded fellow at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. However, my induction did not take place at the Library’s classical Jefferson Building, the Art Deco Adams Building or the imposing Madison Building. It took place in a small annex to the British Embassy, because the American federal government is closed.
Arriving in Washington on the second day of what is, as I write, a two-week government shutdown, where everything from the Library of Congress to Mount Rushmore to food inspection plants is shut, is hardly the flying start I’d hoped for. However, after a few days of tramping around downtown DC and the Arlington Cemetery in a beautiful Indian summer, my conscience told me I had to get back to work. The cemetery’s Confederate memorial may have been an interesting instruction in how turn-of-the-century Americans chose to remember the Civil War – and forget Reconstruction – but regrettably, it’s not directly relevant to my Ph.D.
So my colleagues and I have had to do what historians often do to get our primary sources when we don’t have an enormous archive at our disposal: beg, steal and borrow. Luckily, Washington, DC has a huge range of academic institutions that are not reliant on the shuttered federal government. For an historian of mid-nineteenth-century America, visiting a major American research university library, in this case Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, was an eye opener. Thanks to American fees and alumni donations, its collections dwarf that of British institutions.
But for some visiting scholars the shutdown cloud really does have a silver lining. Other academics on the Library of Congress programme have been granted access to the exclusive and prestigious Dumbarton Oaks collection and the Folger Shakespeare Library. To be granted access to these kinds of institutions is an honour in and of itself, and one that might not have happened had the government remained open. And who would turn down the opportunity to work in the beautiful Folger and Dumbarton reading rooms? It’s hard to call it an opportunity when you’ve flown 2,000 miles to be greeted by a small sign on a door saying ‘closed due to government shutdown’, but we are in some ways the lucky ones.
Visitors to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Statue of Liberty in New York or Alcatraz Island in San Francisco will notice the police tape telling them not to cross, but even tourists have still been able to enjoy some of the sights. Just under a million workers have been left ‘furloughed’, most of them in this city, and over a million more so-called ‘essential workers’ have been ordered to work unpaid. Huge buildings housing thousands of federal employees like the imposing Madison Building, the brutalist FBI headquarters and the gothic Smithsonian Castle all display small notices telling employees and visitors to stay at home.
With so many commuters out of work, the Metro is running shorter trains. But local businesses’ responses have been a bit more sympathetic – some businesses are offering free food and coffee to temporarily unemployed civil servants. Washington’s eclectic nightlife and street scene has embraced the shutdown and made light of the whole thing. One café claims it doubles prices for any visiting members of Congress, while a restaurant is offering John Boehner and Barack Obama free function rooms to settle the crisis with spaghetti and meatballs.
But Washington isn’t just a collection of furloughed workers and witty business owners. With so much land owned by the federal government now closed to the public, much of the physical space of the city itself is now off-limits. Only protestors, protected on federal property by the constitution’s guarantees of free speech, have access to this land. Washington is not a big place, but it has just got a little smaller.
The shutdown also affects Washington as a political entity. Unlike the average US state, which enjoys substantial self-government and representation in Congress, the capital, under the terms of the constitution, is essentially a ward of the federal government. Mayor Vincent Gray has openly risked arrest by refusing to shutdown the city government, as required under federal law. But soon the city too will run out of money, and for residents here in DC that is far more troubling than visitors having to climb over tape to see the Washington Memorial. In a few days, refuse collection, schools and hospital payments are at risk of suspension. This, in the capital of the world’s major superpower.
So, all in all, having to hike to Georgetown to read about Whig senators from Tennessee might not be the biggest issue facing academics in the shutdown city.
Charlie Thompson is a second-year Ph.D. student in American History at Sheffield, where he works on the pre-Civil War U.S.