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Madison Building

I doubt Ronald Reagan had U.K. academics in mind when he railed against welfare dependency, but the partial shutdown of the Federal Government that began yesterday has reminded me of my reliance on the generosity of the U.S. state. Like most British historians of nineteenth-century America, I benefit as a ‘free rider’ from the remarkable digitisation projects undertaken by the Library of Congress, and each year a steady stream of Sheffield undergraduate and MA dissertations draw on material that just a decade ago was stashed away in archives on the far side of the Atlantic.

This rich repository of national memory breathes life into seminars and enriches research. On the Born in Slavery site, students see the original transcripts of Depression-era interviews with freedpeople, sometimes catching over the crackle of recordings the voice of the last generation born into bondage. On Chronicling America, among millions of pages of digitised newspapers, they encounter Americans’ response to emancipation. And at the Frederick Douglass papers they read the hand of one of chattel slavery’s most eloquent critics. My use of such online archives barely hints at the possibilities immanent in one of the world’s great digital collections. Whether you’re accessing their sites to seek out a source, trace a family tree, or simply immerse yourself in a nation’s history, it’s hard not to admire what the Library of Congress has achieved.

Visit now, though, and your browser redirects to a shutdown message, for the Library is currently the victim of the very body it was created to serve.[1] Since 1800, when it was founded to meet the needs of politicians in the new capital, it has functioned as the nearest U.S. equivalent to the British Library. When I first went as an undergraduate in 2000, I was impressed by how much more welcoming it was to callow researchers than its U.K. counterpart, and though our national institution has improved immeasurably since then, I still have a fondness for Washington, where obtaining a reader’s ticket won’t require proof of address and digital cameras don’t have to be left in the locker. Its public ethos guards against the privatisation of the past: there is, after all, big money to be made from digitisation projects, yet at the Library of Congress, the nation’s history is open to all.

Far removed from Washington, I’ve taken for granted the resources the Library offers for remote users, and its archives are woven into my teaching and research. Yesterday I recommended to an MA student that he take a look at anti-monopoly debates in its Progressive-era papers; next week I need to fact-check an article that drew heavily on its sources from the Reconstruction-era. In neither case did I register that Chronicling America might be unavailable.

When the inconvenience of British-based historians is weighed alongside the tens of thousands suddenly put on unpaid furloughs, of course, such complaints pale into insignificance, but the (hopefully temporary) suspension of these sites underscores a painful irony. Those urging on the Congress’s intransigents are self-appointed custodians of the nation’s heritage, who promise to sweep away the accretions of time and restore the pristine republic of the Founding Fathers; it seems sad that they are holding that heritage hostage to do so.

Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the 19th-century United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.
Image: Madison Building, Library of Congress [Wikicommons]


[1] One of our Ph.D. students, Charlie Thompson, is traveling to Washington today to begin a six month research trip at the Library of Congress. He will find the doors closed.

Tags : American historydigital humanitiesdigital sourcesgovernment shutdownhistorical researchLibrary of CongressUS history
Andrew Heath

The author Andrew Heath

1 Comment

  1. This is an aspect of it I’d never considered, but it is part of the great object lesson about reliance on digital resources generally: they can be switched off. Websites move, lose their institutional base or maintainers, publishers cease to publish old journals (and your library, as it might be, has disposed of its print runs because it’s all in the bundle now…) So give an access date and thanks when it’s there, and stash what you need offline!

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