The Great Summer Research Road Trip

I’ve thought it churlish to complain about living in London – particularly as a historian.  But I have discovered that one of the main challenges of being a historian of America based in London is the difficulty of sources.  Of course my university and other library affiliations here give me access to a lot of the major journals in American history – but we’re understandably not a place of high demand for the publications of state and county historical societies.

More importantly, living an ocean away really changes the way that I need to plan for research at archives.  It is obvious that my work in the US requires more time and money than my colleagues whose source materials reside here in London or elsewhere in Britain – or even in Europe.  But whilst a research trip to a major American city or a single other location might not be too onerous even from here, the archives that I need to work with are not only scattered, but often in locations that aren’t so easily accessible.  The only solution — the efficient solution it seemed, was to put as much as possible into a single summer-long road trip.  Fly out.  Drive.  Research. And on.

The result (after a month in New York) was a two month, 18 archive, 6 state (plus DC and one Canadian province) trip that put us (me, my partner and our baby) on the road from the east coast as far west as Denver, and from there a flight to Vancouver.

There were some strange moments and some fun ones.  I might have been the only person doing research in Gettysburg, PA who wasn’t working on the Civil War at all.  I had a few frustrating moments when I discovered that most of the books that were donated to a university archive had likely been discarded (the archive kept the papers and correspondence.)  In New York and Nebraska I had got to see several fossils and other artifacts, although I’m not quite sure I knew how to make any sense of what I was seeing.  There was also a few moments of reminding myself that I’m not supposed to dance for joy in the archives when I find something super useful that I didn’t think even existed.  We went to the Nebraska State Fair on our way from Lincoln to the Panhandle.  In David City, Nebraska, a local historian/journalist helped orient me with the archives, and also wrote about our trip in the local paper. We even had time to meet a bunch of interesting people while we were staying in Lincoln for a week, or Laramie for a few days.  When we got to Denver, it was the first time we’d hit traffic in thousands of miles.

In the continued theme of efficiency, I had planned on doing the research for two projects while I was in the US.  Many of the sources for my work on the 1924 Nebraska evolution trial and the history of the Hesperopithecus discovery were in the same place—or at least nearby.  On paper, this seemed like  great idea, especially when I was applying for grants to help fund this summer trip.  Funding bodies like efficiency right? They like knowing that the money they’re awarding will not be wasted, and that they’re giving it to people who know how to put it to use.  I’ll show them! I’m not just going to write one book set in Nebraska, I’m going to write two!

In practice, this initially proved more difficult than I anticipated.  Mentally, it was hard to go from thinking about how one project was going, and finding a lot of brand new material that I had to make sense of, and by the afternoon, trying to keep in mind all the things that were important for the other project.  The Nebraska trial and Hesperopithecus are only tangentially related— I think the discovery of Hesperopithecus may have triggered one of the events that was then brought up in the trial, but I don’t think it figured directly into the trial itself.  But I figured that if I was looking at material from Nebraska in the 1920s anyway, I could do them.

Then came the big discovery.  I had spent several days in Lincoln looking at the archives of the Paleontology department at the University of Nebraska, particularly the papers of Erwin Barbour, founder of the state museum, and father-in-law of the discoverer of the Hesperopithecus fossil.  I found quite a lot of useful material, but with about half an hour to go before the end of the day that Friday (my last day in Lincoln, I decided that I ought to see if any of the people from the trial happened to write to Barbour (the correspondence was partly indexed and arranged alphabetically within each year, and the archivist had permitted me to go through the files as I liked.)  Suddenly I discovered that D.S. Domer, the teacher from the Nebraska trial and Barbour had a correspondence going back almost ten years.  Moreover, Barbour knew about the trial, and Domer write to him about it after the fact.  This last letter is an incredible piece of evidence, the first thing I’ve seen that directly gives me Domer’s reaction to the trial.  And yet I never would have found i if I hadn’t been looking in Barbour’s files because I was also looking at Hesperopithecus.

So — grant justified! (And a small amount of dancing in the archive.)

Of course, we also got to spend some time in the US seeing friends and family and bringing the baby to meet everyone.  The only way this research trip worked was because he’s been much much better tempered than we have any right to expect.  And my wife also did a lot of driving, and spent several days in places where there was little to do while I was digging in old papers.  When the baby let her, she also helped go through papers. (She recommends the museum of Agrarian Art if you’re in David City.)

And now I get to spend the next nine months in London writing this up.  Hopefully, I’ll get this manuscript mostly done without needed to go back on the road, or that by the time I do need to go back, it’s all for final tweaks.

And of course, now that I’m back in London, it’s also time to teach again.  And I’m going to spend most of this year learning about the other great challenge of being a US historian in London – teaching American history to students who have had almost no prior exposure to it in high school.  (But that’s a subject for another time.)


3 thoughts on “The Great Summer Research Road Trip

  1. Welcome to my academic life as a Germanist based in the US! But seriously, I am so glad this trip worked out as well as it did for the three of you. I’ll be interested to read about your teaching non-Americans American history: keep us posted!

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