In the fall, thesis and dissertation level graduate students submit grant proposals to travel to London and learn to use the major archives. Under the expert guidance of Professor Paula Backscheider and a group of curators and archive specialists, students become familiar with the holdings of the National Archives, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Corporation of the City of London Records Office, as well as the Guildhall and British Libraries. With access to records that date from before the time of William the Conqueror, students learn to work efficiently in the holdings while working on individual research projects.
The class of 2004 received support from the Stevens Fund, the English Department, the College of Liberal Arts, and, in almost all cases, the Graduate School. The Provost's Office and the Office of International Education/Study Abroad actively assisted students in making travel arrangements.
In preparation for the trip, students met in occasional seminars in the spring. They learned basic paleography, how to read gaol (prison) records, and how to search the National Archives and British Library on-line. The students left in mid-May for a 45 week stay in London, luxuriating in the flats at 130 Queen's Gate (with only a few complaints about the notorious London plumbing).
One of the groups' first experiences was a walking tour of the Old City, the one-square mile City of London that was inside the Roman Wall. The tour included visits to the London Museum, the Spitalsfield Market, and Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where such Nonconformists as Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan are buried.
After navigating the London Underground, better known as the Tube, the group began work promptly at 9 a.m. in the very specialized Corporation of the City of London Record Office and the Guildhall Libraries with print library, manuscript collections, and extensive collection of prints and drawings. CLRO Senior Archivist Jeremy McIllwaine showed the students copies of the Domesday Book, and Principal Reference Librarian, Ms. Irene Gilchrist, of the Guildhall Library, impressed students with documents signed by William Shakespeare. In the CLRO Amy Qualls found records of women who indentured themselves as servants in exchange for transportation to the new world.
Ms. Irene Gilcrist later joined the group for a potluck dinner, bringing with her a large selection of English beverages for the group to sample. While the ciders were a great favorite, students split on their opinion of ginger beer, the UK's answer to root beer.
Students next tackled the National Archives in Kew, one of the largest collections of public records in the world, spanning an unbroken period from the 11th century to the present day. The records of the central government and the courts of law can be found here. The group soon discovered that young people are less welcome than graying, male history professors.
Archivist Ms. Bridget Howlett at the London Metropolitan Archives greeted the group with traditional tea and biscuits, or cookies, as Americans know them. As other archivists had done, Ms. Howlett had The London Experience group at work at the London Metropolitan Archives selected documents of interest for each student's particular research project. Shea Stuart noted that many of the fellow researchers in the LMA were genealogists doing personal family research. One gentleman was investigating his great-grandfather, a notorious pirate, and regaled several students with stories of daring escapades of rum smuggling.
The British Library receives a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland, and its collections are accessed more than 16,000 times a day. As literature specialists, many of the students spent their most productive days in the BL reading rooms. Heather Hicks found an unpublished poem that she believes may be attributed to Susanna Centlivre and Rhonda Powers found an unpublished play about the 17th century Essex divorce.
Taking a weekend break to enjoy the beautiful summer weather, the group went by boat down the Thames to Greenwich, the site of the prime meridian, which passes through the Royal Observatory there. They toured the National Maritime Museum and the Queen's House, or pleasure palace, completed by Queen Henrietta Maria. After lunch in a pub, the group wandered through the gardens, browsed the shops and even enjoyed a star-sighting--Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, a designer on the popular Changing Rooms, the UK's equivalent of Trading Spaces, was spotted in a candy shop with his daughter.
Several members of the group enjoyed the opening performance of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre. Others headed up the Thames for a visit to Hampton Court Palace.
The group met and shared meals occasionally in Professor Backscheider's flat. One memorable evening the students reported on "Scout a Collection Day." Students went to highly specialized collections specifically related to their research and then reported to the group. Among the sites visited were: the House of Lords Record Office, the Prints and Drawings Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Fawcett Library for Women's Studies. In the Dr. Williams Library, Sharyn Pulling saw some of the Nonconformists' protests about their loss of the rights of citizens, the subject of her dissertation. The students were especially surprised by some of the holdings in the St. Bride Printing Library and the Theatre Museum.