THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

11 posts categorized "Modern history"

07 October 2016

Goodbye, and stay tuned for the Cold War symposium!

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The last three months of my PhD placement at the Eccles Centre here at the British Library have flown by. There is much I will miss about being here on a daily basis – and not just the very good, helpfully subsidised, staff canteen! Hopefully this blog post will shed some light on what I have been doing and prompt others to apply for the placement scheme in the future.

In all honesty, probably the greatest benefit of the placement has been working so closely with the Americas collections. Before coming to the British Library, I had what I thought was a good understanding of the collections. Having used them daily for three months, I now realise that I was only aware of a fraction of what exists. In particular, whilst I knew that there would be some useful American foreign policy documents available, it was only when I explored the Social Sciences Reading Room that I began to realise just how vast an archival collection was available. From Presidential papers through to specific primary collections on everything from Civil Rights to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there is a treasure trove of material for researchers and it’s all available without those costly flights to the United States!

Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans

 [General Reference Collection OPL 973.0076]    

Index to the GW Papers

                  [General Reference Collection OPL 973.03]

Aside from archival collections, there wasn’t one secondary text which I searched for that I couldn’t gain access to in under 48 hours. Finally, the digital collections which the Library has access to are unparalleled compared to any of the university libraries’ I have used. In particular, the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) and Readex Congressional Records are invaluable resources and well worth a trip to the Library to access.

The vastness of the collections led to the first project I undertook during the placement. Realising that, like me, most researchers only knew of a few of the Americas collections available, I compiled two guides to make the collections more accessible for future researchers. The first guide is on the political archival collections the Library holds, such as Presidential papers, whilst the second is a guide dedicated to the Congressional documents available. As well as telling readers how to access the collections, the guides provide examples of what materials can be found in each collection to illustrate the utility of said collection. Hopefully these guides will help fellow researchers take as much from the collections as I have.

A second project I have undertaken involved the organisation of an academic symposium. One of the Eccles Centre’s key roles is to promote the Americas collections to the academic community; often this is done through the hosting of specific events, which are sometimes linked to the Library’s public exhibitions. The British Library’s next major exhibition, which opens on 4 November, is titled ‘Maps of the Twentieth Century: Drawing the Line.’ As the American-Soviet Cold War dominated the geography of the twentieth century, this offers an excellent opportunity to host an event focusing on the geography of the Cold War. The ‘Cold War Geographies’ symposium in January 2017 will bring together international academics to explore and assess how the Cold War changed boundaries, restructured terrain and redefined concepts of space and place.

Map

The placement at the British Library also exposed me to the practicalities of working in a large cultural institution. In particular, this occurred with a planned digital exhibition I was hoping to curate. The Library is going through some significant changes to improve its website and digital exhibitions. This meant that the three short months I was at the Library was not enough time to implement the project. The matter was also complicated by my desire to focus on twentieth century materials which brought in a whole raft of issues relating to copyright! Whilst the project did not materialise in the way I envisioned, I was able to gain access to excellent research material and develop a more practical understanding of the processes involved in curating an online exhibition within a large cultural institution

That said, I feel that the three month placement at the British Library has been an unqualified success. I have developed a far greater understanding of the collections, both for my own research and produced materials to assist others with their future research. Unexpected benefits also emerged in the form of using these blog pages to further disseminate my work, as well as taking part in Eccles Centre events which have greatly enhanced my academic networks. These new connections look likely to lead to positive future collaborations. Fortunately, the end of this placement is not the end of my affiliation with the Library. The symposium in January means that I will remain in contact for the foreseeable future, providing longer-term benefits of undertaking the placement.

From both a research and experience perspective, the PhD placement has been a highly rewarding and beneficial one. I hope that the outputs produced during this placement will be as beneficial to my fellow researchers.

Mark Eastwood

02 September 2016

Stranger Things at the British Library

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If Netflix’s smash hit Stranger Things has taught us one thing this summer, it’s that even in 2016 we have serious nostalgia for all things 1980s. From Toto’s Africa to Dungeons & Dragons the show celebrates all that was great about the 80s. But there’s one reference most cultural commentators have missed – microfilm.

In Episode 3 Police Chief Jim Hawkins visits his local Library and makes full use of the Library’s microfilm collection to research the LSD mind-control experiments of the creepy Dr. Brenner. It’s a triumphant moment and one which celebrates a technology most modern researchers overlook.

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Figure 1:© Netflix

The British Library has an extensive microform collection relating to the American government and so if you fancy yourself as a bit of a modern day Chief Hopper then the Social Sciences Reading Room is the place to start. And don’t worry if you haven’t used microform before, our reading room staff are on hand to guide you through the simple process and that eighties technology is much more robust than today’s!

So what collections do we have available?

Well, we can’t promise you’ll find things on LSD mind-control but the British Library has an extensive collection of U.S. government documents and archive materials available on microform. As a federal government depository library, the Library holds a vast set of U.S. Government Printing Office documents, including Congressional reports, committee hearings and bills. These can be accessed via the CIS Indexes on the shelves in the Social Sciences Reading Room.

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Figure 2: Example of some of the CIS Indexes in the Social Sciences Reading Room

The Library also holds a significant number of NARA documents, including Presidential Papers. The full collection is listed by subject in the Social Sciences Reading Room card catalogue and most collections have indexes available on the reading room shelves. Some of the collections we hold include, Nixon’s Presidential Papers relating to China-Vietnam negotiations and the Department of Justice’s Classified Subject Files on Civil Rights.

 

 

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Figure 3: Examples of some of the microform collection subject guides available

If Stranger Things has prompted you to revisit your favourite books, films and songs from the 1980’s, why not hop on your BMX? and come down to the British Library and get hands on with the microform collections to boost your research project?

 

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Figure 4: © Netflix.

A detailed description of the collections is available in our ‘Guide to United States Official Publications in the British Library’ (PDF format). - See more at: http://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/united-states-federal-government-publications#sthash.uMGqFc21.dpuf

 

Mark Eastwood

 

27 July 2016

Operation Crossroads: 70 Years on from the Bombs at Bikini

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Mark Eastwood is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham. He is currently undertaking a PhD placement with the Eccles Centre at the British Library. Mark will be producing a series of blogs which will explore aspects of the Cold War through the American Collections at the British Library.

July 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the United States’ first atomic tests outside of World War Two. In July 1946, a joint U.S Army-Navy task force staged two atomic weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The operation was designed to test the effects of an atomic bomb on naval vessels at sea. Consisting of tests Able and Baker, Operation Crossroads marked the first of over 1900 nuclear tests staged since the end of World War Two.

Seventy years on, what can we learn from Operation Crossroads?

 

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Figure 1: "A Tree Grows in Bikini" Image of the Baker Bomb Test

Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p.199 (Shelf mark: W67/5211)

Cold war cover

Operation Crossroads, front cover

 

The US collections at the British Library house one of the UK’s only copies of the official photographic record of the operation. Official Pictorial Record of Operation Crossroads, published in 1946, contains a collection of more than 200 photographs documenting all stages of the operation. Not only does the collection offers a unique insight into the operation, but it demonstrates the emergence of the nuclear political culture which dominated the Cold War and can be felt even today.

The first lesson to draw from Operation Crossroads is to understand the sheer scale of the nuclear-industrial complex. The tests involved more than 200 ships, 42000 men and women and 150 aircraft gathered from both the Navy and Army Air Force. A significant number of civilian scientists from fifteen universities and many more individuals from private business and NGO’s also took part. The tests would mark pioneering breakthroughs in the use of remotely piloted boats and aircraft.

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Figure 2: "Radio Controlled Flying Fortress"

Operation Crossroads p.50

To ensure the operation was reported around the world, a huge legion of domestic and international press representatives were invited as observers. Many of the journalists were offered passage aboard the U.S. Navy vessel ‘Appalachian,’ dubbed, ‘the press ship.’ Technological innovation and cross-sector involvement, relayed globally by the press, underlined the significance of the nuclear-industrial complex which would come to dominate the Cold War years and beyond.

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Figure 3: "Gentlemen of the Press"

Operation Crossroads from top to bottom: p.41

The mass of cameras used at Bikini solidified the iconic imagery at the centre of today’s nuclear imaginary. More than 50000 still images and 1.5 million feet of film roll were taken during Operation Crossroads. For the global public, the images from Bikini offered their first engagement with the reality of the bomb. The photographs from Operation Crossroads demonstrated the awesome power of the atom which they could only read about previously. The image of the mushroom cloud rising high above the Bikini Lagoon became fixed in the public imaginary and in turn secured its status as the most potent and evocative image of the nuclear age.

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Figure 4: "Test Able Panorama"

Operation Crossroads: pp. 138-139

Operation Crossroads also marked the beginning of what we might call nuclear colonialism. Part of the preparation for Operation Crossroads involved the removal, or ‘evacuation’ as the U.S. government termed it, of 167 islanders from their ancestral home. They were relocated first to Rongerik Atoll and then some 250 miles away to the island of Kwajalein.

The islanders believed the relocation to be temporary but, seventy years later, the Bikini Atoll remains far too radioactive for their descendants to return to. The environmental conditions on Kwajalein were not the same as at Bikini and the islanders suffered from a lack of resources and fishing grounds once their U.S. supplied provisions ran out. The islanders are largely written out of the official pictorial record. Whilst reference is made to the beauty of Bikini itself, the inhabitants are largely an afterthought. Less than 1% of the photographs in the collection document the presence of indigenous inhabitants. Those which do exist focus on the ‘happy native,’ thankful to the kind and benevolent American colonialist. The treatment of the islanders and their almost complete erasure form the official record highlights the colonial trend in nuclear testing. From the islands of the Pacific to the Aboriginal lands of Australia, nuclear tests have ravaged indigenous lands around the globe.

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Figure 5: "At Home Abroad" King Juda (far left), of the Bikini islanders, pictured at Kwajalein enjoying the radio given to him as a gift by the U.S. Navy. One of the few photographs of the islanders contained in the record.

Operation Crossroads p.17

Finally, one may argue that Operation Crossroads picked up where Hiroshima and Nagasaki left off in fuelling the arms race which came to dominate the Cold War. The original idea for the operation grew out of a militarised mind-set and fear over the vulnerability of the naval fleet to a nuclear attack. The tests were designed to study the effects of the atom bomb and also to provide studies in how to defend against it.

 

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Figure 6: "General Damage on Stern Deck, Nevada"

Operation Crossroads p.167

Opposition to the tests did manifest, largely from the Manhattan Project scientific community who warned that the local Pacific waters were likely to become a ‘witch's brew’ of radioactivity. Ignoring such warnings, which turned out to be extremely accurate, the government pressed ahead. In demonstrating their commitment to continued atomic testing in the post-war era, it could be argued that the United States threw down the atomic gauntlet to the rest of the world. Furthermore, alongside U.S. vessels, Operation Crossroads included Japanese and German ships which had been surrendered after the War. The symbolic destruction of these ‘prizes’ did little to undermine the perception of U.S. imperialistic power.

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Figure 7: "Bomb vs Metropolis" A composite comparing the size of the explosion of the Baker test with the Manhattan skyline

Operation Crossroads p.215

Seventy years and nearly 2000 tests on from Operation Crossroads, whilst the Bikini Atoll still feels the ecological impact of nuclear testing, the cultural and political ramifications of the first post-war tests remain rather potent.

P.S. Did you know that the tests at the Bikini Atoll were responsible for the introduction of the word ‘bikini’ into the common lexicon? It was adopted to describe the invention of the new two-piece bathing suit and was derived “from the comparison of the effects wrought by a scantily clad woman to the effects of an atomic bomb.”[1]

 

[1] Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994, p. 4