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6 posts from September 2010

29 September 2010

Guest Post: In Search of Meaning

Following Prof. Miles Ogborn's guest post, we are pleased to have another guest piece, this time from graduate student, Richard Roberts:

The British Library is a rather daunting place to come to as a young post-graduate student. Arriving for the first time in mid-August to do some preparation for the year ahead, I was at once over-awed by the sheer volume of people inhabiting the reading rooms, heads buried in this or that manuscript or monograph. After an abortive attempt to make myself at home in Humanities 1, which was, perhaps predictably, full, I finally found myself a seat in the rather more tranquil environment of Business & IP 2, where for the next six weeks I set about reading everything relevant to my chosen research topic that I could lay my hands on. There have been some deeply frustrating moments – ordering a copy of a journal published in 1895 only to discover that the volume I was handed by the staff in the Rare books reading room only contained the cover page being a particular lowlight – but overall my experience of using the BL has been a very positive one.

About a year ago I was struck by the extraordinary spectacle of all three main UK political parties squabbling over the strength of their respective claims to use one particular label to describe themselves: progressive. This display made me wonder why this label had suddenly become so universally popular and what, if anything, it actually meant. By looking at the history of the progressive label in both UK and US politics since it first appeared in the final decades of the 19th century, I hoped I might be able to shed some light on the answers to these questions. After six weeks of research at the BL, I am still a long way from being ready to offer an authoritative answer to either question but I am greatly encouraged by the kind of company I have discovered myself to be in, in wondering about the abstract and ever-changing nature of political labels.

As long ago as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in the second volume of his seminal work, Democracy in America (available in countless different editions and translations at the BL), noted that 'democracies have a taste, and often a passion, for general ideas … The form this love of general ideas takes in language is a continual use of generic terms and abstract words.' Tocqueville went on to point out that democratic writers used these abstract words in a 'more and more abstract sense.' This made Tocqueville rightly sceptical about the possibility of pinning down the meaning of such abstract terms, which he caustically likened to 'a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.'

Tocqueville of course was commenting on a democratic political discourse that was still very much in its infancy. As that discourse has matured, and language has become increasingly codified, the meaning of abstract labels has perhaps become less malleable. “Progressive” however remains something of an enigma. It has been used as a self-designation by so-called “conservatives”, as much as by “liberals”. Indeed the list of historical figures to have labelled themselves “progressive” contains alongside the familiar favourites – the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, Robert La Follette Jr., Henry Wallace, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair – some perhaps rather unexpected names – William McKinley, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Harold Macmillan, David Cameron and John McCain.

Perhaps the lesson from all this is that we should stop using words whose meaning is so difficult to pin down, but the chances of that happening, at least while those words continue to poll well, seem rather slim. So the debate over what words like “progressive” mean must go on. What is rather exciting though for historians today is that that debate increasingly includes them. Words have histories of their own and those histories can and should influence the way we use and understand those words today.

Richard Roberts is currently studying for an M.St in US History at the University of Oxford. He can be contacted via


21 September 2010

Americans in Britain: Mather Brown


It was a busy weekend in London; those not watching Papamobiles or Pinarellos could also take advantage of Open House, and queue up to peek inside many of the city's architectural gems.  As a result, the curator of North American History found himself inside St Mary le Strand, a baroque stunner.

Although sadly showing some of the signs of ageing from its precarious position, stranded in the midst of a busy road, it is being bravely kept up by the efforts of the churchwardens (a plaque to their illustrious predecessors who spent most of the Blitz in the muniments room keeping an eye out for firebombs and then sweeping them off the roof can be seen on one of the walls).   Two of the beneficiaries of this care are brightly-restored paintings in the side walls of the chancel, by Mather Brown, a pupil of the more famous American painter, Benjamin West, and whose influence can strongly be seen in their style.  They were installed in 1785, a year before Brown, who had left America during the Revolution, painted the first portrait of Thomas Jefferson, during a visit to London as Ambassador to France.  The painting, which was owned by John Adams thanks to an exchange of portraits between the two friends, can now be seen in the Smithsonian.  

Brown's career, which peaked not long after before a sad decline into penury (he died in 1831 at Barbara Hofland's boarding house,  with just Mrs. Hofland 'to weep over him, & moisten his parched lips with an orange'), is detailed in Dorinda Evans, Mather Brown, early American artist in England (Middletown, Conn. : Wesleyan University Press, 1982) [LB.31.b.7011]

Brown's autobiographical notes and list of engraved works can also be found in Thomas Dodd's 'Memoirs of English Engravers, 1550-1800', held by the BL's Department of Manuscripts (Add. MS. 33,397); there are also letters to Lord Liverpool at Add. MS. 33,587, f. 53 and Add. MS. 38,580, f. 18.  The bulk of the unpublished correspondence is held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.



16 September 2010

Talking plants

Botanical Illus Sloane 
Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica....., London, 1707-25. Shelfmark: 38.f.4

Team America is very pleased to welcome our first guest blogger - Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary, UOL: 

My current research seeks to understand the ways in which knowledge of the natural history of the Caribbean islands, especially Jamaica, was produced and communicated in the period between the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century. During that period, it was the plant life of those islands that was the prime focus for natural philosophers, many of whom were doctors interested in the medical uses of plants. There was also a concern to search for agricultural products that could play a profitable part in Britain’s imperial economy.

What I am interested in is the range of forms of communication of botanical knowledge. This involved speech, correspondence, collections of specimens (herbaria), and printed matter from newspaper articles to scholarly papers and elaborate volumes of botanical engravings. I want to know who communicated with whom about the plants of Jamaica and how they did so, thinking about both local discussions of plants and those which spanned the Atlantic world. I ask what the protocols were for these forms of communication? Who could be part of the ‘conversation’? And who the audiences were that they addressed. There are various elements to this: the role of polite sociability in the work of men of science in the Atlantic world; the particular forms of knowledge that were communicated between doctors and patients; attempts to make the knowledge of plants ‘public’, via both print and botanical gardens (and the intersection of the two in printed catalogues of the gardens’ collections); and the cross-cultural communication of botanical knowledge between Europeans and enslaved and indigenous people. Eighteenth-century Jamaica was a slave society based on deadly forms of agricultural labour on land which had been appropriated from its earlier inhabitants. It was a society of great brutality. Yet there was also an acknowledgement, albeit a circumscribed one, that enslaved Africans and Amerindians had knowledge of the botanical riches of the islands.

In doing the research it has been vital to be able to work across the range of material held in the Caribbean collections in the British Library. The communication of botanical knowledge depended upon images as well as many sorts of text. It has been crucial to the research to be able to consult, for example, the letters held in the manuscripts collections from Henry Barham (a Jamaican doctor) to Hans Sloane (then returned from Jamaica to London) as well as reading their published accounts of the natural history of the island. It has also been necessary to work between the manuscript correspondence of Thomas Dancer (the superintendent of Jamaica’s botanical garden) with Edward Long (a historian of the island who dealt in both ‘civil’ and ‘natural’ history) about the difficulties of getting public support for the island’s botanical garden, and the published garden catalogues and reports of speeches in newspapers in which Dancer celebrated the public spirit of this venture. It is only with such a range of material ready to hand that the range of forms of communication can become apparent, along with moments in which other voices are partially heard. For example, along with celebrating the contributions by European planters and plant collectors to the botanical gardens, in 1792 Dancer listed the Akee tree (a crucial part of Jamaica’s national dish of Akee and saltfish) as being an ‘African Fruit, introduced by Negroes in some of Mr. Hibbert’s ships.’ There is here a sense, albeit anonymous, of the African contribution to Jamaican botany, and to the talk about plants, their names and their uses.


Professor Miles Ogborn, School of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London

London Group of Historical Geographers

11 September 2010

Remembering 9/11

Photograph by Michael Katakis.

Mike Barnett and Bud Evans, Ranchers, Merriman, Nebraska, Tuesday, September 18 4:10 p.m. 'It may be New York but we're all Americans.' Bud Evans

We’ve reached that dreadful anniversary again. The past week has seen numerous documentaries on TV focused on every conceivable aspect of those terrible events of 11 September 2001 - and can it really be nine years since we first watched our TV screens in disbelief as we saw footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers?

Almost a year ago I blogged about the American Civil War and the huge number of books that have been published on the subject, but I also focused on the fact that there are photographs of the aftermath of some of the battles. The debate around 9/11 has also generated a huge number of publications, not to mention the millions of internet pages (just Google it) but it’s the video footage, both professional and amateur, that we remember most, that we can replay over and over again in our heads. And the thousands of photographs that were taken to record every moment, as if the documenting would somehow make sense of it all (it didn’t).

I’ve also blogged about our acquisition of the archives of the photographer and writer Michael Katakis and his wife, the anthropologist Kris Hardin. Michael’s response to 9/11 was to set off on September 14 on a trip across America.

His photographs in the ‘Troubled Land’ series show people from all walks of life – and from the many different nationalities that make up the United States. Each photo identifies the subject, their occupation and the time and place, and most have a short quote from the subject. The photos offer a ‘snapshot’ of America at a unique moment in time, and, not surprisingly, the responses are very different - from the women in the Muslim Americans for Civil Rights and Legal Defense Office in Illinois (‘We are under siege domestically.’) to the owner of a radio station in Nebraska (‘I put up that flag yesterday with a star hand drill. With every blow I was hitting Bin Laden between the eyes.’).

And to quote Michael:

‘I wanted to know if the country could be as reflective as it was reactive. Would we be able to discuss why this had happened or explore if our actions in other parts of the world over the years had somehow contributed to such misery here at home. After 12 days I had more questions than answers.’

Photograph by Michael Katakis

Lorraine Woody, Ranger, Little Big Horn Battlefield Hardin, Montana, Sunday, September 16 4:37 p.m. 'I'm very sad. I'm a native New Yorker. When I heard I wanted to go home. I just wanted to go home.' 




08 September 2010

No-one wears white after Labor Day... a post-summer treat

Summer's gone; day's spent with the grass and sun.  But we don't mind, at least not when we can offer up some summery sea-shells such as these:


It's one of the many delicate copperplate, hand-coloured engravings contained in Thomas Say's American Conchology (New Harmony, Indiana, 1830-[1838]) [1256.f.21].  This particular specimin is Fulgur Pyruloides, and 'inhabits our soutern coast'; he reported that he 'never found it so far north as New-Jersey'.

Say's pioneering work is devoted to the cataloguing of American shells, a work he pursued in partnership with his wife, Lucy, and who produced many of the drawings in this volume.

They had married in secret during a scientific expedition to New Harmony, the utopian community founded by Robert Owen.

Here, the Says continued their studies, wrote, drew and coloured their work, and oversaw the output of the community's School Press.

As the great bibliographer, Streeter commented, 'A work as extraordinary for having been produced in the wilderness as for its elegance and the importance of its contribution to natural history'. 

Say, who died in 1834, is honoured in the naming, among other creatures, of the Caribbean mud crab, Dyspanopeus sayiLucy moved back east, where she 'longed for the freedom I used to enjoy when I lived on the Banks of the Wabash'  She was elected as the first female member of the  Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia in 1841; she died in 1885.


01 September 2010

Drilling deeper: resources on oil in the Canadian collections

Filling at Dingman's Well 

“Filling Oil Drums at Dingman’s Well,” Alberta. By Lane and Mitchell, 1914.

The history and expansion of Canada is one that frequently intertwines with oil resources and their exploitation. This is perhaps best illustrated by the significance placed on the search for coal and oil by Sir William Logan’s Geological Survey of Canada. The Survey was significant in orientating Confederate Canada and locating many of the minerals on which the economy came to depend.

The Geological Survey also analysed the geology of the Athabasca Oil Sands that are the subject of significant global attention today and developed the initial water-based method for separating the oil from sand. It is worth stating therefore that the oil sands have long been part of Canada’s history and heritage; they are well documented, much researched and have been in use since the nineteenth century (and for centuries prior by surrounding First Nations groups). As a result this history can be excavated in the collections of the British Library, throwing light on both sides of the current debate about the continuing use of the oil sands.

The reports of the Geological Survey of Canada from the nineteenth century provide a good starting point - for example, Joseph B. Tyrrell’s Report on a part of Northern Alberta and portions of adjacent districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan..[Shelfmark: C. S. E. 16, 1987; also various Geological Survey records, as well as other government Canadiana, are held at Mic.F.232]. Moving into the twentieth century there are various official publications regarding the sands, for instance the National Energy Board’s Canada’s Oil Sands: Opportunities and Challenges to 2015, Shelfmark: YD.2006.b.1987, 2004] and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research The Future of Heavy Crude Oils and Tar Sands: 1st International Conference [Shelfmark: 4060.580000 1981 DSC].

The content of the collections also bears out the significance of twenty first century debates regarding the contemporary use of the oil fields. There are various materials and perspectives, such as Chatsko’s Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands: from Karl Clark to Kyoto [Shelfmark: YC.2006.a.15533, 2004] or Nikiforuk’s Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent [Shelfmark: YD.2009.a.1687, 2008]. There are also various illustrative perspectives collected, such as Dubois et al’s comix reportage work Extraction! [Shelfmark: YD.2008.a.3230, 2007]. In short, whatever your starting hypothesis regarding the oil sands the Library’s collections should provide plenty of scope to furnish discussion.


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