Wednesday 9 April 2014

There's No Place like Home: How to Survive a Government Shutdown

When planning a research trip to an archive, there are a number of things to consider; how much it will cost, how to get there, how long to spend there, etc. etc. Once the opening times and dates have been checked and a date set, at no point does it occur that the archive could close. However, this is exactly what happened to me in October 2013.

The focus of my PhD is Anglo-American relations and as part of this I had to visit the archives of two presidents (Eisenhower and Kennedy) and the National Archives II. This visit took over six months to prepare, with emails going back and forth sorting out dates, what I would want to look at and what would be required of me. Unfortunately no-one mentioned the upcoming budget and the implications of its failure to pass. And so, this is how I found myself in a hotel room watching the news for three instead of in an archive finding the key piece of evidence for my thesis.

Nothing I can say can describe how it felt to be in this situation. It was made worse by the fact that the three archives were in three different states, so I was reminded of the cost and the effort every time I checked out of a hotel and checked into another flight to another destination. I visited Boston, Kansas and Washington on my four week trip and spent only one of those weeks in an archive. I am currently preparing for a second trip out to Boston and Kansas and I cannot say I am looking forward to it at all.

I didn’t spend all of my time in my hotel.  After the first day or so, when I realised that there was not going to be any quick remedy I tried my best to make the most of it. I visited some sights I would not have otherwise seen  and I am beginning to be grateful of that opportunity. However these visits were tinged with regret and anger and so are my memories, for now at least. I saw witches in Salem and an old Cow Town, straight out of a Western (complete with a  gunfight) in Kansas but that wasn’t what I went for. I was lost without my work, I couldn’t do anything while I was away and all the time I knew it would have a damaging effect on my thesis. I wasn’t on holiday, I was here to work and I couldn’t. In reality I didn’t really see Salem or Wichita, my mind wasn’t really there, I was desperate to check the news and find out if anything had happened yet even though I had begun to lose hope.

What did happen while I was there that did have a positive impact on my work, was the experience of American politics in action. It baffled me that a budget could be stalled like this when its effects were so wide reaching. I had no idea that if a budget didn’t pass, funding stopped. Museums, libraries and monuments all shut, federally funded national parks were forced to close even if there were people camping there and government workers didn’t get paid and wouldn’t be until the budget was agreed..

Then I began to think about the reaction of the Americans to the issues raised by the shutdown. Rallies were held in Washington, where chants of "Impeach Obama" rang out and confederate flags were flown, but not for reason I would have expected. These rallies protested the closure of monuments and national parks, claiming it was the unconstitutional for Government to keep the people away from its history and its landmarks.
I also heard about the corrupting influence of liberal thinking on America and the alarm over America moving towards becoming a Socialist state. All of this seemed vaguely familiar.  All of this happened in 1909 with Lloyd George and his "People's Budget." The way to survive a Government shutdown, therefore is to keep calm and remember that it's all happened before and it will all happen again, that’s the pain and the joy of being a historian.

Written by Claire Melland, a third year PhD student at Leicester