A week in Washington D.C.

PhD student Anna Kent has recently returned from a trip to the United States, where she attended the Summer Institute for the Conducting of Archival Research at the Wilson Center.

On Good Friday this year I was very excited to receive an email from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A few months earlier I had applied for a thing called the Summer Institute for the Conducting of Archival Research at the Wilson Center because it seemed like a good idea, but I really had no idea what it, or the Wilson Center really was. But, amazingly, I was in.

With funding arranged (thanks David!), and the family on board (because taking advantage of these opportunities is a way to ensure that your family don’t hate you for doing your PhD!), we trekked halfway across the world to Washington DC. The family headed for New York City as I set off to see how the US commemorates its armed service personnel on Memorial Day. It was…interesting. There was the parade with school marching bands, floats with ‘guests’ including Gary Sinise (the guy from CSI:NY), and a small number of returned servicewomen and men. I was fascinated by how differently war and wars were remembered there, the biggest service of the day on the Mall had been at the Vietnam Veterans memorial, while the World War Two memorial – built in 2004 – had no formal service at all.

Memorial Day Parade 2018, Washington DC
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day 2018 Service


But with Memorial Day over, the next morning I was due at the Ronald Regan building at 8.30 for day one of SICAR. Now I could write many, many pages about what happened at SICAR. Each day was jam packed with information, tips, tricks, conversations and ideas. Sixteen PhD students were selected for the four-day institute, each focused on international history of some type. I was the only Australian, and one of only two from universities outside the USA. I was also the only student undertaking the UK/Australian style of PhD, so many of my colleagues were still in the course-work phase of their PhD programs. Many students were studying across nations, spoke multiple languages (I was, not for the first time, pretty embarrassed by my paltry second language skills – and I even have a qualification in a second language!) and had fascinating projects in development.

There were many highlights, some of which I’ll try to summarise here:

  • The student presentations were fascinating and useful. We each had to present on our research, and in the question and answer time we were not just answering questions, we were responding to criticisms, given ideas and suggestions, and given great encouragement.
  • A presentation by David Langbart of the US National Archives left me confused. But when I went to visit the Archives the next week I was able to meet with him one on one to discuss my research area, apply what he had told us, and decipher the archive system there. I am also now extremely grateful for the simplicity of the NAA system.
  • A presentation by Ken Hughes from the University of Virginia on Presidential Recordings was outstanding. He managed to demonstrate both the importance of triangulation of information across sources, and the importance of audio archives, while telling us a fascinating and under-reported story about the reasons behind the Watergate burglary. And he brought us amazing cookies. But we loved him before we even knew about the cookies.
  • Guha Shankar from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress gave a thorough, insightful and wonderful demonstration of the power of oral histories.
  • The ethics of archival research was a constant, and fascinating, theme. For those researching in fragile or authoritarian states, the role of the archivist is crucial, but if that archivist puts themselves at risk by assisting researchers, ethical issues abound. These are not just pieces of paper, or records of conversations; the lives of those in the documents, and those who manage the documents must be considered by the researcher.

There were many more sessions, but if I kept writing it’d go on for days. After four days of spending all day inside a windowless room, drinking American coffee, I was shattered. But I was also filled with inspiration and some amazing tools to assist in the process of archival research. And of course, this institute has opened up a whole new network of like-minded, curious and research focused people…my kind of people!

I’ve included some links to archives and useful websites we heard about below; let me know if you need any extra information. And I can highly recommend that PhD students who are studying international history, and looking to do archival research, apply for the program next year.


National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) – the US version of the National Archives of Australia (with a system unlike the NAA): www.archives.gov

Wilson Center Digital Archives – an collection of documents collected from archives around the world – especially those in hard to reach or now closed archives: digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/

National Security Archive – an archive that sources many documents through Freedom of Information Act actions: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/

Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) – a useful tool that has archival material arranged around themes: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments

World Bank Archives: http://www.worldbank.org/en/about/archives

Oral History

Advice for cultural documentation and oral histories: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/edresources/ed-trainingdocuments.html

Oral History in the Digital Age (product advice included!): http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/askdoug/

An interview guide: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/edresources/edcenter_files/interview-guide.pdf

Other tools

Tropy: https://docs.tropy.org/#tropy




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