Back To The Past: Chelsi Arellano on Doing Research in the UK
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I am in my fourth year of the PhD program, currently ABD on research. I was actually more interested in literature growing up and started my undergrad as an English Lit major. In my second year I took a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European history course that made me add history as a major. I like the idea of history as a puzzle that needed to be worked out, how each source adds to our understanding but also complicates it. My goal in the PhD is to eventually continue my research and become a professor.
What is your project about?
My project focuses on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. I see it as a point wherein the imperial project began to solidify and expand, eventually becoming the great British Empire of later centuries. My project attempts to think about the revolution as a global enterprise, showing that England already had a far reach as early as the seventeenth century, and as a point in which more “ordinary” and subjugated peoples had more of a say in how empire would eventually be ordered. I focus on the East and West Indies, the colonies in North America, and England, attempting to show how these areas were influenced by each other.
How did you prepare for fieldwork?
My preparation for my research trip was really wrapped up in my comprehensive exams and prospectus defense. Essentially the exams helped get me into a better rhythm of reading every day, which is exactly what a day at the archives is composed of. In my prospectus defense, I revisited every book that I knew was pivotal for my historiography and scanned their bibliographies for where to start. Having a list of sources already on hand when I arrived in London lessened the overwhelming feeling by a lot.
What is it like to work in archives in the UK?
It is a bit surreal and overwhelming. It is hard being apart from my family for so long, and sometimes I wake up and it takes me a second to remember I am literally thousands of miles away from home. But when I find a particularly interesting document, it makes me giddy and proud about the work I am doing here.
Which archives are you consulting?
For the Fall semester, I have spent all my time in the British Library. For Spring, I will be at the National Archives. Both of them are in London, so I haven’t had to worry too much about traveling.
What sort of sources are you working with?
I am mostly going through manuscripts, which include a wide range of written correspondence, newsletters, petitions, and written legal records.
What surprised you about doing research?
As an early modern historian, I definitely have fewer sources than colleagues in modern history, but also much more than those in ancient and medieval history. Knowing this, I was still surprised by the total mass of information available to me, just in one archive, including digitized sources only available onsite. It is both exciting and overwhelming that I can go through so much and never reach a point where I am done.
What major challenge did you have to deal with?
Learning the archival system! The British library has eleven reading rooms and two different search options. Learning where to look for specific documents takes more time than I thought it would have, especially since I am working with materials across the empire. Each collection usually has over a hundred items that you have to order individually, so learning how to access exactly what I need has sometimes been a bit difficult.
What advice would you give to other graduate students before they start doing their research?
My first bit of advice would be to have a highly specific organizational system. Whether it is using digital systems (such as Zotero or Nvivo) or making your own system, make sure that it is easy for someone who has never looked any of the material to go through. Over this one semester I have gone through over 140 documents, which will be impossible to remember every detail of by the time I write the actual dissertation. I write down what I go through in a calendar with a short description and upload all my pictures at the end of the day in folders with the call number.
Secondly, I would say to give yourself some slack. About a month in, I felt so overwhelmed by how much I needed to look at that I was rushing through the materials and taking photos without reading what I was looking at. Thankfully, I realized what I was doing before I had thousands of pictures of documents I had never read. Giving myself the time to actually read and look through what I needed helped me have the wherewithal to know what I did not need to spend as much time on and what documents were pivotal to my research.
And finally: what is life like in the UK for you?
Living in London is a really interesting experience because obviously everyone speaks English and there are many parallels to my normal life in the US. I definitely miss having a car for the convenience, and look forward to having a really nice burger when I get back, but I love the peace of walking and trying all kinds of a food in a major city.