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Archives, Artifacts, and the Hogwarts Express: Winter Research Excursion in London

March 04, 2014


Students on the steps at the British Library

Sometimes the quest for research leads to amazing places. For four Drexel history majors and their senior thesis faculty supervisor, that place was London. For five winter days, Sam Coppell, Zachary Cohen, Edward Stroud and Ulric Miller, along with history professor Lloyd Ackert, PhD, immersed themselves in research and the archives at the British Library, gathering materials for their senior theses.

For Ackert, the key lesson was teaching students the importance of preparation.

“The British Library is a repository, like the American Library of Congress, so it has a copy of every book published under British copyright. Students really needed to know what they were looking for. If you just try to browse your way to the right book, you’ll get lost.”

Ackert required his Senior Seminar students to present detailed research plans and work schedules. The students also had to compile lists of the books available in the British Library that could be pertinent to their senior thesis research.

“They had to do their research ahead of time and go in knowing that something useful was there. Maybe they had to wade through 10 books, a stack of pamphlets, or a folder of loose material, but they had to have a firm idea of where to look for their evidence.”

Following the Research Trail

That prior research planning paid off. Zachary Cohen, a senior history major, found a significant piece of evidence in the British Library: a thin pamphlet printed in 1980.

Cohen’s senior thesis explores resistance movements to British imperialism, focusing on the parallel histories of the IRA in Ireland and the Irgun Zvai Leumi in Israel. Cohen’s research details how these paramilitary groups led highly successful insurgent campaigns against the British Empire. The IRA campaign led to the creation of the Republic of Ireland; the Irgun campaign forced the end of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947 and led to the creation of the State of Israel. Cohen’s trip to the British Library yielded plenty of useful material, but the real treasure was an old pamphlet—printed by the early Sinn Fein party (the political heir to the IRA)—commemorating the 100th birthday of Irgun founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The pamphlet added key evidence to Cohen’s thesis that these two paramilitaries actively learned insurgency tactics from each other.

Edward Stroud, a senior history major, was pleasantly surprised by how much useful material he found. Given that Stroud was researching the American Civil War, what material could he find in British archives?

Students in an English Garden with some sheep

“When the research trip to London was first presented to me, I really had no major expectations with regards to finding any sort of material to help me write my thesis. My thesis was on the Lost Cause of the American Civil War, so the likelihood of my finding any significant or unique sources seemed minimal. However, at the British Library I was able to find a very useful resource that I had not yet found while researching around Philadelphia. “The Confederate Image” is an edited work that is a collection of paintings, engravings and lithographs that all display the various sympathies associated with the Lost Cause. The images helped me describe how the Lost Cause spread in the wake of the Civil War.”

Stroud went on to find more information at the Wellcome Library, which houses artifacts and archives dedicated to the history of medicine. There, he found “Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology,” a book that examines army prisons in both the North and South during the war years.

“While the focus of my paper was on clearing up the misconceptions and exaggerations of the Lost Cause, there are other lingering misconceptions that benefit the North that also need to be cleared up to present an accurate history of the war” says Stroud.

Students also got to meet well-known researchers. Julia Sheppard, PhD, head of Research and Special Collections at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, is a friend and colleague of Ackert. When Ackert let her know he was sponsoring a research excursion, she promised to come meet his students. Even though Sheppard was in the midst of planning a new exhibit, she made time in her hectic schedule to join the group at the local pub and chat with them about their individual research projects.

Artifacts, Old and New

Students at Platform 9 3/4 on the London Research TripBut rigorous research was not the only item on the agenda for the trip. The students toured the exhibitions at the British Library, renowned for its treasures of world history and British culture. At the British Library, students had the opportunity to tour the Magna Carta Room, which houses a 1225 reissue of the Magna Carta. The “Great Charter” was the first document in English history to limit royal authority. The Magna Carta’s political influence has trickled through the ages to inspire democratic theory and constitutions all around the world.

Students also visited the Bibles exhibit. There, they toured the impressive collection of illuminated Bibles and Bible pages, and saw an original Gutenberg Bible, one of only 48 copies that still exist today.

While all the students mentioned the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts, their real smiles were saved for The Beatles Collection, which houses hand-written drafts and final lyrics to favorite songs like “Help” and “Yesterday.” Other fun moments included visiting Platform 9 3/4 of Harry Potter fame, but alas, the divider did not allow the guys to hop aboard the Hogwarts Express.

Seeing London Through New Eyes

The students also made time for sight-seeing around London and visiting the pubs. Even Sam Coppell, a senior history major and a native Londoner, found himself seeing the city with new eyes. Coppell had visited the British Library and the British Museum several times on school field trips, but his blasé attitude faded as he saw his companions’ enthusiasm.

“I had been to the British Museum with my high school several times, and had never really been excited by it. When I went with the history group, I got to experience the exhibits with people who had never seen them before. Things that previously I had walked past, I looked at; I ended up learning more in that one visit than I had in the previous five.”

Even simply walking around the city became Coppell’s favorite part of the trip. “The enthusiasm that the group had for the city reminded me how much fun the city is, and made me realize all the things about London that I consider normal are actually quite unique to the city.”

But for Ackert, the greatest moments of the London trip involved seeing his students form their own tiny epistemic community. Students would naturally ask each other about their projects and progress, and quickly began digging into each other’s work. Students questioned each other about research designs and the writing process, and recommended sources to each other.

These moments, says Ackert, “[represented] a learning community at its best.”