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Joseph Snyder Essay

I’ve been thinking about the question “How does travel shape our histories?” for the better part of a week, now.  I’ve turned it over again and again in my head and, I shamefacedly confess, it’s a beguilingly difficult question to answer.  In fact, I’m not even sure that these anecdotes constitute “answers,” but perhaps maybe in some way they approximate one.      

Travel presents you with circumstances that both ask and answer research questions you didn’t even know you should have.  I remember sitting in the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in Manchester, England, and that very thing happening.  I was gathering material on the internal configuration of the British Labour Party between 1929 and 1947—basically looking to see which of the Party’s constituent organs ultimately held the initiative, the Parliamentary Labour Party, the National Executive, or the leadership of the Annual Conference—when I came across memoranda from the Party that originated within Transport House, the headquarters of the Transport Workers Union.  This struck me as incongruous and raised a number of unanticipated and contentious questions:  why was Labour suddenly using office space in a building owned by a particularly powerful union?  What would motivate the Party to sacrifice even the veneer of its independence?  Moreover, how—if at all—was this related to Labour’s postwar tendency to internalize dissent as a means of fostering the appearance of unity?  The answer, I learned from Professor David Stewart of the University of Central Lancashire, with whom I happened to be sharing a table in the archive, tied directly back to the General Election of 1931, when institutional leadership within the Party was far more fluid and initiative could fall to the PLP, the NEC, or the Annual Conference with a decidedly disadvantageous outcome for organized labor.  I oftentimes wonder whether or not I would ever have puzzled out the solution had I chosen a different seat in the archive that day. 

Travel also opens up surprising possibilities for your research.  Recently, I spent a particularly hectic week bouncing between the archives of the Fabian Society at the London School of Economics, the archives of the Colonial Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the National Archives at Kew, and the archives of the University College of London (ah, the life of a researcher!).  Of the three, the archive I figured least likely to prove useful was UCL.  It only managed to make my list because of a random citation on Colonial Education Department Annual Reports I mined in the footnotes of a monograph I’d read months before.  So, when I found myself outside the Holborn tube station in London with UCL barely a ten-minute walk up Southampton Row from the LSE, I figured it couldn’t hurt to check on the reference.  If nothing else, surely there was a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee somewhere between me and the archive to make the trip worthwhile.  Turns out, the holdings at UCL were not only a vast store of virtually untapped primary source material directly related to my research, but they also opened up completely unexpected avenues for it—from archived material of the Film Unit of the Colonial Office to issues of the Colonial Review that provided the only copy I have yet obtained of a speech delivered by John Hathorn Hall, the Governor of Uganda, on his views of Mass Education and Local Government.  And I had unfettered access to it all.  Using the word “gleeful” to describe me at that point would have been an understatement. 

The lesson in all of this, for me anyway, was to remember to take chances with my research.  I had very little time to spend in London and, had I not chosen to walk to UCL on that grey July morning, my work would undoubtedly be the poorer for it.