Hopkins’ winter break is long. Really long. Our finals end somewhere plus or minus December 20th, and school doesn’t start back until January 29th. And while it’s nice to have a few weeks to do absolutely nothing after finals (which is in fact an important activity in and of itself), you can do that and still have the time to do something really meaningful with the rest of your time. My freshman year, I stayed here to take an intersession class on epigenetics. My sophomore year, I spent my time here at my lab full time. My junior year, I used the break to study for my MCATs. And this year, I got the incredible chance to go to archives on the other side of the world for my history thesis.
Funded by Hopkins’ Woodrow Wilson research fellowship, I took a few days to do nothing at home after finals ended, packed, and hopped on a plane for London. My research is on some mix of medical practice, press censorship, and medical power dynamics in colonial India, and the India Office Records at the British Library has one of the richest collections of records and correspondences while Britain occupied India. While I’d dug around forgotten collections of records in Amdavad the previous summer, this would be my first time at a fancy, meticulously-documented, academic archive.
The British Library
The hotel I stayed at was a short walk from the British Library, which is near the University College London and Kings Cross. I was there for a little over a week, and every day my schedule was mainly the same. The British Library would open at 9:30am, so I could take my time getting ready and make the ~ten minute walk over to the archive.
When you get there, you’re greeted with this massive glass cube for what must be their oldest books that’s central to the library. Shooting off the sides are tables, desks, and different reading rooms. After registering as a researcher on my first day, I had to first go to the ground level to empty my backpack of everything I’d need, and put those things in a clear plastic bag. You’re only allowed to bring that bag into the reading rooms, so you see everyone walking around the library holding everything they own in their hands.
To request a record, you go through their catalogue and place an “order” if you think some source might be interesting. Usually it takes about an hour or two for them to retrieve that record from the archives and bring it to the reading room you’re in, so I would usually place my orders right at the beginning of the day (or the day before as I got savvier), and then grab some coffee and breakfast at the cafe. Weird side note. There’s no coffee as we know and love in London. Everything’s just espresso. The closest thing is an Americano, which is an espresso diluted with water up to coffee volume. But even the Starbucks didn’t have regular drip coffee, and it freaked me out a little bit. But anyways, I survived.
Once you check the catalogue and see that your request is ready, you walk on over to the reading room, tell them your name, and they give you a massive box that the record is stored in. Books were big back then. Real big. You heft them over to your desk, pretending you can carry them without a problem because the tiny librarian just did, and place them to the side.
From there, you untie the little shoelace knots on both sides and unfurl this cardboard origami contraption, revealing the book of interest.
It’s old. You may sneeze. Try not to. Gently lift the book, trying not to drop it as you realize people have held it over 150 years before you were born, and place it gently on the foam mount. Like so.
Then you turn on the lights and try to decipher the super fancy cursive that everyone apparently wrote in back then. It was really hard at first – almost like translating from another language. But over the days, I slowly got the hang of navigating my way around the books and transcribing the cursive onto my laptop. There’s just something crazy about the idea that someone sat down to write this in the 1800’s and you’re sitting in front of it now reading it, as if they had written it to you alone.
After the library would close for the day, I would grab my things from the coat room, wash my hands from the dust, and explore London – mostly on foot – playing a game where I would take a bus to the other end of Central London and try to find my way back to my hotel over the next few hours. I was there for the holidays, and London was absolutely beautiful at night.
The Maharashtra State Archives
After a little over a week in London, I flew from Heathrow to Mumbai. Mumbai was a British enclave during the colonial period, and the Maharashtra State Archives was also supposed to have a massive collection of colonial documents. To be honest, I was a little bit doubtful. I couldn’t find too much about it online besides a couple manifests of what was there. But I had a rough idea of what I needed from there and a couple webpages to prove they were open. At best, I hoped I would find a couple documents that would show a more local perspective as responses to the correspondences I had just run into in London.
So, that morning, I had a heavy breakfast at the hotel, got in the first cab I could find. Armed with a few rupees and an introductory letter from Hopkins, I showed the cab driver a slip of paper of where I wanted to go. I don’t speak much Hindi, which is Mumbai’s language, but I speak Gujarati, which has some overlaps; I was able to fumble my way through the conversation and get to the general area I needed to be at.
When we got to the address, though, there was nothing. I was surrounded on all sides by the downright gorgeous British-Indian architecture of Southern Bombay towering overhead, but no archive. After we drove around in circles, I figured I’d let the poor driver go and find this place on foot. So I spent a good 30 minutes walking around the streets asking the locals if they had heard of this now-seemingly mythical archive. Most hadn’t, and I could feel my hopes dwindling.
Suddenly, a few blocks away from the pin Google Maps had promised the archive would be at, I saw a tiny sign tacked over a university entrance. The Directorate of Archives, it said, with a little arrow. I walked through a heavy stone arch and suddenly I was in a small, quaint but weathered courtyard. I was close, but I still had no idea where I was.
I found a man walking down a hallway, and he showed me a stairwell to take. I climbed up the side of the courtyard, walked down a hallway, and suddenly I was staring into a massive warehouse of paper. It was colossal.
I found my way to the head archivist – an incredibly helpful middle-aged woman who was very clearly in charge of the place. I handed her my letter, explained my research to her, and before I knew it I had a desk there.
It was different from the British Library, for sure. There was no online catalogue and no photography. Instead, the catalogue was this bubbly, ancient man that would walk over to me from time to time with piles of new books he had found for me – a lot of them were incredibly useful. Their cataloguing system was a huge drawer of index cards, and it wasn’t long before I realized that in this massive warehouse of books was still just as painstakingly numbered and organized. I spent a few days going through an immensely rich corpus of newspaper clippings – exactly what I had actually come hoping for.
All in all, the trip gave me a lot of material that I now have to pore over before class starts next week. But it left me with more than that, too. The trip pushed my limits of patience and tenacity, puzzle-solving and critical agility. The Woodrow Wilson fellowship genuinely gave me the experience of a lifetime, trekking through cities I’d never been to searching for things I’d only heard of – piecing together and updating my narrative as I read letters that were written to me a hundred years ago.