Several years ago when I was pursuing my MFA at Hunter, I attended these research seminars that were meant to show the many resources available to us as creative writers. I tried to make the best use of that time, attempting to find records of my paternal grandfather’s work as a civil engineer in Burma, before he quit to join the Freedom Movement in India. I was looking for historical documents that could shed light and add detail to tidbits of family narrative. Most of my searches came up empty then. I sent queries to other librarians, historians and scholars about my particular interests in Burmese Public Works projects and life in the 1920s and 1930s. The responses I received were warm and inquisitive. While they themselves did not have information that could help me, most thought my best bet would be the India Office at the British Library. Since then, I’ve gathered more fragments of family history about this time which resulted in some answers, but even more questions, pointing me once again to the British Library. So here I am in London with the support of a Literature Travel Grant (Thank you Jerome Foundation!)
The vastness of the collections housed here—the legacy of colonialism—is both impressing and unsettling. With a list of questions and gap-filled narratives, I arrived at the library with both hope in the possibility of what I might find, but also fear of what I may not. The fear is two-pronged: 1) that some records are truly and forever lost and 2) that they are in fact here, but I won’t be able to find them.
I have spent a great part of the past year perusing historical records from a much smaller archive researching a different writing project, and even on that small scale, I never felt I had enough time to satisfy my increasing curiousity. How does one even begin navigating the archives of an empire? The British Library can be a bit overwhelming and distracting for inquisitive and wandering minds. I’m trying to stay focused on the quest at hand, and not veer off into the stacks on Tamil literature, the encyclopedia of Hindu Architecture or Indian Cinema. I thought I’d share some of my experiences from my first day. Continue reading