By Jo McConville, Project Archivist
As I write, it’s been around two months since I went into work at the Record Office and my old routine – commuting on the train, colleagues in the office, tea in the staffroom – has become a hazy memory. As described in this recent blogpost, WSRO staff have been fortunate enough to be able to continue working from home albeit on rather different tasks in many cases whilst WSRO remains closed to the public. I’m in the same position, but the Covid-19 crisis has posed some particular challenges for Transatlantic Ties as a fixed term project with very time dependent outcomes. The lockdown began as we were about to start the process of recruiting volunteers (now on the backburner for the present!) so we really had to regroup and rethink how our timetable would work. The early stages of lockdown were filled with (virtual) meetings and discussion of the impacts on different areas of the project and working out ways to adapt. Reassuringly, our project funders, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, were quick to offer support to all grant award holders in the challenging circumstances. We’ve now been offered an extension to the project timetable which takes off a huge amount of pressure and will enable us to complete all of this exciting work.
One of the most important outcomes for Transatlantic Ties will be the creation of a new website to celebrate and highlight the historical links between Sussex and the US – you can read more in my introductory blog on the Transatlantic Ties project. This website will house our ‘American Collection’ of digitised documents and provide information and learning resources for students and researchers. It’s very much a priority for us that this is a success, so we made the decision that my principal day to day task in lockdown would be to research and prepare content for use on the website – putting together background history and contextual information about WSRO’s America-related documents. The spare bedroom has become my new workspace and I’ve acquired my own mini reference library, comprised of books borrowed from the Record Office library and from WSCC Libraries – helpfully located and delivered to my doorstep by Martin Hayes (our County Local Studies Librarian and part of the Senior Management Team overseeing the project). Of course I can’t access any of our original documents which remain safely in the strongrooms at the Record Office, but several of my esteemed colleagues have been digitising some of the highest priority items so I’m able to study them here at home which is a fantastic help.
I feel a little bit like I’ve gone back to being a student all of a sudden, sitting in my cave with piles of books and notes all around me as I work at getting to grips with a huge swathe of American history. The Transatlantic Ties project was, of course, born following the extraordinary developments surrounding the Sussex Declaration (you can read more about this remarkable document here) so naturally the history of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War as a whole are a major focus. However we’ve always intended that the website and other resources created through the Transatlantic Ties project will encompass some of the other significant events which have shaped American history and I have been uncovering some of the fascinating links which can be found in our West Sussex archives. This means I’m delving into the lesser known War of 1812, to the history of slavery and the American Civil War, to emigration and travel in the United States. There’s so much to learn and explore – having started with general background reading, I’ve become immersed in the complexities of the Civil War and the terrible history of slavery which was inextricably bound up with it. It’s compelling in itself, of course, but what makes it even more exciting is learning about the ways in which these world-shaking events so far away impacted on lives in West Sussex and have been memorialised through WSRO’s records. I could go on – but that’s a story for another day!