Adventures in DC: Tales from the AHRC Library of Congress Scheme

This month’s blog post comes to us from Dr Adam Harper (University of Oxford), a recent research fellow of the AHRC Library of Congress Scheme. Adam undertook his fellowship to source a huge range of material for his recently completed PhD thesis on the aesthetics of lo-fi popular music, but, as he explains below, the rewards of his trip reached far beyond his initial expectations.

Alongside his research, Adam is a music critic for The Wire and The FADER magazines. Read more on his blog and/or follow him on twitter: @RougesFoam.


My six-month trip to study at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center in Washington, DC between October 2012 and April 2013 was probably the most exciting and rewarding episode in my student career. It provided the bulk of the material I would use for my PhD, which I was recently awarded, and, since I had only been to the US for one week previously as a teenager, was a bit of an adventure overall.

I started my PhD research in October 2010 at the University of Oxford under Eric Clarke. I was looking at the aesthetics of lesser sound quality in popular music, or what came to be called ‘lo-fi,’ a term used to both describe and categorise certain forms of rock and folk in the late twentieth century. I became most interested in the reception history of lo-fi and the category’s expression of ideology, so I began to turn to music magazines, both online and offline. The British Library had plenty of UK music magazines from throughout the twentieth century (you can simply walk into the Humanities 2 reading room and take them off the shelves), but the key material was to be found in rarer independent music magazines on the other side of the Atlantic. Fortunately, the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme provided the perfect opportunity to research in the States.

It invites researchers to be based at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center for between three and six months, providing them with a cubicle just across from the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building and a friendly, active scholarly environment. You can order books from throughout the library to be delivered to your cubicle and keep them there, though since I was looking at music magazines, I made daily trips to the Performing Arts Reading Room in the Madison Building. This involved an interesting trek through an initially bewildering maze of underground tunnels. I also sometimes visited the Recorded Sound Reference Center to listen to recordings specially digitised in an offsite copyright archive, and the Folklife Center, where I read typewritten magazines (or ‘fanzines’) from the late 1950s and early 1960s North American folk revival, which included some early references to one Bob Dylan.

The impact of the trip on my research was enormous – it entirely changed my conception of lo-fi. It turned out that the landscape of independent popular music in the 1980s was quite unlike what more recent accounts had suggested. Rather than universal acceptance of rough, ‘punk’-like approaches, sound quality was a complex and contested aesthetic judgement. What’s more, I found artists entirely outside of canons that had been built up by thirty subsequent years of popular music discourse. I was able to thoroughly historicise lo-fi as an aesthetic idea, and provide a detailed genealogy of its expression. Today, people mostly associate poor sound quality with outmoded analogue media, as a kind of nostalgia, but in the 1980s and 1990s the emphasis was more on realism. There was also a clear current of primitivism running through lo-fi aesthetics, demanding a degree of critique that other scholars hadn’t sufficiently explored.

I read hundreds of texts in dozens of periodicals, and, crucially, was able to photograph them to save time and take home. But I didn’t only use the Library of Congress’s collections – I made frequent trips to the New York Public Library and visited an underground press collection at the nearby University of Maryland. I also spent a week in the intriguing city of Albany, the capital of the state of New York, looking at a collection of thousands of fanzines at the New York State Library. As a result, my thesis drew on hundreds of texts – any more and it should have been called ‘Source Readings in Lo-Fi History.’

Living in DC was a real pleasure. It’s not a cheap city, but the living expenses provided by the Scheme were generous. Unlike UK cities (especially Oxford), DC is spacious and well laid out, and you can walk across the centre in an afternoon. There’s plenty of national landmarks and museums, great for visiting at weekends, but there’s also a more modest charm to the place that slowly shows itself in the cafes, bars and night spots – The Big Bear, Jimmy T’s, the Black Cat, Ben’s Chili Bowl, Teaism, the 9:30. It was also a great base from which to see more of the country – north to New York or Philadelphia on the bus, south to New Orleans on the Crescent train, and into the country to see the Shenandoah National Park.

But I think one of the best and less expected parts of the trip was the people I met. On the induction day I encountered roughly a dozen other researchers around my age and position through the PhD, not just from the UK but all over. Affectionately calling ourselves ‘Kluges’ and generating bucketloads of in-jokes, we officially met every Wednesday for a brown bag lunch, but tended to go to the sumptuous canteen together most days, as well as on tourist trips at weekends. I made plenty of friends and research contacts, and was lucky enough to go to the wedding of one of my fellow Kluges upon return.

If all this hasn’t encouraged you, let me be explicit – if you are a PhD student in your first or second year who would benefit from the Library’s collections, by all means apply for the Scheme. I’d even go further – find a reason to go if one doesn’t immediately come to mind, as it’s a brilliant opportunity. You don’t even have to be researching the US, as the Library has all kinds of materials on the rest of the world too. I’m now looking for the first chance to go back and continue my research into popular music discourses of the twentieth century, having got a big taste of what’s out there.

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