Mohammad Ali Askar
I traveled to London, UK, to conduct archival research for my PhD dissertation. The trip took 17 days from 12th to 28thFebruary, 2017. Last summer, I had traveled to Afghanistan for fieldwork. The archival work in London was as important for collecting data for my dissertation as the visit to Kabul.
My PhD research, broadly speaking, is on the history of technological modernisation in Kabul city and looks at three arenas of urban modernity: technologies of consumerism, time measurement, and spatial organisation. I look at how private businesses and modern consumer culture flourished in Kabul; how new clock towers and other technologies of time measurement were introduced in Kabul to modernise the economy and culture; and lastly, how the idea of modern street naming and house numbering was introduced to give order to urban spaces and help economic modernisation of the country. Although my research is theoretical, located in critical media studies, it relies heavily on history. In order to gather the historical data that I needed, I had to conduct primary historical inquiry into the ways technological modernity was produced and perceived in Afghanistan from the late 19th to mid-20th century.
On my London trip, I spent the short time I had at three institutions: British Library’s Asian and African Studies division where India Office Records and other materials related to Afghanistan are held; the Wellcome Library which is a specialised collection on the history of medicine and contains some important documents about Kabul city thanks to a British doctor who worked there in the late 19th century; and The National Archives, located in a south-west London suburb, which houses documents related to UK’s Foreign Office and I found many items there related to Afghan politics and economy. There are, of course, several other libraries, archives, and museums in London that I couldn’t visit because of shortage of time. I had to make the difficult decision of focusing to obtain the most relevant documents, so I had to stay in these three places.
British Library and the National Archives operate from 9:30am to 5pm and are open on Sundays as well which is great. All three places now allow photography in the reading rooms but researchers should use cameras that don’t make sounds and don’t flash. So it’s best to use your mobile phone’s camera to take pictures of documents you don’t have enough time to read entirely and take notes. For a person like me who is on a short visit, taking pictures allowed me to consult more documents. It’s a good idea to have a lasting battery on your phone (there are power outlets on each table though, just bring your own UK adapter which by the way is different from EU adapters—I learnt that there).
Overall, it was a very fruitful experience that allowed me to uncover fresh primary documents related to my dissertation. I believe that these new data have helped me to clarify my central thesis, support my arguments, and shape the direction of my research for the dissertation. I want to thank Media@McGill for its generous travel grant that helped me accomplish this research trip.