Deluxe glasshouse sets off Pond nicely

May 25, 2001

The Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, which opens today, will host a global resource for American studies and be a welcoming home for visiting scholars, writes Alan Ryan.

When former US president Bill Clinton opens the Rothermere American Institute today, many people in Oxford will be pleased and somewhat relieved. For the past six years or so, the project has taken up a lot of their time and effort and, like many such projects, it has not always been smooth sailing.

The architects had to watch as the vilely wet weather of the past 18 months slowed construction and complicated the creation of the setting. However, we now have an extraordinarily elegant but strikingly modern building - all glass, Bath stone and dark zinc roofing - to meet the conflicting needs of books, librarians and visiting scholars.

The aims of the institute are varied. The one thing we shall not immediately do is to try to run a graduate or undergraduate degree in American studies. There are some excellent courses elsewhere, and we do not want to create another. Physically, the biggest thing the institute will do - indeed one major reason it became possible to build it at all - is house the American collections from the Rhodes House library in a setting that gives them room to expand and gives readers room to use them easily. But this is not just a matter of easing a local cramp. The library will operate as a global rather than an Oxford resource.It has been set up so as to maximise its usability by visiting scholars from anywhere at all, who will be working on American topics in history, politics and international relations.

The main business of the institute, narrowly considered, is to facilitate the work of visiting scholars at all levels, from postdoctoral fellows to distinguished recent retirees who need an office in which to write and some colleagues with whom to argue. Of course, we hope that we shall do ourselves good by doing them good, and that Oxford's numerous faculty in American politics, history, literature and international relations will provide the visitors with good audiences for their thoughts and courteous critics of their ideas. In the absence of manna from heaven, we cannot provide useful stipends in the American fashion, but we can provide social and eating facilities, good IT support, and some travel help to anyone who wants to use Oxford as a base for visits to other departments and programmes around the country.

An obvious question is why anyone should come to Oxford to do research on matters American, and particularly why anyone from the United States should come for the purpose. Part of the answer is that for some purposes, such as colonial history, they really are better off here than there. A larger part is that for many other subjects, the comparative perspective is all-important. In this vein, David Hollinger from the University of California at Berkeley will be coming to Oxford next year as the Harmsworth professor of history. To my mind, it is impossible to do complete justice to the intellectual history of one side of the Atlantic without having an acute ear for what is happening on the other - not a very surprising thought when you recall that US and European philosophical journals at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries used to carry one another's tables of contents.

Already we have co-sponsored conferences on global issues and international relations, traded thoughts on 19th and 20th-century American radicalism with Harvard University's Charles Warren Center and run seminars on US and UK local government and urban regeneration.

Developing a serious comparative programme in urban regeneration is, I believe, one of the most interesting areas to be explored. It is beyond the scope of the institute's resources to assemble a sufficient quantity of sociologists, policy-makers, heads of foundations and the like to start from the beginning of the discussion of the future of the city and work our way steadily to the end. The thought is rather that smaller and more informal gatherings in which participants - mayors and city managers, state treasurers, and members of non-governmental organisations, together with academics - can trade experiences and bring different insights to bear on the same issues.

It also allows a kind of interdisciplinarity that goes in a different direction from, so to speak, mixing quantitative sociology with film studies. Take the question of whether schools can do something for children who are underprivileged in health as well as in education; it is not about whether we can wean the kids off M&Ms and on to Granny Smiths - though that might come into it - so much as about whether we can create institutions that will focus all of a society's attention on the wellbeing of its young. Having a few healthcare professionals from both sides of the Atlantic to talk to a few educationists and an urban sociologist or two may spark the kind of fruitful discussion that can then be pursued by policy-oriented outfits or academics.

We need places for that sort of discussion to happen, whether or not we cross the Atlantic for the purpose. But some of these discussions really are most fruitfully carried on only with the appropriate clash of accents and assumptions. Not that I wish to slight the traditional activities of centres such as this: in the autumn, the institute will host a big conference on Jewish writing and writers in America. It will also host the Spring 2002 national conference of the British Association for American Studies. However, it must be said that in the arts, too, we are doing something novel - we shall have a visiting fellow each year who will spend three months with us and then six months in San Francisco.

But, of course, as soon as the bunting has been tidied away and the marquee taken off the lawn, we shall also settle down to behave as academics do, and to trade arcane thoughts in one seminar after another - not in an ivory tower, but in a glass-walled pavilion in a garden, and in a building that would be happy in San Diego, California; Evanston, Illinois; Berlin or Oxford.

Alan Ryan is director of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University and warden of New College, Oxford.

Fertile Garden for Scholars

The dramatic modernist design of the Rothermere American Institute is certainly eye-catching.

A decade in the making, it was conceived along the lines of a glass garden pavilion and is built of traditional materials from the Oxford area, such as Bath stone and oak. The aim is to provide a relaxed, scholarly atmosphere for study and debate.

The top of the building is dominated by the Vere Harmsworth Library, which is named after Lord Rothermere's son who died in the first world war. The library is funded by a £2million donation from the Rothermere Foundation and Associated Newspapers. It contains a rich collection of documents on American history, politics and government - particularly works on the American revolution, slavery and secession, the Progressive era and the New Deal. Historian David Hackett Fischer says the documents on American history are "among the very best outside the United States".

It will also be the only British library to hold full text CD-Roms of The New York Times and The Washington Post and to have indexes and abstracts from congressional documents dating back to 1970.

At the heart of the library is a two-storey reading room. This overlooks the institute's garden and is designed to give a feeling of space and light. Underneath the library are purpose-built seminar rooms and offices, including several for visiting scholars - some of which open onto the garden.

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