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21 years of resourcing American Studies

The American Studies Centre at Liverpool John Moores University

 

Centre Director Ian Ralston looks back on the history of the ASRC

Posted 20-Feb-2014

 

21 years of resourcing American Studies The American Studies Centre at Liverpool John Moores University Centre Director Ian Ralston looks back on the history of the ASRC 2008 marks the 21st anniversary of the establishment of the American Studies Resources Centre (ASRC). Initially based at City of Liverpool College and backed by support from the US Embassy and BAAS, the ASRC moved in 1997 to the Aldham Robarts Library of John Moores University and was formally reopened by (then) US Ambassador Philip Lader. Letters of support for the ASRC came from President Bill Clinton, Senator Barbara Boxer, Representative Sonny Bono and Mayor of Palm Desert, Buford Crites, amongst others. Looking back over this period, a massive change in the nature of the Centre's work is clearly apparent; a change that reflects the significant shifts that all those involved in resourcing any academic area have faced. Initially established to support the study of the US in UK schools and colleges, the ASRC quickly expanded its remit to include students and colleagues in the HE sector, as well as establishing an international profile. The nature of the resources held in the late eighties, while covering all aspects of the study of the US (including a large collection of hard copy texts), mainly consisted of tape-slide, tape filmstrip, slide, video, study pack and photographic collections. This was backed up with annual student and teacher conferences. Communication with educational establishments was by letter, phone and the circulation of a newsletter (later to become American Studies Today magazine.) Despite what now seem like archaic systems, the ASRC built up an extensive database of users. Cataloguing was completed with the use of early Apple computers that were more prone in deciding for themselves what should be done rather than the operator's intentions. It was, however, in the very early nineties, following a visit from an American colleague and USIA advisor, that the ASRC was introduced to the Internet. We remember all too clearly the amazement at the description of what this and something called 'email' could achieve. At this point, outside of the developing information technology departments at some universities, few had heard of the Internet. Prior to this our only other involvement with technological had been the ASRC's work with the sadly ill-fated NERIS (National Educational Information Service) CD-Rom project.

Establishing a presence on the Internet

Centre Director Ian Ralston shows US Ambassador Philip Lader the Arnet website at the official opening of the new centre in 1998
Centre Director Ian Ralston shows US Ambassador Philip Lader the Arnet website at the official opening of the new centre in 1998
However, the ASRC quickly explored the possibility of developing a presence on the 'net' and became one of the first organisations in the American Studies field to establish a web site and exploit its potential. An early website was set up but without any full understanding of its true potential. Gradually, and as use of the Internet spread, the ASRC developed the site to respond to the needs and feedback of users. The Rothermere Centre later described it as "...the best of the lot…" The newness of the power of the net was quickly emphasised by a series of events. One article placed on the site (about the abortion issue) by an American academic working in the UK, created such a flood of responses, including threats of violence from around the world, that the writer asked us to pull the article. When we showed the responses the ASRC had received, her astonished comment was "I didn't realise people outside the UK could access or read this." Another article, about a small town in the Deep South, not only produced a flood of emails from 'concerned citizens' but also became a major news item in that town's local press. Just prior to this, a new 'host' server provided facilities that allowed us to closely monitor the hits the site received, therefore enabling us to plan and focus the range of articles, book reviews and other information offered to a much greater degree. In October 1998 the ASRC's web site received a total of 2,670 hits. This increased significantly, year on year and in October 2006 the figure was 69,839. The total number of recorded hits from February 1998 (when the ASRC began monitoring its performance on the internet) to January 2008, was close to 14 million. All of these changes and the growing use of the Internet by educational establishments had an impact on the traditional resourcing services the ASRC offered. The original AV materials, apart from notable exceptions such as video (and now DVD) were clearly obsolete to some degree or other. The number of written requests from schools also almost completely vanished, only to be replaced by a deluge of emails not just from the UK but also internationally. Although many of the subscription databases that HE now enjoys were out of the financial reach of many schools and colleges, the ASRC found itself increasingly guiding schools (as well a colleagues in HE) over other sources of information and research. One additional point worth noting regarding the internet was a side effect of our cyberspace presence; that was an increasing demand for ASRC conferences, increased calls to provide outside lectures (particularly to schools) and a greater contact with national and international media organisations. This area has continued to show a steady and increasing growth. Through its own contacts and also those provided by the Cultural Affairs Office of the US Embassy, speakers at ASRC conferences and events have included many notable figures: the poet John Ashberry; the former SDS (Students For a Democratic Society) leader and now writer; Todd Gitlin; the film director Alex Cox; the film critic Roger Ebert and the writers and academics Johnella Butler, John C. Walter and James and Loise Horton. Support from BAAS colleagues (too many to note here!) has also been invaluable in the continued development and presentation of our Schools Conference programme. The ASRC was also involved in the first Straw-Powell exchange programme in 2001 which saw two young British students spending a busy week in the US as guests of Secretary of State Powell. This event received extensive media coverage both in the US and the UK. The ASRC also established close contacts with colleagues in the US and throughout the world, including the Salzburg Seminar in Austria. Thanks go to BAAS, Sue Wedlake at the Public Affairs Office at the US Embassy, all members, past and present, of the ASRC's UK and US Advisory Panels as well as David Forster (ASRC Resources Coordinator and Web Manager), Helen Tamburro (ASRC Research Assistant), Maire Daley and Louise Hesketh for their invaluable support over the years. What the next twenty one years will hold, well, it's impossible to say but it's clear that the digital revolution will continue to change not only the work of the ASRC, but all those involved in the study and resourcing of American Studies. It is also the case that as the US remains a major world force in both politics and culture, the ASRC's work will continue to be of relevance for years to come. Ian Ralston (ASRC Director)

 

 

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