The United States and Canada have many impressive collections of manuscripts, books, maps, and other documents covering all aspects of colonialism in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds. A select number of libraries (primarily in the USA) housing these rare materials offer fellowships and, to my good fortunate, I have been a fellow at several of them, namely the John Carter Brown Library, the Huntington Library, the Newberry Library, and the Beinecke Library. Library fellowships are a great opportunity to both further your own research agenda and to make contacts with other scholars in an interdisciplinary environment. The duration of fellowships range from a few weeks to several months and stipends vary based upon the institution. Below I offer a few pieces of advice based upon my experiences as a library fellow that I hope will be of use to other researchers preparing their own applications. Even if you do not study colonial themes in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds, you can apply several of these principles to other libraries that concentrate on other regions of the world and chronological periods.
Time is always an important factor. Depending on your research agenda, like most aspects of academic life you need to plan at least a year in advance. The application process will take several months, which includes preparing your proposal (both research and writing), providing your referees with sufficient time to write their letters, and waiting patiently for the final results. After you have received notice and hopefully been successful in the competition, many libraries provide you with a year to use your fellowship. For example, for the Newberry Library I notified my referees in September (2015), submitted my application in November (2015), received notification in May (2016), and used my fellowship in June (2017).
Before you sit down and write your proposal you need to do some background research. It is always wise to send an email to the library to confirm that your topic matches the fellowships offered. Much of this can obviously be done on your own through an initial search of the online catalogue or other bibliographies related to the library. Getting a sense of what the collection holds will help you determine whether it is worth your time to even apply. But make sure to contact the librarians, for they will most likely be able to point you to other guides and materials given their familiarity with the collection and their experience with past researchers. Another helpful preparatory strategy is to look over the list of both past and current fellows, which are usually listed on the library website. Getting a sense of successful projects will help you think about your own. You may also want to email a former fellow in search of advice on how to write a strong proposal.
When you finally sit down to write your proposal there are a few things to keep in mind. Proposals for library fellowships are similar to those of other grants and awards, which means you need to describe your project for a general audience, establish your principal argument(s), and explain the relevance of your research and how it both fits into and modifies the existing literature on your subject. You also need to sketch out your larger research agenda, outlining what you have accomplished and your general plans for completion. All of this is extremely important, but in my experience the most crucial aspect of your proposal is the relationship between your project and the library’s collection. General reference to how extensive a collection is or that a given repository contains lots of “books” related to your subject will not result in an effective proposal. You need to stress the names of particular books and manuscripts and articulate why it is absolutely necessary to physically handle them, especially given that many rare books are available online. It is always helpful to remember that librarians are concerned with printed works as material objects. The experience of a book (or manuscript) is not just about understanding its content; it is about trying to capture how people experienced print culture in the past through paper, binding, woodcuts, engravings, and the dimensions of what they held (or were unable to hold) in their hands.