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Inquiring Minds: Studying Decolonization

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(The following is a guest post by Jason Steinhauer, program specialist in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center.)

Each year the International Seminar on Decolonization, sponsored by the National History Center (NHC) and hosted by The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, brings together young historians from the United States and abroad to Washington, D.C., to study and discuss the history of decolonization in the 20th century. The seminar takes place in July-August, and is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We sat down with Marian J. Barber, associate director of the NHC, to learn more.

Q. Tell us briefly about Decolonization: what does the term mean, and what period of history does it refer to?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “decolonization” as “the withdrawal from its colonies of a colonial power; the acquisition of political or economic independence by such colonies.” For the purposes of the International Seminar on Decolonization, it means the dissolution of empires, mainly in the period after the second world war and the emergence of new nations, particularly in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The empires we focus on most are those of the European maritime powers such as Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain; but among the participants and the speakers whose lectures accompany the seminar have been scholars of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and Italian imperial history and those who study the post-colonial Middle East.

While such conflicts are always a part of the seminar, a major emphasis has been what comes after, particularly the evolving relationships of newly independent states to their former colonial masters, as well as interactions among the new nations. Members of the seminar apply the techniques of sub-disciplines such as cultural, social, political, diplomatic, gender, economic and military history to help them understand and explain the ways that decolonization has helped reshape the world.

Q: Why the need for a Decolonization Seminar? How did it come about and what purpose does it serve?

The height of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s was accompanied by the development of area studies programs, particularly those concentrating on Asia and Africa. Historians working in those fields often found themselves at odds with scholars of modern Europe and the U.S. The decolonization seminar is intended to bring the two groups together to create a new field that recognizes their differences and commonalities and builds upon both.

W. Roger Louis, member of the Library of Congress Scholars Council, founding director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association, and a leading scholar of the end of the British Empire, developed the idea of the seminar in 2005, in collaboration with the John W. Kluge Center. It has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 2006.

Q: What’s the connection to the Library of Congress? Why host the seminar at the Kluge Center each year?

The seminar was conceived early in the life of the NHC out of the longtime collaboration of Roger Louis and Prosser Gifford, then-director of the Library’s Office of Scholarly Programs, who had co-edited influential volumes on decolonization in Africa in 1982 and 1988. When Carolyn Brown became director of the Library’s Kluge Center in 2006, she continued the relationship, cemented when Roger Louis became a member of the Library’s Scholars Council in 2007.

The seminar continues to return to the Kluge Center each year because of the superior research facilities of the Library of Congress; the generosity and resourcefulness of the Library staff and the Library’s reference librarians; as well as the opportunity to be a part of one of the world’s great centers of intellectual endeavor. As historians, we particularly appreciate the opportunity to meet in the historic Jefferson Building!

Q: What is the study of decolonization helping us understand about our world today?

Decolonization helps us understand that the world we are encountering today is ever-changing, the product of the interactions of many cultures and societies and many different systems of economics and politics over many decades. By allowing us to see how today’s world of nations developed from a world of empires and colonies, it helps us envision a future unimaginable to the inhabitants of the colonial past.

Roger Louis lectures at the Library on July 30 at 4 p.m. in the Kluge Center, the final lecture of this year’s Decolonization Seminar. To learn more about the seminar, click here. To see a full list of this year’s seminar participants, click here.


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