Forum resurrects life after the library

The History Lab is a network bringing a bit of the party spirit back to postgrad study
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The Independent Online

Serious academic study can be a lonely business. Many postgraduate students spend so much time buried in archives and libraries that they see little of colleagues in their own department, let alone at other universities. The History Lab, the first ever national postgraduate history network, set up in October, is hoping to change all that.

The history of social networks, or at least the pub, is long and august in academia. One raucous drawing by Engels of a meeting of fellow Left Hegelians is alive with drunken philosophers, upturned bottles, and a faint, querulous question mark over Marx's head which seems to say, "what's he on about now?" Of course, Marx didn't write Das Kapital Hunter S Thompson-style in a hotel bathtub, but for hundreds of years parties, pubs, and salons have given thinkers an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other, and see which fly.

The History Lab is looking to bring back a bit of that party spirit and extend it beyond the age-old, informal groups of friends and colleagues, with a national network based at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.

It comes with a 21st century twist - "speed networking" events alongside seminars, workshops, and panel discussions - to get postgrads out of the library and talking to each other.

"There are now more PhD students than ever before," says Liza Filby, founder of the History Lab and a PhD student at the IHR. "And there is a need for a network to bring together this new generation of historians and decide what we are going to do with our subject."

Filby came up with the idea while studying the 18th century - the enlightenment salons are an inspiration.

At the moment Filby believes the fragmentation of postgraduates across departments and archives means most have to rely on professors and supervisors as sources of information.

"Supervisors are the top names in the field, but they are a past generation," she says. "We're trying to create space for new ideas."

As one of that past generation, Professor David Bates, the director of the Institute of Historical Research, is still proud of the project.

"I don't feel at all threatened, quite the reverse," he says. "I found informal interaction with fellow research students in the 1960s invaluable. This is institutionalising those informal links and developing them."

He also points out that with the government and funding bodies putting an ever greater emphasis on academics' ability to collaborate and communicate their ideas to a wider audience, the skills students pick up through the History Lab will also be a career boost.

And although the network is only in its very earliest stages, he enthuses about the number of students already involved, with regular attendance of nearly 100 at its seminars and a membership of over 250. "I'm delighted by its success," he says. "These are great gatherings of postgraduates on an unprecedented scale."

Despite being based in London, the History Lab is already some way to achieving its national, and even international, ambitions. A fifth of members come from outside London, with reps at provincial universities like York, members from as far afield as Canada, and links with universities in Dublin and Belfast.

Helen Glew started her PhD and moved to London for the first time in October. Although she knew a couple of people in the city before she got there, it was the History Lab that really helped her settle in. "It's just a really good way to meet people," she says.

The History Lab also teaches new postgraduates some useful skills. Like many doctoral students, Glew is looking to keep a sense of perspective, and earn some extra cash, teaching undergraduates. But like most of them she has no training in, or experience of teaching. She is hoping the History Lab seminar on teaching will help.

Kate Bradley is running the seminar. Now a final year PhD student she is well aware of the problems that postgrads can face.

"Some parts of academia are quite formal and have little customs, and it can be quite daunting to become part of that," she says.

But for Bradley the most important part of the History Lab is the chance to build up skills in workshops, through new opportunities, like learning how to chair a seminar meeting, and by sharing ideas and experiences. "In research it's still important to deal with the don," she says. "But in teaching, discussing what worked and didn't work with people in the same boat was much more important.

"I'm definitely going along to the speed networking event," she says. "At conferences, like at parties, most people talk to the people they know. This'll be a chance to break out of that comfort zone and see what connections arise from that. But mainly it'll be quite good fun."

To find out more visit the History Lab's website at www.history.ac.uk/histlab. Membership is free to any postgraduate student enrolled on an MA, MRes, MPhil, or PhD

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