The pandemic has had an effect on all of us and impact our ability to do research. This is especially true for primary source research. Which in the bright and cheery days before the pandemic turned us all into shut ins, use to involves going to archives and spending ours in enclosed rooms reviewing pages and pages of documents. As the pandemic lifts we brave seekers of knowledge can once more venture forth to seek out primary material. Yet a myriad of challenges continues to daunt us. Ever changing government guidelines, inconsistent ever-changing rules, and sudden punitive travel restrictions. In this post I will share my experience doing archival work before, during and what is increasingly looking like after (please be after) the pandemic.
The pandemic has made research trickier but far from impossible.
First there is the question of the necessity of primary source research. Especially as a undergraduate or masters student. As a PhD candidate I am required to do archival research and plenty of it. Yet surly for students undertaking different modes of study secondary resource’s found at the library are sufficient right? Well it depends of course on the field and on your long term goals, but with the ready availability of archival documents both in person through the fabulous National Archives or online it is in the interest of the students to take advantage of these resource’s. Firstly archival research is excellent practice for any future job where you need to navigate large data sets. Secondly it improves the quality of your work, and increases the possibility a paper or essay you write might be suitable for publication. It never hurts to have some publication credits to your name. Employers love it when people show they can write and research well.
So having convinced you with my eloquent arguments the necessity of archival research, how did the pandemic affect it? Well in a word the pandemic was miserable because many archives were closed and in my own case many of my documents which are 25 years old are undigitized meaning the only place they exist are in the physical archive. Rather than beat my head against the wall though I began looking at what I could find online and there is a fair amount.
A good first step to any research effort is to talk to other people in your field about their own experiences. Doing this turned me on to a number of databases I was able to access through the LSE Library. I also found a number of private organizations and other universities that had put key documents online. In my case they had also taken the time to translate them which was fantastic. Much of my research is in Russian and being able to get documents that have already been translated is a major time saver. If you are doing a PhD or you are a more ambitious masters student, do not hesitate to reach out to fellow scholars even the authors of your key secondary sources. Often they are more than happy to chat and on more than one occasion I have had a private archive of interviews, research notes, and the senior scholars own copies of documents I have been looking for handed to me. Peer to peer research can be surprisingly effective.
Now let’s move on to looking at the archive itself, huzzah they have reopened. Of course there are still restrictions and rules so the first thing you will want to do is to research those and make sure you don’t waste a trip. The website for the UK National Archive is very perhaps over detailed so again it is not a bad idea to seek out a peer who is more familiar with it. That’s not always possible though, but fortunately there are remedies. When you do visit the archive make a effort to be friendly and polite to the staff and don’t hesitate to ask them questions. Rules and regulations are changing so quickly now often websites are weeks or months out of date. I found out on my first trip to the archive that I did not need to order documents in advance and could order them on site. This makes research much easier. The folks at the research desk were also very polite and helpful taking the time to show me how to successfully navigate the website.
Now that you are in the building with the documents its important to maximize your time there so you don’t need to go days at a time. Archive trips should be focused more on collecting than reading. I recommend getting a scanner app on your smart phone and scanning every page you see. The app will automatically convert your photos to a pdf and you can email them to yourself to be reviewed later. We should also be realistic that the pandemic though abating is not over. Archives may close again suddenly to grab as much material as you can while you can. Also to help end the pandemic make sure to follow the hygiene guidelines, wear your mask, make liberal use of the free hand sanitizer, and be a considerate archive visitor. The pandemic has made research trickier but far from impossible.