Doing archival research during a pandemic

Dmitrijs Andrejevs, Language Based Area Studies, University of Manchester (2017 cohort)

The current pandemic affected all facets of our research lives. It has reshaped our experiences of internships, friendships, research training, conferences and submission of a PhD thesis, to name just a few examples highlighted by NWSSDTP colleagues.

Drawing on my experience of archival research in Riga, Latvia (September – December 2020) as well as wider advice available on the subject, this short post highlights five broad lessons learned from doing archival research during a pandemic.

1. Plan, and book more time in the archive

While one needs a research plan regardless of the wider circumstances, ongoing pandemic-related restrictions in archives mean thatyou have to be really clear on what you need to look at and prioritise if you have a long list of things to look at’.

At a time when day-long engagements with documents might not be possible, having a few extra contingency sessions is a ‘resource’ you want to have. Not only might it prove invaluable when addressing your long lists of things to look at but in equal parts might allow you to follow-up on unexpected discoveries beyond them (as was the case for me).

So, book that extra day or two if you can.

2. Stay in touch with archivists and librarians

Archivists and librarians ‘are truly research superheroes’. They can direct you to unexpected venues for your research, new acquisitions and – even more crucially during a pandemic – they might be able to keep you updated on the available appointments. A quick chat with archivists at the State Archives of Latvia and their willingness to squeeze my visits into the schedule were invaluable for my archival research.

Not purely a pandemic lesson, but one that remains as relevant as ever.

3. Explore online resources

From the Internet Archive highlighted as part of the Methods North West Session to the digitised periodicals at the National Library of Latvia (as was the case for me), online resources and digitised collections are ‘an absolute godsend.

While not a replacement of physical archives (or, as many of the MethodsX – Archives, Collections and Documents of Life colleagues noted in December 2020, their materiality) or even not always a work-around the issue of access, it is nevertheless worth exploring the available online resources offered by the archives, libraries, museums, and other institutions.

The number of guides such as prepared by the University of London, University of Westminster or the City University of New York can offer a good starting point for online discovery.

4. Request document scans

As Alec Israeli wittily observed ‘if you can’t go to the archive, there is not so much lost if you can bring the archive to you’. Many archives and libraries offer scanning services. At a time when appointments are scarce or non-existent, requesting document scans might be a great intermediary or even a research approach of its own that allows to ‘get your hands on’ otherwise unreachable documents.

In my case, the ‘archival heroism’ of the team at the National History Museum of Latvia and their offer to provide me with a list of available documents and their digital scans allowed me to build a fuller picture of the events at the core of my dissertation.

While some institutions might be able to offer scans free of charge, others might require a fee for the service. As few colleagues noted in the previous posts, NWSSDTP students have a benefit of the Research Training Support Grant (RTSG). While it is worth enquiring with the NWSSDTP office first before booking hundreds of pounds worth of document scans, the RTSG can help cover some (or all) of the associated costs (if applicable).

Indeed, the RTSG offered an invaluable opportunity for my research and provided funding that allowed me to enrich the corpus of documents that my dissertation relies on

5.Tap into research networks

It is worth getting in touch with past researchers in your field.

While not a given, a quick email might lead to ‘help with obtaining anything from general tips to scanned documents they no longer need’ or even ‘new and fruitful collaborations between historians across borders’.

Do not forget about your immediate community either. You never know if someone might make a few introductions that open unexpected doors for your research (as some of the members of the MethodsX can attest to).

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