American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Archival Research during COVID-19

Shai M. Dromi, Lecturer, Harvard University

My first visit to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) archive in Geneva, Switzerland was demoralizing. I had corresponded with an ICRC archivist and perused the catalog, but upon arriving I discovered that the boxes I had believed held the material needed for my dissertation thesis were gone. The archivist speculated those boxes may have been lost to fire or rats decades ago. But he also understood the questions I was pursuing, and provided boxes filed close to where the boxes I was looking for should have been. While my initial interest was in professional correspondences, the private documents I found in those other boxes – diaries, manuscript drafts, bible study notes – revealed the ethical framework behind the establishment of the Red Cross movement. Unexpectedly, this became the topic of my first book, Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector (2020). Even though many sources about the Red Cross are publicly available, my time in Geneva proved crucial for the project.

While some archives are curated with the specific intention of serving a scholarly community, most are organized to serve the needs of a living organization, and thus many researchers share my experience. The archives they visit first confound their research plans, but then reveal unexpected discoveries that would have remained hidden without an in-person visit. While the ideal is to have a fully funded year or more for archival research, many visits happen over the summer, and COVID-19 has stalled many archival research plans.

My summer plan was to use an ASA Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (FAD) grant to visit university archives and research my current book project on Israel-Palestine student activism. While these plans were cancelled, three different university archivists responded enthusiastically to my emails and directed me to useful digitized files to explore. These resources are helpful, but I plan to visit the archives in-person once possible because digitized materials have limitations and can introduce their own biases. Institutional (or personal) priorities decide which documents get scanned, copyright restrictions determine their public availability, and organizational resources and geographical location often determine who has the capacity to digitize in the first place. Relying solely on publicly available digitized materials poses the risk of systematically ignoring already underrepresented voices (and this is a particular risk for those conducting research in the Global South). For many historical sociologists, digitized documents supplement, but do not replace, the in-person archive visit. 

While COVID-19 has affected archival researchers in all career stages, particularly affected are early career researchers. Aliza Luft (Assistant Professor, UCLA), for example, is waiting to hear whether her June visit to the Vatican Secret Archive can be rescheduled. The Vatican has made new documents on the papacy of Pope Pius XII available, and Luft is among only 150 researchers allowed to examine them. None of these documents are digitized and, due to COVID-19, the archives themselves are now closed. It is not clear when another visit will be possible. 

Graduate students are similarly working to make progress without access to their own research sites. At Yale’s graduate program, Chloe Sariego is conducting a legal history on a sealed case that has never been made public. While her archive visit is cancelled, she was able to access documents on a comparative case through an online database. The costs of access are coming out of her pocket. In the same program, Anne Taylor found a colleague willing to share scanned collection of 18th century documents from the archive she had planned to visit. Cresa Pugh (Harvard) is currently analyzing a trove of photographed documents from her previous archive visits, but this analysis revealed that another visit to the archive is necessary, and with teaching responsibilities it is not clear when this visit will be possible beyond this summer. In short, while researchers are finding ways to adjust in the short-term, COVID-19 is posing a serious challenge to their long-term research plans. 

Archival researchers have numerous resources at their disposal for the time being. First, university librarians should be an initial point of contact. Given the COVID-19 closures, many providers are allowing free access to their content, including various useful resources for archival research. Second, online services like Google Books have made some resources publicly available—especially public domain ones. Third, many archivists welcome inquiries over email, and a brief phone call can yield digitized resources and other repositories that might have relevant material. Fourth, past researchers in the same archive can offer advice and help with obtaining anything from general tips to scanned documents they no longer need. Universities can and should support historical sociologists by helping cover newly incurred expenses of accessing databases remotely and providing deferrals and flexibility with travel funding.