Researching and writing in a post-pandemic world

I emailed a professor emeritus and independent researcher this morning, to let him know the project for which he had provided assistance in sources, Jackson’s Wars, was approaching publication (Spring 2022). I had to look up our last email conversation to get his address, and I realized that we had not conversed since August 2019. A lot of water, to say the least, has flowed under all our bridges since then. I don’t have to tell you that there has been a global pandemic, and as I hit send I dearly hoped my contact had survived it.

I was fortunate to have completed virtually all of my major research trips to archives for Jackson’s Wars by the fall of 2019, well before the pandemic hit, and so was able to continue writing with little fear of the project being indefinitely delayed. Another project, however, saw its completion derailed when the special collections room of the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library reopened in the fall of 2020 for a limited number of researchers and visit slots, only to have it slam shut again in November because of the third wave, before I could complete my research. Jackson’s Wars, at least, I was able to finish. But other scholars have not been so lucky.

With all of Canada’s research archives, major and minor, having closed their doors during the pandemic, or only offering limited remote services, the regular, irreplaceable grind of looking stuff up that is an elemental part of scholarship became essentially impossible. I have wondered if we are in the midst of a hollowing out of scholarly production by the pandemic, because it is hard to imagine how major research papers for master’s degrees, doctoral dissertations, and scholarly work of any length could possibly be produced when archives have been shuttered for so long. Many non-scholarly writers also rely on these archives for source materials. And so many projects, along with individual studies and academic and professional writing careers, have been plunged into a kind of deep freeze.

Everyone who relies on archives for materials has been waiting for the thaw, for access to resume. But Library and Archives Canada for one has come under fire from scholars for providing limited access (to a facility that even in non-pandemic years requires plenty of advance planning to use properly). There are fears that the LAC may never fully recover from its service and budget cutbacks.

A surprisingly common notion out there is that physically visiting archives is no longer necessary, what with the digitization of collections. Surely everything you need is available online, at the click of a mouse? Some areas of research are indeed remarkably accessible online. In Canada, military records of the First World War are superbly accessible now at LAC. You can enter terms in a search field and in moments have the digitized service record of any soldier, and other records, like regimental war diaries, are also available online. (The ongoing digitization of service records was around the letter M when I came across them during my research for Jackson’s Wars. Luckily for me, the digitizers got all the way to Z before I finished writing.) Genealogists also have a number of valuable online LAC resources, which I used in the course of writing Jackson’s Wars, and in other work: ship’s registers of incoming passengers, and censuses dating back to the one for Lower Canada of 1825, to name but two.

But the fact remains that so much of what a researcher needs to see in a collection like LAC is not digitized, and it will probably be a long time before all of its holdings are. None of the papers of A.Y. Jackson (in the Naomi Jackson Groves fond) or of his painting associates Tom Thomson, Frederick Varley, and J.E.H. MacDonald, have been digitized. Ditto for the materials in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts fond at the LAC. Nothing I sourced in the archive of the National Gallery of Canada was available digitally, nor were various papers I relied upon in the Ontario Archives. The list goes on.

You can place orders for digital reproductions of materials in many collections, and even before the pandemic, making such remote requests for fairly specific files or pieces of correspondence was how I managed to conduct primary research widely without going bankrupt with travel expenses. After the LAC went into lockdown, it began offering such remote copying (which was already part of its services) as a stopgap measure, but getting documents (as I discovered) could literally take months. And so often, you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for or need until you see the contents of a file for yourself. Finding aids can be thin in the extreme in telling you what is in particular files, and having everything copied so you can sift through it at home can be expensive and (for the archive) laborious, which means delays. Some stuff, you just need to see for yourself, to know what you’re dealing with.

The amount of material that has been digitized in various archives is marvellous, and I hope we see more of it, but historical research for the foreseeable future is dependent upon archives being open and accessible. As this pandemic makes its miserable retreat in hopefully the foreseeable future as well, the people that control the purse strings of public archival collections need to be prepared to accommodate not only a return to normal, but a pent-up flood of demands from scholars and writers (and the public in general) to access materials that have been beyond their reach for so many months.

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