Research Resilience reflection 5: Research Resilience in Pandemic Times

This post by Robert A. Ventresca (King’s University College at Western University, Canada) is the fifth in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


The irony is not lost on me. I have struggled for the better part of an hour now to articulate a meaningful introduction to this very brief reflection on research resilience in pandemic times. Struggled, that is, with the distraction of my six-year-old daughter’s voice in another room engaging excitedly in an online learning exercise. Just as I finish typing these few sentences, in fact, she calls out that her lesson is finished, and that procuring her morning snack now is an urgent matter. Meanwhile, the dog, a precocious Labrador Retriever pup, is whimpering, the unmistakable signal that the appointed time fast approaches for her midday run around the yard. My wife, to her great credit, is somewhere in the house managing the many demands of her flourishing law practice, confronting the obstacles presented by our heavily taxed and falsely advertised high speed internet.

These are the rather quotidian concerns of working from home in pandemic times. Yet they speak to the very practical obstacles many of us are facing to produce meaningful research and scholarship in the midst of a global pandemic. As I write, the feared ‘third wave’ of Covid-19 has materialized where I live, provoking yet another round of closures and restrictions. The various public health measures are euphemistically described by officials as a shutdown, presumably to make it sound more palatable than the draconian lockdown of previous surges. One struggles in vain to tell the difference.

I write from a position of considerable privilege and security. I am a white, heterosexual male, tenured, and a Full Professor to boot. The reality is that the pandemic has impacted my junior colleagues disproportionately – especially women. In fact, as Vice President Kamala Harris wrote a few months ago, the social and economic effects of the pandemic have caused a mass exodus of women from the paid workforce – a situation she aptly describes as an emergency.

My privileged position gives rise to an ethical responsibility to lay bare how the effects of the global pandemic have disproportionately impacted traditionally under-represented groups in academia. At the same time, it may be instructive to reflect on how my own research agenda as a mid-career scholar has been impacted in wholly unexpected ways by the truly unprecedented demands of balancing work with caregiving responsibilities in pandemic times.

I would offer three observations.

First, we need to acknowledge that talking about the elusive work-life balance means something different today than it did in the before times. We are living in grievously disturbed times; a time of tremendous loss, suffering and disorienting disruption. Consider, for instance, what a stay-at-home or lockdown order entails. All so-called non-essential services and business are closed or severely restricted. Everyone who can work remotely must do so. Daycare, schools and even universities pivot to online learning, which is actually emergency remote teaching. Travel restrictions enforce strict regulations that prevent people from more than one household from congregating. Under current restrictions where we live, if even just one member of a household exhibits the altogether common symptoms of seasonal colds and flu, such as headache, cough or runny nose, the expectation is that everyone in the household should quarantine, including children. There are understandably rigourous protocols that dictate when children may be permitted to return to in-person instruction: Covid-testing, Covid-screening, isolation for days or weeks, depending on the circumstances.

Families must balance all of these variables when making work and caregiving arrangements. That balancing act – challenging enough in the before times – is all the more difficult now since the usual support networks we relied upon previously – daycares, babysitters, even extended family members – are prohibited or severely curtailed. Whatever fine distinction there was previously between work and home has been blurred, nay, erased altogether. As Kamala Harris put it: our homes have become classrooms and child-care centres. Accordingly, the assumptions, practices and expectations that informed research and scholarship previously should no longer apply; for if they do, we risk creating unfair, inequitable burdens and barriers in research fields across the disciplines.

Second, we must take care not to generalize or impose standardized metrics for evaluating research work during pandemic times. Flexibility and reasonable accommodations must be the order of the day. Not all researchers face the same dilemmas in balancing work and caregiving in pandemic times. Fair and equitable metrics presume differing circumstances and disparate access to resources and support systems. For me personally, the fact of having a young family in pandemic times when school-age children often are home for weeks on end and with a spouse who is also working from home – all of this was bound to change the way I work, if and when I am able to work at all. I have struggled to meet deadlines and missed a few. I have fallen behind at times in my contributions to an ongoing collaborative project. Travel restrictions have imposed indefinite delays on long-planned archival research, cutting me off from indispensable primary sources for my current book project.

Third, we need to redress structural and attitudinal inequities by demanding that institutions and their leaders commit to formal and informal accommodations to mitigate the most adverse effects of the pandemic on our research. All too often, managerial attitudes and organizational structures are slow to change. Such rigidity inhibits research resilience and productivity, not to mention the stresses and strains it places on mental health and well-being of researchers. I have advocated on my own behalf for formal accommodation in my work schedule on the basis of family status. I have insisted that those in a position of institutional authority take care not to bring gendered expectations to bear in determining accommodations for faculty and staff with caregiving responsibilities.

Again, I appreciate that this advocacy reflects a position of privilege and security. If I were not tenured, I would be worried about my professional trajectory. I know many of my more junior colleagues with young children or other caregiving roles are worried. We need to hold our institutions and our respective research networks accountable to ensure fair and equitable research practices in pandemic times.

Robert A. Ventresca, Ph.D.
Professor of History and Acting Coordinator, Human Rights Studies
King’s University College at Western University (Canada)

Research Resilience reflection 4: A year at the University of Glasgow’s Archives & Special Collections

This post by Moira Rankin and Robert Maclean (University of Glasgow) is the fourth in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


A robust, future driven structure
The last year has been professionally challenging and rewarding for the Archives & Special Collections staff at the University of Glasgow. When the campus closed, our Team was already in the midst of change. A functional re-organisation had taken place in October 2019[1] to bring a ‘robust and “future driven structure”’ to meet the complex and ever-changing requirements of the 21st century academic community.[2] By March 2020 we were in the early stages of forming our team, scoping client needs, plotting trends and thinking creatively about interdisciplinary approaches to the collections.

On reflection that gave us a head start and we were able to put our online service ideas into practice far faster than we would ever have planned. Through lockdown we continually refocussed on what we could still do to keep research and teaching moving. A year on, the indications are that this approach has benefitted the University of Glasgow community.

Towards a post-custodial collaborative approach
In a recent podcast, scholar Karen Roybal commented on the limitations of custodial models of archival science. She spoke of the ways traditional methods have stifled some narratives and limited archivist professional development.[3] We were set in our ways so something had to change. The last year has changed the ways we communicate and collaborate – this is partly driven by the internal service change with archivists, conservators and librarians working closely together to offer a single point of contact collections teaching service.[4] But it is more than that – we are collaborating closely with our users to design the digital offer.

While it is too early to draw conclusions about the exact reasons for the change, what we can safely say is that during an uncertain budgetary environment, our management chose to invest over £30,000 in technology to support what we called the Virtual Collections Classroom (VCC) and the Virtual Reading Room (VRR). The conversations with academic colleagues that built these services gave us a shared focus and common student experience centred purpose. The break in the routine caused by the pandemic has enabled us to be creative about service delivery beyond our physical campus spaces.

New online services

Image shows a medieval manuscript on a Zoom screen, with a poll asking what section students want to zoom into next.
Close up of students viewing a medieval manuscript via the Virtual Collections Classroom. With permission of Dr Johanna Green and University of Glasgow Library Archives & Special Collections

We knew of visualiser set ups that had successfully been used by individual teachers and wanted to build something around that.[5] Our learning technology colleagues suggested we look at a ceiling mounted camera being used by anatomy lecturers in Dundee and St Andrews for over-the-shoulder teaching. With the input of academic colleagues,[6] in under 3 months we successfully made the business case for investment, installed the equipment, drew up conservation processes and user guides and turned it into a fully functioning bookable service.

Twenty-one visualiser classes were delivered to over 700 students from first year undergraduates right through to postgraduate researchers. User feedback from teachers and students was incredibly positive. Three of the teachers who used it received five nominations between them for teaching awards. Dr Johanna Green, whose strong support for the concept helped secure the required technological investment, won the award for Best Practice in Online Learning.

Visualisers and research

During the more open phases of lockdown the Virtual Reading Room service provided a form of access for those who were shielding and those who were studying or working away from Glasgow. Moreover it allowed academic teaching staff to save time (and stay safe) by limiting the number of visits to campus. They could do their teaching research from home. Finding ways to make teaching preparation more efficient has the potential to release more research time. This is something we will continue to investigate post-pandemic.

Image shows an archivist scanning a manuscript
An Engagement Team member sharing collections via the Virtual Reading Room. With permission of University of Glasgow Library Archives & Special Collection

Visualiser technology allows viewers to get a sense of scale, of materiality (through zooming in on physical features and studying condition and quality of materials), and a general sense of the “thingy-ness” of the object. Yet we are clear that this does not replicate a traditional research visit experience. It offers a quick flavour of the research object and the chance to confirm discrete and specific questions about it – such as, “yes, I’d like to have this digitised” or “no, I will not travel across the world to view it in person”. Careful management of user expectation of this new service continues to be important.

In a post-pandemic world visualiser-mediated access will be part of our service portfolio. Services might include:

  • A “try before you buy your plane ticket” service for distant researchers
  • A more inclusive service for anyone who cannot visit for reasons of disability or caring responsibilities
  • A conference call service allowing multiple researchers to consult items simultaneously over Zoom for project scoping and rapport building
  • Exciting but secure “reveals” for book launches
  • A high quality film studio environment for creating content for use in evidencing research findings and engaging audiences for enhanced impact

Resilient researchers of the future
We know there is strong demand for these services and we are still working through the post pandemic resource implications. Nevertheless we think that the most significant impact of this technology for research resilience may not be an immediate one.

Practical and logistical barriers have traditionally made it difficult to extend primary source teaching to the large undergraduate student cohorts. Postgraduate research students have sometimes reported archive anxiety and a lack of confidence in handling primary sources for the first time. Visualiser technology has enabled archive and rare book sources to go directly into an online first year class of Economic & Social Historians this year. They enthusiastically used the Zoom chat function to share their thoughts. Will the historians who started during the pandemic have a fresh perspective having seen their lecturers interacting with their source in real time? Will this inspire them to challenge and develop the subject in new ways? What previously hidden or marginalised perspectives might be revealed? Time will tell.[7]

References

  1. University of Glasgow – MyGlasgow – Archives & Special Collections – Our team. This paper covers the work that was led by the Engagement Team. It does not cover other future facing developments being led by other teams. The development of a new collections discovery interface is being led by Sarah Hepworth and the development of a Digital Preservation service by Clare Paterson.
  2. Restructuring for relevance: a paradigm shift for academic libraries | Emerald Insight
  3. Interview with Karen Roybal, 23rd February 2021 in Objectivity and Neutrality in the Archive, a podcast on Anchor
  4. The ASC Conservation & Preservation Team, led by Julie Gardham, have contributed enthusiastically to deliver this service professionally and securely.
  5. The work of Dot Porter at The University of Virginia and Aaron Pratt at the University of Texas at Austin influenced the creation of our visualiser services.
  6. We would particularly like to thank our colleagues Johanna Green, Hannah-Louise Clark, Maria Economou, Catriona MM Macdonald and Adele Redhead for their enthusiastic support of our work this year.
  7. Our next step is to assess and frame the potential of this creative and engaging online learning environment using the SCALE tool produced by Carmen Richardson and Punya Mishra. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2017.11.004

Research Resilience reflection 3: Supporting research with the Internet Archive

This video by Alison Harvey (Cardiff University) is the third in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


Can’t see this video? You can find it directly on YouTube here.

If you’re interested in learning more about uploading to the Internet Archive, Alison Harvey has created a tutorial with a step-by-step guide. You can access it directly on SlideShare.

Research Resilience reflection 2: Resilience at Leeds University Library Special Collections

This slideshow by Tim Procter (University of Leeds) is the second in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


Having problems viewing these slides? You can also view them on the SlideShare website.

Research Resilience reflection 1: Distributing the archive

This post by Alexandra Leigh (City University) is the first in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.


Picture the archive – what do you see? For me, a physical location often comes to mind when I think about the archive, whether somewhere I have visited, worked or studied. However, this is no longer the reality of a great deal of archival work.

Drawing showing a laptop, smartphone, camera, and The National Archives
How might we – as users – transmit and store the ‘distributed’ archive? © Author’s own

Archival research, in particular, is increasingly moving away from the physical location, forcing a reconsideration of what we consider to be the boundaries of the archive. Several user studies have suggested that many researchers now treat the archival research as a data gathering exercise, copying large amounts of archival material in order to work on them elsewhere [e.g. 2, 3]. Some have suggested this represents a new mode of ‘ex situ’ research [3]; and this is without considering researchers who may never even set foot in the archive.

As a PhD researcher based at The National Archives and City, University of London, my own research focuses on these changes to archival research and how to design digital systems to support new ways of interacting with the archive. From October to December 2019, I carried out a series of combined interviews and observations with 11 archival researchers at The National Archives. This study highlighted how key information activities that comprise research practice are being shaped by the researcher’s increasing need to work at a distance from the archive. Here, I present a brief overview of these findings and suggest ways in which the archive can support these changes to research.

The study identified three information activities – reading, collecting, organising – and how these have been shaped by the researcher’s desire to work with archival material elsewhere. When reading records, researchers mostly scanned records quickly, engaging in a lightweight form of interaction to identify material of relevance and collect it, usually through photography. Aware that they would be working with materials without reference to the archival context, most researchers sought to capture the broader context of the information they were interested in, and photographed the whole record wherever possible. Several researchers went further still, maintaining the association of records with file and series either through their notes or by organising materials into a similar filing structure on their personal devices.

Such findings could be taken as supportive of a new model of ‘ex situ’ archival research as identified by Trace and Karadkar [3]. However, rather than reflecting in situ and ex situ as two distinct approaches to research, the findings of this study emphasised the connection between the two and the continuities present in archival research across the notional boundary of the physical archive.

What I found striking about researchers’ activities in the archive was how they sought to preserve the potential to generate meaning from the archival context. Archivists will be well aware of how the meaning of the file can ultimately be more than sum of its parts [1]. This was reflected in the findings of this study, with comments such as, “a lot of times it’s easier to read things, how they’ve been categorised because they also tell you […] a larger story” (p.11) confirming the thought processes behind the researcher’s preservation of the archival arrangement and the significance of this to generating meaning. If researchers are seeking to preserve an archival meaning through their collecting activities, by retaining both provenance and original order, can it be argued that – conceptually – researchers haven’t left the archive at all?

Nonetheless, the researcher’s actions to remove information from the archive will always introduce some level of transformation. Though some elements of the archive are replicated and enacted through the researcher’s information activities, the decisions made as to what to take and what to leave behind also shape how they experience the archive through their assembled research materials. Researchers sought to preserve archival connections when reading, collecting, and organising materials to work on later. Yet they also worked selectively, taking only records of interest from the file. This selection disrupts the ‘archival’ meaning of the record and subtly reshapes the context to merge with the researcher’s own interests. Thus, the active decisions the researcher makes within the archive shape its recreation elsewhere, resulting in a unique and highly personalised enactment of the archive.

These findings invite reflection on the interaction between the archive and the researcher that shapes the meaning we make from records. While the shift away from the physical archive began long before the coronavirus pandemic, the upheaval of the last year has encouraged a reconsideration of many of the ways in which we work. As researchers increasingly work beyond the physical archive, we should reflect on the ways in which current systems or processes enable or constrain the researcher when drawing on the conceptual space of the archive. Further support should be inbuilt to afford interactions with the archive across multiple spaces, whether in the archive, home, office, or anywhere else the future archival researcher might wish to work.

To further these findings, a second study will take place later this year that will examine how working in different physical spaces affects the ways in which researchers engage with the archive. If you would be interested in learning more about this project and would like to be notified when recruitment for this next study begins, please contact me at alexandra.leigh@city.ac.uk.

References

  1. Duff, W.M. and Johnson, C.A. (2002) ‘Accidentally found on purpose: Information-seeking behavior of historians in archives’, The Library Quarterly, 72(4), pp. 472-496.
  2. Rutner, J. and Schonfeld, R.C. (2012) Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians, New York: Ithaka S+R. Available at: https://sr.ithaka.org/publications/supporting-the-changing-research-practices-of-historians/. (Accessed 08/01/21).
  3. Trace, C.B. and Karadkar, U.P. (2017) ‘Information management in the humanities: Scholarly processes, tools, and the construction of personal collections’, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 68(2), pp. 491-507.