Research in times of COVID

by Jaap Geraerts

COVID-19 has posed a challenge, to put it mildly, to how most of us go about living our lives. Either in our personal life or work life, most if not all of us had to make significant adaptions in order to deal with a world that still is in the grasp of pandemic. The experience I’d like to focus on in this blog post, is that of doing research at these unprecedented times. Fairly soon after COVID-19 broke out, it became clear that it would have huge implications for researchers and teachers. Due to travel bans and other restrictions, virtually all conferences were either canceled or were held online in some form or another. In a short time span, teachers across the world had to go to extraordinary lengths to move their courses online. As libraries and archives closed their doors and traveling to or from particular countries became severely restricted or even impossible, the access to primary and secondary sources, the very fuel of our research, was hampered to a large degree.

My own experiences chime with this general picture. All the conferences I was supposed to attend were canceled and the research trip to the Netherlands that I had planned for the last week of May had to be postponed. Luckily I could work on other aspects of my current research project and spent a couple of months doing boring but necessary work on the data set that I’m preparing, work for which I rely on online databases such as this one. Finally, because most Dutch archives and libraries started opened their doors from the beginning of June and the international trains from Germany to my home country resumed their service as well, I was  able to embark on a three-week research trip in August.

I certainly wasn’t able to visit all the places I originally intended. For example, the limited number of seats offered by the Dutch National Archive were already reserved long in advanced of my trip. Nor could I consult the collections of the University Library in Utrecht since it only catered for the staff and students of the university. Apart from that, however, I managed to visit a surprising amount of provincial, regional, and local archives. These were gradually opened to the public again on the condition that everyone strictly adhered to the safety measures. At Het Utrechts Archief visitors were welcomed by a large poster detailing a set of clear instructions (see image 1), while the larger reading room of the Noord-Hollands Archief in Haarlem was equipped with a set of colourful walk lines. In both archives, plastic screens separated members of staff from visitors and made safe communication between them possible. These buildings were equipped with hand sanitizing stations as well, although in Haarlem I was told that before touching the manuscript material we actually needed to wash our hands again with normal soap (it turns out that most hand sanitizers are rather bad for the archival documents).

Entrance of Het Utrechts Archief (photo by the author).

Although operating on restricted schedules, which translated into limited opening hours and a lower number of documents one could request on a daily basis, it turned out to be possible to get a lot of research done. This should be contributed entirely to the willingness of members of staff to go beyond what they were required to do, mainly by fetching more documents than their own guidelines stipulated. Indeed, somehow archivists and librarians managed to outdo their already high levels of service that we are so accustomed to in normal times. Their dedication does not stand in isolation. Since the outbreak of the virus we have witnessed a veritable outpouring of acts of kindness among the academic community, including sharing teaching materials, offering workshops and seminar on how to teach online, and providing access to primary and secondary sources.

The reading room of the Noord-Hollands Archief (photo by the author).

At the same time such heart-warming acts of generosity and support – academia at its very best – contrast sharply with the economic and politic realities we face. Already before the pandemic the state of academia in many countries was rather deplorable and its future looks even more grim due to the economic and political implications of the virus. In some case the deteriorating financial situation of universities has already resulted in the large-scale sacking of staff. It’s hard to believe, but the academic job market is likely to become even worse in the foreseeable future, further swelling the ranks of the academic precariat. Alas, the cultural sector cannot expect a much brighter future, with national stimulus packages being largely diverted to other sectors.

So torn between the experience of solidarity and kindness one the one hand, and the harsh political and economic realities on the other, it is not easy to make sense of this period. Still, for me there is one major takeaway from all of this: the importance of community and collaboration. In a time when the academic and cultural sectors in many countries are the victim of an astonishing lack of political will to properly fund them (if not under direct attack from (alt-right) political parties), doing research during COVID provided yet another reminder that most of the academic activities that we are engaged in are fundamental communal in nature and are simply impossible without the existence of and access to a variety of well-staffed institutions, including archives, libraries, and universities. Hopefully the importance of the sciences and humanities in dealing with the virus and addressing its many cultural, economic, and social implications, will convince the powers that be that investing in the people and institutions that underpin and enable academic research and teaching is perhaps not such a bad idea after all.

Cite this article as: Jaap Geraerts, "Research in times of COVID," in Digital Humanities Lab, 23/10/2020,

Featured image: Travel smart in the Netherlands.

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