Archival Work During Corona
— Martin Christ
Date of Publication: 21 September 2020
Some Personal Experiences
Over the past months, I spent two stints of two weeks in Munich, researching my project on urban burials in London and Munich, c. 1520 to 1870. While it is still difficult (and not particularly safe) to travel from Germany to England, I decided to focus on Munich during the summer period, as I can reach it more easily from Erfurt, where I am based. Other scholars in our project on “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” do not have that luxury, as they have to carry out field work in India or Pakistan which is impossible at the moment.
But even in Munich, research has been impacted significantly and this blog post discusses some of the issues I faced as well as trying to provide some ways I found useful to overcome them. As we will see at the end, however, even with a lot of preparation, a good deal of luck is needed, as the situation is still changing so quickly. These experiences are, of course, my very own and may well be different for different people, depending on timing and research topic. But they also seem fairly specific to Munich, as I have heard from other researchers who made different experiences in other cities, with some research libraries and archives entirely closed or open as usual. In Munich, the system was something of a middle way between these two extremes.
My first trip was in late July and early August, the second in the middle of September. At this point, all the archives and research libraries that I was interested in had already partially reopened (in most cases from May) and had managed to find a system that worked quite well. During the first period, I focused on the archive of the archbishopric of München and Freising (Archiv des Erzbistums München und Freising) and the Bavarian state archive (Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv), while the second trip was dedicated to the town archive (Münchner Stadtarchiv) and the Bavarian state library (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, BSB).
All four institutions tried very hard to make it possible for researchers to work, while still ensuring the safety of staff and users. Though I am no expert, I felt that the measures taken by the archives and libraries made it possible to work there in a safe way. In all cases, there were signs reminding people to wear their masks and wash their hands, additional distancing between users and, in the case of the town archive, a general instruction not to talk to members of staff. In the town archive, users had to wear masks at all times, while in the other archives, users were allowed to take them off at their seats. All the archives and the state library worked with some kind of pre-registration slot system, which was usually restricted to half a day either in the morning or afternoon and which users had to register for in advance. Only in the Bavarian state library was it possible to receive slots for the whole day, more on which below.
Planning and Preparation
Planning archival work thoroughly is always important, of course. Our PhD student Simone Wagner has also pointed this out in a blog post on her (pre-Covid) archival research. But during this special time, preparation took on a whole new level. The Bavarian state archive, for example, informs users that they should sign up for a slot at least three days in advance. However, recently they had a waiting time of closer to three weeks (made more difficult because users have to register via e-mail, not through some specific website, where one can see which slots are full or available). In the state library, the registration was also around two weeks, so long-term planning was especially important on this trip. Additionally, there are also the usual restrictions. In the archive of the archbishopric, for instance, some documents are kept in storage that is further away and the documents have to be ordered at least one week in advance. This kind of long-term preparation is made very difficult, of course, by the fact that the situation is changing so quickly.
It was also important to check the precise system and restrictions, which were different depending on the archive. For example, in some cases, users were not allowed to use pens or pencils from the archive, but only their own. In the town archive, if the e-mail asking for a spot did not contain all the relevant information, the staff simply ignored the e-mail without further notice. As the situation was (and is) still developing from day to day, I also always checked the local news about further developments and restrictions. In the case of Munich, this was mainly the official homepage of the town, which tended to have the most up-to-date numbers and policies, and the joint blog of the archives in Munich. The potential closure of archives at short notice, the lack of time available in the archive and varying policies all posed some challenges. Below are five possibilities I found useful during my stay in Munich.
- Plans B and C: In order to maximise my time in Munich, I found some alternatives in case I did not get slots for a whole day or an archive would close at short notice. One of them was to combine time slots in different archives, so that when one of them was only open in the morning, I could still get a full day’s worth of archival work. In other cases, I went to museums, churches or cemeteries, as my project also considers visual sources and objects. Here, it also helped that the Bavarian state library was open until 9pm, so that it was possible to go there even after a “afternoon slot” in one of the archives.
- Informal Solutions: In some cases, it also helped to explain my situation to the staff, telling them that I only had a limited time and travelled from further away. If possible, the archivists and librarians tried to help me by giving me two slots in the same day, even if this was not normally possible. Additionally, asking the local experts about other possibilities was also useful. For instance, the museum of Jewish history also had a small library with some useful books, which I could use and there was no registration required.
- Knowing the Place: In the Bavarian State Library, it was also helpful to know the situation in terms of the different reading rooms. While the main reading room was normally fully booked for two weeks in advance, the reading room for magazines and journals (Zeitschriftenlesesaal) was not as full. However, between the two reading rooms there was an easy connection, so even books called into the main reading room could be consulted in the second reading room.
- Flexibility: Connected to this point, it was also useful to have some flexibility (which is especially difficult, of course, with all the long-term planning described above). In the Bavarian State Library, there is a kind of “check-out” system, where when someone leaves the library for the day, they can cancel their registration, opening up that space to users who want to use it later in the day, so periodically checking if someone has left already was a good way to spend some extra time there, especially later in the day. In general, there was plenty of space from the early evening onwards while I was there, so that just meant adjusting my work schedule a bit. In the archives, I also tended to ask in the morning if anyone had cancelled their slots that afternoon or during the following day, to see if there was a last-minute opening. (But I know from other archives, that this is not possible at all because once you have used your archival material, they “quarantine” the documents for one week).
- Maximising time while in the archive: This is the case whenever in an archive, of course, but especially important during a three-hour slot, also because there were stricter limitations on the number of documents that could be ordered. In the town archive of Munich, users could only call up five documents per day, for instance. For me, this meant taking brief notes of the documents which did not seem relevant and taking pictures of them and making longer transcriptions of the ones that seemed most relevant, but also taking pictures of them. In general, I think I took even more pictures than usual. And, as anyone who has ever done archival research knows, what seems irrelevant now might turn into a key source in the future, so having at least some pictures of those documents is useful.
But in the end, like everything these days, there remains a degree of unpredictability, no matter how long in advance you plan and how many plans B, C and D you have. I realised this on my last day in the archives, when, on just that day, Friday 18 September, the number of cases in Munich reached a critical level again, meaning that the week after there would be more restrictions, including the closure of the town archive. So if I had gone to the archives two weeks later, I could not have done any archival work. As everywhere else, researchers also have to adjust to this new normal.
As I said at the start of this piece, I think the situation (and suggestions for solutions) are fairly specific to Munich and the kind of research I do. If you undertook any research trips or archival research recently, feel free to comment below. We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences!
Thanks for these insights, Martin. I have postponed most of my research trips because it wouldn’t make sense to travel 200+ km only to view my documents for one day before they are ‘quarantined’. Therefore I am happy to hear that this is not common practice in every archive (anymore).
And the check out system at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek sounds very good. In Berlin, the State Library only allocates seats one week (!) in advance so you need to plan ahead. On top of that, the Haus Unter den Linden, with its rare books reading room, is still closed.
Thanks for the comment!
Really interesting about Berlin. The one week in advance only system was also in place in the town archive in Munich, which made the whole being flexible while planning far ahead even more difficult…