COVID-19 and Archival Research: An Introduction

Jennifer Putzi, William & Mary

In the winter of 2021 I became obsessed with a diary. While preparing to teach a first-year seminar on “American Women’s Diaries,” I discovered the 1868 diary of Frances Anne Rollin at the Smithsonian’s Digital Transcription Center. Ignoring the transcription created by volunteers, I began my own, making my way through Rollin’s page-a-day diary late at night, focusing on her handwriting instead of the pandemic. I was swept into Rollin’s world. Twenty-three years old in 1868, when she wrote the diary, Rollin was a native South Carolinian, born into an elite, mixed-race family. Educated in Philadelphia at the Institute for Colored Youth, she returned home at the close of the Civil War to teach formerly enslaved people in Charleston and the Sea Islands. There she met Martin R. Delany, the activist, author, and Union Army officer who had been appointed an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and he enlisted her to write his biography. Returning North in late 1867, she settled in Boston to write the biography and negotiate with publishers. The majority of the diary is written when she is living in Boston, but it also documents her return to South Carolina later in the year, as well as her marriage to William J. Whipper, recently elected to the South Carolina state legislature. 

It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that transcribing the diary and researching Frances Rollin Whipper’s life has, at least in part, gotten me through this pandemic. As my teaching and administrative work intensified, the diary reminded me that there was another aspect to my life as an academic. Using my skills as a researcher to find out more about Rollin’s life and the lives of those around her provided small rewards in days that often felt monotonous and unsatisfying. Her life distracted me from my own and reminded me how lucky I was. And my newfound Zoom skills facilitated my acquaintance with Rollin’s great-granddaughter, whose heroic efforts to recover her ancestor’s memory far predate my own. But there were often disappointments—documents that I could not find online, archives that were closed or that had so few staff that they couldn’t assist patrons. As I think about what to do with this diary now, the biggest obstacle is the fact that I can’t hold the physical manuscript in my hands. Part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection, the diary is inaccessible to scholars due to COVID protocols. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of when the Museum will allow researchers in.

Thinking about how to proceed with my research, I also wondered: how many of my peers had experienced similar disappointments? Had they found new and inventive ways to work with these challenges? What sorts of collaborations were either prevented or enabled by the pandemic? I began to talk with friends and colleagues and discovered that many of them shared my experience of finding hope in the archive at the same time that the archive felt impossibly out of reach. 

As so much of the work published in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers is enabled by and depends upon archival research, the co-editors of the journal want to make these conversations public. Here we present seven linked essays on “COVID-19 and the Archive” to get us started. We hope to post additional pieces as they come in and we encourage you all to post your own COVID-19 and the archive stories on Facebook and Twitter.

These essays are loosely paired together, but conversations occur across and between all seven.  The first two, by Pamela VanHaitsma and Eric Gardner, are about what happens to a long-term project when access to the physical archive isn’t possible.  In VanHaitsma’s case, she was forced to resort to digital scans in the final stages of her book on same-sex relationships between women teachers in the long nineteenth century.  Her fierce longing for the archive was matched by her relief at being able to weather out the first days of the pandemic with her spouse and baby.  Gardner also writes about the ways COVID-19 has brought research, teaching, and parenting all together in the same spaces.  He thinks here about the way his piles of research potentially work like the boxes on his Zoom screen to limit his perspective, to present a tidy picture that elides the complexity of his life, his students’ lives, and those of the figures we study and write about.

Caroline Wigginton and Jennifer Tuttle reflect on the librarians and other staff who made their work possible over the past two years.  Finishing a book on the influence of Native craftwork on American literature, Wigginton found herself needing to look at the work of turn-of-the-century Ho Chunk book illustrator and author Angel de Cora.  Working closely with her “COVID librarian hero,” she reflects, brought home to her the collaborative nature of all scholarship.  Similarly, Tuttle writes about the challenges of archival research when you can’t get to an archive and rummage through finding aids and folders.  In gratitude, she names the many archivists and librarians who have facilitated her research in recent months, insisting that their labor on our behalf be recognized.

The last pair focuses on collaborative projects that initially seemed impossible to transfer to a virtual setting.  Recovering the history of Indigenous young women at the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a team of researchers at the University of Tulsa recounts the difficulties of conducting their work online and in isolated (and isolating) visits to the archives.  Proceeding in spite of these roadblocks has reinforced their sense of the value of the project and of the history they uncover.  Writing about her experiences as a part of the Douglass Day team, Courtney Murray also laments the loss of in-person collaboration, but highlights the potential of online community in describing the first all-virtual Douglass Day event in 2021.  Led by the examples of Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, she and her team used digital tools to reach out to their collaborators, ensuring that everyone could participate in the event, celebrating and reinforcing the principles of Douglass Day.

We conclude with a meditation on COVID-19, archival research, and social justice by Shermaine Jones, whose decision not to pursue a traditional research agenda in the last two years likely resonates with many of us. She reminds us of the need for scholars and institutions to rethink our priorities, particularly if the work of Black women “in this time of global pandemic, racial animus, and revolution” is to be recognized and valued.

This entry was posted in Conversations. Bookmark the permalink.