Archival Research in the Age of Coronavirus: Alternatives, Opportunities and Dangers
Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Archival Research in the Age of Coronavirus: Alternatives, Opportunities and Dangers

James Fenwick


This time last year I was immersed in an archive. I had been researching for around two months, spending a large portion of summer 2019 sifting through uncatalogued material that had recently been deposited at the Stanley Kubrick Archive. It consisted of around 100 boxes, each containing new insights, discoveries, and even ‘lost’ creative projects by the enigmatic filmmaker, adding narrative layers to scholarly understanding of Kubrick’s life and work. The Stanley Kubrick Archive is hosted by the University of the Arts London and has been a vital repository for my research on Kubrick and his role as a producer. Visiting the archive has been a welcome part of my scholarly existence for the better part of a decade. As a non-Londoner, I appreciate the opportunity to take on a new life for a few weeks at a time, adopting a routine as I settle into the ways of doing things in the capital city, embracing the mundane journey on the Bakerloo line (and thankful when the overcrowded train empties at Waterloo). I even take on a few vices during my research trips, joining the crowds of art students outside the entrance to UAL and smoking, or paying many a lunchtime visit to some of the seedier pubs in Elephant and Castle for a crafty midday pint.


The ‘reading room’ at the archive is a cramped, claustrophobic, airconditioned space. It can fit a handful of researchers at most and securing a spot requires advance planning. It makes the process of inspecting documents all the more intimate, with researchers bumping into each other, or even sharing discoveries, leaning incredibly close to one another to point out new findings, and briefly handling the same object to experience the material and visceral nature of a document once held by Kubrick. And then, after a hard day’s work, I head to The Old Red Lion for a few drinks with colleagues, fellow researchers and archive staff to discuss the day’s research and share insights about what to explore next.


Fast forward to summer 2020 and none of this is possible. The coronavirus pandemic has brought an abrupt halt to archival research. The Stanley Kubrick Archive, like many other archives, is closed, with no prospect of it opening up to external researchers until 2021. And I recount my research routine in order to highlight the challenges that face archival researchers in the age of coronavirus. I cannot conduct my research on Kubrick remotely; the archive is not digitized for reasons of copyright and resourcing. Plus, much of the material I want to look at is ‘off catalogue’ (i.e. not catalogued or not accessible to the ‘average’ researcher). And the scale of the Stanley Kubrick Archive requires networking: conversations with other researchers about their experience of the archive and their understanding of its contents are crucial to inform my own research process. The sociability of archival research is essential, throwing up chance encounters, inspiring conversations and potential collaborations. Arguably, the face-to-face encounters with those other people at the archive is the most important aspect of the entire research process and it is something that cannot be replicated in the ‘virtual’ world of videoconferencing, no matter how hard one tries.


Perhaps I am being a little too melodramatic and bleak. Forgive me, it is my natural tendency. And perhaps all I am really lamenting is my ability to indulge in a few vices each summer. But there are much more serious points here too. After all, how do academics conduct archival research in the age of coronavirus? Is it even possible? What alternatives are there? And does it perhaps signal an opportunity to rethink the value and purpose of archives and archive methods as we head into the 2020s?


I, like many other archival researchers, have been confronted with these questions over the last few months. And with the prospect of a summer of archival work having vanished, I had to consider what to do with myself. Shortly before the lockdown in the UK, I was in correspondence with a senior archivist in the USA about remotely accessing a handful of documents. They were not digitized and I required them to be photocopied. However, even this was not possible by March 2020, when the USA also went into lockdown. The archivist pointed out, however, that a portion of the collection I wanted to explore was available digitally and online. So I adapted my research, turned to the virtual archive, and proceeded to search, examine, download and analyse over 1,000 documents. My summer of archival research was back on.


But it has not been quite the same. I am used to dealing with material evidence, physical items that require caution and handling with care, documents that are fragile, delicate, and even at times necessitate specialist viewing equipment. I believe such visceralities are vital in order to connect a researcher with a research object and to provide an almost phenomenological insight into both the material life of the archival artefact and the moment in history from which it originated. To understand an archival object, to contextualise and interpret it, one arguably needs to understand its present existence and its material dimensions. A virtual archive does not allow this. Instead, what I am viewing is a pixelated version of that object with no understanding of its existence within the archive in the physical sense. I am left detached, even alienated. The times that I have seen casual researchers at the Stanley Kubrick Archive, mainly Kubrick fans, looking at a prop from, say, The Shining is wonderful. They become emotional and the objects become almost religious relics. It is an experience from which I too am not immune. There have been many a moment where I drop the façade of ‘objective’ researcher (if such a thing is possible) and experience the archive from an emotional viewpoint. Finding a handwritten letter from Laurence Olivier, or a scrawled note from Tom Cruise has allowed me a brief moment of connection with pop cultural icons and the definite objects of my research. They become less remote and more real.


But what I am offering above is perhaps the more idealised and romantic version of the process of archival research. After all, it is not always all so wonderous. Using an archive can be tiring, tedious and hard work. In fact, when I use an archive (and I know from anecdotal discussions that I am not alone here) I am not really researching but capturing or recording documents for later use. Archive ‘research’ involves hours upon hours of taking thousands of photographs of documents that make no sense, or worse, depending on copyright, furiously typing the information onto your laptop (as in the case of the Stanley Kubrick Archive). At the end of the day you are left exhausted, bleary eyed, with an aching back and sore wrists. Archive research can be a soul-destroying and lonely experience. And that is before you have even started the process of actually analysing the data back at the office.


But this summer, the virtual archive did away with all of this archival labour. Instead, I had instant access to the documents I wanted to analyse. Someone else had done all of the work of digitizing the documents and providing metadata and keywords. I could skip ahead, with my summer of research actually being a summer of genuine research, not just capturing data for later use. Using a virtual archive also has the side-benefit of making my research eco-friendly, doing away with the need to travel (whether to London or to archives elsewhere in the world). And more important, I haven’t had the problem of finding that I’ve taken blurry photographs. All of the material was professionally digitized to high-resolution, with some of the documents even being searchable PDFs. After an initial resistance to the virtual archive, I have become enamoured by it, even starting to perceive it as the future of archival research. 


There are caveats to this virtual world of archives, which I briefly list below and which in themselves perhaps should be seen as an opportunity to reflect on the wider problems with archives and archival research:


  • Gaps and Absences: The virtual collection that I have been using is limited in the material that is available. Much of the collection I am using remains undigitized, leaving many gaps and absences in the data that I can access and analyse. I am constrained, in other words, to browse only that which has been made available by the repository. If there is further archival material I want to access, I either have to wait for the archive to reopen or potentially request that the archive make a digital copy for me. But this latter option has not necessarily been available during the lockdown.  


  • Cultural Value and Archival Privilege: Some collections are almost fully digitized while other collections have no prospect of being digitised at all. There are of course pragmatic reasons for this, not least resourcing and the scale of archives, many of which continue to grow. But there is also the issue of how we as archival researchers ascribe cultural value and privilege particular archival items and collections over others. Take the example of the usage statistics released by the Archives and Special Collections Centre at the University of the Arts London, home of the Stanley Kubrick Archive. Recent figures show that the Stanley Kubrick Archive is easily privileged by researchers over all other collections, forming over 70 percent of all retrieval requests (data available here). This has an impact on the work of archivists, who are pushed towards focusing attention on the more popular archives in order to meet researcher demand. Cultural value, in other words, is being ascribed by our collective actions as archival researchers because of the way we privilege some collections (and thereby certain histories) over others, which in turn impacts on which collections are given priority for preservation, curation, and digitisation.


  • Hidden Histories and Academic Avoidance: The limited data available to me via the virtual archive that I have been using hints toward the fact that there is a hidden history within archives. Certain collections are not used, while others are privileged. This also surely means that there is a gap in scholarly knowledge, a gap caused by us, the academics. The avoidance—unconscious or not—of some archival collections has meant that only a particular, often dominant viewpoint has been used to construct histories of politics, society and industry, neglecting alternative perspectives. And within my own field of film and media studies, this often means that it is the canonical figures of history that have been given precedence, while other individuals or groups have been side-lined, forgotten, even erased out of historical narratives and memory. Archives are powerful, contested sites of dominance but also resistance. They contain narratives that can challenge the status quo and the accepted history of the world. But there is a danger that such material will remain hidden, particularly in the virtual world, if we as archival researchers do not locate and champion such collections.


The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has been an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and value of archives and archival research. The virtual archive offers a new alternative, but also highlights the problems and dangers with archival research to date. For too long, the privileged figures in history and historiography and the associated archival collections have taken precedent over marginalised, forgotten and lost figures and communities. There is a hidden history within the archives, one from which counter histories can be constructed and the voices of the marginalised amplified. But only we, as archival researchers and in collaboration with archivists and repositories, have the power to recover them through our collective actions of what and who we decide to research. The archival collections we choose to visit and those that we choose to focus on will be the collections to which cultural value will most likely be ascribed in the future and the ones most likely to be first in line for digitization. The virtual archive offers the potential to be a democratic platform that challenges privilege. But at the same time, it is a platform that could easily reinforce existing privileges. If there is one thing to take away from this brief, purposely polemical research note, it is this: take the time over the next few months, while archives remain closed, to explore the virtual repositories that currently exist. Compare and contrast what is available digitally to that which is not. And then ask yourself just why that might be the case.