By Tim Galsworthy
Well, the world has certainly changed since I last blogged for Pubs and Publications! Since my previous piece in January things have turned upside down and then some. I have become accustomed to working from home, I’ve binge-watched “Tiger King”, and I’ve partaken in an multitude of Zoom quizzes. On a more serious note, we have all witnessed the escalating number of coronavirus cases and my heart goes out to everyone affected.
One particular maze I’ve had to navigate is achieving and planning primary research for my project. I’m a History PhD candidate studying the Republican Party. Therefore, a wealth of critical archival material is in the United States – in institutions which are currently closed. In this entry I’m going to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted my research, the adjusted research plans I am making, and maximising remote research. Throughout I will endeavour to offer advice for other researchers who rely on overseas materials, as we try to navigate these unprecedented times.
COVID-19 has left a very definite impression on my research. At the start of March, I headed to the United States for a month-long visit, planning to conduct research at three institutions. My trip was dramatically cut short. On my fourth day of research at the Nixon Library, we were informed that all facilities managed by the National Archives and Records Administration would be closing the following day. This meant that my time at the Nixon Library was limited and would not be making it to the Reagan Library. At this point I had a decision to make. Do I change my flights and head to Arizona State University (ASU) early – as this was the last library I was visiting – or do I change my flights and come back home to Britain?
Here is my first piece of advice: be sensible. At first I was very upset and emotional. A research trip I had planned for months, in intricate detail, had gone up in smoke (and anyone who knows me knows just how much I love detailed plans!) But reason prevailed. The fact a travel ban was being implanted in the United States made my mind up; I just wanted to get home. After a rather stressful two and half hours on hold, I managed to get a new flight for the very next day. A week after I had left, and three weeks earlier than originally planned, I touched down back in Britain. I’d never been so relieved to see Heathrow Airport! The worsening situation and ramped up restrictions that have ensued since my return have proved beyond doubt that I made the right decision. I encourage everyone to be sensible and dispassionate when making big decisions at the moment.
Upon returning to my flat, and after recovering from jet lag, my next research obstacle was planning future visits to the U.S. As well as trying to re-arrange visits to the Reagan Library and ASU, I have a two-month long trip I am planning to make to the U.S. South this summer, along with a research trip and placement in early 2021. As of right now, my future research plans are totally up in the air. I am someone who likes everything to be sorted well ahead of time. I plan my U.S. visits months, and, in some cases, years in advance. Currently that just isn’t possible and I have to accept that.
Here is my second piece of advice: plan, but by flexible. I know that seems contradictory but stick with me. I have drawn up an array of possible research plans, some optimistic about when restrictions will lift and some less optimistic. I’m keeping my options open with multiple plans so I will be able to make the best of whatever way the chips falls. If I have four plans, I’m hoping at least one of them might work out!
I would also encourage you to keep in regular contact with archivists. Working and respecting archivists is always absolutely crucial when conducting research overseas, worldwide pandemic notwithstanding. I have kept archivists I have been liaising with fully up to date. They, in turn, have been keeping me abreast with my options regarding visits, remote research, and funding. They have all been absolutely fantastic. Remaining in contact with archivists is a key way we can plan and remain flexible.
Finally, online resources are an absolute godsend. Researchers investigating the U.S. are fortunate to have abundance of quality online resources. For example, the American President Project has been invaluable throughout my PhD. COVID-19 has also brought out the best in many corners of academia. Many books and articles are currently available for free online, through bodies such as Project Muse. Helpful guides to online materials have also been created in response to the pandemic, like this brilliant one from the Institute of Historical Research. I would encourage everyone to take some time and see what’s out there. At the moment we need to try and make the most of what is available to us. Online materials might hold the key to keeping research going in these unsettled times – and you never know, they might lead to new discoveries you didn’t even think of!
Above all else, we must put our health and wellbeing first. In this blog I have tried to offer some guidance, based on my own experiences, of how to adapt to changed research horizons. The most important thing to remember is that our PhD research is not the be-all and end-all – however it might feel at times. The archival material will still be there on the other side. Our research visits can wait, our health and wellbeing cannot. We all become incredibly emotionally invested in our PhDs, especially during times of strain. But right now we must think with our heads and not with our hearts. As the inspirational Captain Tom Moore tells us, “Tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today, even if today was alright. That’s the way I think I’ve always looked at it. Tomorrow will be a good day.”
Tim Galsworthy is a History PhD student at the University of Sussex. His PhD project focuses on American Civil War memory and the Republican Party. He is Chair of Pubs and Publications and Postgraduate Secretary for the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS).
Images 1 and 2: Tim Galsworthy
Image 3: https://www.needpix.com/photo/305020/planning-plan-adjusting-aspirations-concepts-ideas-decisions-flexibility-glass