COVID Chronicles: Research in the Time of COVID-19

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Beth plummer

by Beth Plummer, Susan C. Karant-Nunn Chair in Reform and Modern European History

One beautiful sunny morning at the end of May, after finishing my final grades for the spring semester, I thought about my research projects during the summer vacation. Although I am already in Germany, I know that research in its traditional form is not possible for the second summer in a row.

Few colleagues from all over the world will come this year to the Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel for their annual research stay. I will miss the many lost chats during coffee hour in the library garden or during summer evenings sitting in one of the few, but long-loved, local restaurants. While Germany is still struggling to bring the pandemic under control, the garden is empty and these restaurants are only slowly reopening. The library itself has limited opening hours, housing, and research space for the few researchers here.

While my colleagues and I all hope that research and face-to-face meetings will be possible again soon, we know that research and scholarship has changed and will continue to do so. Over the past year, I have participated in webinars focused on how researchers can continue to be productive and exchange ideas during an ongoing public health crisis and dwindling funding availability. The creativity and efforts of so many individuals have made it possible to continue these scholarly exchanges. Many universities, research centers and professional societies have also adopted social media sites and content sharing technology to host meetings, record workshops and facilitate discussions to support such contacts.

Technology has also made research possible in ways most of us never imagined. Some of these new scientific tools were in use long before this pandemic. We all regularly consult an increasing number of digitized articles and books available in our home institutions. Over the past decade, an increasing number of archives and libraries with repositories of modern manuscripts and printed books have started to digitize their collections. The current circumstances have broadened these efforts and stimulated other digitization projects. In particular, the archives improve online research tools and offer new digitization services.

Thus, the search can continue, even in a modified form. I now regularly order archival documents, early modern printed books and items from various archives and libraries. Just last month, I ordered archival documents produced by an abbess of Weissenfels in Saxony-Anhalt from the main state archives of Dresden and articles written by a professor at the Technical University of Dresden from University of Arizona interlibrary loan. It all happened quickly, allowing me to continue working and writing. However, what I am going to do this summer is not what I had planned. Instead of starting research on my next book, I will spend most of the summer at my desk editing the manuscript of my book for publication with Oxford University Press.

What is missing are the unexpected moments of discovery that come from an unexpected discussion with someone at an unexpected conference or meeting in an archive or the accidental discovery in an archive or library that turns out to be be essential to their research or reflection on a subject or problem. I wonder, for example, what would I have learned if I had been able to travel to Dresden to examine these documents in person and also order related documents just to see what was there. What if I could have taken the opportunity to be in Dresden to visit this professor in person to discuss our common research interests. This serendipity of research is what we are all missing right now.

The ongoing challenges and obstacles encountered in doing research under these conditions often seem insurmountable, especially for many young researchers. Nonetheless, we are all moving forward, finding new ways to do research and gradually emerging into a new normal that will surely bring back in-person visits to the archives, libraries and historical sites we all appreciate so much.

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This essay was part of the Spring / Summer 2021 Desert Harvest newsletter, produced by the University of Arizona’s Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies.


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