Virtually Connected: Research From Home (Part 2)

Updated: May 18, 2020

In lock-down mode

Samuel Llano


One of the ironies of research is that, even though its primary force, that is, thinking, is utterly chaotic and unpredictable, research must nevertheless unfold according to a carefully calculated and neatly structured time schedule. Only in that way can you plan research trips, visits to libraries and archives, ethnographic work, and other information-gathering tasks and activities. You must also plan the delivery of research, sending paper proposals almost a year in advance, and must be selective about the forums at which you present. This will ensure you avoid overburdening yourself with paper presentations, and will leave you enough time to produce quality writing. A lot of advance planning goes into research, from the time of writing up the research grant to the completion of a book and other publications.

An unexpected situation such as the COVID-19 crisis arises, and all your advance planning is in tatters. Those summer months you had imaged spending at the archive or library, enjoying some sunnier weather than at home; the conferences and workshops you had planned to attend, or even to organise, in which you were looking forward to finally meeting that researcher you had been exchanging thoughts and work with for months…. none of this will happen anymore, or will be severely delayed. You have to make do with what you have. However, not everything is lost though. Challenging situations like this often sharpen our skills, and, after some patient online research, you may end up having more materials and resources than you thought you could get a hold of at first. But let’s stop talking abstract words and discuss my case.

In the present circumstances, I may not be able to visit the Archives d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, and the Archives Coloniales in Nantes for a long time – I was hoping to find relevant sources on the French Protectorate in Morocco (1912-1956). Worst of all, now that I’ve reached an advanced reading proficiency in Arabic, I want to reap the benefits of all the hours I’ve put into studying the language during the past two years. My visits to the Fonds Roux in Aix-en-Provence, where documents relevant to the Arab and Berber cultures of the Maghreb are held; or to the Moroccan National Archives in Rabat, and the Franciscan Archive in Tangier, which holds documents related to Francisco Garcia Barriuso – a scholar of Andalusi music –, will have to be postponed. By the time I can visit these archives, I may no longer be able to claim the travel costs from my project’s budget.

A row of houses in Aix-en-Provence

While it is hard for me to calculate the damage this will cause to my research, lock-down has taught me that it is still possible to reorient some aspects of my research, and that many more sources could be found online than I initially thought. For example, I have been able to find relevant primary sources on French cultural policy in the Maghreb through Gallica.bnf.fr, a digital portal maintained by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, containing OCR-ed scans of a vast amount of newspapers, journals, books, and other sources. Ironically, while I was working on my PhD dissertation (2003-2007), this portal did not exist, and I had to skim through thousands of pages in French periodicals and unending microfilm rolls in search for information. Nobody can take away from me the nearly two years I spent in France digging out information from archives that can now be accessed from home… while in lock-down (sigh). The Internet Archive portal funded by a range of institutions, is an online repository of incalculable potential. I have been able to find relevant primary sources that I thought were only accessible through travel, such as the Arabic proceedings of the Cairo Congress of Arab Music (1932). If I wanted primary sources in Arabic, now I have an 800-page one to test my knowledge of the language. The Biblioteca Nacional de España maintains in its website the Hemeroteca Digital, with a wealth of digitised newspapers, journals and books, which can be searched by content, since they are OCR-ed. The Library of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), which holds Spain’s largest collection of Arab manuscripts and publications, has made available some digitised contents on its website.

The Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid

I could go on and on. While I am not trying to argue that it is possible to do all