Publication Date

March 25, 2021

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Professional Life


Research Methods

For many historians, COVID-19 radically disrupted their research and writing plans. When the virus started shutting things down in March 2020, in a way, I was lucky. I was able to keep doing what I had been doing for three years: reading, working through research notes and digital images, and writing at home. As an independent scholar getting by on minimal funding, I suspect my “working normal” now much more closely resembles that of many historians in higher education. I worked through the spring and summer with the sort of make-do ethos I have found necessary throughout my experience as an independent historian.

As an independent scholar, maritime historian relied on relationships with other historians to conduct his research.

As an independent scholar, maritime historian relied on relationships with other historians to conduct his research. Jos Zwaan/Unsplash

The pandemic arrived just as my first book was scheduled to launch in April 2020. Fortunately, the crisis did not delay its release, though I’m aware that other publishers did impose printing moratoriums. More disruptive was the breakdown of normal timelines in the book review process, an essential promotional vehicle for scholarly books. I was able to secure an interview on New Books Network, but then all was quiet for a while. I had to remind myself to be patient. But patience doesn’t mean becoming passive. I have found that being a squeaky wheel doesn’t just move things forward; it helps ward off feelings of helplessness and drift. I contacted journals and my publisher to find out where disruptions in distribution and shipping had caused problems and where they hadn’t. While it’s important to be realistic about how long things take, my experience has made me keenly aware that we have to believe in our work enough to bug people to pay attention to it, to advocate for it, to do everything we can to put it out there.

So much solo work makes the need for collegial and collaborative exceptions stronger. The pandemic, ironically, made me more able to participate in professional conversations and events. Although there are plenty of shortcomings to online communication, they enable independent scholars much greater access to conversations, professional conferences, and collaboration possibilities. For an independent scholar like me, these were opportunities that would have been financially prohibitive to me in a normal year.

Patience doesn’t mean becoming passive.

Like many independent scholars, I depend on small, specific-purpose grants from specialty organizations like the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) and the Early American Industries Association to support my research. In addition to travel, these grants cover the costs of digital imaging by archives and the expense of hiring someone local to do archival legwork for me. Unfortunately, none of my 2020 travel and research grant applications were successful, meaning that I faced the possibility of a year with no work to do if I waited for the next grant cycle. I set up a GoFundMe campaign in April to raise money for a second research trip. Donations from friends and family got me about two-thirds of the way there, and then the NCIS awarded me a small grant that was sufficient to make up the shortage. Given the continued shutdowns, though, it was unclear when I would be able to use it.

Unless funded by the small pool of large grants, independent scholars don’t get paid for what we do. While I rely on grants to fund my research, I am fortunate to have a partner who supports our family. My wife, Andie, works in IT and supports our household comfortably. I recognize that this is itself a privilege and that, especially during COVID, many historians find themselves struggling financially. For those who are experiencing economic hardship, the AHA has set up a Historians Relief Fund for un/underemployed members and is encouraging applications. For those who are not in precarious financial positions but find research and writing difficult in these circumstances, perhaps some of the workarounds mentioned here will prove helpful.

Historians working at universities are now facing a challenge independent historians have been managing for decades.

For me, one of the most important of those workarounds is creative access to libraries. While waiting for the archives to reopen and for funding to come through for the second research trip, I finished the secondary source reading for my project. Historians working at universities are now facing a challenge independent historians have been managing for decades: access to library materials. Strategies vary, but I have long gotten by using the alumni access to my doctoral university’s online collections, including journals behind paywalls; interlibrary loan services at my local public library, which has been invaluable at times; public borrowing privileges at my local university library are available for a small fee ($25 per year); and inexpensive used books from Amazon’s international network of booksellers. When it comes to published primary sources, the internet has radically democratized access, and I have long made use of online facsimile editions of early modern books that, in the past, I would have needed access to a rare-books library to see. Only once has my cobbled-together “library” failed me, and that was due to the ongoing suspension of public borrowing privileges at the local university. They were the only available source for a particular book I needed, but I couldn’t borrow it. A friend of mine is on faculty there, though, and he borrowed it for me. Sometimes, we just have to ask for help.

I got the green light for the second research trip in December. I returned home from that trip in mid-February. The president of the foundation where the documents are housed allowed me to work on them in a separate building, thus keeping me isolated from the skeleton staff working there. I have what I need to write my next book, except for a couple of interviews (Zoom or Skype) and a few digital copies from the National Archives at Kew. A combination of online resources, a small grant, and kind donations got it done.

Resourcefulness is always helpful; right now, it’s essential.

Phillip Reid is an independent maritime historian based in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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