The View from Abroad: Lessons from the Reopening of Libraries and Archives in Europe

By Janet Holsinger, Senior Historian

Libraries and archives, like other institutions and businesses, are trying to figure out how to adapt to the challenges of reopening arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Because most serve on-site researchers and patrons, staff need to determine how to safely reopen to the public after months-long closures. At HAI, we’ve had a series of ongoing conversations among our internal staff archivists, as well as with contacts at archives and libraries, about what this might look like.

Here in the United States, we have not yet seen the widespread reopening of libraries and archives, but in many parts of Europe, archives have reopened or are about to do so soon. I caught up with Dr. Keith Allen, a historian and HAI consultant based in Berlin, Germany, where federal, state, and local archives have reopened. He spoke with me from his office on the grounds of the German federal archives facility in Berlin, where he was spending the day researching foreign investment in post-Wall Germany. Keith provided some insight into how the reopening has gone from a researcher’s perspective, shedding light on what we might expect in other countries, including the United States.

JH: How did German archives prepare for reopening to the public?  

Located on the grounds of a former US Army facility known as Andrews Barracks, the German Federal Archives facility in Berlin reopened on May 18, 2020. Source: Wikimedia

KA: After closing in mid-March, the German federal archives started to open back up during the third week in April. I was one of the first people back in the Berlin facility, but they had to shut it down about 90 minutes later. The decision to open the archives in Berlin had apparently been based on a state-level decision in another part of Germany. It turned out the facility had not gotten the green light from the public health authorities in Berlin. Just as in the U.S., state-level officials play important decision-making roles in Germany. Moving forward, archivists in Europe and the U.S. will need to work hand-in-hand with public health officials.

As you’d expect, the goal is to reduce contact between individuals to an absolute minimum. All archives, at least at the moment, require visitors to wear protective masks in order to enter the building. Everyone wears masks inside and ideally remains two meters (about 6.5 feet) apart unless separated by plexiglass.

To address concerns about air circulation, the federal archives in Berlin plans to keep the windows open all summer, although most buildings in the city don’t have air conditioning anyway. The Stasi Records Agency ventilates the reading room every 30 minutes. The Austrian State Archives’ facility in Vienna rebuilt its HVAC system.

JH: What does a typical day of research at the archives look like now? How has it changed from before the pandemic?

KA: One of the biggest changes is that you can no longer just show up to conduct research. You have to overcome the key hurdle of scheduling an appointment well in advance. The archives are operating on a first-come, first-served basis. Right now, there is a backlog of almost three months in some places.

There are a number of new policies and procedures designed to keep people as safe as possible. When you arrive at the archives, you sign a disclosure form and state whether you’ve experienced COVID symptoms in the last two weeks. If you have had exposure in the last 14 days or have general symptoms, such as a fever or cough, you won’t be able to visit. The archivists are keeping careful track of who is coming to each facility, and should the archives staff determine that someone there has COVID, the facility staff will alert you so that you can self-quarantine.

Overall, the research process is not that different if you already know how things work at the facility. Hours are often restricted, so you may need more days to work through a records collection than you did previously. Rather than archivists picking up your materials after you finish reviewing them as they did in the past, they now generally request that researchers return their materials to a specific cart or box so that staff can handle them safely.

The National Archives in London, England, has developed plans for its reopening on July 21, 2020. Read more about its new policies here. Source: The National Archives of the UK

All archives have reduced reading room occupancy and the number of people that can sit at each table. You can still bring in personal items, like laptops and cameras. Pencils used to be readily available; now you usually need to bring in your own. As in the past, in European archives you sometimes have to send out certain items to be copied by a vendor. The copy service may not be fully staffed, so it can take much longer than usual for them to turn your copy order around.

At several state and local archives, you can’t use the break room. Instead, you have to bring lunch with you and eat it outside. In the federal archives in Berlin, the vending machines in the break room are open, but only three people are allowed in at any one time. The archives assign lockers to researchers to help keep people spaced apart.

For visitors less familiar with archival research, the process is now more challenging. It is really helpful to know what records you want to look at before you arrive, as the need for physical distancing makes it difficult to have an in-person conversation with an archivist. I have been calling and emailing archivists to talk about things we previously would have discussed face-to-face. At several facilities, I’ve occasionally gone into an office or stepped outside the building to have a one-on-one conversation with archivists with whom I’ve had working relationships in the past, always with masks on.

JH: Did different repositories work together to devise the safety measures or plans for reopening?

KA: In Switzerland, the Association of Swiss Archivists put together a Zoom workshop on how to reopen. I didn’t see anything like that in Germany or the Netherlands, though. It is hard for the archivists to learn from each other since this is all new. There isn’t a body of professional knowledge on how to reopen. Archivists are getting to know local and state public health authorities as they look to them for guidance and requirements. The archives follow whatever instructions are currently in place, which will change as restrictions are relaxed or re-imposed if local COVID outbreaks necessitate further restrictions.

JH: Has the level of archival staff and services changed?

During the pandemic, the Historical Archives of the European Union in Florence, Italy, digitized materials upon request. Source: Wikimedia

KA: Some archives have made a push to digitize records, like the Historical Archives of the European Union in Florence, Italy. Early in the COVID crisis, they decided to digitize material upon request. This is something that smaller archives, in particular, may want to consider. Rather than having a lot of people onsite and interacting, they could have staff focus on digitization to provide materials as needed. With travel restrictions now in place, it unfortunately looks like it’ll be difficult for U.S. researchers to visit Europe for some time to come.

In Germany, the public sector hasn’t faced layoffs. Staffing has remained consistent at the federal archives, but fewer people are allowed within each space. Where there might have been two or three people working in an office before, now there is just one person at a time. When they aren’t in the office, archivists can work from home.

JH: What advice do you have for someone who has not yet conducted archival research during the pandemic and is looking to prepare themselves?

KA: It is important for us as researchers to understand the archivists’ concerns as they face new challenges and health concerns that accompany interfacing with the public. Archivists don’t know who poses a health risk and have to keep careful track of researchers: when we arrive, when we leave, with whom we interacted during our visit. This makes it possible to do contact tracing if they determine people may have been exposed to the virus. Many countries in Europe now have national apps to do this tracking, but it requires a lot of trust in how public officials treat sensitive personal data.

The Archives Nationales in France reopened to researchers on July 1, 2020. Source: Wikimedia

When you are planning your research visit, you should find out how much time you can schedule: can you reserve a day? A week? Before you visit, ask the archivists what they need. Is there a form to complete before arriving? Would they like information about the records you want to research ahead of time to reduce the need for in-person consultations? Do you need to set up an appointment for a consultation with an archivist?

In general, I’m getting used to the new way of operating. As most places in Germany are relaxing restrictions, it is getting easier. It was initially a relief to get back to some level of normality, but with that came the sobering realization that conditions are different than they were and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

We would love to help connect archivists in the United States with those in Europe. Please contact us if you have specific questions about reopening that you’d like HAI to direct to archivists in Europe, and we will reach out to our contacts. If you need support with digitization planning, metadata creation and optimization, legacy finding aid encoding, CMS/DAMS consultancy, or staff training on MPLP strategies for busing your backlog, please get in touch with us about how HAI can help.

Soon after we published this post, the National Archives of the United Kingdom reopened to the public. Read more about their policies and safety measures here

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