When Will U.S. Libraries and Archives Reopen? The Status of COVID-19 Closures and the Global Historical Supply Chain

By Jason H. Gart, PhD, Vice President and Director of Litigation Research

In early April, approximately two weeks after state and local stay-at-home orders began going into effect due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, HAI began seeing disruptions to the global historical supply chain.

Historical research and analysis services often depend on access to federal, state, and local repositories across the country and, in some cases, around the world. These facilities, which maintain archival, manuscript, and special collection materials, include the public reading rooms at the National Archives and Records Administration; the research and reference collections of the Library of Congress; state and local archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies; city and county record offices; and an array of other specialized collections. Taken together, they supply the primary documents that HAI’s team of historians, researchers, and subject-matter experts harness into factual research and analysis for our clients.

Like many businesses, HAI has learned to adapt and innovate in this new environment. Since March, we have expanded our access to a wide array of electronic tools and databases that have allowed us to complete numerous time-sensitive research projects. This includes millions of public domain and government documents, over 595 million newspaper pages published between the 1700s and 2000s, and a comprehensive database of publications released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as many other specialized and niche collections.  While the closures of federal, state, and local repositories have shifted the research services we perform for our legal clients, it has not interrupted them.

As we enter the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the global historical supply chain is still disrupted—but our researchers remain resilient. Throughout the spring and summer, we have continued to locate and review historical documents, photographs, and cartographic materials, collaborate with archivists and record managers to obtain remote access to closed collections, and pre-plan for in-person research once repositories and libraries reopen. Furthermore, HAI has unboxed its analog corporate library of benchmark monographs, finding aids, and reference material. Our researchers also remain in contact with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officers at federal agencies to ensure that previously and newly submitted record requests continue to proceed through to final adjudication.

Located in Berlin, the German Federal Archives reopened to the public in May. Read more about their procedures and precautions in another recent blog by HAI Senior Historian Janet Holsinger. Source: Wikimedia

At the same time, there is an indication that some repositories may begin to welcome researchers back in the months ahead. This is promising news, but as my colleague Janet Holsinger reported this summer, the reopening of libraries and archives in Europe brought new access protocols, such as reduced occupancy and, in some cases, months-long delays to obtaining research appointments. When libraries and archives reopen in the United States, we may see similar constraints.

For evidence of how the research experience might change, look no further than the Library of Congress. The Library recently announced that it would begin providing limited access to its on-site digital catalog in a temporary Electronic Resource Center beginning on Monday, September 28. In-person access will be limited to rights restricted digital content and other licensed electronic resources such as historical newspaper databases, specialized indexing and abstracting e-collections, and other full-text reference resources. The Library announced that the access will be provided on a first-come, first-served appointment basis and will be limited to ten people per session. Each appointment will last no longer than 1 hour and 45 minutes. Researchers visiting from high-risk states must self-quarantine for 14 days prior to their appointment. These protocols do not allow for an ideal research experience, and many of the Library’s resources remain inaccessible, but HAI is poised to undertake on-site research as may be required by our clients.

The situation at the National Archives is more complicated. The bulk of their holdings are not digitized and require in-person steps to gain access to potentially-relevant records.  This includes the review of finding aids and Master Location Registry (MLR) information, submission of paper pull-slips, waiting for archivists to retrieve the requested boxes and the review of paper materials in a secure and climate-controlled setting. None of these tasks are conducive to social distancing, and most of the public reading rooms are crowded even under normal circumstances, as scholars, students, and genealogists pursue their various endeavors. As it stands now, National Archives research rooms, including all Presidential Libraries, remained closed to the public until further notice—although, as of September 21, 36 facilities have announced that they have entered Phase I of their Phased Reopening Plan. During Phase II, the National Archives will test social distancing procedures, and Phase III anticipates limited hours and strict social distancing procedures. We anticipate that the National Archives will remain closed to the public for several more months.

According to the most recent plan, National Archives research rooms and museum exhibits will not reopen to the public, and then on a limited basis, until Phase III. There is no current indication of when Phase III might begin. “A1” and “A2” are Washington, D.C., area archives. Source: National Archives

Some smaller local and state repositories are reopening ahead of their federal counterparts. For example, the regional branches of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library have reopened; as has Florida’s Orange County Public Library system. As can be expected, social distancing measures and limits on capacity are in effect at both institutions. The Washington State Archives (WSA) branches in Olympia and Ellensburg, Washington, have also reopened to researchers on an appointment basis, although other WSA branches remained closed to the public for the time being.

In the coming weeks and months, HAI will continue to monitor the reopening of archives and libraries that will hopefully mark the revival of the global historical supply chain. Until then, we remain committed to using the resources available to us to the greatest extent possible.

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