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Year in Review: 2020

Every January, I post a recap of the previous year. Usually, this mostly boils town to a list of appearances and outreach. 2020, of course, was different. I faced serious challenges like everyone else, but this is not the place to dwell on them. Instead, I’d like to tease out some of the wisdom that comes from having your routines and assumptions completely upended.

In the absence of a busy travel schedule, I was able to focus on research and writing in a way I never have before. There were a few months in 2014 when I was all-in on finishing my book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, but other than that, I have always balanced deep work with many other commitments. This past year offered something new.

Much of this abundant research time was spent exploring ways to actually accomplish my research. My go-to methods are accessing materials in libraries and reading historic documents in archival repositories; both were suddenly unavailable to me and all other historians. This caused tremendous disruption in the field of history, and the American Historical Association actually issued a statement this past summer, explaining the ways the Covid-19 lockdowns had disrupted historians’ ability to do the research they are expected to do.

Image of books piled on a desk with a glass of wine.
Making do with the resources on hand, while working on my historic resource study of Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.

The research was slow going, to be sure, and I will have a rush of research trips to take when archives finally reopen. But I also became familiar with many new research databases as I worked to find relevant historic materials that have been digitized. I forced myself to rely more heavily on archivists, who at many repositories have taken on an increased workload of performing research that historians would normally do themselves and establishing “scan on demand” services in order to continue to share their collections with the public. Being cut off from my usual research avenues has also allowed me to think about my projects in new ways, to creatively consider how else I might piece together answers to my research questions.

I assure you there were frustrations and slowdowns at every turn, but at the same time, I do feel like I grew as a historian and as a creative professional over the past year because of these challenges.