Historical Research and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Digital Access to Sources in Libraries and Archives in China

By Christina Till

After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic around the Chinese spring festival holidays in late January, historians were forced to work from home, unable to access libraries and archives in China. As a result of the nation-wide containment efforts, researchers largely depended on already existing digital services which allow the remote access to historical materials and data.

This blog post is an overview of the measures implemented by several libraries and archives located in Beijing and other parts of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having originally planned to conduct research in China on the history of provincial archives in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), I was forced to postpone my travel plans in the first half of 2020. Instead, I continued to search the available online databases for digitized books and archival documents. While I was able to access a selection of materials online, I am aware that these are only a fraction of what can actually be found in the Chinese archives and libraries. I therefore wondered, whether the lockdown might have resulted in the provision of new online access options to sources in China. The following overview will show that, aside from a vague archival “substitute research service (zixun daicha fuwu)” that was offered as a substitute to the access to reading rooms, historians of China were forced to rely on source materials that were already included in online databases before the pandemic.

In the days ahead of the delayed “Two Sessions”, the annual meetings of the main political bodies of the People’s Republic of China, starting on 21 May 2020, several major libraries and archives have announced the reopening of their reading rooms to visitors. What can be seen from these announcements, posted on the institution’s websites and the official WeChat accounts, is that researchers will probably not have to worry about pandemic-related restrictions on the access to document collections. However, newly introduced public health measures, which limit the access of visitors to reading rooms, are likely to be upheld in the near future.

Source: National Library of China (http://open.nlc.cn/onlineedu/temporary/page.htm?page=yq_2020)

Libraries

“Fighting the virus at home, accompanied by a literary atmosphere.” Following this slogan, the National Library of China (NLC), as the central national library in China, was quick in putting together a variety of coronavirus-related online resources. The digital resources displayed on the NLC website are indicative of what kinds of materials are deemed to be important information for NLC visitors. These include books and videos that discuss various public and mental health-related topics, such as histories of past pandemics and medicinal remedies in China. In general, the COVID-19-related resources advertised on the NLC website seem to have been a collection of already online available or recently published literature for a larger, non-academic public, topically curated by the NLC. Aside from the virus-related collection of online information, reader’s card holders in China can remotely access various databases available on the NLC website, a service that was available before the outbreak of the pandemic. Specific information on services for researchers or students, however, including copy services for materials that are not yet digitized, remains unavailable.

On 12 May, the National Library of China announced the reopening of the reading rooms and other services to the general public, limited to 1,200 visitors per day and restricted access to some parts of the NLC. From now on, visitors need to apply online for a “reservation code (yuyue ma)” one day ahead of their visit. The new guidelines also demand visitors to wear a mask, have their temperature checked, keep a distance of one meter in the reading rooms and, most importantly, show their reservation code along with the personalized “health code (jiangkang ma)” before entering the library.

 A section of the NLC’s reopening announcement on WeChat, 12 May 2020. Visitors to the NLC will have to be able to provide (see blue circles) a reservation code, a health code and have a temperature below 37.3 degrees Celsius. Source: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/XE1UtHtiKdsUYn10aVnzWQ

Colored health QR codes now are a suspiciously important feature of all recently introduced COVID-19 countermeasures in China. Once downloaded and installed on the Alipay or WeChat app of a smartphone, the mini-programs are not just intended to track the device’s geolocation but also to certify that its owner is healthy (which currently only refers to COVID-19). The personalized health code allows, if colored green, or denies, if colored red, the access to all public facilities. It is unclear if these measures will be upheld after the immediate threat of the pandemic has passed. Should this be the case, the tracking options now available to the Chinese authorities raise several questions and can add further difficulties for researchers in the already tedious processes of gaining access to historical documents. Perhaps, in the near future, historians will have to discuss their individual medical history with entrance guards, librarians and archivists before entering a facility or requesting source materials. Scenarios, like the storage of personal medical data by libraries and archives or the denial of access in facilities due to an unspecified earlier contact with an infected person, could possibly be part of the post-pandemic research experience in China.

Outside of Beijing, libraries are implementing guidelines similar to those of the NLC. Shanghai Library, which holds important collections of documents and books from the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China (1912–1949), allowed researchers to request digitalized materials since 20 March and announced an opening of reading room services starting from 20 May 2020. Similar to the NLC, visitors are required to apply for an entrance code one day ahead and will need to provide their health code at the entrance. In terms of online information, Shanghai Library is slightly more research-oriented than its Beijing counterpart. For example, visitors are conveniently directed to an online repository for digital resources from the library’s main page. Moreover, a subdivision of Shanghai Library, the “Lecture Library (jiangzuo tushuguan)”, since March promoted “Shanghai Library public lectures in the cloud (Shangtu yunshang jiangzuo”) with additional Q&As on WeChat.

The reopening measures of libraries in other provinces and cities vary, depending on recent developments in the containment efforts. In Heilongjiang Province, at the border to Russia, new imported cases of COVID-19 have recently led to a continuation of the lockdown. According to its official website, Heilongjiang Provincial Library in the capital of Harbin is yet to reopen, with currently no clear information given on additional research services.

Archives

Following the Chinese government’s reopening policy, the First Historical Archive of China (FHA) also officially published the reopening of its reading room at the West entrance of the Forbidden City, starting from 20 May 2020. Similar to the visitors’ guidelines implemented by the NLC, historians planning a visit to the main archive for documents of the Qing dynasty will have to apply online for one of eighteen visitors’ passes in the reading room on the following day. There is no indication that new restrictions on the access to sources will be implemented. For several years, visitors to the FHA have been largely confined to work with digitized copies on computers in the reading room. There is no indication that foreign historians, if they are allowed to enter China in the months to come, will have to provide additional health certifications aside from the already discussed reservation and health codes, which applies to all visitors.

Similar to the libraries in China, the FHA staff regularly updates the archive’s official WeChat account. Historians planning to visit the archive are strongly advised to regularly check the account for information on the new guidelines for visitors. On its WeChat account, the FHA also uploads blog posts that detail the importance and the variety of the documents held at the FHA and provides links to the official website of the archive. This includes links to finding aids and a list of published materials as well as the new application system for visitors’ passes.

Screenshots of the official WeChat account “Huangshicheng (Imperial History Archives”) of the FHA, 1-3. From left to right: 1, a dropdown menu opens from the below sidebar and links to the FHA website (WeChat: Huangshicheng); 2, online application form for prospective visitors to the FHA reading room (http://www.lsdag.com/yuyue); 3, online search form for archival documents, linked to the “Huangshicheng” account (http://www.lsdag.com/nets/lsdag/page/topic/Topic_1697_1.shtml?hv).

Access options at the provincial archives can be very different from the central archives in Beijing. This especially applies to the border regions in the Northeast. The Heilongjiang Provincial Archive, which holds important documents on the border administrations of the Qing dynasty, is yet to open for residents outside of Heilongjiang Province. Since 1 April 2020, provincial residents were allowed to view sources in the reading room, if they observed the regulations already described for other institutions. According to an announcement on its website, the archive also assists researchers, who request a search of the archival catalogs online, via telephone or through a research assistant who is a provincial resident. Here, like in other archives in China, information on the guidelines of such additional services remains vague. Since no online overview of the collections exists, researchers will have to consult printed finding aids, if available, and already published document collections to gain a rough overview of which collections they could ask the archival staff or research assistance to look through.

In late May 2020, the websites of various provincial archives were unavailable for several days. This touches on a recurring obstacle to researchers working with online source materials, not just for historians of China. Since the start of the lockdown in China in late January the remote access to digital resources highly depended on the technological predispositions of all involved parties. Different operating systems, slow internet connections as well as the unreliable availabilities of local servers immensely complicate the research process. I often found myself suddenly unable to access certain websites and databases for several days at a time, despite having regularly visited them before. If changes to the database were made during this period, I usually was unable to make out a difference. A result of the often-erratic online availability of databases and research information is that researchers are advised to give more thought into saving online sources by downloading data or make screenshots. The coronavirus pandemic exposed even more evidently the limitations of the digitalization process in archives and libraries which, again, is a challenge not just for historians of China. Perhaps, in the long term, the pandemic-related upsurge of access by researchers to online source materials will incite further discussions and help develop new standards for historical research in the digital age. For historians of China, a discourse on the provenance, authenticity and transparency of digitized archival documents, for instance, will be an increasingly important issue.


Find out more about the research group “Interaction and Knowledge in the Pacific Region: Entanglements and Disentanglements” here.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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