Tips for Transnational Research by Lisa Pinley Covert

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Happy 2021, H-LatAmist@s! If you have not seen Research Corner’s end-of-year review, please check it out. I’ve got an interesting set of posts lined up for you for the next few months, but I could use more contributions. If you’re interested in sharing your research experiences for the good of the community or promoting the archive/library, physical or digital, that you work at, please fill out this Google Form.

I am pleased to begin another two-part series on transnational research. Lisa Pinley Covert is Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the history department at the College of Charleston. Her first book project, San Miguel de Allende: Mexicans, Foreigners, and the Making of a World Heritage Site (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) examines economic development, tourism, and expatriation in a provincial Mexican city. She received a Fulbright Global Scholar award in 2019 to pursue research in Peru and France for her second book project about conflicting visions for reconstructing Cusco, Peru in the aftermath of a 1950 earthquake. This post is based on her experience doing this research.

Tips for Transnational Research

As a historian I am interested in stories about places, especially the transnational dimensions of those places. In June of 2015 I had finished my last research trip for my first project about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. What I initially had conceived as a transnational project in the end relied on very local research: felicitous finds in an uncatalogued archive or after going door to door looking for former factory employees. As a mother of an infant and a toddler, and as an employee of an institution with limited opportunities for research leaves and funding, I knew that the type of research my first project required - lots of detective work to track down fragments - was out of the question for the next one. Meanwhile, news was unfolding about trouble in Mexico’s national archives, and I imagined nightmare scenarios where my limited research time would be thwarted when I arrived to find the archives inaccessible.

It was within this context that the idea for my second project emerged. I initially envisioned a project that revolved around debates and legal battles about cultural heritage and repatriation that I could trace online from the comfort of my office. It was a nice fantasy, but it was not the kind of research that excited me. Now I am working on a quite different project, an examination of the 1950 Cusco earthquake and international ideas about how to reconstruct the city. So far, this project has required research in ten archival repositories in four countries (Peru, the United States, France, and Switzerland). I want to share some thoughts about how I am making it work.

  • First, I learned to travel strategically by combining trips, and thus maximize my limited funding. For instance, a trip to present a paper at the 2017 LASA meeting in Lima also functioned as a preliminary research trip. I never would have been able to afford a trip to Geneva, Switzerland to do two days of research at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies archive, but when I secured funding for research at the UNESCO archive in France, it became possible to take a train trip to Geneva. So, if you are already going somewhere, think about a side trip you can add on to advance your research agenda.
  • Second, I am putting in more work to prepare for the archives before I go. For the first project I spent too much time reinventing wheels, so this time I reached out to colleagues with experience in the archives for tips in advance. The advice and contacts I gained from these conversations (especially from Julia Irwin and Mark Rice!) allowed me to hit the ground running in new places. 
  • Another strategy is to start where I can get the biggest bang for my buck. For me that was the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland, where I consulted U.S. State Department records and the archives of American National Red Cross. These archives are well catalogued, and I knew I would walk away from a spring break trip with a lot of material that I could use to strategize about future research. It is equally important to develop plans for archives that will take more time, either because they are not catalogued, have limited hours, or do not allow technology like cameras or laptops. In Cusco, I went to the archive that needed more careful note taking in the mornings (in this case it was the Archivo Arzobispal, or archive of the Archdiocese), and then spent a couple of hours in the afternoons at places where I could just capture a bunch of digital images (the Biblioteca Gobierno Regional de Cusco and the Biblioteca COPESCO had generous policies regarding digital photos).
  • Finally, I recommend that anyone who needs to do transnational research look into the Fulbright Global Scholar award. It is different from other Fulbright awards that require long periods of residency in one country. Instead, it is designed to enable relatively short trips to multiple countries, and it is flexible enough that you can use it over two summers, for example, instead of during the academic year. This made it easier to bring my family along.

A disclaimer: I was extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to conduct most of my research travel in pre-COVID times. Nonetheless, I hope that these tips can help others in the planning stages. In a second post I will discuss the UNESCO archive (both the physical archive and the digital repository) in greater detail. It is a wonderful resource for research and teaching.

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