Access Denied?: Bureaucratic Challenges in Arctic Archival Research

In this blog post, PDRA Peter Martin discusses his recent fieldwork in Denmark and the USA and reflects on the varying levels of access to Arctic archives.

In my first blog post on the Arctic Cultures website, I noted my excitement at having ‘the opportunity to engage with fascinating Arctic collections held in archives around the world.’ Not along after this blog was posted, however, these plans were abruptly put on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. As discussed by my colleague Johanne Bruun in her blog post, I too found myself confined to studying the Arctic from home.

With the gradual easing of international travel restrictions, however, I was recently able to undertake research in a number of archives situated in both Denmark and the United States of America, which only a few months ago had been entirely inaccessible.

I travelled to the Nationalmuseet and the Arktisk Institut in Copenhagen, as well as to the Bowdoin College Library, the Harvard University Library and the Library of Congress in the United States. I was glad to be finally consulting various materials relating to the project and uncovering new insights into histories of Arctic knowledge production.



Yet it is important to note that even with the easing of restrictions, access to these archives was by no means straightforward. As I arrived at each of the institutions, I was confronted with the various forms of paperwork, administration and identification checks that typically go along with registration at a new archive. These processes were notably stringent at Harvard, where proof of a university affiliation was required, as well as at the Library of Congress where my passport was inspected by no fewer than three separate staff members. I was also under constant observation by an intimidating group of federal police officers who were permanently nearby in the event that I was suddenly deemed to be some kind of threat.

There was, of course, an additional requirement – I also had to ensure that wherever I went, my COVID-19 vaccination certificates came too. Although usually amounting to little more than a cursory glance at my now dog-eared paperwork, this inspection was nonetheless another hurdle standing between me and my required archival materials.

These high levels of surveillance and security led me to reflect on the policed nature of archives and the varying levels of access that are permitted to different individuals. Of course some restrictions are necessary, and especially when tackling the spread of a deadly infectious disease. But even in my privileged position as a fully-vaccinated UK citizen, affiliated with an internationally-recognised university, I still felt a considerable degree of intimidation and discomfort when presented with these various securitised situations.



So what relevance do these reflections have beyond my own mild sense of unease?

The point is that an individual lacking any one of these credentials – i.e. someone who does not find themselves in the incredibly privileged position I currently occupy – would likely have found it exponentially more difficult to consult and analyse these materials. It is likely that, in many cases, access would simply have been impossible.

Indeed, this issue is particularly pertinent with respect to the themes explored by the Arctic Cultures project. Indigenous peoples around the world are typically less likely to have the various forms of documentation required to conduct these kinds of research. Problematic racial profiling may also mean that even if access is granted, they remain under suspicion when working with the materials. It is also important to note that, notwithstanding the considerable efforts made by healthcare professionals working across the region, the remote locations in which many Arctic indigenous peoples are situated has meant that it has often taken significantly longer for communities to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations (and thus receive their required certificates). These issues are evident in the public health posters below which were on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian.



It is worth remembering that, initially, the pandemic was seen by many as an opportunity to move beyond these restrictive practices. Various forms of emergency funding permitted a great deal of archival material to be digitised and/or made available electronically. This in turn meant that previously hard-to-access archives could now be consulted remotely anywhere in the world. In more recent months, however, many of the archival institutions that were initially keen to join this movement have since reinstated various kinds of access restrictions. Paywalls or institutional affiliation requirements are now once again in place.

What this means is that many Arctic peoples now find themselves with even greater challenges in accessing the archival materials containing information and histories relating to their own communities. Information that is of direct relevance to these peoples, and which could be key to informing legal action or political struggles for example, is secreted within institutional repositories that are only accessible to certain ‘verified’ individuals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has therefore exposed some of the complicated factors that can determine levels of archival access. But it has also shown that there is both the appetite and the resources available to achieve much more equitable archival possibilities. It is yet to be seen what kind of long term changes will be made now that these issues have been brought to wider attention, but it will nonetheless be the case that the process of doing archival research will continue to be an inescapably political – and politicised – activity.

Image 1: The Madison Building at the Library of Congress.

Image 2: ID card for Harvard University Libraries.

Image 3: ID card for Library of Congress.

Image 4: The Widener Library at Harvard University.

Images 5-7: Posters displaying health information and advice relating to COVID-19 displayed in the National Museum for the American Indian.

All photographs by P.R. Martin, 13 November – 03 December 2021.