“There are things that can only be thought at the border.
In the transition between one space and another, one time and another.
Certain thoughts are only possible in 2020.
A precious period in that sense: we must make the most of the border.”
Gonçalo M. Tavares
Lockdown. Social distancing. Home office. Travel ban. Online teaching. Remote research.
The global spreading of the deadly coronavirus pandemic in 2020 brought us these challenges, discomforts, and new opportunities. And much more on a personal level.
Central European University moved all teaching programs to Vienna in AY 2020/21.
A hardship that specifically affected Blinken OSA, as a significant part of its constituencies became physically separated from the rich, multilingual archival collections and diverse public programs that constitute the signature brand of the Archives.
But, apparently, we managed to maintain Blinken OSA operational, keep our jobs and perform alternative tasks and duties, as well as cater to our audiences in a dramatically changed environment. There also was plenty of time to reconfigure ourselves.
The first lockdown in March 2020 disrupted our physical presence in the Goldberger House and forced us to continue our activities in home office mode. As many of us normally work with databases, web-based applications, and texts, it seemed that this transition manifested only in the changing of the work environment. For our colleagues working with exhibits, facilities and storage management, however, this change was more fundamental but, eventually, we managed to involve them in other archival activities that they had little previous experience with.
Our immediate efforts were focused on facilitating a better use of our online resources. We created a short video guide on How to Do Research at Blinken OSA, adjusted our Research Cloud, launched in the previous year, to accommodate remote researchers outside of the CEU community as well, and began preparations to devise and introduce our digitization on-demand, service. We organized online meetings with our researchers to assist them with navigating the catalog and identifying and locating the necessary archival content. Unfortunately, most of our international Visegrad Scholarship at OSA recipients had to postpone their planned research sessions, as traveling to Budapest remained highly improbable throughout the year.
Concurrently, we broadened our online presence by increasing the frequency of publishing news, announcements, and blog posts on our website and social media platforms. We added a new chapter to our What We Read blog section entitled Pandemic Edition, where our colleagues regularly recommended articles, interviews, or podcasts on the coronavirus pandemic and its multiple and worrisome consequences on public health, authoritarian political regimes, social injustice, and the archival and informational multiverse. Finally, we launched our institutional Instagram page, too.
As the first lockdown hit us in the second part of the Winter Term, we continued teaching our academic courses, such as the long-standing Archives, Evidence and Human Rights, from our home offices and strived to make lectures, seminars, and workshops as intriguing and participative as in normal contact times. Beyond individually developed class strategies, we relied on Blinken OSA’s online resources, including the Digital Repository and Curated Collections, the Research Cloud, and the evergreen Parallel Archive, whose upgrading was already in the preparatory phase.
It was a small wonder that we also managed to complete the Archives and Evidentiary Practices Specialization with the maximum number of five students in June. As this special archival training was temporarily suspended afterwards, it is worth mentioning that in four consecutive years, 16 brilliant history students from CEU have received their qualifications. This is quite remarkable for a research university, which does not offer graduate programs in archives, libraries, and information management. After completing their studies, some of the students went on to pursue their PhDs and returned to Blinken OSA as Visegrad Fellows, while others found jobs at important international record-keeping or memory institutions.
Our new courses included seminars dealing with events of the recent past that were comparable with the coronavirus crisis (such as Chernobyl 1986) and introduced catastrophic epistemology and archival ethnography to analyze historical models and methods for understanding complex issues with lethal consequences. Others focused on methods and practices of documentary storytelling and elaborated on the archival method as part of an overview of research methods existing in legal and social sciences.
The 4th season of the free, state-accredited Teacher Training program, which looks critically at concurrent and seemingly irreconcilable narratives and interpretations of traumatic historical events in 20th century Hungary, ended with 20 participants before switching to online mode, but the follow-up 5th and last edition had to be postponed.
Blinken OSA’s educational outreach program for high school students continued in the virtual space with projects on exploring Hungarian society in the 1980s with innovative tools based on archival resources. Two tangible outcomes were an online version of the ’89 Bringing It Home project and a downloadable, 3D computer simulation game entitled 1986. Both were sponsored through a public grant by the US Embassy in Budapest.
The internship program at Blinken OSA was also affected by the strict public health measures, which prompted us to reshuffle and move online two ongoing projects with La Sapienza University (Rome) and George Mason University (Washington DC) interns, respectively. The former concentrated on processing historical records on political relations between the Holy See, the Italian Communist Party, and other Eastern European communist parties from RFE/RL’s Western Press Archives. This resulted in our first-ever Italian language catalog entries. The latter was about fine-tuning functionalities on our Refugee Docs Map, a visual geographic catalog published in 2019, and developing a year-long Twitter campaign that aimed at connecting notable global events on refugees, minorities, human rights, and environmental issues with relevant documentary films listed in the catalog.
As the first wave of the pandemic eased during the summer, we gradually reopened the building, as well as our Research Room with limited capacity and an online booking system.
To make the most of the last academic year when CEU students were on the Budapest Campus en masse and to strengthen our ties with other universities based in the capital city, such as the Eötvös Loránd University, we successfully increased our efforts to recruit student interns and volunteers for other projects, too. These included the pre-processing and metadata enhancement of collections from the heritage of Hungarian sociologists Zsuzsa Horváth and Mihály Csákó, the RFE/RL analyst Kevin Devlin’s files on rival communist parties, a Subject Files series from the Samizdat Archivesweb-based and the Records of the Foundation for the Support of European Intellectuals.
Early November brought us the second lockdown. This time, we routinely moved online and intensified our work within and on developing the web based Archival Management System, whose newest version will be launched in 2021. We enhanced, completed, and published more content in our Digital Repository, among them the Vera and Donald Blinken Personal Papers, the David Rohde Collection on Srebrenica, and the Digital Archive of Cultural Heritage. This latter was done in cooperation with CEU’s Cultural Heritage Studies Program. Our colleagues also added the voluminous, digitized 1989 chapter of the Hungarian Press Survey, as well as item and collection level tags to the Will There Be A 1989? the ,online platform on the Hungarian regime change of 1989.
Against all odds, we continued or finished digitizing quite a few important collections, including several thousand items from the Éva Kapitány and Physicians for Human Rights photo collections, the Cambodia and Balkan Archive videos from the International Monitor Institute, the Iraqi State Television Monitoring and the Unedited Video Materials and the Roma Media School films of the Black Box Foundation.
Analog processing progressed in the form of metadata entry, consolidation and translation, preparation of archival descriptions, and publishing of catalog entries online. Results of this meticulous and iterative work can now be seen in numerous series from the Samizdat Archives (HU OSA 300-85-9 to 43) and the files on our own exhibitions (HU OSA 206-2), which contain all planning, research, collected archival and promotional materials connected to exhibits created or hosted by Blinken OSA in the past quarter of a century.
The pandemic situation did not entirely discourage our donors from bringing or mailing their invaluable archival and library materials to the safe repositories of Blinken OSA. We received, among others, important complementary sources to our Hungarian samizdat collections from the heirs of Ádám Modor, 200 audio interviews with participants in the Hungarian regime change of 1989 from CEU Professor András Bozóki, and the records of the Collegium Budapest, an institute for advanced study and excellence in scholarly research in 1990-2007, from its former director, CEU Professor Gábor Klaniczay. CEU’s Communications Office also deposited with us 15 hard disk drives full of photographs and other audiovisual material covering almost 30 years of public events organized by the university.
Our library was enriched with pre-revolutionary diaries of Russian aristocrats and other, Russia related books from CEU Professor Alfred Rieber, books and periodicals on the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslavia generally from CEU Professor Elissa Helms and former ICTY employee Michael Szporluk, as well as over 500 volumes from various CEU departments (School of Public Policy, History, Political Science and Philosophy) and their faculty.
In part, the new donations were connected to CEU’s relocation to Vienna, an inconceivably tedious and sad process, which was heroically assisted by Blinken OSA’s records and information management team. They held over one hundred records inventory meetings with various departments and administrative units throughout the summer, ensuring that current records were dealt with according to their retention schedules and documents of historical value made it safely to Blinken OSA. The move of CEU was aptly documented by our colleagues and the accumulated photos and videos will be made available for research.
Sadly, we mourned the passing away of some of our former donors and contributors, whose presence, activities, and materials greatly added to what Blinken OSA is today: Tibor Philipp, Claire de Héderváry, and László Najmányi.
It came as no surprise that the 17th edition of our Verzio Film Festival was organized, for the first time ever in its history, online. An absolute premiere and statement of solidarity, the opening ceremony was a live-streamed performance of the student community of the University of Film and Theater Arts (freeSZFE). Demonstrating a rare act of bravery and resistance, they have been occupying their campus for 70 days in defense of their university and the autonomy of higher education in Hungary.
As for our public programs, 2020 was, from a planning perspective, an extremely difficult year. All of our exhibitions, like the Faith – Trust – Secrecy, elaborating on religious activities through the lens of the communist secret police or From Harvest to Harvest, introducing the Hungarian Soviet Republic, were created as physical events in our Galeria Centralis and had to be turned online later due to the general lockdowns. A similar fate shared the superb photo exhibition of our colleague, the renowned photographer Lenke Szilágyi, entitled Post-Soviet, which documented post-communist realities in faraway regions of the USSR in the 1990s.
The events of the Night of Museums were organized in a hybrid format: building tours were conducted in person, while exhibits and presentations were performed online. Later in the fall, we co-organized with the Voices of the 20th Century Archive and Research Group a successful online conference entitled Labor Research from Planned Economy to Savage Capitalism, which built on archival collections containing sociological research on workers and the world of labor in Hungary in the 1970-80s.
The consultancy work with the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center and Cemetery continued without personal meetings and field trips. Nevertheless, our expert team prepared an archival facility plan and budget and devised a training program for their project archivists. By the end of 2020, the reconstruction of the site of the future archives was completed based on these specifications.
No doubt, we arrived at and crossed a border. In the meantime, we became cognizant of new sensibilities, vulnerabilities, and excesses of power. We strived to stand by our values and professionalism in our work and will remain committed to them even under extreme circumstances. Our lives changed irrevocably and we will have to live by different rules. But we want our corridor small talks, collective coffee breaks, and ad-hoc staff meetings in the kitchen back.