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30th April, 2020

Stepping Out of the Georgian Era into a Pandemic

Dr Karen E.McAulay, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Simpson Sauchihall Street Glasgow


I’m an academic librarian and postdoctoral researcher, dividing my time to a ratio of 70:30. Even in normal times, my hours are structured to reflect this; I imagine that a full-time academic might not be in such a different position if they have a heavy teaching load.  


Working from home is both unfamiliar to me (music librarians have conventionally been considered most useful when the students can meet them at the shelf-face or in consultation); and familiar – I did my PhD at home in my ‘spare time’. However, my more recent research has mainly been office-based.  It is ironic that although my research career has so far focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth- century musicians and music scholars, my current interests have moved relatively closer to the present day, and might even involve ethnographic research with living subjects. I hadn’t anticipated that; my only recent experience of this kind of research was as part of a teaching qualification a couple of years ago.


I’m based at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, a city which was once considered the second city of the British Empire. Hardly surprising, then, that Glasgow was the home of several music publishers – largely, but not entirely at the popular end of the market – which flourished in the late Victorian era, through to the mid-twentieth century. There’s plenty that I can do online, along with making plans for printed sources that I’ll need to consult once it is again safe to do so.


But in an academic climate where outcomes and outreach are an integral part of any research proposal, I should also like to reach out to elderly local musicians, to capture some of their memories of the now long-gone music shops that these publishers traded from. Whilst my research has hitherto looked at Scottish song collectors, compilers of Scottish song collections, and curators of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century music in libraries, the music of ‘my’ Glasgow publishers was in many cases not particularly highbrow – but there was a lot of music with a Scottish theme. I’d like to know if senior citizens remember visiting these shops, or maybe remember using some of the more popular publications. Balancing a more conventional historical narrative with living memories would, I feel, make the research more meaningful both to the research community and, more, particularly, to audiences beyond that community.  


I haven’t had much experience of grant-writing. I was fortunate enough to receive a hefty dose of beginner’s luck by succeeding with my first application, a networking grant with the AHRC. My second attempt – not with the same funder – was unsuccessful.  To me, the lockdown now presents unexpected problems. Some sources of funding aren’t allocating funds at present, which is completely understandable.  


But the new challenge for me is the ethical clearance process. Apart from the small-scale research I did for my teaching qualification, my subjects up to now have been so long-dead that ethics didn’t really enter into the equation. Whereas now?  I can’t entertain thoughts of interviewing elderly musicians face-to-face, if there’s a chance that lockdown might last for more than a year for the over-seventies. My own husband falls into that category, so I’m well-aware of the issues around shielding and social-distancing. I’m contemplating the other ways of making contact.  Skype and Messenger video-calls aren’t necessarily an option with this age-group, whilst phone-calls can be misheard, quite apart from removing the ability to watch and respond to participants’ reactions. Using a variety of different forms of contact seems a rather unstructured methodology. Moreover, whilst reminiscence is generally both pleasurable and stimulating for the older generation, I’m worried that my potential interviewees – and those concerned for their wellbeing – might feel less enthusiastic than usual about engaging with an unknown researcher, at a time when contact with anyone is such a difficult thing to navigate. I am assuming, of course, that talking about old Scottish music isn’t likely to be a terribly emotive subject for most people.


Earlier this week, I received an email from Advance HE, alerting me inter alia to an interesting and informative blogpost by Alan Donnelly from Sheffield Hallam University. Discussing the issue of cognitive interviewing during the current Covid-19 crisis, he specifically flags up issues around interview participants’ wellbeing, privacy and confidentiality in connection with web-based interviews, discussing how well technology can replace live interviews, and asking whether some interviews should actually be postponed at the present time. Of course, the context of the interviews is different, since Donnelly is discussing interviews with students, whilst ethnographical interviews with elderly participants come with their own challenges. Pragmatically, I am very aware that the very people I’d like to talk to are sadly more vulnerable today than at any time in the past.


Donnelly’s posting is amply referenced, and one Australian citation has already been flagged up on the Cultural Capital Exchange blog – Deborah Lupton’s Google Doc, ‘Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic’ is definitely on my ‘to read’ list. We’re living in unusual times, and any well-sourced guidance is to be highly valued. With my 10.5 hours’ research time per week, I am anxious not to try to reinvent the wheel!  


In similar vein, I should be interested to know if there’s anyone else out there – there surely must be – contemplating writing a grant for a project which will include an ethnographical element with a particularly vulnerable category of participants.  Or maybe you’re already working on such a study?  Any quick tips on best practice would be very welcome!


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