It is not uncommon for blind college professors, like their sighted colleagues, to research and publish their results in refereed journals or books. Doing the research away from their home campus poses some unique challenges. In the following article, Dr. Suzanne Ament describes how one person has done this successfully. Dr. Ament is currently an associate professor of history at Radford University.
Anyone who has taken on a research project starts out, well, blind. You have an idea, a question, maybe even a hypothesis ó but where to start? This article is not going to address research methods as such, but the angle of research if you really are blind and need to do research outside of your home, away at a library or an archive.
I have done this on several occasions. The largest and most daunting was going to the USSR for a year to research my dissertation. Iím not going to address this here in detail other than to note that some of the principles I used to make that trip happen are just as applicable to a shorter trip.
As background, I teach at a university in Southwest Virginia, which is mainly undergraduate, has very few holdings in foreign languages, and is not considered a research university. Thus someone wishing to research has to turn to other sources: the internet, inter-library loan if you know the exact source you need, or a research library or archive.
My field is Russian history, and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has a summer research laboratory for scholars who use Slavic materials. Who would have known that in the middle of the Midwest is one of the largest holdings of Slavic materials in the country!
I have attended this Lab three times: once as a graduate student, once in the first years at Radford, and this summer. Sadly, funding has been slowly chipped away, so my trip this year was only five nights of housing instead of the previous two weeks. This is free housing to researchers in a dorm on campus.
First things first: money! Housing is covered, so how to get there? I applied for a grant from my university for travel, and received travel money.
Now, since I planned to use materials in Russian, I needed to figure out how to access them. Here is the strategizing that blind folks have to do more than others.
In all three trips, I was able to find someone to read for me. The first trip as a grad student, one of the librarians volunteered to help me find materials. On the second trip, I worked through the Russian center to find a student who would work with me. And this past summer, I called an old friend from grad school who was off from teaching in the summer and proposed a trip.
In the last case, I worked to get him a stipend, if not an hourly wage, asked that the U. of I. offer him housing as my assistant (which they agreed to readily) ó easier to give him housing than to find people to help meÖ. So, first rule of thumb: if you can provide your own people to help you either in reading, orienting, or getting around, it makes places happy even if they are willing to help either because of their good nature or because of ADA and other laws.
On my first trip, I traveled with another grad student and we shared a dorm suite. The second time, I went alone but had a friend who lived in the area help get me set up and learn a couple of routes. The third time, my friend and I drove out and stayed in a suite, and basically figured things out from scratch.
Our trip was pretty intense since we only had six days and were in the library pretty much the whole time it was open. We got some R&R on the weekend when summer hours were short.
We mostly worked to retrieve and note sources and copy/scan whatever we could. There wasnít much time for thorough reading. One thing to keep in mind when having one person to work with is that you need to give each other space and be ready to compromise occasionally, even if it isnít what you totally want. Yes, as the researcher you are ďthe boss,Ē but if your reader/assistant is unhappy or exhausted, the work will not go well anyway.
If you are not lucky enough to know someone in the place you are going, or to have someone to travel with you, there are some other things you can try. Of course the place that is offering you the research may have some staff or way to advertise for an assistant. Be sure to be clear if you have funding, or are asking for volunteers. In my case, the Russian center at U. of I. and the library staff both helped in different ways. You might also consider calling on civic groups: the Lions often have clubs and have the mission to aid the blind; your church/worship group probably has a branch where you are going; your research interest may point you in the direction of an organization as well.
For those of you who have delved into the world of smart phone technology, GPS, and other assistive devices (Iím only on the fringe thus far), these may help in ways I havenít imagined such as orientation, finding services, transportation, and perhaps even reading materials once they are retrieved. The fact that I use Russian written in a totally different alphabet makes these things less possible, and makes me a bit more dependent on sighted readers.
When you are doing research blind, it can get very boring. Someone is doing most of the culling for you, and even if they do it out loud it can be tedious, so make sure whatever topic you are searching for really interests you, and keep your eye on that prize. Also, the more you can see all of this as an adventure and stay flexible no matter what happens, the more fun and more productive you will be.
In closing, have any of you ever had a stack pass to the Library of Congress? I did in grad school and was THRILLED! Now Ö go research just how many people would care about that Ö Yep, Iím a nerd!
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