Research During a Pandemic: Interview With Documentary Film Researcher Heather Merrill

As a librarian and movie-lover, I’m always excited to assist filmmakers with their research — and this Fall, the Burke received a request from a researcher working on a documentary film about the first women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church (the “Philadelphia Eleven”). The request came from Heather Merrill, an independent film researcher, whose workload has remained steady throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has shuttered many libraries and archives worldwide. We at the Burke still endeavor to help researchers as best we can, and as we guided Heather through accessing a few low-resolution scans of materials from the Burke’s collections, she was kind enough to answer a few of my curiosity-driven questions for our readers. Hopefully others will be heartened by the success Heather has found with her ongoing research.

Below is an excerpt from our correspondence about remote archival research during pandemic conditions in 2020:

How would you describe your job as a researcher?
I’m a freelance researcher, and about half of my work is for PBS historical programs, and half is for independent films.

Has your work changed much during the COVID-19 pandemic?
My work is usually pretty steady throughout the year and surprisingly, there was no slowdown for me in the demand for research on film projects, so I’m extremely grateful that I’ve had non-stop work for the entire pandemic.

Has it been difficult finding resources online?
The majority of my work is online anyway, and I’ve been surprised and so appreciative for all the material that I CAN access. For material that can’t be accessed, we’ve had to come up with other plans. For material that I’m able to access, all the same databases are still available and so many archives have at least some material digitized and accessible, that I’ve been able to make some progress. It’s been wonderful how many archives have done remote research requests, even if it takes longer.

How was your online Burke Library research experience?
The Burke staff has always been patient and responsive, and has always tried to answer my questions, and if possible, dig up what I’m looking for. This was true before COVID, and it’s true now. I so appreciate what I’ve been able to access remotely at the Burke, and this is all due to the staff. There are other institutions who simply haven’t allowed any staff in their buildings at all, and I understand that too.

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Since our initial correspondence, librarians were able to take a few photographs and send Heather several images of materials from collections in the Burke Archives. The collections we consulted included the Suzanne Hiatt Papers, which contain materials related to the work of supporting women’s ordination to the Episcopal Church.

Image of a 1970s newsletter showing the female symbol and the logo for Womens Ordination Now. There is a poem that reads, I was hungry... and you studied me. I was hungry... and you voted on me. I was hungry... and you fed me not in Louisville. I was hungry... and you told me to wait for another convention, and several more lines in this style. The last line reads, I am fed... and you are hungry.
Image from a page of a publication of Women’s Ordination Now (WON), which worked to support the recognition of ordained women as priests in the Episcopal Church. From the Suzanne Hiatt Papers, in the Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship, at The Burke Library (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary. (Series 2C, Box 5, Folder 9, “Women’s Ordination Now (WON), 1975-1976”).

One thought on “Research During a Pandemic: Interview With Documentary Film Researcher Heather Merrill

  1. I write this message at the end of a year that has continually defied and redefined our sense of reality. We have struggled at times to comprehend the moment . Thousands of people have died in California due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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