Desordem e Atraso? Challenges in Conducting Research in Rio

Muse - Brazil - Archive
O Arquivo Nacional (courtyard) – Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

In Portuguese, the word “atrapalhação” means disorder, confusion, and disruption that can pose an impediment to accomplishing something. Unfortunately, it is also the word that most perfectly embodies my experiences in conducting research in Rio thus far. I am not working on a particularly controversial topic, nor am I attempting to study anything that occurred in the past decade. I am conducting research on popular discourse within the 1950s Brazilian press on the African and Asian territories of the Portuguese Ultramar. Despite this, I continue to experience moments of atrapalhação that make me certain there is a hidden camera installed somewhere in the ceilings of Rio libraries, and that I am at the center of a massive practical joke!

A Visit to the Arquivo Nacional (National Archive)

Rio’s Arquivo Nacional is home to hundreds of original documents on the history of Brazil. Unfortunately, it was difficult to determine which documents could be helpful for my project via their website. Searching by keywords seemed to yield either zero or hundreds of results, so I decided to go to the archive and speak to one of its librarians. Before entering the research room, I had to check in with my passport, sign a visitor’s list, and put all of my personal belongings in a locker. No cell phones, cameras, mp3 players, or even computers (unless approved by one of the staff members) were allowed. Once in the research room, I waited in line to speak to a librarian who, though helpful, told me that most of the documents that would be relevant for my topic were held in São Paulo. The others, she proceeded to note, were part of a set of documents that just recently received government clearance for public viewing and that they had not yet arrived. Strike One. She suggested instead that I check out their photo collection from the now defunct Correio de Manhã, a Rio-based daily newspaper published from 1901 to 1974.

I followed her advice and spent the next two hours looking through paper-based catalogues of all the paper’s photos listed by keywords and themes. After making a list of thirty-six files I wanted to see, another librarian told me that I would need to fill out a request form for each of the files. Though I thought it would be a quick process, I was sadly mistaken. The paper request forms asked for my printed name, signature, full address, email, phone number, document number, research number, and the date. After filling out all this information thirty-six times with my borrowed pencil (they do not allow pens), I submitted the forms with a smile on my face, relieved that I could now get down to business. I was wrong. Strike Two.

The librarian informed me that the section that called for the date did not refer to today’s date as I had written. I would need to erase that section in all thirty-six forms and write in the viewing date. “Viewing date?” I asked. “What do you mean?” She informed me that they would give me a scheduled date to see my requested files within one business week, though since there was a holiday coming up (Corpus Christi), I would need to wait an extra day. No problem, I thought, as I misinterpreted her words to mean that my files would be available from now until the end of the next business week. Not quite… In reality, I would need to wait for a total of five business days plus the weekend and the holiday in order to access the files. My scheduled viewing date would be the twelfth of June. Strike Three.

When I arrived that Tuesday, eight days later, I felt more prepared. I knew what I needed to bring and what I would need to put away. I thought that I would be spending a few hours on the microfilm machines then traveling to the next library to conduct more work. Instead, I was instructed to go to the fourth building behind the archive, its photo center, to review my requested files. When I got there, I had to put on white gloves and remain in a room with a library attendant watching my every move as I looked at each of the original photos, one at a time. I almost anticipated a full cavity search at the end of the day, but fortunately left the archive without any problems. I even befriended the photo room attendant, a man who had been working at the archive for over fifteen years who confessed his love for the Vampire Diaries and shared a clandestine cup of coffee with me out of the security camera’s view (no liquids are allowed in the room).

The Adventure Continued at the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library)

Rio’s Biblioteca Nacional is a multi-level research facility with an extensive collection of documents on Brazil and other parts of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) world. Their strength is their vast newspaper collection, which I knew would be crucial for my thesis research. So I made my way to the National Library the day after my first day at the Arquivo Nacional, expecting a little bit of bureaucratic atrapalhação.

I arrived early in the morning, checked in with my passport, had my picture taken, and got my temporary researcher key and card (all of which you have to do each day you visit the library and whenever you leave and come back, even if for five minutes). I then registered my tablet computer, a comically complicated process. Registration required 1) filling out a form at the front desk, 2) placing my tablet computer in my locker, 3) showing the form the security guard between the front desk and the research room, 4) showing the form to one of the librarians in the research room, 5) getting his or her signature, 6) walking to the exit security guard and showing him/her, 7) returning to the lockers to pick up my computer, 8) showing the device and the form to the guard in front of the research room, then finally 9) showing the device and the form to the librarian.

I spoke to one of the librarians about how to conduct searches on the center’s digitized catalogue, and began to find titles for magazines and newspapers I wanted to pull. Because their request form also required a full name, address, phone number, email, and researcher number like that of the Arquivo Nacional, I kept my requests for the day down to a total of two. I waited thirty minutes as the librarian went to retrieve my files. “Sorry, but one of the files you requested is being held in a room that is being cleaned for the next few weeks, so we can only get that for you on Thursdays and Fridays . . . though we might be able to make an exception some days.” he noted.  “Also, some of the documents in that room are being restored, so I am not entirely sure if this is even available yet.” And the next request for a paper authored by a group of communists? “We only have a few of those issues on microfilm. The rest are actually available online. You can look at them at home.” The news was a blessing, though it made me feel as though my trip had been in vain.

I decided to try again at the National Library a few days later. With my passport, computer registration form, and tablet in hand, I checked in, entered the research room, and began again on the digital catalogue. The first request was for a newspaper about acts of social injustice that I thought may have some useful information. The librarian informed me that the reels for the paper were located in the annex, a building literally right behind the main library, and that it would take a week or more to retrieve them. I held back the urge to facetiously volunteer to go get them myself.

The next item I requested was available (yay!), but the microfilm readers presented another challenge. They were much older models than those to which I was accustomed. Considering how desastrada (accident-prone) I am, I asked for the librarian’s help. Five minutes of reel-loading later, I was ready to get my feet wet. The screen was another challenge, but I quickly adjusted and spent the rest of the day looking at issues of O Globo, a popular Rio-based paper, from the first half of 1950.

Before I ended my day at the library, I decided to ask one of the workers if it would be possible to take pictures (within the building and/or of the documents). She asked me if I was conducting research for a university, to which I replied with an excited “yes!” thinking that this could be my chance to bypass some of the burocracia (bureaucracy). She then pointed me to a sign noting that in order to take pictures, one was required to present a document from the university requesting permission on the student’s behalf. It would need to be notarized in both the U.S. and Brazil, and I would need such a document for each item I planned to photograph. I decided it was time to call it a day, though not before showing the exit guard my computer authorization form . . . of course.

* * *

Despite these frustrating moments, which have found a way of repeating themselves daily no matter how prepared I *think* I might be, I have surprisingly been able to get some research done, albeit stifled. Sometimes I feel as though Brazil has a strange relationship with academics, even those who are citizens. Though now fully democratic, Brazil is still recovering from periods of dictatorial rule and political unrest in the twentieth century. During Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 – 1985, many university professors were expelled from the country for being politically suspect. As a result, a certain tension remains between the academic community and the Brazilian government. Even as I write this, the professors of public universities in Rio de Janeiro are entering their second month of striking for better pay. Interestingly, some of these protests have been staged in the Praça dos Professores (Professors’ Plaza), right next to the Biblioteca Nacional.

Other vestiges of the military dictatorship have manifested themselves in extensive bureaucracy such as that which I have mentioned above. There must be a paper trail and authorization for every stage of research that is conducted, even on the most basic level. Yet further complicating academic research is a sense of distrust in the general public. In recent years, there have been several cases of library patrons and employees damaging or stealing historical documents. As a result, many research institutions further tightened their protocol for daily access to documents.

The process of conducting research here greatly differs from my experiences in the New York Public Library. There  the policies are more flexible and the atmosphere more casual. In Rio, however, everything related to research is complicated. I have felt incredibly exhausted at the end of many research days here in Rio because of all the stress, confusion, and delays inherent to completing what I consider basic requests.

These obstacles, however, have taught me three things. First and foremost, they have forced me to be patient. I have had to slow down and remain calm in situations that may have been more easily resolved in NYC, but that require more steps here in Rio. Secondly, the process has made my work feel more valuable. I have to work harder to gain access the documents I need, making every day at the library feel a bit like a treasure hunt. And third, the frequent moments of atrapalhação have taught me to have a sense of humor in a period of serious work. Historical research can feel repetitive and isolating at times, so these sitcom-like moments definitely provide me with plenty of funny stories to tell.

Adjusting to these unforeseen challenges has been just as much a part of conducting research abroad as learning a new language or trying new foods. They have forced me to be more flexible, to dar um jeito (come up with an alternative solution) when I think I may not get my way. And in the end, they have steadily taught me more about Rio. Just as I uncover gems of information in my archival research, I get a glimpse into the complicated world of Brazilian bureaucracy and the ways people get around it.

Posted by Wendi Muse – MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

2 thoughts on “Desordem e Atraso? Challenges in Conducting Research in Rio

  1. Now you understand why we Brazilians are so creative! It’s a shame, however, that we are still unable to use this creativity to improve such important areas like education.

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