Researching Central Eastern European History: tips and resources

By Vanesa Djibrilova

I have recently finished my master’s dissertation at the University of Glasgow on Slovak folk dress traditions. Here’s what I found out the hard way during my research about the nature of studying Central and Eastern European (CEE) history from the position of a Western university and English-speaking academia.

  1. There are some great online sources!

There are journals which make CEE studies available online in English, such as https://www.ceeol.com. Do not underestimate online databases and articles shared by museums. Big institutions (e.g., V&A, MET) acquire objects from all over the world and present them in online collections databases, which feature high-resolution images and descriptions. Luckily, nowadays, many museums showcase their collections online in a similar way. Several museums feature an English version of their website. Check out the websites of larger Central and Eastern European museums, such as the Slovak Centre for Folk Art Production or the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. However, smaller museums that have a minimal online presence may lack this feature, as they predominantly present to local audiences in the native language. Museum and library employees, as well as local scholars, are likely to know at least some English, so they may be able to help if you contact them.

2. Not all sources are digitised

Depending on your topic, online sources may not be enough, so be prepared for the possibility of travel. In my own research, I’ve largely worked with physical books. Travelling to the country of your interest will offer you the possibility of viewing many sources (objects and literature) in person. If you’re a student or a researcher, you can arrange a consultation with a museum. This is how I got to examine a dozen artefacts for my dissertation. Once you find an object, you can conduct your physical analysis in your language of choice. If you’re interested in viewing some Slovak objects, I recommend this database: https://www.slovakiana.sk/kulturne-objekty.

3. Be prepared for a language barrier

You will inevitably be confronted by the nuanced associations between language and culture. Language is key to academic research and thus I must warn you – a minority of sources are likely to be written or translated into English. I am Slovak, so I was able to read older and untranslated sources, as well as communicate with all institutions with ease. However, as my background is in British academia, I had to carefully explain terms and concepts in my dissertation that seemed culturally untranslatable. This was particularly the case since the categorisation of topics and practices within academic disciplines often differ. Be prepared for these obstacles when undertaking interdisciplinary research. In my dissertation, it was sometimes intimidating to reframe existing information through a different lens. However, it was a great academic exercise which can further your creativity. There were instances in which I worried that I was under or over-explaining due to the perpetual fear of my own bilingual and cultural bias. It was particularly important to me to get feedback both from friends who are Slovak and ones who are not, to ensure that I achieved the delicate balance between being accurately informative and understandable in the English language. Alas, the writer is never fully in control of how the audiences understand their words.

4. Don’t limit yourself to one country

There may be fewer sources translated into English and shared online from some particular CEE countries. On the continent, borders have changed many times throughout history (even twentieth-century political developments alone have changed CEE a lot). Several countries share various points of their histories. There may be a larger number of useful sources than you might think if you just expand your research beyond present-day borders. This way, you can find more English language sources, as well as utilise any other language skills you possess. For example, when studying 19th-century Slovakia, I expanded my research to Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. However, for extensive and thorough research, you might consider an interpreter or translator to help.

5. The nature of academia is to share

Remember that relevant secondary sources and inspirational methodologies may come from anywhere. The wider topic was likely already analysed by historians all over the world. After all, isn’t that why you are interested in finding out about researching a part of the world which may be geographically distant from you?!

6. Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the process!

Though research can be extremely daunting, it is easier when you remember why it seemed exciting in the first place. Here are some lovely influencers who remind me of why I like studying CEE history:

Ellis Island Vintage: https://instagram.com/ellisislandvintage?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Krojovna: https://instagram.com/krojovna?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Lúčnica –The Slovak National Folklore Ballet: https://instagram.com/lucnica_official?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Mariëlle van Luijk: https://instagram.com/hollandmarcsi?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Anna, Pretty Shepherd: https://instagram.com/prettyshepherd?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Karolina Żebrowska: https://instagram.com/karolinazebrowskax?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

Anna Senik: https://instagram.com/annasenik?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

References

https://www.ceeol.com.

https://www.slovakiana.sk/kulturne-objekty.

http://www.kniznicauluv.sk/index.php/dokumenty-sp-1449910544/zoznam-knih2-2013

Image Credits

Featured Image: Example of Slovak folk embroidery motif from the book “Slovenské ľudové vzory zo štyroch krajov Slovenska” by Drahotína Križko-Kardossová, 1929. Source: http://www.kniznicauluv.sk/index.php/dokumenty-sp-1449910544/zoznam-knih2-2013

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