COVID-19: An Archivist at Home

I have been struggling with whether or not to write a blog post in these strange times. Like everyone else, I have been adjusting to the new reality of social distancing, self-isolation, and remote work. But part of me wants to document my thoughts and feelings during this unprecedented time in our history. I suspect this blog post might not be terribly coherent, but I will do my best to add some value while I document my experiences. There are many interesting projects and virtual events popping up that I want to highlight.

COVID-19: A New Reality

Every day the news is more dire and I expect it will continue this way for the weeks and months to come. My heart aches for the hardest hit communities around the world. I worry about my Grandfather in a long-term care home. I worry for my in-laws in the UK. I worry for my Great Aunt in New York City. I worry for my friends who have lost their jobs. Like everyone else right now, I worry about what the world will look like after all of this is over.

I am deeply uncomfortable with “history as it happens.” My professional nature likes to take the long view, to understand the context of any given situation and be able to analyze it with the benefit of hindsight. Experiencing a world-altering event in real time is deeply unsettling for me.

Before I go much further, I want to acknowledge that I am coming from an incredibly privileged position. I live in British Columbia, Canada – a community that has been handling this crisis with expert skill, in my opinion. British Columbians are taking heed and we are seeing positive results from social distancing measures.  We have been lucky so far. Fingers crossed that this trend continues. I am also privileged to work a permanent, full-time, union job that is secure and I have been permitted to work remotely. This is not the case for many, many people, and I want them to know that I see them and I appreciate the sacrifices everyone is making in these strange times. This situation has exposed the realities of precarious work situations in all fields, including archives.

Self-Isolation

My reality is that I have been in self-isolation for the past two weeks. On March 17th I got very sick with many Covid-19 related symptoms and I stayed inside my house for 14 days. The first five days were a feverish haze where I was not particularly aware of life beyond the four walls of my bedroom. Once I began to feel better, the new reality began to sink in and I felt deeply anxious. I was incredibly irritable, flying off the handle with the slightest provocation (or no provocation at all), picking fights with my husband, and crying for no reason. I was supposed to have all this time on my hands but I was barely able to do anything. There was no crafting or writing during these days. I managed to do some laundry – that felt like an accomplishment.

Then, after a few days, I seemed to adjust to the new reality. I started working remotely, which gave me some defined purpose for large chunks of the day. I made sure to schedule time for some exercise and I looked for opportunities to connect with friends through remote technologies (e.g. House Party, Zoom, Whatsapp, etc.) My friends and I even participated in a virtual trivia night on Twitch (it took a pandemic for me to find out what Twitch is).

These small elements of normalcy (or as close to normal as possible) have made all of this more tolerable. I have also noticed that my attitude to tasks has changed and I think perhaps for the better. Normally, I feel a constant anxiety to do everything quickly. I never procrastinate and I feel a drive to complete tasks as soon as they come up. I was ready to pay my taxes before the government online filing service was even accepting returns. (I know, I know…) But I have noticed lately that I am relaxing into tasks. I am not rushing through them. I am taking the time to sink into them and I think I am better off for it.

My two weeks of self-isolation ended on March 31st and I was able to go for a quick walk outside. Part of me didn’t want to. I wonder if others have felt the same? I felt apprehensive about leaving the house. And, as expected, it was strange. The world felt very different to the one I had left behind two weeks earlier. It was largely silent. There weren’t many cars. There were more smiles from those I passed on my walk – that was nice. I laughed to myself the whole time because in the back of my head I was thinking about “keeping a Stephen Merchant away from everyone,” following some expert advice from the comedian.

Advice for Archivists Working Remotely

Remote work for archivists can be a tricky business. A lot of our work requires physical access to the records in our care. Our reference work is people work but like most archival institutions by now, my archives is closed to the public. We are still attempting to answer email or phone reference queries, but sometimes those require physical access to the collections so those requests are difficult to respond to. On the first day of remote work, I found myself with the task of developing remote work plans for myself and for my staff. Luckily, many of us are in the same boat and there are some great resources that have been pulled together by archivists. I love the collaborative nature of some of these resources – taking advantage of the collective hive mind during troubling times.

The most helpful resource I found was produced by the Society of American Archivists’ Accessibility and Disability Section. They have been blogging about working from home and have included a number of very useful resources related to mental health during these difficult times. This group has also pulled together an incredibly helpful guide for archivists now facing remote work situations. I highly recommend checking out this ever-evolving resource. Archivists at Home includes a list of tasks that archivists can do from home, information about continuing education, links to crowdsourcing projects, and information about helpful remote working tools. 

Another very helpful list has been put together by David Rajotte who is known for his Documentary Heritage News blog, which is a weekly review of the documentary heritage and archives news from around the world (a great site to follow – even more so lately). As an extra resource during the pandemic, David has put together What to do during Covid-19: A List for Archivists. The google doc is updated daily and provides a list of online courses, videos, podcasts and other activities for archivists.

Archives Organizations Stepping Up

I have been impressed by the way that professional organizations and a variety of institutions in our field have stepped up during this crisis. In the early days of the crisis in Canada, the Association of Canadian Archivists pushed for archives to be closed to the public to protect both public and staff. The community responded very positively to their advocacy efforts.

The Association of Canadian Archivists has also provided temporary free and open access to its prominent archival journal, Archivaria. Typically, the most recent issues are only available to members, but for the time being, they have been opened to all. I applaud the ACA on this initiative and my team has been taking advantage of the access. We have convened an “Article Club” where we review an article once per week and have a video conference discussion at the end of the week. It’s been a great way to keep connected while we are working in three separate locations.

 

The International Council of Archives has developed a really interesting project to promote the idea that archives remain accessible in times like these.

“To enable the archives and records community to tell ICA what they are doing and what is accessible, we have developed a digital map where you can share information about an online exhibition, digital catalogue, specific digital collections or a crowd-sourcing project that people can do while they #StayHome.”

Archivists can submit their archives for inclusion in the map by registering here.

Source: https://www.ica.org/en/what-archive/archives-are-accessible-search-the-map

 

There are a number of organizations that are offering more professional development and general interest content through webinars – may of which are being offered for free.

The Royal BC Museum just launched its RBCM@Home series, which will “visit with members of the curatorial and collections staff who are working from home during the pandemic and discover how they do their work, how their work is reflected in their homes and what they’re working on now.” The first in the series featured archivist Genevieve Weber who spent a lovely half hour showcasing how she uses her archival skills at home with her family records.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services offered a free webinar that might be of interest to archivists as well: “Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections” by Dr. David Berendes and Dr. Catherine Rasberry (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

For more training opportunities (free and fee), check out David Rajotte’s list.

COVID-19 Archives Projects

Once archivists got over the initial shock of the pandemic, it seems they immediately got to work trying to document it. There are countless projects underway around the world to document the impact of the pandemic on society and individual communities. I thought I would link to a few here for people to check out. Perhaps these will inspire you to create similar projects in your jurisdiction. They certainly inspired me to blog about what’s going on and to document my personal feelings about the situation.

I do think it is important with all of these projects to keep in mind the concept of “ethical collecting.” The Wellcome Collection said it nicely when a member of staff stated in a list-serv post that their “primary focus is to ensure our collecting is considered, properly planned and properly documented so that any material collected can be used by researchers in the future. We will be respectful of lived experience and be sensitive of the fact that this virus can be fatal. We will work together with other institutions to ensure that our collective history of Covid-19 ends up in the most appropriate place and that our collecting remains within our area of expertise.”

Some active documentation projects:

  • This is a running list of ongoing COVID 19 documentation initiatives.
  • 20/20 Distance: A COVID-19 Digital Archive An ever-expanding digital archive created by Southwestern University
  • Coquitlam Heritage Society – The Journal Project
  • Italian-Canadian Archives of Quebec- COVID-19 documentation project
  • COVID-19 In Niagara A project from Brock University
  • McMaster University is developing a course with the History Department that will “invite students to become chroniclers of their own experiences of the pandemic with a view to depositing the resulting works in our collection”
  • Welsh Archivist Lisa Heledd Jones is documenting the lived experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary times – check out the NPR interview here.
  • Aberdeen archivists have appealed to residents in the north-east of Scotland to keep coronavirus diaries
  • The UK Government Web Archive is running daily captures of government content at the moment, sometimes several times a day.
  • National Records of Scotland are working with partners and clients in the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland, and beyond to capture key websites that document Scotland’s response to Covid-19. These snapshots will be made available in the NRS Web Archive
  • The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh have begun asking physicians involved in treatment to record their experiences and submit them to their archive

I’m sure there are many more similar projects – if you know of any, please let me know through the comments.

Sometimes the Internet is a Good Place

 

I wanted to end this by sharing my favourite videos/memes/twitter posts from the past few weeks. These have been interrupting the interminable doom and gloom of my social media feeds. I try to avoid over-saturation of social media because it doesn’t do me any good, but every day I do a quick scan for something that might lift my spirits.

Here are my favourites:

https://twitter.com/NeilDiamond/status/1241584423927074818

 

Stay safe everyone! We’re in this together.

 

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