NSights Blog

Connection in the archives

How University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives are keeping things moving during the pandemic

Rehousing old letters, sleeving photographs, shelving books and manuscripts – much of the work students do in an archive is inherently physical. With the events of last month, the student assistants of the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) found themselves unable to do that work. However, since March 23 rd, we have endeavored find tasks that both enable our students to continue to work while still performing meaningful tasks to help improve access to our collections.

Finding ourselves suddenly removed from the office, we immediately began to create a virtual work environment for our students. Before we even started creating tasks for the students to complete, we asked ourselves a number of questions. How do we communicate with the students? How can we track their work? How can we enable them to work independently?

The result was a mixture of several cloud-based tools and communication platforms. SCUA already uses Slack for notifications and communication, so we set up a new channel for students to communicate with us and one another. Students use Box to access spreadsheets and other reference materials including project instructions. Another web-based tool we already use that the students are familiar with is Airtable, a cloud-based database and spreadsheet management suite. We decided to use it to help track and manage each individual project outlined in the instruction sheet.

The projects themselves, though not the hands-on archival work they were used to, are still necessary and meaningful. Some of the projects are forward-facing, such as updating finding aid abstracts and correcting spelling errors, and others are back-end projects, such as enriching our collections data so we could make better informed decisions about future priorities and projects for when we return to on-site work.

What does this mean to the students? Unanimously, they all say that they are grateful for the work. Our student, Theresa, says that “I'm ... glad I can still work from home because it is one of the few routines I have left in my life. Without this, the days would be a lot blurrier than they already are.” Another student, Chris, says that although he misses being in the department, the normalcy is nice, even if the tasks are a little mind-numbing. William has been able to find the silver lining: “I normally commute five hours per week between work, school, and home so that is a burden that has been lifted.”

Working from home doesn’t come without certain challenges. Lauren was at first worried that she wasn’t working fast enough or accomplishing enough, but she’s been able to find a groove that has helped take the pressure off. Katie, too, points out that it’s easy to be distracted, and getting into the swing of things has been hard. Not being able to walk across the department to ask clarifying questions has made a big impact. Then there’s always the extra complication of technology. Between slow internet connections and overloaded WIFI, work can be very slow going.

In an effort to help mitigate the negative effects of remote work, we have tried to give structure to the students. They are still working their normal schedules already in place for the semester so that they have time for their classwork. We have two seniors in the department, so the extra time to complete thesis and research projects has been welcomed. We’ve also implemented a Wednesday morning Zoom meeting. Although it isn’t required, the students have been thankful to see each other’s faces and talk about what they’ve been working on, challenges faced, tasks accomplished, and connect with each other and us.

Because that’s the most important thing for us to do in these times: Connect.

Jessica Maddox and Ian McGlory
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