An Archivist’s COVID-19 Journal, Part I: A Brave New World 

I was blissfully unaware that Cowboy Days would be the last public event I attended.  Actually, I spent little time among the ranch animals and unique activities on Saturday, March 7, so I suppose it is another grudge I harbor against COVID-19, however I had come to work at the event.  My colleague and I staffed a table inside the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum, talking to passersby about the services and materials of the Archives and Special Collections (ASC).  While I always enjoy talking to anyone about the nature of my work as an archivist, perhaps had I known what lurked around the corner, maybe I would have soaked it in a little more?  Ah, the ability to freely go about your day without having to worry about endangering anyone’s health and safety – simpler times, right? 

ASC’s table at the 21st annual Cowboy Days, New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, March 9, 2020

No one can accuse me of being unaware of the existence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), commonly known as COVID-19 or the coronavirus.  I am a bit of a news junkie and followed the efforts by governments in the Far East to stifle the virus’ spread over the previous month.  Even though the illness had made the jump from overseas, in a nod to “American exceptionalism,” coupled with the failure of previous emerging viral infections – SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012 – to gain a foothold in the United States, I reasoned perhaps this would be another footnote in history.  The week of March 8 proved my ignorance and naïveté; but in my defense, I was hardly alone. 

I recall sitting in my office in Branson Library watching Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s press conference on Wednesday, March 11, wherein she announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case in New Mexico and immediately declared a public health emergency.  That certainly got my attention, particularly since people from around the Mesilla Valley would be gathering at the library that evening for an event I had helped to plan.  Uh, should we reconsider after the governor’s warnings? We did, postponing until some nebulous date in the coming fall.  From that point forward the cancellations began to roll in, the keystone of public safety having been plucked ever so neatly.  The phrase “out of an abundance of caution” carried the days ahead.   

In those days that followed, the discussion in ASC and the library quickly focused on safe working conditions and the option of telecommuting.  On the morning of March 12, our small department informally gathered in the hallway to discuss the implications of the situation and fortuitous timing of Spring Break starting the following Monday.  By the end of the week, a plan to telecommute for those who wished to “work from home” had been agreed upon.  As I lived alone and have no dependents, I was happy to remain working from my office in Branson Library – behind a locked door and down a “staff only” hallway.  I felt my risk to exposure appeared limited and in order to provide reference services to our holdings we needed at least one staff member working onsite.   

Quickly COVID-19 made its presence known in my life, as it wreaked havoc on my upcoming travel and plans.  As a faculty member, my work includes attending and presenting at academic meetings.  On the following Monday, March 16, I had plans to visit the New Mexico State Records Center & Archives to continue my research into artist Tom Lea and the two large WPA-era murals that hung in Branson Library.  Afterward, I scheduled evening dinner plans in Santa Fe with colleagues to discuss the formation of a professional statewide archival organization.  Finally, the next day I planned to lead a discussion about the documentary Change the Subject at the Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting in Albuquerque.  I learned through one of the meeting organizers on Tuesday, March 10, that SfAA decided to scuttle their professional meeting, less than a week from its opening.  By Thursday word had reach the department that the state archives, while still providing reference services, was closing its reading room to the public.  Emails began to fill my inbox with cancellations for the dinner and organizing meeting in Santa Fe.  My fellow co-organizer and I decided to postpone the meeting to a future date, wanting to follow the protocols outlined by state government, which requested no unnecessary travel and large gatherings.   Under the circumstances, we felt putting pressure on people to attend a meeting that could be hazardous to their health unwise.  With now no reason to travel north, I cancelled my Airbnb reservation. 

Email from Chancellor Dan Arvizu to the NMSU community, March 13, 2020

One of the great things about ASC is getting to supervise work-study students and interns who provide critical support to library staff and faculty.   Serving in a role as mentor is rewarding, but I will admit I had no ready answer to an intern who asked if I knew what changes the pandemic might bring to NMSU.  My thoughts also centered on how the school could maintain a full slate of services yet still protect the entire university community knowing the virus’ arrival on campus was imminent.   My week concluded with an instructional session on archival primary sources for about 25 ENGL 111 students.  The class began with everyone first signing our guest register and then heading to the restrooms to wash their hands, a new procedure we had decided to implement earlier that day.  While students looked through the archival materials and finished their assignment, the class instructor and I talked about our growing coronavirus-fueled unease.  Late that Friday afternoon the university announced an extension of the Spring Break, stating that classes would not resume until March 30. 

The ASC staff prides itself on offering excellent reference service, something for which we are often commended.  We were therefore perplexed on how to best assist one patron who planned to visit the following Monday.  When a researcher travels from a great distant to engage with our archival resources we wish to be as accommodating as possible.  Archivists love it when a researcher contacts the archive before their visit and clearly makes use of the institution’s online tools provide them – and that was the case here.  We indeed were looking forward to interacting with this overseas scholar.  But with changes to NMSU institutional travel guidelines due to COVID-19, it seemed odd that this person could walk directly into our research room after arriving in the country whereas conversely if any employee of the university were to have returned from overseas they would have been asked to not return to campus until after a 14 day quarantine.  This scholar was now stuck in limbo; having meticulously planned out a research trip to the American Southwest months before, but upon arrival found that many of the doors were now shut due to health concerns.  As we discussed potential ways to deal with the situation, the decision by the federal government to restrict air travel saw the scholar cancel their plans to visit NMSU and quickly travel to Washington, D.C. to try to book an earlier flight home.  While the situation resolved itself, it left us uneasy – how does one balance access versus staff safety? 

The following week saw the library overall grapple with the maintaining services amidst a continually changing environment. 

To be continued with An Archivist’s COVID-19 Journal, Part II. Read Part III here and Part IV here.

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