An Archivist’s COVID-19 Journal, Part III: Groundhog Day?

Working from home never appealed to me.  As an archivist, working temporarily from my apartment presents many complications.  For many professions that is doubtlessly true.  I do not wish to discount those fields but rather reflect on the only employment I have known for the past 20 years.  I pursued a career in the archival field because I took pleasure being around the “stuff” – the old papers, dusty volumes, the various photographic types, the long-since-replaced media formats – and all the trappings of the scholarly process of uncovering the past.  Not having archival material at an arms-length has taken adjustment.

Archivists are the caretakers of not only the ideas and actions of those who have passed but also of the ever-evolving technologies humanity has used to record those ideas.  We take our job to honor that charge seriously (some would say too seriously, but what do they know?).  We cherish, protect, and dote over our records.  During my sojourn at home I find myself wondering how “my archives” are doing without me – are they getting enough cool air with just the right amount of humidity? Are the pests, ever nibbling and nesting, staying away?  Is the harsh UV light and its propensity to fade paper, ink, and leather kept adequately at bay?  Perhaps most importantly, I want to know who has direct access to the records when I am not around.  Yes, we archivists care for our records with the diligence of a parent.  Naturally, nothing gives us more satisfaction than seeing our records amuse, charm, and impress a patron.  We never doubted the ability of our archival “babies” to do so, yet the joy we feel when we witness a successful pairing in the research room between a researcher and these grown records provides the fulfillment every archivist is seeking.  It validates our work.  Alas, from home this scenario can no longer play out.

On Friday, March 20th, I began my first day working at home – in my “office,” mere steps away from my comfortable bed, entertaining smart television, and a well-stocked refrigerator. How does one avoid all the distractions?  How does one not constantly reach for snacks?  How does one stay focused and be productive?  I’ll admit it has been a challenge from the beginning.  Week one was novel; week two developed a rhythm; by week three it was blah.  On some days, I felt a kindred spirit to Phil Connors, a cynical TV weatherman, played by Bill Murray, in the movie Groundhog Day, who became stuck in a time loop.  Sure, I “worked” but I began to miss my colleagues and interacting with researchers and students.  I am equal parts introvert and extrovert, one who values their time alone but enjoys the intellectual vigor of the academic environment.  Like everyone else, I began to rely on video conferencing software like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, RingCentral Meetings, and Facebook Messenger to accomplish tasks and communicate.  Technology can amaze while simultaneously making one feel distant, especially when you are staring at a screen and often listening to a disembodied voice.  To my Branson and Zuhl compatriots, please know I miss seeing your faces and interacting with you in person.

In spite of these challenges, the work carries on and I am proud to say that my Archives and Special Collections (ASC) colleagues, all working from home as well, have still managed to fulfill many reference requests and complete several major projects.  Previously, our patrons regularly commented on the high level of service ASC provided.  While we can no longer respond to those requests in the research room, collectively we still strive to reply as quickly and thoroughly as possible to phone and email inquiries.  Thankfully, our users understand that lack of access to collections means our level of service is dependent on our catalogs (Alma, PastPerfect, and ArchivesSpace), digital collections (CONTENTdm), and finding aids (Rocky Mountain Online Archive).  Patience as a virtue, has ruled the day, even as we have had to temporarily alter some of our policies and procedures.

ASC staff discovered that many ideas we had discussed in the past but were never able to devote the necessary time and staffing to suddenly became ideal candidates to devote our attention.  Digitization and transcription of oral histories, meta-data creation and cleanup, organization of digital work files, development of outreach and programming efforts, and tying up numerous loose ends.  Additionally, the proliferation of free lectures and hands-on webinars offered by NMSU’s Teaching Academy and numerous national and regional professional library and archival organizations created abundant opportunities to brush-up on or learn outright new skills whenever convenient.  Even before the pandemic, my list of tasks and goals always seemed to grow, and working from home saw the creation of another equally lengthy list.  An archivist’s work is never done.

ASC’s first pandemic project to spring to life came in the form of the departmental blog, The Open Stacks.  Since arriving at NMSU in February 2019, I’d advocated for one as a means to promote our collections.  The platform would allow us to highlight our work, share what was important to us, and connect more meaningfully with our users.  Done creatively, the posts can document the department itself and could be useful in showing the value of our everyday efforts to the university community and beyond. While everyone agreed and had even pushed for a blog in the past, certain library administrative decisions made launching a blog impossible then, but a change in leadership gave us the green light this spring.  As a department, we developed topics and themes for posts, created a style guide, decided on a staff rotation for content development, and selected Tuesdays as the date for publication of new posts.  The IT staff in the library guided us through the pros and cons of various blogging platforms before we selected WordPress software, which the university already favored and supported.  Perhaps the hardest decision came in selecting a name for the blog.  Normally archival storage is not open to the public, a closed stack (another term for shelving).  Our chosen name for the blog, Open Stacks, reflected our desire to open up what may be unknown, not readily apparent, and even to some, mysterious, about ASC.  Since going live on March 30th, about a week and half after closing Branson Library, a pretty amazing feat in my book, we’ve been pleased with the response and feedback received as well as the site analytics.  So far, posts have highlighted collections, described new acquisitions, and provided a behind-the-scenes look at our work. We even got creative in editing a short video – I will spare you details on how many takes it took me to record my short cameo.

COVID-19 Pandemic

ASC really wants to know and would love to hear from you about your experiences, visit https://openstacks.nmsu.edu/covid19 for details.

The second major project, work that I spearheaded, concerned trying to capture the effects of COVID-19 on NMSU, Las Cruces, and Southern New Mexico.  Past archival practice relied on a collecting model of archivists waiting for records creators (or those who came to inherit or care for them), usually years or decades after the collection came into existence, to negotiate a donation.  Recognizing this technique as inefficient in capturing a diversity of voices and brazenly gambling with record loss through apathy or destruction, archivists began to create rapid response collecting projects with community partners.  Many of these efforts focused on issues of social justice and traumatic community episodes.  Finding models to base our project on and encouraged by collecting efforts springing up around the country by our fellow archivists, ASC launched Documenting COVID-19: Archiving the Present for the Future in late April.  The process relied once again on our IT colleagues to create a platform that allowed for the capture of digital submissions that document the pandemic’s effect on project participants. We provided ideas on the types of submissions we hoped to receive, developed a questionnaire to prompt responses, and worked through multiple legal considerations for donors to consider before uploading their content.  We used the Open Stacks, the library’s Facebook page, and the university’s marketing machine to get the word out (see examples here and here) to potential participants. The submissions have been steadily coming in – diaries, poetry, photographs, videos, short-films, live musical performances – and we hope to have these placed into a publicly accessible digital collection once we have accumulated enough content.  As the coronavirus appears to be staying with us for the near future, this project has a long shelf life and we are working with professors in several departments to seek more student submissions.  Kudos to my colleagues Teddie Moreno for pushing for this project and Teresa Roberts for building the digital infrastructure as they were both key to making this a reality.

As a tenure-track faculty member, I always have to consider the implications of my work and scholarship on achieving promotion and tenure.  So it’s a real bummer when conferences you had planned to give presentations at are cancelled – as were April’s Historical Society of New Mexico and the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies and May’s Society of Southwest Archivists – or moved online – as were October’s Western History Association and the New Mexico Library Association.  I am supportive of these organizations making these tough decisions, but it remains too murky how these types of actions will affect those seeking tenure.  The loss of these academic meetings also drastically undercuts future collaborations and the networking that transpires there; these are often the best reasons to attend conferences and hard to replicate in other ways.  Additionally, I had been involved in the university’s Primary Investigator (PI) Academy, a 9-month grant-writing cohort of professors that planned to travel to Washington, D.C. in late April to meet with grant administrators from federal funding agencies.  The academy hopes to increase the likelihood of NMSU bringing research and project monies to Las Cruces.  The invaluable training had me looking forward to visiting with folks at the National Historical Publications & Records Commission and the National Park Service about grant funds, and the staff of retiring New Mexico Senator Tom Udall to pitch the idea of NMSU providing a home for his political papers.  Alas, the trip also fell victim to the pandemic and with most federal agencies still working remotely, it is unclear when the trip might be rescheduled.  Other hiccups caused by the response to COVID-19 include the cancellation of September’s Domenici Public Policy Conference, a program for which I serve on the organizing committee; a book review I submitted to the New Mexico Historical Review finding itself locked in publication limbo, a common theme among academic presses; and with so many archives across the country not allowing onsite visitation, my grant award from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, which will pay my travel expenses to archives in Boise and Denver, cannot be spent. In the meantime, I plug away at the projects I can do locally regarding artist Tom Lea’s Las Cruces library murals and my obsession with how the reclamation of the American West was promoted.

While I may complain about the transition of face-to-face meetings into the virtual environment, I must say it is a preferable solution to their being outright cancelled. These last few months have shown that fruitful meetings can still take place via conferencing software.  Weekly ASC staff Microsoft Teams and NMSU Town Hall Zoom meetings have kept me informed and connected to the university, and the occasional “Coffee with Kate,” the library’s open forum with Interim Dean Kate Terpis, have provided opportunities to say hello to colleagues in other departments in a low-key setting.  Even working meetings, as I’ve had with library faculty and other assigned committees, have allowed the NMSU libraries to keep the work going forward.  Perhaps most spectacularly was the transition in March, April, and May of the scholastic National History Day (NHD) program.  For over a dozen years, I’ve been involved with NHD in both New Mexico and California, as a coordinator and as a judge.  The speed with which the competition was reworked into a virtual environment to allow students grade 6-12 to still showcase their scholarship was a minor miracle considering the short notice and massive coordination it took to pull off.  Undoubtedly, all the volunteer judges involved in NHD missed interacting with the students on the day of the regional, county, and state finals rather than reviewing the digitized versions of the submitted projects in the safety of our homes but coming up with a workable solution took priority.

I would be remiss if I did not point out this same herculean effort has been evident across the NMSU campuses.  Professors switching mid-semester to an online environment, receiving on-the-fly training and assistance from fellow faculty members on how to do this; Facilities and Services staff working their hardest to ensure a safe, secure, and clean campus environment; Student Success and Enrollment Management staff taking additional responsibilities to protect the thousands of students who live on campus and safely organizing their return home; and on and on.  In the coming future there will be an examination of this pandemic period and I believe the narrative will be replete with stories of the great courage and flexibility shown by so many across the NMSU community.

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


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