Today marks the one-year anniversary of receiving my work-from-home mandate. The uncertainty over the rapidly spreading coronavirus prompted NMSU leadership to order nearly all university employees to begin teleworking. I wrote about the COVID-19 pandemic in four previous posts, but have not provided an update since last July. As I have been working back on campus in Branson Library since August 2020, perhaps it is a good time to bring readers up to speed regarding the last 7+ months with another installment of the Archivist’s COVID-19 Journal.
Monday, August 3rd saw me back at my office in the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) for the first time in 4 ½ months. When given the option to return to work I felt very comfortable, as I had previously worked in a very secluded and segregated space, a set of circumstances familiar to most archivists due to the nature of our work, and that practice would certainly continue. Branson Library would remain closed to the public for the foreseeable time, with all library services funneled through Zuhl Library, thus minimizing my exposure to the public. My office on the second floor is behind a locked door in a secured hallway, with the two offices further down the corridor remaining unoccupied for the time being, further limiting my sharing of space even with coworkers. The requirement of wearing masks on campus, coupled with good hand hygiene and social distancing in an already deserted building, made the risk of catching the virus at work even lower. I mentally calculated the odds of getting sick through returning to work against my desire to return to the worksite and the collections that I love – and concluded I should switch from my “work-from-home-wear,” mainly shorts and a t-shirt, to wearing pants on a consistent basis again and returned to Branson.
Working back on campus required numerous adjustments. First, one immediately noticed a campus abnormally quiet and far less active. The foot traffic along Frenger Mall at start of the fall 2020 semester, normally buzzing with anxious energy induced by the kick-off of a new academic school year, failed to materialize. That energy remained behind closed doors with nearly all NMSU classes online or in hybrid mode. I can say I truly miss the background noise of the university environment.
Second, the economic fallout from the pandemic saw a freeze and re-evaluation in university spending, resulting in the unfortunate laying-off of most of the library’s student employees. Although the loss of our student co-workers happened in May, the absence of their labor grew pronounced as reference requests began to flow again with news of our return to campus. Our students are vital in all of the department processing efforts as well as in fulfilling digitization requests. During the first few months back onsite, I digitized nearly 1,000 pages of documents for a California doctoral student, Oklahoma filmmaker, and a Doña Ana County resident – none of whom were able to visit Branson due to campus restrictions.
The third adjustment, directly related to the second, with fewer staff working in the building, reference duties often fell to those who had access to the collections. For the time being, only the department head and I worked in the office daily, with the rest of the staff continuing to work from home, although coming in as needed. As the newest member of the ASC staff, I realized that responding to these reference requests afforded me greater exposure to the collections and expanded my overall knowledge of the library’s holdings, thus exposing me to valuable archival information that normally takes years to accumulate. In working on other’s inquires, I learned about the likes of the Faithists, the writings of Fred Grove, mid-century urban planning in El Paso, the downwinders of the Tularosa Basin, ranching in southern New Mexico, the closure of Walker AFB, and the Southern Pacific Railroad siding at Carne, New Mexico, among other topics.
Fourth, rather than having set open hours for the Caroline E. Stras Research Room, as was the case pre-pandemic, campus researchers had to schedule appointments dependent on staff availability. To visit our research room, one had to possess a valid NMSU ID and agree to follow campus COVID-19 protocols. We removed most of the chairs in the research room, plastered pandemic best practices reminder signs on the walls, placed hand sanitizer and anti-viral disinfectant wipes in prominent places, and assigned patrons to tables to ensure social distancing requirements. While the campus community could still visit, our community users and other scholars had to shift their research plans or delay them until after the pandemic. As an archivist, you love to provide access to those wishing to review materials; turning our patrons away certainly challenged our normal ethics. Access for one patron became so critical to their research project, the person decided to enroll in an NMSU course in order to secure an ID and gain entry to the archives! We continued to work with professors, who requested their students to receive archival instructions from us, but conducted these instructional sessions at a reduced capacity or moved them online to Zoom. Talking in an audible manner through a triple-layered cloth masks at a distance for nearly 30 minutes can be a challenge on the vocal cords.
Fifth, with less staff in the building to notice issues as they cropped up, entropy began to work on the aging Branson superstructure. My first walkthrough of the building produced a request to facilities staff to fix a crack in one of the large, third-story windows facing Frenger Mall, along with the disposal of a dead bat. Poor thing died of dehydration after somehow finding its way into the building. I will admit to being startled when seeing its lifeless body on the tile of the fourth-floor study area. In the lead up to the Thanksgiving holiday, a faulty condensation pump caused a large water leak in the ceiling of the Stras Research Room. The pooling water then proceeded to make its way to the floor below. Miraculously little damage occurred to the collections as we sprang into action deploying containers to catch the destructive water and plastic sheeting to further protect holdings. Still, one could not help but wonder what would have happened had the leak occurred 48 hours later during the holiday break. Yikes.
Finally, I began to understand the impact the loss of social contact with my colleagues had on my own well-being. Working in a pandemic environment made me realize how much I had taken for granted. Occasionally I would bump into faculty and staff from other library departments, which usually produced a long conversation on how things were going at work and at home as we filled in the pandemic narrative gap. I am thankful to have made friends with many of these people and look forward to the time when we can socialize again. Learning of the losses experienced by coworkers who had family and friends taken by COVID-19 is gut wrenching. The socially agreed upon isolation, the swiftness of the disease, the loneliness of the medical treatment, the uncertainty of the recovery, and the financial impact of this virus has taken a huge toll on all of us.
With friends and family having taken ill even after following CDC guidelines, I feel fortunate to have been spared contracting the disease thus far. After traveling out of state to visit my ailing mother in January, I complied with the mandatory quarantine period upon my return to Las Cruces and went through the testing protocols at the New Mexico Department of Health facility on Solano Drive as a precaution. The ease of registering online, the well-coordinated testing procedures, and rapid response of my test results gave me confidence in the guidance and efforts of our state and local health officials. This assessment was confirmed again when, after registering for the vaccine on the state website, I received my Pfizer shots at the Las Cruces Convention Center. In truth, I have appreciated how seriously the Las Cruces community has taken the pandemic and worked to protect each other by doing the simple things – minimizing travel, wearing a mask when out, and maintaining proper social distance. I have experienced it firsthand when out grocery shopping, walking and jogging in the morning through downtown, going to my annual dental and eye exams, and when donating blood – people are working to limit the spread and want to protect one another.
Library work overall continues despite the pandemic, albeit at a slower pace. The library’s budget saw a 2.5% reduction for the fiscal year, much less than the worst-case scenario for 12%. Still the impact was felt across campus in mid-February when the announced cut of 433 scholarly journal subscriptions, including the Elsevier package, rocketed across campus. The blowback from faculty on this decision included a Faculty Senate Memorial asking that NMSU Central Administration find additional funds to cover library material acquisition and subscriptions. Even the meager budget I receive to purchase special collections publications was cut in half, making it difficult to keep pace with current publications let alone the purchasing of rare works. Budget uncertainty affected hiring within the library as well, as numerous faculty and staff positions in both Zuhl and Branson libraries, including the Dean’s chair, sit vacant.
Still there is much to be proud of in our work, even if hamstrung by funding and staffing issues. The Border Regional Archives Group (BRAG) held their annual Border Archives Bazaar on October 29, 2020 – this time via Zoom and Facebook. I gave a “behind the scenes tour” of the Special Collections during the second half of the four-hour broadcast. In November, the department produced another video, a six-minute introductory film to ASC’s collections and resources, viewable on the archives homepage and the library’s YouTube channel. To help celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, RGHC Archivist Jennifer Olguin and Library Specialist Teddie Moreno created another short film, Extraordinary Women Advocacy Activism and Sisterhood, which premiered later that month.
The Open Stacks approaches its anniversary, having drawn over 2,500 visitors in its first year. My colleague Jennifer Olguin has worked with the Las Cruces Sun News to repurpose blog posts for the newspaper’s website, expanding the blog’s reach to new readers. During February’s Black History Month, staff wrote blog articles on NMSU’s first African American graduate and dean, segregation in Las Cruces Public Schools, and the city’s first African American mayor, and created a new LibGuide – all in conjunction with NMSU’s celebration, coordinated by Black Programs and the Black Student Association. Our efforts continued as well with the Documenting COVID-19 project, with nearly 40 contributors who have submitted poetry, journal entries, creative films, and documentary photography on their pandemic experience. We hope to have the submissions posted to the library’s digital repository in the coming months. Recent media coverage of ASC holdings and work has included:
- A Las Cruces Sun-News piece in August 2020 on the transfer of Doña Ana Sheriff’s Office records to ASC;
- A “Did You Know?” feature in the January/February 2021 issue of Neighbors magazine;
- A KTSM report and a Las Cruces Sun-News article in February 2021 on the papers of women’s rights activist Esther Chavez Cano.
One year into this massive test of our country’s fortitude and there appears to be hope on the horizon. Our collective desire for a COVID-19 free future may be possible, but we still have work to do. To everyone, continue to be safe out there.