Archival work in a global pandemic

Many thanks to guest blogger Sadaf Ahmadbeigi for contributing the below post! Sadaf has just completed course work as a graduate student at UBC’s School of Information and has been working as an intern with Rare Books and Special Collections.

Managing Archival Projects During a Global Pandemic

A conversation with Krisztina Laszlo

As I am writing this blog it has been more than a year since the Rare Books and Special Collection’s reading room has been closed to visitors and most of the staff due to Covid-19 pandemic. For this blog I reached out to Krisztina Laszlo, senior archivist at RBSC, to see how this year and a half has affected the way she’s been carrying out her work. Below are highlights of the conversation we had over Zoom.

Sadaf Ahmadbeigi: How did your job change after you were told that all work has to be moved into remote work?

Krisztina Laszlo: When we moved into remote work last March, we had three students and two interns, including you. So, one of the key priorities at that time was finding meaningful work for our students and student interns. We had to figure out what projects they could do from a remote environment because students in house mainly do arrangement and description work, and working on reference questions, neither of which was possible at that time due to COVID.

SA: How long did it take for you to plan the new projects for the students?

KL: Not very long. We first had to deal with our immediate students. There were some projects that I’ve always wanted to have done but there’s always so much pressure to get arrangement and description done that it seemed like we never had time for them. These were tasks like converting our old PDF finding aids into AtoM, writing blog posts as a way to create content and working on LibGuides. We were looking for the types of meaningful work for students that would meet the needs of the institution and help create better experiences for patrons. For example, creating outreach components in the form of blog posts would allow meaningful experience for students and is also useful for the researcher and patron side of things. So, we asked the students and interns to switch to doing these tasks.

The other thing that changed as the result of COVID was the nature of our work with donors. There was a lot of donor interaction in terms of what had already been donated because we had to delay getting their tax receipts.  I needed to communicate the process of issuing tax receipts to the doners so they could understand the reason for this delay. Before issuing tax receipts, we need to process the material, which is usually done by students who no longer had access to them. Then we have to get a monetary appraisal done which requires bringing the person into the facility to do the appraisal. And then we can issue the tax receipt. And now due to COVID, we had to stop that whole process. So, it was very important to communicate all this with the doners.

SA: Other than the tax receipts, the rest of your work with the doners has stayed the same as before, right?

KL: Yes. [For new donations], under normal circumstances, I would go to a donor’s house to do a site visit if they were in the city. And sometimes I travel, if we think the records are going to be valuable. I have traveled around BC to look at records before. Sometimes I’ll advise on site whether we can accept the material, or a part of it or none of it at all. When it comes to UBC whoever’s doing the processing will go through it more carefully. Now that it’s no longer possible to do a site visit, there is a lot of communication over email, phone or zoom to determine what we can accept. With COVID we can only be on site at UBC for limited hours. This means that the transfer of the materials to RBSC has become exponentially more difficult to coordinate. Couriers who are usually in charge of dropping off the materials are notoriously hard to coordinate with. They often give you a window, between 7am and 8pm, and we can’t schedule an exact time with them. There are other logistical issues as well. So, there’s all sorts of things that were really easy to do under normal circumstances but are now challenging.

I also found that with COVID more people are spending time at home, so they have time to go through their own personal archives. So, there’s a huge flood of doners that have been contacting us saying that they’ve had time to go through their stuff and ask if we are interested in what they have. I’ve got a huge file, about six inches thick, of just my paper notes of potential donation. This is not even counting all of the emails we received from donors. Now that it’s been over a year since the pandemic, managing all of the communication with doners about the materials that we want to take in is challenging.  I keep getting emails from people asking if we are open and if they can bring in their stuff. And I have to say, no, no, not yet. So, the first year to a year and a half once we’re back to normal, it’s just going to be dealing with this backlog, just the backlog that accumulated in the last year and a half, not even touching the backlog that already existed before the pandemic.

SA: Oh wow! What are some new possible records that we might get after the restrictions?

KL: One of the interesting contacts I’ve made during this time is with a retired woman who wrote a book about the history of women at the Vancouver Police Department. I contacted her and we had a great conversation around her process of writing that book and doing research. And I asked her if she has contacts for other women. This is interesting and relevant to RBSC because one of my focuses here is to bring in more records about women’s experiences, and how women have expanded into non-traditional roles is one of the areas of our focus here. Because there wasn’t a lot of careers open to women back then. So, for women to start being police officers in the 60s and 70s points to a really interesting period of feminist history in BC as women started to branch out into this area of work that has been traditionally only for men. I am really excited about these potential records and she’s got connections to other women who might have more archival material.

It’s always important to have enough knowledge about potential donations so that the doners won’t feel like they have to teach us about the importance of what they have. So, for these possible records too I made sure that I have done my research before contacting her. I got a copy of the book and started reading through that to make sure I know enough background so that she can feel comfortable talking about her research process with me. It’s important for doners to be reassured that we have enough knowledge about their records as part of trust building with the donor. A lot of these steps are now done virtually by having phone conversations or in some cases, zoom calls, and lots of email exchanges. Another example of a doner that I work with virtually is an artist who’s really worried about her legacy, and rightly so. She’s been part of an art movement, in the 70s, in which the focus has been predominantly on men. And she was a really integral figure. She has a lot of concerns about when we can take her materials and unfortunately, we can’t take them anytime soon. So, I’ve had a lot of conversations and exchanges with her reassuring her that we do want the records and have sent her a letter of agreement and interest.

These are the interactions and communications that takes up a lot of my time. I’ve also been focusing on grant writing and I seem to have meetings after meetings after meetings. It’s hard to say when my workday starts and when it ends which brings me to the third major challenge that I’ve been facing during the pandemic. With transitioning to working at home I have no balance between work and life. There is a lot of intellectual work involved in what I do and before, I was able to leave work at the end of the day and be done with that. That’s not possible anymore because work is now my kitchen table and I never leave work. The technological challenges of getting my workspace set up also added to it. I mean, these sound like small things but there was a lot of psychological anxiety regarding getting my remote desktop to work properly and having to update our internet and that sort of thing.

SA: It’s so important to talk about this. We usually talk about how the students are dealing with this pandemic, and how hard it is for us. But we don’t really talk about the management and people who are really trying to make our lives easier, and also get the usual work going as if nothing has happened.

KL: It’s funny, there’s been a lot of conversations at the university around productivity, and the belief that people aren’t working as effectively as before. I’ve heard some saying people are only working maybe 60% of their workdays, and they’re just slacking off the rest of the time. And that has absolutely not been my experience, I think I’m producing and working more. And my hours certainly haven’t shifted, if anything they’ve increased because there’s so many projects. One silver lining of this situation is that we’ve really been able to do a lot of work on cleaning up our metadata. One of our staff has been working on an incredible project by adding subject access points to our records on ATOM. We’re doing everything that we needed to do for ages but couldn’t because the pace of life when we’re on site is so hectic that we never have time to actually do these really important projects. Another project that’s amazing and we wouldn’t really have been able to prioritize it before is one that one of our staff who is a native Mandarin speaker is working on. She is adding Chinese language descriptions and name authorities starting with The Chung Collection and eventually moving to our other fonds about Chinese creators. This is so important because then people that don’t have good English skills will be able to search the collections and find material. And again, you’d think that such an important project should have been done before. Why haven’t we done that already? Because we didn’t have time!

SA: No, I hear you. I also know that you’ve done some arrangement and description yourself, right?

KL: Yeah, so that was back when I was going in RBSC, starting in January. I started going in to RBSC to do arrangement and description, one or two days a week and I did that for a couple of months. It was great because I don’t often get to do arrangement and description, that’s always delegated to students or RBSC’s processing archivist. I’m more like the person that spins the plates and does all the juggling. So that was really great to get back to my roots to do arrangement and description. And it was fun also because I think it helped me be a better teacher. I feel like I can help students learn how to do it better by actually going back and doing it myself again. It was a good kind of refresher in my brain. But then again with the increased restrictions I stopped going in about a month ago.

SA: Yeah. And I know sometimes as archivists we worked with difficult record, and then adding to that this pandemic might cause more, I don’t know, compassion fatigue. Do you feel like that happened to you?

KL: If anything, there is more frustration and exhaustion around the constant anxiety and the worry about the state of the world. Anxiety fatigue and constantly having to worry about the state of my health, worrying about the health of my co-workers and my students, which I care about a great deal not just how you guys are doing in terms of the work you do for us, but how the students and my other amazing colleagues at RBSC are doing with coping with all of this. And then there’s making sure that everybody has projects to work on, not just the students, but that the support staff have meaningful work to do and there is of course my own projects. So yeah, there’s that fatigue for sure. We’re really fortunate though, in the sense at RBSC, they’re like my extended family. And we all are very careful about making sure we’re all okay and are checking in with each other. So that has, I think, alleviated a lot of those emotional labor and fatigue challenges, because we’re not fighting against each other to get things done. We’re all in it together. And I acknowledge that, probably, this is not everyone’s experience. But that has really helped with keeping us going.