The Coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way that all of us live, play, and especially, work. Since our public closure in mid-March, Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon Libraries has shifted many of our services online, providing the UO community with valuable virtual guidance and access to our unique collections. The processing unit, the part of SCUA that prepares archival and manuscript collections for public use, has undergone some of the most radical changes during this time of social distancing. Instead of working on physical collections in the processing room, our paraprofessional and graduate student staff has been forced to shift to working from home on a variety of remote projects.
As the supervisor of the processing unit, I asked each member of my staff to share a brief account of their experience working as a processor during this unprecedented time. Their responses touch on the challenges (and benefits) of working from home, the unexpected educational experience of interning during a pandemic, and the importance of connection in managing stress and anxiety when away from co-workers and friends.
– Alex Bisio, Lead Processing Archivist
Liliya Benz, Processing Archivist
As we are currently unable to process analog materials now that we are working from home, I have transitioned to working strictly in a digital environment. Projects have included editing agent records to ensure their compliance with LC name authorities, attaching subject headings to finding aids, editing finding aids in ArchivesSpace to ensure DACS compliance, and working to create resource guides. Having the option to rotate through multiple projects throughout my work week has been helpful for me to maintain focus. As a staff member, I have also taken on one virtual reference shift each week. This has been the biggest transition for me and has been the cause for some anxiety. Personally, I have always found video chat an intimidating prospect, especially if I do not know the person with whom I will be speaking (maybe this is the introvert in me!). As of yet, I have not had any researchers call during one of my shifts, but I have created a note sheet with a list of helpful resources in the event this occurs.
Although I have been dealing with some separate medical issues, I have thus far enjoyed working in an online work environment (and have indeed found working from home a blessing when I otherwise would have felt too sick to leave my apartment). When I learned that Special Collections would be closing due to the pandemic, I designated a separate space in my apartment for work and made a point to sit in this space during my normally scheduled hours. Having recently completed my MLS through online distance learning, I was easily able to slip back into a digital work mode. Overall, the transition to digital distance work has been fairly straightforward. I am thankful that we have been able to continue to work throughout this unprecedented situation and have found projects that will enable improved access to our materials.
Emily Haskins, Archival Processing Assistant
With lockdowns and stay-at-home orders in place, what work as an archival processing assistant looks like has changed quite a bit over the past two months. Working from home, I miss the experience of working hands-on with archival collections. In a work from home setting the tasks we are doing look different, but it is an important learning experience. Working remotely means we can only do tasks which can be completed on a computer. Some projects I have completed include updating online finding aids from scanned hard copies which were typed out on a typewriter years ago, cleaning up metadata in our archival processing program, and sketching out new Lib-Guides for our collections to help researchers find material. One of the things working from home has made me realize is the importance of technology to archival work today. All the work we do to process collections and make material available to researchers has many technological elements, all of which are important to providing a user-friendly experience for patrons looking for archival material. While physical collections are often at the center of projects, much of the work that goes in to making them accessible is technology-driven, from online Lib-Guides and finding aids, to the Library of Congress authorities and subject headings.
In addition to the change in what work looks like at this point in time, working from home brings with it a whole host of new challenges such as staying focused and motivated, separating work from home-life, and just keeping spirits up in these strange times. As a graduate student in an online program, working from home is not completely new to me, but being home pretty much 24/7 did take some adjusting to. I made some small changes at home to help myself make this adjustment. I spent some time setting up a designated work-space free from (most) distractions and invested in a comfortable desk chair. I found that setting limits on when I allow myself to work was important, since most of the work I am doing is independent. I try to work within the same window of time I would normally be working if I were still going to work in person. This helps to keep work time separate from home life. Aside form adjusting to working from home, just adjusting to being at home all the time required some effort and attention. With all of the factors that are in play right now, it is reasonable to be more stressed and anxious than usual. I count myself lucky that I can continue to work from home, that I live with someone so I am not completely shut off from human interaction, and that I have two dogs who are very happy about having people home with them all day long. I focus on being positive and taking advantage of the increased time I have at home. Some things I have been doing that I may not have if life had continued on as normal are cooking and baking more at home, trying new recipes, going out for walks as often as I can, and teaching myself to crochet. This situation is temporary, but it has allowed a space for me to give more attention to areas of self-growth than I would have otherwise. Finding the silver lining in the situation we are in is one way I have found to stay optimistic. I look forward to getting back to work in person, but for now I am just working with the situation we are in and trying to make the best of it.
Paige Kosa, Archival Processing Assistant
Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA for short) have always been focused on patron services. We process material to give researchers more content, design exhibits for the public, and answer questions for everyone who wanders into the reading room. While there are always projects that the public doesn’t see (grant writing, meetings, debates over which box to use), it is all done to preserve knowledge and make it available for future patrons to come.
That has changed since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. There are still options for patron services, such as online reference sessions through zoom and scanning material for researchers. But in my own personal experience, patron services have come to a complete stand still. I haven’t processed a single collection since I began working from home or helped a lost student find their classroom in the maze that is the Knight Library.
Working from home has instead allowed us in processing to focus on the projects that normally are neglected. There is no ample time to transcribe old collection records, the kind that have existed in pdf. file limbo for years. Several of us have taken up various metadata cleanup projects, combing through records within our system that have built up over decades. These kinds of projects have been pushed off because they don’t necessarily benefit anyone but us. But working from home has given us the rare opportunity to focus on our own housekeeping.
Of course, there are pros and cons to working from home. I like to say that all of us in processing, and everyone else fortunate enough to clock in from their living rooms, aren’t just working from home. We are trying to work during an international crisis that has completely upset our sense of normalcy. There are days, even entire weeks, where it is hard to focus and stay motivated. Weekly video-chats with coworkers is a reminder that we haven’t been able to see one another for months. It is hard to communicate expectations and ask clear questions. Personally, so much of my sense of normalcy and security is centered around my routines and the processing room at SCUA is an integral part of that. Everyday is a reminder that there’s something wrong going on in the world.
However, there are benefits to working from home. Having something to do every day, like never ending meta-data cleanup, gives me that little bit of routine that I need. My commute time to work has drastically decreased, and I’m never obligated to get out of my pajamas. I have a furry coworker who loves nothing more than to sleep in my lap and cry in the hallway when he wants attention. I have more personal time, which is spent recharging and learning what it means to take care of myself in this day in age. I’ve watched Beyoncé’s Homecoming concert twice, made four breakfast sandwiches, and listened to enough DnD campaigns that I’m starting to personally identify with the wizard class. Even the weekly video chats with my human coworkers is something to look forward to, a chance to touch base and feel connected again. These are the things that make self-isolation easier to bear.
It goes without saying that the current Covid-19 crisis has changed just about everything for everyone. But there is a comfort in knowing that we’re all going through this experience together, that so many people were willing to halt their lives in order to protect their family, friends, and community. I am grateful to be a part of a team that is just as supportive both in and out of the office, and I look forward to eventually getting back to the business of making information more accessible for everyone.
Sarah Lueders, Archival Processing Assistant
At the beginning of January 2020, I began an internship as an archival processing assistant, where I arrange and describe collections at the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). Just as I was starting to feel like I was getting the hang of processing collections, COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s normal. In March, I shifted from processing analog materials to working on projects that can be done remotely from home. These projects have included transcribing and editing finding aids and metadata cleanup. It has been an excellent opportunity to tackle important projects that we might not have otherwise had time to do. It has also provided me with an opportunity to learn and try new things. Transcribing and editing finding aids has been a fantastic way for me to become more familiar with the process of creating finding aids and learn about SCUA’s collections. Cleaning up subject metadata has given me the chance to learn about Library of Congress Subject Headings and other controlled vocabularies. Though I am working on slightly different projects than I expected, the shift has been a blessing in disguise. I have even been able to use the new things that I am learning in my MLIS courses. For example, my newfound experience with Library of Congress Subject Headings proved extremely useful in a school project where I created a digital collection.
Being a student and an intern during this time has also been a learning experience. I am in an entirely online MLIS program, so I am familiar with distance learning. However, creating a separation between my internship work and school work when I am doing both in the same space has been a new challenge. One thing that has helped me with this is maintaining my normal schedule as much as possible, which means doing my internship work during my regularly scheduled hours and doing school work in the evening. Another challenge has been managing the increased distractions that come with working at home during this pandemic. In the face of the hardships surrounding the COVID-19 crisis, I am incredibly thankful to still be able to be learning and working during this time.
Alexandra Mueller, Archival Processing Assistant
Had you asked me three months prior if I could conjure within my mind a world suffering from deleterious effects of an unrelenting virus, an unmerciful, indiscriminate, and unforgiving virus, or if the small pleasures I enjoyed in life would be transmuted to couches and books, couches and coffee, I would blink with blind uncertainty. I started at the University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives processing department at the beginning of January as an archival processing assistant. In my infancy, I was quite naïve about levels of description, constructing finding aids, and even constructing record storage boxes, which remains a sustained issue. Though I made strides in creating processing plans, adding elements to finding aids, and engaging with collections at varying levels of complexity, I felt so alone and inept as I waded through my first few weeks working from home. I grasped for the familiar, yet all my fingers could graze were tasks unknown and foreign. I stood on the precipice, toes curling over the edge, as I made my first attempts at transcribing finding aids at levels of description more detailed than I had ever engaged with before. With a deep inhale to the diaphragm, I pivoted on my heels and abandoned my perch. Working from home in processing has become the paramount opportunity to learn and grow.
I feel blessed to have this opportunity when so many have lost hold of the tethers of their lives, employment and more. Gratitude is my subsistence; I would fall to the depths of despair were I not to take the moments to silently count all the things right, overshadowing all the things wrong. To be able to steep oolong tea, open my laptop, and complete tasks essential to the life of the archives has become natural, and a source of efficacy and satisfaction when life could be solely couches and books, couches and coffee.