Dispatches from a Distance: Flexing Priorities

This is the third of our Dispatches from a Distance, a series of short posts intended as a forum for those of us facing disruption in our professional lives, whether that’s working from home or something else, to stay engaged with the community. There is no specific topic or theme for submissions–rather, this is a space to share your thoughts on current projects or ideas which, on any other day, you might have discussed with your deskmate or a co-worker during lunch. These don’t have to be directly in response to the Covid-19 outbreak (although they can be). Dispatches should be between 200-500 words and can be submitted here.

by Sara Mouch

I would say that making the move from campus to working from home has shifted priorities for me as the University of Toledo Archivist at the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, but everything I do feels like top priority. We’re a large repository (upwards of 10,000 linear feet of collections) with a small shop (2 full-time archivists), so there is never a dearth of things to do, and I claim that all of those things are equally important. However, some of those priorities are currently impossible to address, such as prompt reference assistance, physical collections processing, and digitization projects. Those are priorities that, when on campus, are most present and pressing, distracting from all the others. I have no such distractions now, and the ability to focus on those other, all so important, but neglected priorities is liberating. I’m a troubleshooter by nature and I’m in a position right now to spend more time than usual untangling problems, such as finding aid errors and poor data management. Quality control takes center stage and, frankly, I love the tedious clean-up, the moments when I can afford perfection over progress, an impossibility in most areas of archives management. From my professional standpoint, this is the light amidst all the darkness.

The limitations inherent in the inaccessibility of physical collections has, however, brought concerns to the forefront. Even the remotest possibility of installing an exhibit (as we do annually) for 2020 reduces to nonexistent without the ability to curate and prepare items for display. Our ability to serve researchers is only as good as those collections that are available, in part or in full, in our digital repository. The resulting suspension of archives orientation sessions due to the move to online classes means that we can’t put history in the hands of our students. These concerns, however temporary, loom and linger, even as I’m thrilled to have the luxury to learn the vagaries of ArchivesSpace.

But we readjust, and those limitations become opportunities. We can create online guides to collections earmarked for representation in our exhibit. Digitization needs become clearer and we can re-prioritize the scanning of collections destined for the digital repository, even if the actual scanning must wait. Finally, just as teaching faculty must adapt to reaching their students remotely, so too must the archivists who serve both. An online presentation regarding archival research may not have the same impact as interacting with tangible objects and records, but hopefully will convey that history exists in many formats, that archives are a great resource for research and connection, and archivists want to meet students where they are. 

That backlog, though….

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