Dispatches from a Distance: New Avenues for Empathy

This is the eighth 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.

Jamie Patrick-Burns

I have been working from home since mid-March, when the State Archives of North Carolina transitioned to remote work. While I certainly miss the in-person contact, conversations with my office-mate or colleagues just down the hall, I’m finding new routes to connect. In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how teleworking has made me feel more connected to the State Archive’s users. As Digital Archivist, I don’t usually have a lot of direct contact with the general public. I do engage with the public through social media, documentation, and periodic shifts at the reference desk, but my customer service is largely geared toward my coworkers in the archives and in state agencies. However, I’ve been thinking about our patrons in a new way due to two different experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

First, working remotely has given me a new perspective and more empathy for our patrons as they navigate our online presence. Small shifts in my own context, such as the room I’m occupying or the computer and browser I’m using, are enough to throw me off my well-worn paths of virtual travel. I find myself Googling just a little bit more or searching for information online that I may have previously found in hard copy or an internal document. I’m revisiting a bit of what things feel like for the uninitiated, a perspective I haven’t had since I joined the State Archives of North Carolina in 2017. I’m thinking about our social media content as ever more central to our engagement. I’ve been getting more emails from members of the public who come across my email address, which means more people are indeed turning to our online presence while we’re closed to in-person visitors. I hope that this empathy for remote users carries through to my patron and staff interactions.

Second, the concern and empathy shown by the entire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources through the project Your Story is North Carolina’s Story has been very meaningful to me. The initiative to collect personal materials documenting the COVID-19 pandemic for North Carolinians has required collaboration, creativity, and hard work in our division and I’m inspired by how my colleagues have risen to the challenge. While my role of facilitating the transfer of digital records is only one piece of the puzzle, I am proud to be part of this project. I hope the public feels the deep care, empathy, and human connection that I also feel from this initiative. 

Even as I’m more physically distant from my professional connections than ever before, I’m feeling connected to my colleagues and our patrons in new ways. Whatever and whenever re-emergence from this difficult time looks like, I know I have gained some new perspectives and modes of caring that I plan to carry with me. 

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