Working from home during a global pandemic poses many challenges, and adapting to remote work environments calls for flexibility and creativity. This is especially true for places like the Clements Library, where our security measures and workflows require our materials to stay safely on-site. While we have been separated from the collections that drive our work, our staff has pivoted in many ways to remain productive—underscoring how much behind-the-scenes work is ongoing to better connect researchers and learners with our materials.
Much of our processing work came to a halt when we could no longer work in the building. Before Michigan’s stay-at-home orders took effect in mid-March, several staff spent the anxious days carefully photographing collections, building up a cache of images from which to write finding aids or catalog records. With a cat on our laps or a dog snoring beside us, some of us work from such digital surrogates to continue making the library’s collections more accessible. Once we can verify the accuracy of our descriptions in-person, we’ll have a store of records ready to put online to guide researchers to the materials they need.
Other staff have mined our digital files to find ways to improve existing finding aids. Working from some of our detailed inventories, we’ve added over 1,700 descriptions of individual letters and documents to the box and folder listings of the American Science and Medicine Collection, Blandina Diedrich Collection, Duane Norman Diedrich Collection, E. L. Diedrich Collection, Quaker Collection, and Women’s History Collection. The COVID-19 shutdown, even with all its attendant distractions and demands, gave Manuscripts Division staff the time and opportunity to perform the time- and labor-intensive work of marking up the data into EAD-format XML so that the information could appear in these collections’ finding aids.
For those of us who miss the intimacy of handling the documents themselves, we’ve turned to transcription projects that call us to do close readings of page after page of manuscript letters. Our Curator of Books and Digital Projects Librarian, Emi Hastings, and Manuscripts Curator Cheney Schopieray worked together to quickly implement the project, and coordinated with staff from the Clements Library and the Hatcher Graduate Library, as well as local volunteers to begin transcribing digitized collections. To date, we have contributed thousands of hours of labor toward transcribing 429 letters, documents, and account books (1,842 pages) in the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, Jonathan Chase Papers, and African American History Collections. The Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers and Jonathan Chase Papers transcriptions are already live and available to researchers; the African American History Collection transcriptions are forthcoming. The familiarity of having to squint, tilt your head, and puzzle out an indecipherable handwritten word keeps us grounded in the collection work we love, even while we do it from our living rooms rather than our offices. A cadre of staff also took the time to write, edit, and submit two grant proposals seeking funding to help us digitize some of our exceptional Revolutionary War collections. All of this is a testament to what a team of library workers can accomplish from home.
Staff meetings have adapted to the virtual format. If we’re lucky, we occasionally get glimpses of the cute (and insistent) members of our extended library family.
Our public programming was also impacted by social distancing and shut downs, but the development crew readily evolved to embrace the virtual scene. Missing the camaraderie and conversation spurred by the Clements tradition of Tea Time, where staff and researchers gather to talk about their projects and passions, we implemented a new online series, The Clements Bookworm. Bringing together staff members, authors, researchers, and collectors, the Bookworm has allowed us to continue to foster community and enthusiasm for our collections and associated scholarship. Even as we’re isolated at home, we’ve been able to reach out to new audiences through these and other virtual programs. Other staff have been busy working on transcripts of past lectures, so that accurate closed captioning is available for all videos posted on our website. Working at home has allowed our team to not only imagine new platforms for engagement but also spend time to improve existing resources.
Many of us have gotten creative about how we use our laptops and dual (or quadruple!) monitors… depending on whether we’re allowed to see them.
* * *
A common refrain uniting all of these different projects is a deep-seated commitment to making our collections and programs accessible. Whether it’s working on catalog records, finding aids, transcriptions, digitization, or events, we’re united in the desire to connect the Clements to the communities that support us… even if our access to the collections is limited.
— Jayne Ptolemy
Assistant Curator of Manuscripts