Lessons Learned During COVID-19 Closure

Jamie Seemiller, Acquisitions Archivist, Denver Public Library, Western History and Genealogy Department

At the Denver Public Library (DPL), customer service and access are vital in our community. So when the library was closed for COVID in March 2020, it challenged the core of our mission. The Central Library has been dealt a double whammy with the COVID closure and planned construction. As the Acquisitions Archivist in the Western History and Genealogy Department (WHG), there are a few things I learned as I navigated my way through appraisal, acquisitions, and accessioning in the past year. 

Be creative, bend a few archival rules 

With the sudden closure of the library, it was apparent that history was happening right before our eyes. We created the COVID-19 staff project as a way to engage staff during the lockdown. When the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protests took place in downtown Denver, we had to be flexible in documenting the protests. A library staff member who lived in the area around the Colorado State Capitol collected signs after the protests early in the morning. She became the donor of the collection rather than trying to collect donor forms from each creator. 

We revised our Deed of Gift process. In the past, we had a donor sign a Gift Acknowledgement when a collection was donated and then a Deed of Gift once the collection was cataloged. This workflow was cumbersome on the back end of a donation to get a second signature from the donor. So we combined the forms into one. The Deed of Gift is now signed when we receive a collection and is available in a fillable PDF with an electronic signature. This change also made us update our donor packet.

During the closure, “More Product, Less Process” has turned into “More Inventory, No Process.” ArchivesSpace has allowed us to bend the archival rule of formally processing collections to the finding aid level. We have started to create better box-level inventories during accessioning at the folder level to help researchers find what they need by keyword searching. For many collections this allows us to only touch the collection once. 

Try your best, but set limits and reasonable expectations

As a public library, it has been hard not to be open 7 days a week to serve our community. In the past year, the Western History Department received over 3500 reference requests, a 50-70% increase from a normal year. All librarians and archivists were asked to take phone shifts and answer email reference questions. Some librarians from other branches were re-deployed to help. We dropped our usual scan fees and tried to help as best as we could. The result was major staff burnout. So we developed reference limits of 1 hour of research with 50 scans for free with a 2-4 week lead time to answer questions.

Unfortunately, donor visits, acquisitions, and accessioning took a back seat to reference work. With staff having limited access to the library and the increased volume of reference questions, we had to scale back collecting and accessioning. We also did not have the help of the 20-30 volunteers who help do inventories. As our new collections closet filled up, we devised a plan to slow down new accessions. By the very nature of the closure, I haven’t had many in-person donor meetings in the past year. Most donations have been by donors doing drop-offs at the library. We moved the Staff Acquisitions Committee review meeting to every other month rather than every month. This has allowed us to postpone deciding without having to say no to the donor. For accessioning, staff members adopted collections to keep the process going even at a much slower pace. We have delayed accepting any large collections until the fall to give us time to catch up on older accessions. Now that I have been vaccinated, I am finally returning to in-person donor meetings.

In-take closet for new collections

Use the power of WFH to get things done

Working from home gave the archives staff the ability to migrate word inventories into ArchivesSpace at an amazing rate. In the last year, we have migrated over 2,200 collections. It also gave us the ability to create and implement a Diversity Audit for the archives collections. The audit utilizes catalog and ArchivesSpace records to identify 15 categories that help determine how equity, diversity, accessibility, and inclusion are represented in the collection. We invited all DPL staff to participate in the audit by using a Google form to capture information. The Diversity Audit will help us revise our Collection Development Policy as well as give us data about what we have and more importantly don’t have in the collection. Each archivist is also responsible for an Equity Project to help bring DEI issues to the forefront of our work. My project recognizes the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in our digital collections. So by working with a community partner from the Colorado LGBTQ History Project at the Center on Colfax, we are identifying collections to digitize.

Donor relationships are vital even when closed

The last lesson I learned is just how important donor relationships are. During the past year, two donors Rita Derjue and Magdalena Gallegos that I have been working with for years passed away. In both cases, I had to delay picking up their collections due to COVID concerns. While I don’t know what I could have done differently, it has made me realize how important donor relationships are and how I need to figure out better ways to nurture these relationships. I enjoyed getting to know Rita and Magdalena and am honored to be able to share their stories and extraordinary lives as part of the Western History collection. 

While the backlog and not being able to serve our community fully has been a challenge this past year, I think the ability to work from home, be creative, and just time away from the daily grind has benefited our team. I don’t think we will go back to the way things were before the COVID closure. Honestly, I think that is a good thing. 

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