Library, Archives Workers Share Work-From-Home Ideas

To maximize service—and to help safeguard the jobs of their colleagues from layoffs and furloughs—library and archives workers are crowdsourcing lists of work-from-home assignments. These lists continue to grow—as does the need for them.

drawing of desk with cat, coffee, hand sanitizer, and laptop with arms typing; the screen readsAs “shelter in place” orders were declared in communities across the nation and libraries and archives moved to close their doors to patrons, library and archives workers have begun working from home, helping their communities stay healthy while maintaining remote access to library staff, services, and resources. To maximize that service—and to help safeguard the jobs of their colleagues from layoffs and furloughs—information workers are crowdsourcing lists of work-from-home assignments. These lists continue to grow—as does the need for them.

For Lydia Tang, special collections archivist-Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries, working from home began on March 12, when her institution moved all classes online. Knowing that she was closing her archival processing area for possibly several weeks or more, she started compiling ideas about securing a “shop” and working from home. She emailed her fellow members of the steering committee of the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Accessibility and Disability Section and they quickly jumped into the “Archivists at Home” Google document to brainstorm further ideas. They also began sharing it widely through other SAA sections, Twitter, and Facebook. The document was referenced by the Association of Canadian Archivists in their call to close archives, SAA, the International Council on Archives, and widely on social media. This collaboration continued the Accessibility and Disability Section’s prior work crowdsourcing recommendations for inclusive interviewing and recruitment practices for people with disabilities.

On every list, professional development is one important work-from-home opportunity. To meet that need, Jessica Dai, resident librarian at West Virginia University Libraries, started a crowdsourced list of free webinars and training for academic library workers on March 17, the first week that some of her colleagues began working from home. Dai volunteered to start the list after her library’s dean, Karen Diaz, asked for someone to curate a collection of resources to share internally. The goal was to help support colleagues working from home, especially those whose previous tasks would not adapt easily to remote situations. “I knew that tapping into and sharing the list with a wider audience would make it more comprehensive,” Dai reflected, adding “People have shared some wonderful free resources—ones I wouldn’t have known anything about if it was just me working on this.” Dai added that Crystal Chen from New York Public Library maintains another crowdsourced webinar list with a wider scope than academic librarianship.

Amy Tureen, head of the library liaison program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, began compiling a list of Work from Home Assignments for Frontline Academic Library Workers (COVID-19) when a former colleague, now working at a different institution, reached out to her, explaining that many non-faculty library workers at their new institution would be forced to use vacation or sick days during the mandatory stay-at-home period unless they were given specific, articulated projects. On April 8, Tureen created a Google document she explains was directly inspired by Jessica Dai’s list of Free Webinars and Trainings for Academic Library Workers (COVID-19). Tureen emphasized that the list did not come about from her own institutional situation, where people were still being paid while working from home, and she encouraged other people to add to it. Although sympathetic to the frustrated feedback she has received that such a list is even necessary, Tureen said that “we can’t control other people’s institutions. That sort of fight is a good fight, but it can happen simultaneously with providing these options.”

Inspired by Tureen’s and Dai’s lists, Ryan P. Randall, instruction coordinator and faculty outreach librarian at the College of Western Idaho, asked on Twitter whether a similar list of work-from-home assignments was already being created for public library workers or if one still needed to be started. When Jennifer LC Burke, a librarian at Louisville Public Library in Louisville, CO, replied with a list of what her colleagues were already doing, the two began crowdsourcing Work from Home Assignments for Public Library Workers (COVID-19), also a Google doc. In addition to adapting previous lists’ suggestions for supporting patrons, this resource suggests a variety of ways to provide support to other city departments and local or state cultural and history organizations. It also brings in a number of the things that student workers and Learning Commons tutors have begun doing at the College of Western Idaho during the pandemic.

These lists share many remote tasks. They highlight increasing accessibility by remediating online resources or creating electronic versions of documents or forms that were previously only available in physical formats. Outreach appears on the lists, with considerations for what can be done during the pandemic and with planning for the modified types of access most likely to occur when institutions are able to reopen for physical access. Library workers could clean up metadata in their catalogs, with Shana L. McDanold’s Cataloging/Metadata Remote Work list offering clear options. Archives workers could use this time to audit collections for outdated and oppressive language, with the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Resources guide from October 2019 providing one recent resource. They also share a focus on both internal and external documentation, ranging from updating policies and training materials to working with local historical groups or contributing to Wikipedia entries relevant to institutional holdings or areas of regional interest.

Not only do these lists continue to grow, but patrons have already begun praising these work-from-home efforts. Burke shares that Louisville Public Library’s workers have received constant feedback, with comments like “Many blessings and thank you again for taking such good care of our hearts and minds”; “You all are doing great. Keep up the good work. Of all the things I miss, the Louisville library is at the top of the list”; and “You and your staff are doing an impressive job of connecting. Hang in there!”

Tang’s experience as the Accessibility & Disability Section’s cochair helped her perceive how “we can chip away at misconceptions about archival work only being possible on-site and pave the way for more flexible work possibilities for people with disabilities,” she explained in an interview. She clarified that “People with disabilities disproportionately are excluded from the workplace, and archival labor is no exception. Search committees and job seekers alike assume that someone must be able to wrangle heavy records boxes and be exposed to dust. Many managers might assume that not being able to work on site would be impossible, and yet for many workers who are lucky enough to not be laid off or furloughed, this is exactly what we are now doing. The successes and creativity of library and archives workers demonstrated by these lists show how many types of our work can be performed flexibly and remotely.”

Please consult these lists, consider adding to them or adapting their ideas to your workplace, and remember that this type of flexibility will help retain and support your colleagues both during this pandemic and after.

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