Emergency Fund Launches to Help Archival Workers Facing Financial Difficulties During COVID-19

As a majority of academic libraries have transitioned to remote work in the wake of coronavirus-closed campuses, a growing number of United States–based archival workers—many of whom are in part-time, hourly, term-limited, or contract positions—are facing financial challenges. To help address some immediate needs, a team of archives workers partnered with the Society of American Archivists Foundation to create the Archival Workers Emergency Fund.

SAA Archival Workers Emergency Fund logoAs a majority of academic libraries have transitioned to remote work in the wake of coronavirus-closed campuses, a growing number of United States–based archival workers—many of whom are in part-time, hourly, term-limited, or contract positions—are facing financial challenges. To help address some immediate needs, a team of archives workers partnered with the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Foundation to create the Archival Workers Emergency Fund (AWEF).

The fund opened on April 15, and will be taking applications and donations through December 31. AWEF offers grants of up to $1,000 to financially vulnerable and at-risk workers who have lost income because of a change in work status or inadequate sick or family leave time. SAA membership is not a requirement.

The concept began as email conversations as campuses were closing in early March. Jessica Chapel, librarian/archivist for digital projects at the Harvard Law School Library, moved the discussion to the Digital Library Federation (DLF) Working Group on Labor in Digital Libraries and SAA’s Accessibility and Disability Section steering committee listserv.

“I knew this [period of campus closures]…would be very keenly felt with contingent and hourly archival workers,” said Lydia Tang, special collections archivist-librarian at Michigan State University. Tang was one of the originators of the Accessibility and Disability Section’s widely disseminated “Archivists at Home” document, a crowdsourced collection of advocacy resources and ideas for remote archival work.

Chapel organized a Zoom call on March 13 to set up an ad hoc planning committee, the first of a series of weekly meetings. She and Tang reached out to SAA and met with SAA treasurer Amy Fitch and other staff to explore next steps. SAA has a disaster recovery fund for archives, Chapel noted, but there wasn’t a similar resource for the people who work on them—and SAA representatives agreed that this was an opportunity to step up. “They said, absolutely, this is really important. We want to work with you on creating this fund,” Chapel recalled.



The planning committee drafted a survey to get an idea of what archival workers were facing, publicizing it with the hashtag #displacedarchivists and posting it on Archivists at Home; SAA shared the survey link and it was picked up by @archivistmemes on Twitter.

The survey received 156 responses in its first week. More than 80 percent of respondents reported that their work status had changed as a result of their institution’s response to COVID-19; and although over half said they could work remotely for their primary employer now, many expressed concerns that the work available to them would end before those libraries resumed normal operations. Some 62.5 percent were concerned about loss of work or income, or access to adequate sick or family leave time. A number had been placed on unpaid leave, and others noted that the hours of remote work they were given weren’t equal to their previous work. Others expressed concerns about their contracts ending and not being renewed, and hiring freezes preventing them from finding new work.

People also submitted individual stories, but because responses were anonymous those narratives could only be used for documentation. Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society and a member of the planning committee, will be gathering stories through the fund’s blog, asking people to share stories—either anonymously or with a byline—about how this funding could support them or how other similar aid has helped in the past. That way, she told LJ, “we can illustrate as we're fundraising how these small cash grants with no strings attached can help people at a key moment in their career stay in the field, or help them stay in housing, or make sure they have food on the table.”

Once the case for the fund was established, the planning committee began thinking about eligibility, and what the application would look like. The goal was “to make sure that we spread the net as widely and flexibly as possible, thinking about people who might have really complicated situations,” said Clutterbuck-Cook. “We have a lot of people in our field who are working multiple jobs, who might on paper look like they have a pretty stable source of income, but they've got a lot of dependents that they're taking care of or their spouse has health problems—whatever is happening in their financial lives or their household lives is going to end up causing them financial distress if one of their multiple gigs falls through.”

In its final form, the AWEF application asks for applicants’ job title, the name of their current or former employer, and a paragraph describing their archival work experience, as well as the amount they’re requesting. An eight-person review committee assesses each application on a rolling basis, considering needs across caregiving responsibilities, health or health care expenses, debt burden, housing insecurity, food insecurity, ineligibility for or insufficiency of governmental aid, and any other details the applicant believes are relevant.



The committee spent a full month refining the particulars through Google documents and groups, and “a lot of Zoom calls.” On April 8, SAA approved the proposal, and the foundation agreed to provide $15,000 in seed money. The foundation was “eager, willing, and thrilled that someone was doing this,” Fitch told LJ.

Fellow archivists were eager to help as soon as the announcement went out, even before the fund was ready to receive donations. “I had colleagues asking, 'So where's the link to donate?’” said Clutterbuck-Cook. “The collective response in the archival community from people who haven't been thrown into precarious financial circumstances at this moment is, 'Where can I donate to support my colleagues?’”

The moment AWEF opened, response from the field was enthusiastic and generous. Within its first day, the fund raised nearly $18,000 beyond the SAA Foundation’s seed money. And with the help of a matching campaign and $5,000 put up by the fund’s organizing committee, it reached its goal in the first week.

Donations kept rolling in: at press time 476 donors had contributed $67,750 in addition to the seed money. The Society of Southwest Archivists and the Archivist Roundtable of Metropolitan New York contributed to the total, donating $5,000 apiece. AWEF also received $5,000 from the Rockefeller Archive Center and $1,370 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference. All donations go through the SAA website and are tax-deductible.

The fund received more than 80 applications in its first eight days, and began disbursing the first round of aid on April 24.

The project is a pilot, and will run through December 31, with assessment to be conducted in November and presented to the SAA board at that month’s board meeting. Chapel hopes that the model will be a success, and AWEF can become a permanent source of aid to archival workers in crisis. “That's been our intent from the start,” she explained, “to not only respond to the COVID-19 emergency but to create an infrastructure, a program, that can outlast this and be of service to the archival field going forward.”

No matter how successful AWEF is in addressing the needs of archivists during pandemic closures, however, Chapel cautioned that the issues that cause them run deeper than those immediate shortfalls.

"As we've been developing the fund, I think all of us have been very aware that this is part of a larger structural problem within the field, so we have been reaching out to the various groups within archives and libraries who are addressing labor issues,” she told LJ. “When we talk about making the fund permanent, what we mean is that our goal is to make it permanent until the conditions that cause precarity can be addressed.” Chapel envisions something similar to a national disaster recovery fund—but that, she says, “will be another conversation down the line.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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