COVID-19 Documentation Goes Viral!

Many archivists are faced with figuring out efficient, reliable, and effective ways to capture stories and associated materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to ensure this time in the world’s history is documented and preserved for today’s knowledge and tomorrow’s discoveries. Katie Howell (she/her/hers), the University Archivist at UNC Charlotte, created early documentation and procedures that many archivists rapidly adopted at their own institutions. We asked Katie a few questions about how things got started at UNC Charlotte, her experiences related to crisis and tragedy, as well as how she’s affected by the global pandemic.

Katie Howell has been the University Archivist at UNC Charlotte since 2016. Prior to holding this position she was the college archivist at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC and the reference archivist for the Austin History Center. She received her MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin.

Katie Howell, University Archivist, UNC-Charlotte

How has COVID-19 affected your lifestyle? What changes were you able to make and what challenges do you face?

So far I feel very fortunate that my biggest changes have been working from home. I know that many, many archivists out there are worried about changes to income and employment status, their health or the health of loved ones, and the general uncertain state of the world. I have been working remotely from home since mid-March while also caring for my three young children. It is certainly challenging and a change from our normal, but the inconveniences we’ve faced and our new routines are manageable so far. My work day looks (and sounds!) a lot different these days, and I’ve had to get used to working in short focused bursts during my kids’ nap times and lunchtime, as well as late at night and on the weekends.

What is something you consider to still be “normal” for you?

I know there are a lot of jokes to be made about having too many meetings, but I have been grateful for the relative normalcy of my standing committee meetings in the past month. Sure, we all had a bit of a learning curve pivoting to conference calls and video chat, but I really value and appreciate a “normal” work conversation with my colleagues.

Can you tell us a little bit about what role you see the archives profession playing during this pandemic?

I tend to see the role of the archivist as one who works to help communities, institutions, and individuals capture, preserve, and share their historical record. Given how fragile and fast-moving digital recordkeeping can be, the knowledge and experience of archivists can be highly valuable in helping to capture first-person accounts and other primary sources of current and contemporary events before they are lost. Archiving responses to traumatic experiences is unfortunately a skill that too many archivists have had to learn in recent years, but there are great resources out there to help those who are currently feeling that they are in the midst of tragedy response efforts in their own communities.

The documentation you created for capturing COVID-19 related stories at UNC Charlotte quickly became the standard most archival repositories are using to set up their own outreach efforts. Can you walk us through when and how this evolved at UNC Charlotte?

In the days leading up to our campus beginning remote work and online instruction on March 16, the library staff started brainstorming projects that student workers could do to continue to work their normal hours and receive their normal pay. We didn’t know what kind of administrative changes might take place that could affect their employment status or pay, and library supervisors wanted to be prepared. I had seen several conversations on Twitter and elsewhere with archivists sharing ideas for work from home projects. This idea came out of those conversations. I thought it would be of interest to our library student workers as a way to work from home, perhaps as a break from data entry or webinars. Over time, we expanded the scope and pushed it out campus-wide so that anyone with interest could participate if they wanted.

Did any past experience(s) help you prepare for this moment?

Unfortunately, we were pretty well prepared to start this project so quickly because we had dealt with a traumatic event on our campus just a year ago. On April 30, 2019 two students were killed and four others were injured in a shooting on our campus. As part of efforts to document that event, we had created an online submission form and agreement for students, staff, and faculty to submit their reflections to the archives. So to start the COVID-19 documentation effort we repurposed that form and just made some small adjustments to certain fields and the introductory text. Some of the conversations we had about the potential for self-documentation to be re-traumatizing or cathartic informed my decision to include mental health and other support resources for participants. I think the past traumatic experience our unit went through prepared us well to check in with and support each other emotionally, a practice which has been so important in this time of social distancing, distressing current events, and extreme uncertainty.

What/Who else have you relied on through this process? What support are you receiving (from UNC Charlotte, colleagues, archivists, etc.)

I’ve worked very closely with Tyler Cline, UNC Charlotte’s digital archivist and Dawn Schmitz, Associate Dean of Special Collections to construct our form and spread the word on the project. I also relied on Kate Dickson, our law and copyright librarian, to assist with the wording of our submission agreements, especially regarding any potential personal health information that might be revealed by a participant and to ensure we were in compliance with FERPA policies on our campus. Many others in Special Collections & University Archives helped me fine tune the submission form and spread the word on our campus.

What are some lessons you’ve learned so far? Is there anything you would do differently or recommend for other archivists/institutions when trying to do something similar?

One of the first adjustments we did was to modify the original agreement I’d included on our form to be a revocable license for use. I felt that it was important to be clear that participants could come back at any time and revoke the permissions for us to use their content. I have often wondered that it might have been advantageous to include a series of questions to get participants started thinking about their response. Ultimately, I decided to keep a more open-ended approach. 

I think the biggest challenge has been getting the word out, but given that our students are dealing with a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty at the moment, I think a quieter approach is just fine for now. It’s possible that when the university community eventually returns to campus that we will push out the project again more broadly. With my previous experience in tragedy response documentation it was centered around a single traumatic event on a single day. And though people continue to be affected in ways both large and small a year later, it was easier to ask people to reflect on that single day in the weeks and months that followed. The COVID-19 crisis has no clear end in sight, and so I understand it may be quite some time before people feel they are fully ready to reflect on their experiences.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I just hope that everyone reading is able to stay safe and healthy!

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