As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to effect people across the world, archivists continue to find ways to collect stories and document this unprecedented and historical event. For the past few months, there’s been a lot of public facing outreach work happening at many archival repositories and other cultural heritage organizations and institutions. This public facing work and development of projects would not be possible without all the efforts of many who work tirelessly behind-the-scenes to create and implement documentation, questionnaires, web pages, and collection tools to ensure this pandemic is part of the historical narrative. For this blog post we interviewed Cat Phan, Digital and Media Archivist at the UW-Madison, to learn more about her work related to the UW-Madison Archives’ Documenting COVID-19 Project.
Cat Phan (she/her) has been the Digital and Media Archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison University Archives since December 2016. She is responsible for caring for and managing the image and audiovisual collections of the Archives and leading the development of the born-digital archiving program.
How has COVID-19 affected your work and lifestyle?
Like many others, I’ve been at home these several weeks and fortunately, have been able to work from home. It’s been an adjustment for sure, setting up a home office where there is none, creating new routines to manage work and home life in the same space, trying to focus on work while so much uncertainty looms. Lots of my work continues remotely although a lot of projects and general work have been put on pause without access to our physical collections. But I’m grateful for a supportive workplace and colleagues.
Are you able to maintain any level of normalcy related to work or home? If so, what does that look like for you?
One of the best new routines of my “normal” work day is checking in with my co-workers daily at the beginning of the day. It’s been nice to see their faces and chatting — about work or otherwise — to maintain some of that social work environment even if it’s not quite the same as seeing each other face to face.
Can you tell us about what role you see archivists, specifically digital and media archivists/electronic records archivists, etc., playing during this global pandemic?
It’s so unusual to have this shared upending experience that continues on for such a long time and archivists are seeing this opportunity to capture these experiences in the moment. Outside of those with whom we are at home, our interactions with each other are primarily digital. In addition, many of the ways in which we document ourselves, the artifacts we leave behind that say something about us are now digital – video chats, text messaging, social media, digital photographs and videos, etc. The skills that digital archivists have developed to understand and capture digital information and records are definitely being put to use as we work to document the pandemic.
In early April, UW-Madison Archives launched the Documenting COVID-19 Project. What was your role in the early stages of the project?
We were fortunate to have good models out of the gate ahead of us to follow. I can’t give enough credit to Katie Howell at UNC Charlotte and the other archivists who worked quickly to start documenting the COVID-19 experiences in their communities. After reviewing other similar projects, I set up a web page and a Google form to collect submissions, heavily based on models from other institutions. Working with my Archives colleagues and the UW-Madison Libraries communications staff, we then created an outreach plan to announce and continue to spread the word about the project to our university community.
Walk us through the documentation you created, the tools you used, other examples you consulted, and how long everything took to prepare to publicize the project.
In addition to UNC Charlotte’s project website, we did a quick search to see what other institutions — including which of our Big Ten Academic Alliance colleagues — had also launched a project. Along with UNC Charlotte, we also ended up modeling ours on Michigan State University’s project as well. After consulting these early projects, we followed their lead and set up a web page as a home base for the project explaining the goals and how to participate. We then also set up a simple Google Form to collect the submissions. Google has a question option that allows users to upload files as long as they log in with a Google account — a fine option for us as the UW-Madison is a Google Apps campus. The Google Form can create a Google spreadsheet with all responses and the uploaded files get saved to a separate directory that Google creates. I have a student who is downloading submissions to our local network drive on a regular schedule. It took us about two weeks from initial discussion to launch, working on this maybe a couple times a week. Most of this was working through the various options and decision points (e.g. copyright implications, tools to use, etc.). Once we decided on our plan, it was very quick to implement.
What challenges and support did you receive during the creation and development process?
Our entire archives team helped advise on various decision points, for example our Head of the Oral History Program, Troy Reeves, and the University Records Officer, Sarah Grimm, aided in crafting the release form and putting together our questionnaire prompts. I relied heavily on Katie Nash, our University Archivist, and our Libraries’ communication team, Natasha Veeser and Jari Xiong, to advise and work out the outreach plan and we continue to do so as the pandemic continues to affect our community. Many others across the UW-Madison Libraries and across campus — liaison librarians, our partners in the multicultural centers and more — have been key to helping us spread the word.
Did any past experience prepare you for this moment and type of work involved?
I’ve never put together an open online submission form like this so that’s been exciting. I can see various other ways to use this for archives donations. My work on our standard born-digital acquisitions was helpful in thinking through the agreements we would need to require and the types of files likely to be received. My colleagues’ work for the Oral History Program (release forms!), electronic records management, and working with our copyright expert in our campus legal department on various forms in the past really gave us good grounding for putting this together as well.
Do you have any ideas for other types of documentation archives can create (besides forms, surveys, questionnaires, etc.) to capture COVID-19 experiences and stories?
I’ve been seeing lots of really creative prompts to help people engage in reflection and documentation which doesn’t come too easy for everyone. Two of my recent favorites are from cartoonists with links to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2017 UW-Madison PhD in Curriculum and Instruction graduate Ebony Flowers’s “My Last Encounter with Pandemic Parenting,” and Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity in the Art Department Lynda Barry’s “Documenting All the Small Things That Are Easily Lost” both appear in the New York Times Diary Project series, “An assignment for all of us to help capture an extraordinary time.” Not that archives should start hiring cartoonists (though wouldn’t that be wonderful) but this type of thing could be useful in archives outreach work that’s about helping the community start to think of themselves as historical subjects and creating documentation about their experiences.
What are some lessons you’ve learned so far? Is there anything you would do differently or recommend for other Archivists/repositories when trying to do something similar?
One of the things I keep thinking about as this experience continues on for all of us is if, how, and when to remind people of the project and encourage participation. When is it good to say here is a way you have to make your voice heard and your story remembered and when do people just need the space to experience what they’re experiencing?
Anything else you’d like to say?
Hope everyone takes care and stays well!