From the Archives: What did we learn from 2020?
POST BY RSomerset
Monday, January 18, 2021 - 11:30
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is not going to be forgotten any time soon, especially as we are still only just slowly starting to counteract it with vaccinations and our daily lives remain fairly restricted. However, as with every year January provides an opportunity to reflect on what can be learnt from the previous year and utilised in planning the year ahead, though of course the ongoing certainties make concrete future planning tricky. Here we reflect on what lessons the Jesuits in Britain Archives are taking away from 2020.
Deputy Archivist Mary has already provided two excellent blog posts that set out how last year the outreach efforts of the Jesuits in Britain Archives continued through our blog posts and through new efforts to offer content online. As she correctly summarised the most important thing that we have learnt from the pandemic is that the Archives needs to be more accessible by offering more material digitally. We are currently reviewing our use of Twitter, but the lesson we will take away from 2020 is that using social media is not as daunting as suspected even if this needs time and thought dedicated to it in order to create appealing tweets. Until recently social media has been seen as a ‘nice extra’ that we could do. It is becoming apparent that in this digital age it is in fact an important part of outreach and meets our mission statement criteria of ‘…make records available’.
Another lesson learnt is that digitising more of the collection not only assists in providing more content to be put online, whether as a blog post, exhibition or on Twitter, but it also makes it easier for us to continue our work remotely. We can more easily look up answers to remote enquiries received if we have access to digitised copies. It might also provide us with the opportunity to create catalogue descriptions, transcripts or transcripts of items digitised, which will of course also make such items more accessible to researchers.
A final benefit of having more digitised material is that it also permits us to set tasks for remote volunteers to work on so that we can continue to provide opportunities for others to learn about some of the work done by Archivists and to gain relevant work experience. Another lesson here is that in future we could continue to provide remote volunteering opportunities to those unable to physically attend the Jesuits in Britain Archives as we know what activities we can easily set and provide online support for. We have found that through having regular virtual meetings we are able to provide the sort of information-sharing about individuals’ career development, current work projects etc that would normally take place over a coffee.
As demonstrated 2020 has allowed us to really focus on that final element of our mission statement which reads ‘The purpose of the Jesuits in Britain Archives is to collect, preserve and make available records concerning the Jesuits in Britain’. However, we have also, largely remotely, been able to still ensure that material was sent and received thus meeting the ‘collect’ aim. The oral history recordings that were made in the first lockdown and which provided us with some work in the first instance (read a blog here about this) also reminded us that we had intended to collect more recordings for the Archives. The lesson being that we should not allow such good projects to get side-tracked due to other work commitments.
Communication is key. This is another lesson I am taking away from 2020. We have been able to remain in contact as a team through weekly virtual team meetings as well as less formal messaging to and fro in a way trying to mimic the way we would seek each other’s help by asking across the desks if we were in the office, for example when we have got stuck with a word in an oral history transcript. The Curia also hosts a bi-weekly virtual get together to allow the sort of communication normally had in a coffee break. In terms more specifically to the Archives we have also striven to communicate clearly with those seeking advice about what we can assist with and kept a log of any outstanding questions that can be checked once staff are onsite again to ensure that researchers know that they are not being ignored or forgotten. Given the global nature of this pandemic researchers have been very understanding of the limitations and grateful for assistance that we have been able to provide. We are again back to ‘…make records available’!
Cataloguing has essentially been put on hold, but 2020 has provided us with the opportunity to review our cataloguing priorities. In relation to our Antiquarian Books the remote working enabled Lucy, our main antiquarian book cataloguer, to undertake more research and training on listing such material and therefore improve our existing spreadsheet. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 also made us reflect on material in our collection for which catalogue descriptions should be altered to highlight any historic views and language usage contained. It is therefore a good lesson that every so often we should take the time to reflect on our cataloguing practices and consider whether there are things we could and should do differently and not be put off by how time consuming it might be to retrospectively change older descriptions!
Working from home has its challenges and we have all had to adapt to this. The Archives staff are no exception, but what we have learnt is that there is an incredible amount of work that we can do even without access to the actual archives. Assistant Archivist Lucy reflected on this in the summer in a blog and as much as we are really looking forward to getting back into the Archives there may be some work that we will continue to do from home in future.
If you have any queries please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Rebecca Somerset, Archivist