The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for all, archives notwithstanding. A large part of outreach and access to archives involves physical appointments to view archives and collections. Like many other archives, I had in-person archival launches planned for the spring of 2020 that were postponed indefinitely due to the global pandemic. The launch of the S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Fonds, organized by a faculty member, the donor, and myself, was planned to have several multidisciplinary international scholars and community members who would interact with the archive and plan a talk around their findings. Through grants, we intended to fund the speakers’ travel and accommodation. Several months after our library shut down in-person services in March 2020, it was apparent that we needed to adapt our planning to fit around the long-term restrictions that many countries were facing.
The S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Fonds is a personal and professional collection that was created in Sri Lanka. The archive was safeguarded and brought with the family when they immigrated to Canada. It was apparent that this fonds would attract many scholars from around the world, and not just Toronto.
The event, held in February 2021, served a dual purpose: announcing the acquisition of the archive and opening the digitized portion of the collection. Four months prior to the event, we selected which digitized files were relatively low risk to release online to the public. This was done in consultation with members of the community and our international Tamil Advisory Group. Three months prior, the faculty member selected our potential speakers and researchers. The finding aid was released online as well as the approved digital professional files. In the final two months prior to the event began the logistics and promotional planning which entailed a great deal of work. For the logistics planning, I found planning a clear timeline, schedule, tasks, and roles of participants, using a tool like Excel or other planning tool, was immensely helpful to track all of the details.
Number of attendees who registered in advance and attended: 122
Number of attendees who registered day-of and attended: 74
Countries attended: 8 (Canada, France, India, Netherlands, Norway, Sri Lanka, UK, USA)
Total time of event: 183 minutes
Average attendee time: 105 minutes
We expected that this launch would garner international interest and planned accordingly. We chose to plan the webinar launch at 9am EST, a time at which we hoped that many people from Sri Lanka could join, which is 10.5 hours ahead of EST. Luckily, our institution has access to the Zoom webinar feature which allows for an unlimited number of people and we also used the Interpretation feature so we could make the event bilingual in Tamil, the other language of the fonds. Of course, this launch was not planned in a silo. We had the benefit of working with our Informational and Technology Services department, who helped us set up the Zoom webinar registration according to our preferences, as well as hosting a trial webinar one day prior to the event that proved to be essential with the organizers, speakers, and interpreter. We had a number of staff on hand to assist day-of, with such tasks as fielding questions in the Zoom Q & A box, and also switching the cameras between speakers. After creating promotional posters and emails, our communications team and alumni relations helped spread the word of the event through social media and listservs.
There were both advantages and disadvantages in having an online archival launch. A clear advantage is that the budget was significantly less than what would have been necessary for an in-person event. As we wanted to invite several international scholars and speakers, there was no need to pay for flight and hotel costs. One of the greatest obstacles overcome by an online launch is breaking the barrier of access: we had a significant number of 196 attendees who attended from eight countries. One of the disadvantages is not being able to provide technical support to attendees, or the event not reaching possible attendees due to lack of technical knowledge or access to Zoom. We tried to overcome this by making registration information very clear. We sent out many reminders to pre-registrants, which included the Zoom link to the webinar, including one final reminder the morning of the event. As you can see from the statistics, however, 74 people still registered the day of the event, which proves that day-of mass communication of the event is essential. To overcome any technical obstacles for attendees, we had slides during the first five minutes of the webinar demonstrating how to turn on the Interpretation feature and how to ask a question. Every five to ten minutes, these instructions were repeated in the chat to new participants and for reminders.
We did not know what to expect for an online archive launch but the feedback we received greatly exceeded our expectations, most likely thanks to our speakers who used the archive creatively and thoughtfully in their presentations. Our attendees were engaged all throughout, seeing as how many attendees stayed throughout most of the 183 minutes of the webinar. The attendees also asked thought-provoking questions during the Q & A period. Based on my experience organizing this online archive launch, online events can be as engaging as in-person events. In this scenario, we reached a wider audience than would have been possible at a physical archive launch. If you are curious about hosting an online archives event, please take a look at our webinar recording for the S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Fonds.
Tanis Franco is the Archivist at the University of Toronto Scarborough where they acquire, process, and facilitate access to archives and digital collections in the Archives and Special Collections unit. Franco has over 9 years of experience working with archives in university and cultural heritage settings and holds a Master of Information Studies from McGill University and a Master of English Literature from Concordia University.
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