With another wave of COVID-19 gripping provinces across Canada, and additional restrictions being implemented to blunt its devastating effects, archives – like many institutions – remain closed to researchers for the foreseeable future. In some cases, archivists themselves have limited access to their holdings, and are required to work predominately (if not exclusively) from home.
Without the ability to process new collections and with many research requests on hold, the archival staff at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library have taken this opportunity to work on several projects meant to increase the accessibility and discoverability of online holdings. Often left on the backburner as reference services and collections processing take precedence, projects such as revising finding aids and tidying metadata can all be undertaken safely from home, yet can enhance users’ experiences when interacting with online archival interfaces.
With the closure of the Fisher Library in March of 2020, one of the first tasks undertaken was evaluating our online finding aids and determining which ones required substantial revision. In most cases, old typescript finding aids, often with handwritten annotations, were scanned and uploaded online so users did not have to wait for them to be retyped and uploaded (especially since some finding aids can be over 100 pages). However, optical character recognition (OCR) is severely limited when reading handwriting, which hinders discoverability. Likewise, scanned typescript finding aids pose accessibility challenges for those using screen readers or those who have other vision impairments. Since many of our users have commented on the benefits of keyword searching our collections, especially when looking for a specific name or title, it was particularly advantageous to identify the dozens of finding aids in need of attention, and revising them to allow for Ctrl-F/Command-F searching. Additionally, LinkedIn’s online course for creating accessible finding aids provided basic training to ensure that those with screen readers or other assistive technologies could navigate our finding aids more effectively. While not all our finding aids have been revised, more and more are being reworked as this pandemic drags on. For institutions with much older finding aids, this is also an opportunity to revise any outdated and offensive terminology in archival descriptions – especially those that have been created by the archives. Finding aids pertaining to Indigenous Peoples, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups should be examined more critically, and revised in a manner which fosters an atmosphere of inclusivity and reduces the risk of making people from these groups feel unwelcomed or attacked.
During the closure, we have also been taking time to enhance the metadata for our online holdings, in hopes that it will improve discoverability. The Fisher Library is fortunate to have a number of its holdings digitized and available through the Internet Archive. The collection of famed art historian Otto Schneid, whose work on Jewish artists was confiscated by the Nazis in 1939, recently had its call numbers and file titles updated so that researchers can more easily map the digital copy to the exact box and folder contained in the library. Additionally, the metadata for of collections on Access to Memory (AtoM) is currently being tidied and standardized to ensure greater consistency across our own records, which will better reflect both the hierarchical structure of the records as well as their provenance.
While neither of these projects are likely to be seen as more pressing than clearing a backlog of accessions and making them available to researchers, the closures make it difficult for archivists to physically access the archives, and researchers will not be entering our reading rooms in the foreseeable future. Instead, we have been afforded an opportunity to work on projects that are often neglected, but that can significantly improve our online presence. The librarians, archivists, and staff at Fisher are all engaged in countless other projects as we continue to work from home; hopefully this project report can offer ideas to other archival institutions who continue to work from home. post may give other archives project ideas.
Kyle Pugh is an Archivist Assistant at the Wellington County Museum and Archives, and an Academic Library Intern in the Archival Unit at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Kyle recently completed his Master of Information at the University of Toronto. He presented at the 2020 ACA Conference on the student panel, looking at archival collections from hate groups.
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