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Reopening the Archives

14 May 2020 6:05 PM | Anonymous

As the COVID-19 crisis evolves, archives across Canada are now considering how to prepare for reopening after an extended period of closure. Archives and records professional are just beginning to understand how this closure has changed the nature of their work, temporarily and permanently, and what effect this pandemic will have on the profession as a whole.

The Impact of Closures on Archives and Archivists

We understand that many of our members have been personally affected by the emergency order to close archives. Some institutions have decided to delay contract renewals, resulting in temporary or permanent job losses for the most vulnerable and precariously employed. There have also been salary adjustments, reduced hours, and in some cases, layoffs of staff in a variety of positions. 

There is now a real desire to reopen and begin serving our communities again. This cannot be done, though, until the safety and health of staff, volunteers, researchers, and visitors are considered. Resuming services, however limited or modified, will be risky and difficult. Any decision should be based on government and public health advice and must take into account the needs of staff first and foremost. 

Knowing When It Is Safe to Reopen

Recovery planning will differ across the country, depending on local needs and regional risk factors. Any decision to reopen will also take into account the particular needs of the institution. The ACA urges directors, funders, and policymakers to consider a range of public health, safety, financial, and operational considerations before making a decision to reopen. These considerations might include:

1. Clear and Unambiguous Public Health and Safety Guidelines

Governments and public health authorities should provide clear and unambiguous guidelines for managing social interactions for service organizations. This would include, for example, guidance on how staff should interact with each other, including any modifications to facilities that will reduce the likelihood of virus transmission. This might include:

  • adding plexiglass dividers between workstations
  • staggering staffing to limit the number of staff in the office at one time
  • opening later and/or closing early to allow staff time to perform routine sanitization measures
  • providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff who interact with the public
  • allowing staff to work from home where possible and appropriate

Recovery plans should also provide clear measures to implement when serving members of the public to reduce risk of infection. This might include:

  • limiting the number of researchers allowed into reading rooms
  • ensuring 2-metre distance between research stations
  • offering special hours for vulnerable populations, e.g., seniors and other high-risk groups
  • providing limited in-person services
  • providing enhanced chat or email research services
  • reducing opportunities to handle physical materials
  • eliminating the use of cash money to pay for services
  • providing personal hygiene products such as hand sanitizer and/or disposable gloves and masks to visitors
  • allowing adequate time between records retrieval, records use, and re-shelving to reduce likelihood of virus transference (i.e., implement a records quarantine period)
  • permitting self-serve photography or scanning (e.g., the use of cell phones or hand-held scanners) to allow researchers to ‘take home’ images of records for further off-site study and minimize staff time spent in the reading room

There continues to be conflicting reports of the risk of virus transmission on surfaces or by cross-contamination through handling objects. For up to date information on caring for physical collections during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the Canadian Conservation Institute at: https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/caring-heritage-collections-covid19.html

Any archives unable to reopen because of an inability to comply with safety guidelines should be eligible for emergency support during an extended period following the end of the emergency order to close to ensure future operations. 

2. Reassuring the Public

The ACA anticipates a long period of adjustment during which time archives will need strong public support and a focus on alternative service delivery methods to ensure continued operations. There has never been a more critical need for increased digital access to collections and virtual outreach programs. Staff may decide to refocus efforts on digitization and digital innovation.

3. People-First Approach

The ACA encourages a people-first approach to planning for a reopening. Just because the archives can be reconfigured to safely reopen does not mean that its people are prepared. Planning should consider:

The availability of staff. Some staff may be unavailable due to ill health or isolation. Some may be at home caring for children or other dependents and will not be able to fully return to work until plans can be made to re-open schools and other care facilities. Staff in large institutions may have been redeployed to other areas of the organization. If staff have been lost due to layoff or contracts ending, they will need to be brought back into the institution. Depending on the services provided, archives may need fewer or, in some cases, more staff to meet health and safety guidelines. 

The availability of volunteers. Some archives rely on volunteers, many of whom are retirees, to contribute to the management of the organization and delivery of services. Planning for reopening should take into account the needs of volunteers who may or may not wish to return to service immediately or in the medium-term. 

Even if staff and volunteers are available, planning should also consider the broader impact COVID-19 has had and will continue to have on the mental health of staff and volunteers. Many people have been personally impacted by the virus, either falling ill themselves or caring for a loved one. Some will have lost family members, friends, or loved ones to the virus. Planning should account for those who are not able to return to full-time work or are struggling to manage workload. The mental health of staff and volunteers needs to the greatest priority for everyone as archives reopen to a ‘new normal.’ 

Involving Archives and Records Professionals in Planning

The ACA urges government, directors, funders, and policymakers to recognize the value of archives in Canada. Archives do not function without records professionals. Therefore, archivists and recordkeepers should be included in any planning activities to reopen the archives. ACA members and the broader profession are strong advocates for documentary heritage, access to information, accountability, and community histories. Archivists want to serve their communities and the public. Let’s make sure that this is done safely and with health of staff, volunteers, researchers, and visitors top of mind.

Finally, the ACA encourages all archives and archivists to share openly their plans for reopening with the larger community of practice. We are all in this together and can learn from one another during this unprecedented time. 

Sincerely,

The ACA Board of Directors

* Thanks to the Museum Association for paving the way with its statement on reopening UK Museums. See: https://www.museumsassociation.org/news/04052020-reopening-the-museum-sector-ma-statement


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