Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Working During a Pandemic

By Frank Boles

March has been an extraordinary month for almost everyone, not the least of which has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the operations of the Clarke Historical Library. Working first under Governor Whitmer’s executive order closing places of public accommodation (which included libraries) and then dealing with her subsequent order to “Stay Home, Stay Safe, Save Lives” has caused the library staff to respond with ingenuity and flexibility.

Like the rest of the library staff, I am working from home “for the duration.” What that means is, in addition to the resources always available online,  the library’s work continues, with one important exception, reference. Unfortunately, to answer most reference questions that come to the library we need access to the material in the collection. I trust that people who are still sending us reference requests will understand that while we are monitoring email and messages left on the telephone, we can only create a log of inquiries to be dealt with as soon as we can return to the library itself, on campus.

But aside from reference, a tremendous amount of work, some typically done every day and some often postponed, is being undertaken. Marian Matyn, the library’s archivist, is spending time preparing finding aids to be eventually uploaded onto the internet, making collections more accessible, as well as documenting CMU’s response to COVID-19 for the University Archives. In Cataloging, records are being created for uploading into the catalog, making material discoverable in the future.

Although the Microfilm and Digitization Project cannot photograph newspaper pages onto microfilm or scan new material, the unit’s staff continues to manage digitization projects with customers throughout the state, communicate with contracted vendors in three countries as well as with the Library of Congress, while also conducting quality control work, remotely, on existing scans. One example of this work will be over 70,000 newspapers pages from Paw Paw coming online at the library’s newspaper portal later this month.

One of the underappreciated aspects of the program is the tremendous amount of quality control that goes into making sure the raw scans from a project like the Paw Paw paper meet user expectations when they are made available for online use. Users find searchable online newspapers the next best thing to magic. Put a name or a term into the search box and very quickly a hopefully short list of pages to read appears. Those of us who remember “the old days” recall spending hours sitting in a darkened room, head more or less inserted into an old Kodak microfilm reader (aka “the tin can”) looking patiently for that same information which is now so effortlessly delivered. But making that effortless search happen takes a very large commitment of “back room” time and energy. It may be magic, but like any good magician, there is a lot of hard work performed by those who prepare the files that underlies the illusion of “effortlessness.” It may be a point I make too often, but it is a point too often forgotten by online users.

Bryan Whitledge is busy continuing his work on University electronic records and records management. He is also bringing a few seconds of delight everyday with videos of pop-up books on the Clarke’s social media channels. 

While reference librarian John Fierst cannot do much reference, he is working on a long-discussed project to transcribe and place online some of the John Greenleaf Whittier letters in the library’s collection. Whittier was a strident activist opposing slavery and well-known nineteenth century poet. Beginning in the 1830s, Whitter published widely about the abolitionist causes, editing several abolitionist newspapers, while unceasingly badgering the New England members of Congress to adopt pro-abolitionist positions. He would work to end slavery, until it was legally abolished in 1865.

At the same time as he worked towards abolition, Whittier wrote and published poetry. After the Civil War, Whittier exclusively wrote poems. His most enduring work, “Snow-Bound,” was published in 1866. After 30 years of writing poetry, he was surprised that “Snow-Bound” actually made him money. Whittier is also remembered for championing women writers, in an era when female authors were not taken seriously.

The Whittier papers in the Clarke, while both extensive and interesting, are something of an accident. A now-deceased CMU professor gathered the material together, and eventually gifted it the Clarke Historical Library. Because they reside in a midwestern college, separated from their New England home, they have largely been ignored. John’s work, we hope, will make the collection better known and share some of this important resource online through scans and transcriptions of selected letters.

As for myself, there are grants to be written, letters to compose, material about the current exhibit that can be drafted for eventual use on the website, and similar tasks to be done.

In these stressful times, I like to remind people of the great pandemic of 1918, which caused campus to close and left two members of the Central community dead. It was very, very bad, but it eventually ended. So, too will the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently enduring.

Take care and be well.