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Working Together Apart: Finding the Bright Side

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The following is a guest blog post by Justina Moloney, an archivist for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP). It is the fourth in a series from VHP staff. Click on the following names to read previous articles in this series:

I think like most people these days, I had a very different image of how my 2020 would transpire. In February I joined the Veterans History Project as an archivist, just narrowly squeezing in a month of time working on-site at the Library before we were all instructed to commence indefinite telework for health and safety reasons. At this point, I’ve now been working at home longer than I’ve worked physically at the Library!

In the Before Telework times (as many of my friends and I have coined our pre-pandemic lives), my schedule at the Library was only just forming. My internal body clock is quite persistent, so I normally would wake up before 6am to make coffee and then get prepared for the day ahead. I’d take the Metro in from Arlington, VA, which gave me the perfect amount of time on the train to read or listen to a podcast before heading into the Library’s Adams Building to start my day. During those first few weeks, it was becoming evident that I would be attending at least one meeting a day (if not more), reviewing our collections for display (digitally or in-person), responding to reference questions and providing some preservation, processing and description for VHP’s collections. I even made time to decorate my new workspace.

A map of the Library of Congress Capitol Hill campus, which show the location of the Madison, Jefferson and Adams buildings and the tunnels that connect them.
A map of the Library of Congress Capitol Hill campus.

I’d also made it a habit to take a lunch break with friends in the Madison Café, enjoying the walk over from Adams, either through the tunnels or outside if the weather was decent. I would occasionally take a break to check out books from the Library’s immense collections, and relish in the fact that, as a staff member, there is an endless supply of books in the general collection that I could borrow to take home.

Those were the days.

Contemporary photo of woman typing on a laptop in her home.
VHP Archivist Justina Moloney teleworking from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, June 2020.

The implementation of indefinite telework meant I had to overhaul my home office situation. Thankfully, I still had a desk in my bedroom, although before the pandemic I had mostly repurposed it into a vanity. I was able to rearrange my much smaller desk at home to accommodate both my personal laptop and my Library-issued laptop. I also bought a few items to help make working from home a little easier, such as a stand for my iPad, another device that helps me replicate having more than one screen, a wireless mouse, a mouse-pad with a wrist rest (probably the second most important piece of office equipment I’ve purchased so far) and a very fancy seat cushion that helps with the increased hours sitting.

I am an extrovert, and sitting at my desk emailing most days has been trying. It has taken me awhile to truly accept that interacting with my coworkers face-to-face, even for a brief conversation, provides me with the energy and motivation to keep moving through the day with purpose and excitement. Losing this type of personal contact has been the biggest adjustment for me. It was difficult for me to communicate this to my colleagues when the pandemic started, and to request that we make time to occasionally catch up over the phone for a coffee break. I am thankful for my coworkers (shout out to Kerry Ward) for helping me fill this extrovert quota and letting me verbally brainstorm new ways to work with VHP’s collections!

The silver lining teleworking has given me is the opportunity and time to closely interact with a large population of digital VHP collections, while exploring these collections in an environment with fewer moving pieces throughout the work day. I’m still providing reference, attending meetings and pursuing professional development opportunities, albeit virtually, but I have more time to take a deep dive into collections and create online displays or guides. I still miss interacting with the physical collections; nothing is quite like “getting to touch the stuff” as I sometime say, but VHP has such a large number of digitized collections, that I just needed to shift my attention to the digital realm.

Screenshot n excerpt from “D-Day Journeys,” Story Map
Screenshot of an excerpt from “D-Day Journeys,” Story Map created by Samantha Meier and Megan Harris, Veterans History Project, 2019. Photographs are from the Preston Bagent Collection, AFC2001/001/46886.

Story Map is, by far, one of the coolest tools the Library is using to digitally curate its collections. Within my first few weeks, I read the amazing VHP Story Map on D-Day put together by my colleagues. While teleworking, I’ve been given the opportunity to take the Story Map trainings, and have pushed the limits of my curatorial brain to highlight veterans whose collections include an amazingly descriptive oral history, but limited additional materials. How could I creatively highlight one person’s narrative while utilizing other VHP collections that share a common location, conflict or experience?

Black and white photo of two men in military uniform holding a document.  Men are smiling at camera and are in an office with flags.
Gen. Julius Becton (right) presenting Sgt. James W. Allen with a service award, 1979. James W. Allen Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/03391.

Four-war Army veteran Julius W. Becton, Jr.’s story interested me from the get-go. A distinguished military career that spanned 40 years, Becton experienced numerous shifts in the organization of the U.S. Army –volunteering during segregated military service in World War II, minimal integration during Korea, despite Truman’s Executive Order 9981, his involvement in Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and his retirement in 1983 as a Lieutenant General followed by a continued career in civil service. Becton’s narrative fascinated me, but he did not donate any accompanying materials with his oral history. Instead, I began looking at other VHP collections that might overlap with Becton’s, luckily finding photos of Becton with James W. Allen when Allen was Becton’s 1st Sergeant in Stuttgart, Germany. Finding these photos made me dive into other great collections where veterans were serving in the same location as Becton or his unit, or undergoing a similar experience. Without the extra time afforded to me via teleworking, I might not be able to creatively search VHP’s online collections to find these types of connections. I can create a resource that highlights one veteran’s experience that has much in common with a number of other collections, thus highlighting these collections too.

I’ve also had the opportunity while teleworking to participate in digital programming about personal archiving, in a collaboration with the DC Public Library Memory Lab. I’m always enthusiastic to discuss archives with the public, and adjusting to communicating best archival practices to a virtual (and invisible) audience was certainly a first for me. Thankfully, the audience for the program was eager to listen and learn, asking insightful questions about how best to inventory their collections and describe them. It was great to find a new way to connect with the public while we are mindfully staying apart.

Contemporary photo of woman working at laptop in her home.  Woman is smiling at the camera.
Justina Moloney at her telework set up, where she is thankful she has a window overlooking the (sometimes) busy street, June 2020

Teleworking has provided me with a gamut of challenges, but I’ve been grateful for the time to explore the collections I manage with an intensity I didn’t anticipate in my first six months at VHP. There’s no telling what the rest of 2020 has in store, but I’m thankful to be an integral part of VHP and am up for the challenge of how to creatively share the stories and experiences of our veterans.

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