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A New Kind of Productive: Working Remotely on the Performing Arts Special Collections of the Library of Congress

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The following is a guest post from Vincent Novara, Head of the Acquisitions & Processing Section of the Music Division, with contributions from specialists, archivists, and archivist technicians Stephanie Akau, Emily Baumgart, Christopher Hartten, Mark Horowitz, and Melissa Young.

Home telework set-up of Vincent Novara, Head of the Music Division’s Acquisitions & Processing Section.

The Music Division of the Library of Congress acquires, interprets, and serves extensive special collections and manuscripts. The Division’s Acquisitions & Processing Section (A&P) includes a team of curators, archivists, and technicians charged with stewarding these materials through all phases of the archival lifecycle. Similar to our colleagues throughout the archives profession, this is typically hands-on work. However, this period has necessitated telework for many in all walks of life, and the staff of A&P find themselves teleworking for the first time in the section’s history.

In the weeks leading up to this period, leadership in the Music Division began discussing what this work might look like. Within A&P, I started conversations with people throughout the section on what they believed was feasible. Though the leadership of the Library of Congress was transparent about what might transpire in our collective near-future, there was still some uncertainty about exactly what would happen, as well as when and for how long. As seen elsewhere, we were planning for multiple contingencies without complete information. And we also had to imagine how work that is done in teams or through various levels of responsibility could be performed remotely.

It is hard to recreate the camaraderie and collaborations sparked by bringing creative people together to work on a common purpose. There is also the complication of advancing collections work when separated from them by miles. The Library of Congress’s integrated collections systems are robust on the backend, as well as on the front end where public discovery and use are manifested. It is in the expansive middle ground where our systems demand onsite work. Consequently, this period puts forth challenges to creative, knowledgeable, and talented people to produce meaningful work in unaccustomed circumstances and stressful times. The staff of A&P are meeting that challenge.

Prior to the teleworking period, one of A&P’s recently hired technicians collated a list of readings and webinars that would be accessible to all from home and, importantly, free. After meeting with the other eight technicians in the section, the list was expanded. She then sorted these resources to cover a wide range of topics: archival theory and practices, preservation techniques, access, digitization, case studies of other music repositories, and some historical readings. She has continued to gather and share titles with our staff as this period progresses. Subsequently, the list was shared with other divisions in the Library of Congress. Although the eight technicians in A&P originally thought large discussions might be fruitful, they learned early on that smaller groups were much easier over a video-call format. This technician’s group of three rotates who chooses the reading and they each focus on their specific interests, which can shed light on some of the more technical aspects. (For instance, a colleague with expertise in textiles gave a mini-lesson about what exactly “on the bias” means in regard to fabrics). Her main task during this period remains professional development, as well as revisions to legacy finding aids. She also works on providing quality control for video recordings of the Music Division’s concert series.

Three of A&P’s more veteran technicians are using this opportunity for uninterrupted individual and group career development. They have selected and watched webinars on topics such as risk management, problem solving, and preservation. Reading various articles from the literature is providing new perspectives on archival techniques, leading to daily thought-provoking discussions. They are also exploring how different divisions and agencies process collections with limited resources, including archival supplies and storage space.

One of A&P’s archivists reports that in the absence of processing, she has taken the opportunity to pursue work that would normally be a lower priority or was set aside to focus on physical processing projects. This work includes editing existing finding aids, which is possible without a connection to the Library of Congress’s intranet, as well as professional development. She is currently brushing up on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) and reviewing its forthcoming supplement for describing notated music to be jointly published by the Music Library Association and Society of American Archivists. She is also composing blog posts for the Music Division’s blog, In the Muse, and completing an asynchronous course on project management through her public library. She would have eventually found the time for these activities, but since exclusively teleworking she now has time to devote to such work. She keeps in touch with colleagues over text and email, both to communicate about work-related items and to continue to feel connected as we adjust to this current new way of working and living.

A senior specialist (or curator) in A&P has focused on a digital humanities project. Through a Library fellowship grant he was able to spend one year selecting, transcribing, editing, and annotating Oscar Hammerstein, II correspondence (lyricist, librettist, producer – Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Cinderella, The Sound of Music). Over 4,000 letters were transcribed with the goal of, first, a highly curated book, to be followed by a Library website with all of the letters to be sortable and word searchable. Toward that end, he has created an Excel spreadsheet where he is entering all the necessary metadata, including subject headings and notes, and simultaneously annotating and proofing the transcriptions to correspond.

Lastly, the acting assistant section head, who leads A&P’s processing activities, has kept many trains for archival description on track. Teleworking may not be the ideal environment for those who physically process collection materials, but it does afford an opportunity to perform quality control on hundreds of Music Division finding aids that are currently available to the public. The structural components of finding aids and preferred terms for describing materials have changed substantially over the years, not only in the Music Division, but also within the greater archival and academic communities. A decade is a long time for documents in the digital age, and we have found that some finding aids have aged more gracefully than others. As such, we have begun a process of evaluating finding aids that are more than ten years old to ensure that they contain essential descriptive elements and adhere to current standards. Documents are assigned remotely to staff members, marked up using comments and highlights, and then submitted to our technical coordinators for further evaluation. Based on the complexity of revisions identified, we create a queue for making these edits for when onsite operations resume. All told, we expect that well over fifty finding aids will be analyzed in this way.

Although it has been very odd to be without access to the physical objects the A&P staff were scheduled to process, this period has offered multiple benefits: For those early in their career or those veterans looking to shore up skills, having dedicated time for professional development is proving constructive. Furthermore, without the added time of commuting, work-life balance has shifted for many, allowing staff to catch up on some much-needed housework, as well as further their own research. Overall, the section will likely come back stronger from this period thanks to the professional development, the relationships nurtured in discussion groups, and from the general concern they are all expressing for each other during this unprecedented time.


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