The following is a guest post by Hadley Johnson, Library Technician, Preservation Division.
As many of Library of Congress employees are readying themselves to start a regular onsite schedule, I can’t help but remember the excitement of my first day. In the midst of the pandemic, my first day on the job was telework, and many more after that!
There’s a learning curve to starting any new job – this curve becomes a curl, coil, and twist when one starts remotely. I graduated in May, 2020 with a B.S. in Chemistry from George Mason University, and was so looking forward to getting into a “real” laboratory space; I had just accepted a position as Laboratory Technician for the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) at the Library of Congress. My first day on the job was June 22nd, 2020 – at home.
Starting work remotely had some challenges! My job description entailed concrete tasks – physical and chemical testing, quality assurance of materials – impossibilities at home. Fortunately, there was a plethora of cultural heritage information made available to me. My background in chemistry is most recent, but in a previous life I danced professionally; three seasons with The Alabama Ballet and eight seasons with Ballet Tucson. I didn’t have any cultural heritage experience before I joined PRTD, but years of classical ballet training and performing overlapped with cultural heritage in some areas. There’s quite of bit of cross over between descriptive language of cultural objects and the expressiveness of dancing – classical ballet has deep-rooted historical context and significance to European culture, while dance, broadly, is an innate element of cultural expression.
Amidst the overwhelming amount of material that I was unfamiliar with, a small silver lining appeared; the Library offered an extensive array of online-learning courses, one of which was a six week program on data visualization. I had hoped to use some of my remote working time to develop new skills, and data visualization was (another) novel area to me. Tableau was the program I chose to explore. I visualized a library-provided data set containing coroner’s inquisitions of slave deaths in Virginia from the 1700s and 1800s. Tableau has some great features, and depending on your level of savvy – things can get deep.
Ultimately, I used my Tableau skills to visualize data from one of PRTD’s current projects, Assessing the National Collection (ANC). PRTD and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have collaborated with several Library Institutions around the country to assess the condition of books published between 1840 and 1940. Books within this publishing window are at risk of serious, irreversible degradation – the paper produced in this time period is highly acidic, rendering the pages fragile, brittle, and prone to yellowing and breakage. Internally, the ANC project has sheets upon sheets of data in Excel – Tableau helped me pull out relationships between data points that would otherwise be impossible to decipher from rows and columns. There were some interesting connections between years and cities of publication against paper quality, you could really “see” when the quality of paper manufacturing changed. I’ve included a quick screen capture of a visualization showing damaged books against publishing city.
One of my other favorite telework experiences coincided with a really special time in my personal life; the birth of our daughter – I teased my husband that “we’re a pandemic statistic now!” When I was coming back from maternity leave, and still working remotely, I completed a six week class offered by the Library, building a Story Map. If you’re not familiar with Story Maps, they’re designed to be an immersive, interactive experience that showcase content in a more engaging way than a standard website. Story Maps must highlight some part of the Library’s Collections, our first assignment was to peruse the Library’s Digital Collections and select material that inspired a narrative, or spoke to your personal interest. This was simultaneously the easiest and most challenging task – the Library’s Digital collections are astonishing – one could (and I did) spend hours exploring. I encourage everyone to take a look! I happened upon a collection about the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev, given my professional background I couldn’t resist using this collection for my Story Map. The Cascade building tool made putting the content together a breeze and being able to use my previous performing arts skill in a fresh way rounded out the whole experience for me. Look at my daughter “helping” me as I put together my Story Map! My finished Story Map “Theatrics of the Theatre” can be found here, along with other intriguing Story Maps.
When the Library started bringing people back to onsite work, I finally found my desk – as the title implies; 414 days after my official first day. Once I met my colleagues in person, I realized that I actually had gotten to know them better than I thought – one of the positives of interacting over Zoom in one-on-ones, or small group meetings. It’s “polite” to stay muted (otherwise there’s terrible reverberation of sound) until it’s your turn to speak, and in that time there were so many details to pick up; names of cats, dogs, partners, and children, house plants, choice of artwork, book titles, surrounding colors. Seeing into one’s “personalized” work space felt like I was learning non-quantifiable facets of my coworkers. The small number of people involved in any given project allowed plenty of time for organic conversations to pop up – there are a few cats of the PRTD that cannot resist a keyboard, their tails swishing on and off screen have made for some funny and awkward moments when someone’s camera inevitably freezes.
As the world adjusts, I’ve been working onsite more frequently – on some incredible projects. In February, PRTD had the opportunity to analyze an edition of the Magna Carta and Carta de Foresta issued in 1300, from the Sandwich archive in Kent, United Kingdom. The workup of that data is keeping my telework busy, with more to come! I feel fortunate to have the work-life balance that routine telework offers, while maintaining the potential for brilliant onsite projects. Friends and family are constantly surprised when I describe the range of objects PRTD analyzes – like the Magna Carta – so I take pictures as often as I can. As one of my colleagues says “selfie, or it didn’t happen.”
While my start at the Library was a bit unusual, I’m looking forward to being back onsite regularly to work with my colleagues, and the fascinating Library collections – armed with some new skills I otherwise wouldn’t have developed!
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