How Do Alberta’s Archivists Work During a Pandemic?

Editor’s note: On June 10, 2021, the Provincial Archives of Alberta reopened to the public. Once again, the larger team will be safely assisting researchers with reference queries and research visits. If you have found yourself with a question about Alberta’s heritage or your own family history, please visit the Reading Room or contact us. PAA archivists are ready to assist.

Written by: Natalia Pietrzykowski, Reference Archivist

Social distancing, PPE, flattening the curve. These phrases became commonplace as the world adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was declared in March 2020. Another word that will resonate with most professions during this last year is “pivot.” In many cases, public safety needs resulted in “pivoting” business operations to contactless or even remote services. Due to COVID-19, most staff at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) spent part of 2020-21 working from home. This presented us with a challenge: how do we take archival work home? The search for a solution was also an opportunity to develop new ways of providing access to information and focusing on making improvements to future service. In the last year, PAA staff continued to work on projects that support the mission of preserving and making available records of enduring value. Here, we will share a few highlights of heritage work during a pandemic year, pivots and all.

Virtual Reference

On March 17, 2020, the PAA closed to the public as Albertans were prohibited from attending public recreational facilities. The PAA Reading Room remained closed for 14 weeks, during which time reference archivists answered more than 500 public queries by email.  The public response to “virtual” service was overwhelmingly positive.

On June 23, the PAA Reading reopened to in-person researchers, by appointment and with a reduced capacity. This new model of reference service required a much higher degree of up-front coordination than our previous walk-in availability. Only staff were allowed to handle the finding aids (primarily printed binders and card catalogues) that are available in the reading room. Relevant records had to be identified and pulled prior to appointments, after which they entered a 72-hour quarantine period. Additionally, archivists continued to provide virtual reference services for those unable to visit, sharing electronic finding aids and research copies of records to help answer questions.

The average time spent addressing public and government queries was adjusted from approximately 15 minutes per request to 1.5 hours per request, whether for an appointment or to answer a complex research question. We needed many hands on deck to provide additional research services; 10 archivists, two managers and two Young Canada Works interns all contributed to rotating reference coverage. This work was also supported by a retrieval aide, archival technicians and PAA administrative staff. Three-hundred and seventy-two researchers visited the PAA between the June and December 2020.  On top of that, the team answered almost 1,350 reference emails and phone calls. In late 2020, the reading room was required to close again.

In total, from April 2020 to March 2021, PAA archivists responded to 3,936 public reference inquiries. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta

Outreach

COVID-19 public health measures and mandatory restrictions of public gatherings made virtual and online communities more relevant than ever before. So, in April 2020, two reference archivists and one volunteer took over Facebook content creation, although all staff members continued to contribute posts on a regular basis. Social media offered a way for PAA users to connect with each other, engage with provincial history, and share their own stories. A few notable posts with high engagement include the tiny building (Mite Block), a Mountain Park post and a doll hospital post that reached over 65,000 people.

Although our in-person educational offerings had to be cancelled, the PAA facilitated and participated in virtual programming throughout the pandemic. PAA staff delivered the first online presentation in June 2020 to a Leduc group; the PAA Textual Conservator provided advice on care, handling and storage of archival materials to over 175 attendees at a virtual conference in September; and a reference archivist virtually introduced local university students to the Archives, with an emphasis on remotely accessing PAA holdings. The PAA also submitted seven virtual learning and outreach videos to the Edmonton and District Historical Society Doors Open Festival.

Audiovisual Holdings

In the audiovisual world, the PAA’s AV Technician was able to catch-up on a backlog of digitization requests during the facility closure. He digitized about 80 hours of audio and about 36 hours of film and video for 17 researchers in the last year. This circumstance was unprecedented but it whittled the wait time for researcher requests for digitized copies down from about three months to less than a month. Client requests for archival photographs remained steady. The PAA’s Photographic Technician completed 340 public orders in 2020, which is an average of 28 orders a month. Her work, in addition to internal requests, totaled approximately 8,500 photo and text document scans. She also completed the preservation scanning of over 5,400 negatives from Oliver Studios.

Audio Visual Media Technician Tom Bernier at work at the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Source: Ryan Jackson.

In 2021, the PAA digitized 500 hours of oral histories for preservation and future access.

Government and Private Records

Although PAA records did not leave the building during the facility closure, staff were able to bring home existing typed or handwritten file lists to convert them to digital lists. As a result, many late 1960s and early 1970s hardcopy file lists are now electronic and keyword searchable, this includes all divorce indexes. Staff also centralized the location of electronic file lists to increase efficiency and reduce search times.

Blending remote and onsite work, ongoing archival work continued during the pandemic. Archivists appraised over 110 new and existing records schedules (the documents that provide information on how long to keep specific types of records and what should eventually happen to those records), and accessioned over 2,270 metres of records from government ministries, boards, agencies and commissions.  Staff were also able to create and update dozens of new descriptive finding aids, making records of individuals, families and Alberta organizations available to the public. These included papers and projects of humanitarian  Gucheran Singh Bhatia, administrative papers of the Canadian Polish Congress, and updates to many photographic studio holdings that document the province (including Trifon Fedoruk, Garneau Studio, Kensit Studio, Thunderbird Photographers, and Wells Photographic Studios). The PAA also acquired new donations of material that will soon be available for researchers, including the documentary films of Kaizen West Film Productions, member works from the artist-run production EMMEDIA society, as well as the papers of the late Senator Elaine McCoy.

Finally, staff have been working on introducing a new records database.  Access to Memory (AtoM), is a web-based, open-source application for standards-based archival description and access. Eventually this application will replace the Archives’ current public portal, HeRMIS.  Much of the file list work completed during the pandemic will benefit from the adoption of AtoM as the electronic lists created by staff will be uploaded into the new system and will become available to researchers.

Records of the Polish Canadian Congress. Source: PAA fonds #PR0358.
Link Newspapers from the Gucheran Singh Bhatia fonds. Source: PAA Accession #PR2014.2158/337-338.

Vital Statistics

As genealogists continued their research efforts, or beginners were, perhaps, newly inspired to look into their family histories, the PAA continued to provide access to Alberta vital statistics registrations (births, deaths and marriages). Over 10,000 requests for photocopies or digital scans of vital statistics were filled online through the PAA’s online service in the last year. Digital copies have been very popular; it is the quickest way to receive a vital statistics record.

When onsite, staff have continued to scan these records, having now completed all the death, overseas, Indigenous death and marriage, birth and stillbirth records. Staff and volunteers also converted handwritten and typed vital statistics indexes into electronic, keyword searchable file lists. This project is exciting – not only were volunteers able to participate in this work from their homes, but once uploaded into the new AtoM application, researchers will be able to more easily search for names online.

To ensure their long-term preservation, vital statistics records are continually being digitized. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta.

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