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.
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.Read more