Advocating for Archivists at Home: An Interview with Lydia Tang

In this post, CLIR Director of Global Strategic Initiatives Nicole Kang Ferraiolo interviews Lydia Tang, who spearheaded the creation of the Archivists at Home document as chair of the Society of American Archivists’ Accessibility & Disability Section. Lydia Tang is the Special Collections archivist at Michigan State University.

What is the Archivists At Home document?

Archivists at Home is a crowdsourced document created by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Accessibility and Disability Section (ADS) to help develop a more flexible concept of archival labor, whether it is archivists working from home due to COVID-19 or archivists with disabilities. I started this document in mid-March, as institutions in the United States were beginning to close because of the pandemic. All over social media, archivists were asking for ideas on what they could do to work from home to avoid being furloughed or laid off. We wanted this document to be an advocacy tool for archivists to show to administrators how they can still do impactful work, even without physical access to their collections.

The document compiles information about a variety of topics, ranging from closing down and securing the shop to data clean-up, auditing legacy descriptions for outdated and oppressive language, donor relations, and crowdsourcing transcription projects. It includes an extensive list of free resources for learning new skills and tools.

Archivists at Home has been shared by the Association of Canadian Archivists, the Society of American Archivists, and the International Council on Archives. It was pinned on the Archivists’ Think Tank (Facebook), and its popularity exploded after ArchivistMemes referenced it on March 16th as part of a hilarious infographic on tips for archivists transitioning to working from home and resources for accessing unemployment support. There were times in March that I would check on the document and over 100 people were simultaneously viewing it!

How has its roots in the SAA Accessibility and Disability Section informed the content covered in the document?

A priority of the Accessibility and Disability Section was making this a leveraging tool for archivists with disabilities who need to have a more flexible work arrangement and, although the scope has become broader, we tried to keep accessibility and disability perspectives throughout the entire document. Some people with disabilities may be excluded or feel pressured to opt out of archival positions if they are not able to do a traditional task such as lifting boxes or if they can’t be exposed to dust, and this list provides a wealth of ways that archivists can be productive without physically being among the collections.

The Accessibility and Disability Section is SAA’s newest section. I spearheaded forming this section a year ago and it was approved by the SAA Council in August 2019. I’m so proud of everything we’ve done in this first year, including the Archivists at Home document and a similarly crowdsourced document on Inclusive Interviewing and Recruitment Practices. I’m also so proud that some founding organizers of the Archival Workers Emergency Fund, Jessica Chapel, Bridget Malley, Lauren White, and I began developing the project idea within our steering committee discussions.

What impact do you hope Archivists at Home will have in the long term?

I believe that the Archivists at Home document can be a springboard for other ideas and projects. This document, to me, embodies the idea that “together we know a lot.” It was collectively built by many people (see the list of contributors at the end of the document), which made it so strong and varied. I am glad that many people have found it to be useful for their own advocacy and work-from-home projects.

One of my wishes for a changed world after COVID-19 is that our broader society can move toward greater accessibility for people with disabilities. The archival profession can continue to move toward being more diverse and more accessible. I hope that remote work can become a more standard practice in the archival field, whether it’s for full-time positions as a web archivist or for occasional flexibility as archivists juggle their wellbeing, caregiving, and personal needs with their professional lives. This COVID-19 shutdown hopefully has helped clarify that archives are more than physical records in buildings and that archival labor doesn’t have to be in an office.

 

Editor’s note: This is the ninth piece in COVID (Re)Collections, a series exploring responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by library, cultural heritage, and information professionals. Stories are proposed by the authors/contributors and reflect their personal experiences and perspectives at the time of submission. Learn more about the series and share your own story here.