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Digitizing in Pandemic Times: Reflections on CLIR Grant Recipient Reports

By Lauren Sorensen

Editor’s note: Lauren Sorensen is consulting data analyst, contracted by CLIR to assist with regular reporting requirements to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As we all deal with the lasting effects of a global pandemic, Sorensen reflects on what can be learned from recipients of awards from CLIR’s Recordings at Risk and Digitizing Hidden Collections programs.

As my home state, California, began to open up “post” pandemic, CLIR reached out to ask for my help on a data analysis project to compile information on progress from the past year for grantee initiatives in Digitizing Hidden Collections and Recordings at Risk that started over the past five years. The reports made it clear how challenging and devastating the last 16 months have been for the cultural heritage community in the United States. Vendors, institutional administrators, workers, and leaders on grants faced impossible choices due to the health emergency and related restrictions, as well as the desire to keep their community safe. Report after report described staff layoffs, closures of digitization labs, and delays. However, participants also shared the creative ways in which staff came up with solutions to advance project work while keeping staff, researchers, and vendors safe. It was heartening to read that CLIR made Emergency Relief funding available and granted extensions. Support was given to help projects move forward, even if it was slower than initially expected.

Especially hard hit were projects that (1) started in late 2019 and 2020; (2) involved cross-state collaborations; and (3) were multi-institutional endeavors. The most successful in adapting to the pandemic were those who were able to still hire people to work remotely and were at a stage in their projects where metadata and cataloging work was necessary. This was particularly the case for projects that chose to catalog after digitization, that had received the digitized files from the vendor before shutdowns, and that had put the files online. Remarkably, there were a couple of universities that were not able to hire student workers remotely due to administrative policies, so project staff redirected funds to vendors or added tasks to the workload of existing staff.

Those institutions that were able to conduct virtual screenings of moving image works and make digitized materials accessible in other ways did a great service to researchers during the pandemic. Some grantees reported notable web access analytics in cases where descriptive information and access files were posted. Another participant at an earlier stage of their project did outreach to see if materials existed within their community that could be contributed to the project and received messages from local scholars with words of support about the initiative and its potential impact. It will be interesting to discover just how often materials were accessed during the pandemic, and whether the pandemic will have a lasting effect on users’ and researchers’ preferences for accessing content online versus traveling in person to gain access. I expect that there will be progressively more remote access, not just because more materials are being put online, but also because users have become familiar with new tools and software that are efficient to use and offer access to high-quality files.

The Recordings at Risk projects’ approach was largely straightforward as the funding was applied to digitization (which is often the “heavy lifting” of a project) as a primary activity. Project reports centered around several themes, largely having to do with staffing, material deterioration, vendor issues, and of course adapting to the “new reality” presented by the pandemic. Because staff funding often came from sources other than the Recordings at Risk program, there were times when project staff had to be laid off because of newly imposed budgetary restrictions, due to income lost during the pandemic. This was especially the case for museums or other institutions where a large portion of revenue came from people visiting in-person events and exhibitions. Other times, institutions were able to keep people on staff by creating tasks that could be done remotely, such as transcription, captioning, or cataloging. This was not without its challenges, however, as uneven at-home bandwidth speeds were sometimes at odds with the ability to download or stream material for viewing, particularly when compressed access files were not yet produced. Once institutions opened up more, social distancing guidelines enabled staff to enter facilities and work with materials, but often only one individual at a time, significantly slowing many processes. Some institutions were open to staff only two days per week, and staff had varying permissions for access to buildings and even specific areas within a building.

Digitizing Hidden Collections funded projects were often more long-term and complex than Recordings at Risk, so grantees’ projects encompassed an entire ecosystem of work. The pandemic disrupted this ecosystem. Multi-institutional projects were especially hard-hit, as each state had its own rules for access to physical offices at different periods of time. Because of this, workflow was often halted or extensions requested; institutional staff sometimes had to reformulate and adjust the goals of that particular period in collaboration with CLIR and community partners. For example, a project whose goal was digitizing and providing access to indigenous histories was held up because the partner organization was a federal agency whose workers were not allowed to return to in-person work well into the first year of the grant. Even in projects where partnerships were not a component, vendors, an essential part of the process, were often in a different state or region and their closure timelines frequently did not match up with closures at the project site. In some cases, this resulted in work stoppage when digitization was already underway. However, like the Recordings at Risk grant recipients, there were some positive achievements to share as well. Some institutions were able to pivot and focus on needed and long-desired software and platform updates.

Overall, the pandemic was a challenging time to navigate, personally and professionally, for myself and many colleagues, including those providing reports and digging in, moving forward on projects for these two grant programs’ funding streams. Adapting to incorporate remote work, creatively shifting workflows and so on are achievements, but I feel that institutions were the most successful when they were able to simply keep staff, patrons, and the communities served safe, and create a culture of care during a very stressful and emotionally fraught time. As we collectively move forward alongside and through grief, it is this data analyst’s wish that we can all keep helping to consistently “feed and water” a culture of care, safety, and mutual aid.


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