For the Record: Collecting COVID-19 experiences of the profession

This is a text-based version of the recent talk given by Dr Amy Staniforth (CILIP Cymru Wales) & Kate Lomax (Artefacto) about the For the Record project at the CILIP Cymru Wales Conference 2021

It was March 2020...

Amy:

In March 2020 we, the CILIP Cymru Wales Committee, had just had to cancel our annual conference. We were already working from home, about to teach at home, everything at home…We wondered what we could do for our members in these strange times, and who would record them.

I’ve long been interested in Mass observation project & archive (at University of Sussex) Mixed model of questionnaires, diaries, prompts to document ordinary life

We developed the idea of using a theme a week to push out the project via social media, emails and on listservs, hoping to encourage the creative use of media in documentation and reflection of people’s ongoing experiences of the pandemic.

Time was clearly important - I didn’t want to spend a lot of time learning how to do this myself or to do a poor job. You really need to instill confidence when asking people for their personal reflections..

And at same time Librarian.Support shared a list of library consultants to remind people to support these colleagues during lock down…and that is where I found Kate Lomax and Artefacto.

Kate:

Amy’s email to us about this idea to create something for CILIP Wales members during lockdown definitely sparked our interest. This was a particularly timely project as, like everyone, we were reeling from these big overwhelming changes to the world. And we were keen for something positive to contribute.

So, this was both the right time and the right type of project for us.

Like Amy, I'm interested in new forms of digital memory-making and collaboration. As an agency we're particularly interested in user-driven platforms and online spaces.

And we work on quite a few different types of online archive projects & platforms and I liked the idea of building something collaborative, something with different ways people could contribute. A space for people to find and discover stories from others in the sector.

When we first started talking about the project, we initially assumed we'd be building the site in Omeka. Omeka is an open-source, lightweight collections management platform. You can use it to create online archives, exhibits and other kinds of collections sites.

We do quite a bit of work with Omeka, building different kinds of collections-based websites and platforms. It’s great software to work with and has a great community around it. But the more we talked about it, the more it seemed that it wasn't quite the right fit for this project.

But we knew we needed to build this as fast as we could and we wanted it to focus on the storytelling aspects, the user participation. something we could heavily customise. And to keep evolving as we learn more.

Letting people tell their stories in their own way was the key part of the platform we were building. A workflow of people discovering other people's stories but also contributing their own. And ensuring we support different ways of story-telling, including photos, audio, video and text. And combinations of these.

We didn’t have much time to build the site - it was very much a prototype. We wanted to provide that space for library workers to share their experiences as soon as possible. To, from initial discussions to having an initial iteration up and running was really just a few weeks.

And we decided to build the platform using Wordpress.

But we knew that this wasn’t likely to be the final form this project took - we had already talked about either migrating to a different platform after the first iteration or collaborating with an existing project. Exportability and extensibility were both really important.

And then furlough

Amy:

We were just about to launch when found out I was to be furloughed for 5 weeks

And then the theme set up requiring a lot of promotion and hand holding suddenly was unwieldy, especially as we hastily trained up CILIP Cymru Wales committee volunteers (all still working!) and disappeared.

The next iteration

Kate:

As an iterative project, we were constantly looking for ways to improve it. And so there were conversations about other ways to make it easier for people to participate - to reduce the burden of participation that can be a barrier to these kinds of projects.

As well as the prompts, other elements emerged such as:

  • One thing per page approach to form design
  • Allowing contributors to choose how to capture their experiences
  • Giving contributors control over how and what they shared on the site

Amy:

So, in this iteration we really focused on simplifying things where we could, including the themes and categories.

And I worked on everyone I knew…

The finished product was attractive and featured some very sweet, poignant and telling posts – but relying on my network in a very short space of time meant that the site can’t speak for The ‘Profession’ in Wales.

There were 32 posts - including contributions from Higher Education, Public Libraries, Consultants & School Libraries Furloughed, Redeployed, Working From Home, Lone Library Workers, Library Directors

It was a small sample - but with a good spread of sector representation and career range.

And there is a great range of lockdown activity represented – from redeployed librarians working as community shoppers, to painting and craft work, a reflection on being a CKG judge, online meetings, and professional research

Sustainability

Amy:

And it was important for us that as some normality to worklife resumed – busier than ever – we didn’t leave the site in suspension without promotion and new contributions

So we approached People's Collection Wales about archiving the posts in October.

And now they can all be found on the CILIP PCW page where they are being seen regularly and people can re-use items in new digital collections, for teaching packages and other projects.

So, although small, the contributions now exist in a digital context that makes sense, where someone might be looking for COVID-19 tagged items will find ours as well as many more…

Lessons learned

Amy:

I would have a simpler plan that could accommodate the unforeseen a bit more. It’s also important to appreciate & factor in how much human time is required (both tech and promotional). The project also made me realise how nervous our profession is about being heard. People were tired but also wary of getting into trouble, being too open about delicate matters like redeployment.

There was no path for clearance for someone to publish a short reflection and we were all too busy to prioritise it over our services, support and peoples health.

Explaining this point to Kate I suddenly wondered if this would be very different today, however, now our employers have perhaps learned to trust us more, and perhaps we are less innocent but more steely? Perhaps.

But ultimately, aside from causing volunteer colleagues extra work, I’m really glad we created FTR. I’ve learned a great deal from Kate, the contributors and the experience, I’m really proud of the digital record that everyone involved has helped create.

https://fortherecord.wales/

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