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Serving researchers in challenging times

Telephone operators wearing masks, High River, Alberta. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: NA-3452-2.


In the six months since COVID-19 forced widespread shutdowns, including access to physical space in the Glenbow Western Research Centre in the Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL), staff have shown that serving researchers in challenging times is possible.

Although the global pandemic has brought many things to a halt, it certainly hasn’t stopped historical research. Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR) staff—Anita Dammer, Kim Geraldi and Bonnie Woelk—responsible for working with the Glenbow Library and Archives collections at the Glenbow Western Research Centre (GWRC) are as busy as they were pre-COVID.

Requests for digital images and research assistance, and interest in donating materials to the Glenbow Library and Archives, have remained steady.

Photo requests

“It’s full steam ahead,” says Anita Dammer, a digitization technician who’s responsible for fulfilling the photograph requests that come to the GWRC via the Glenbow Library and Archives digital collection.

Dammer says she initially expected the photo requests to drop off when the GWRC closed in March. Instead, the requests kept coming.

“One patron, in particular, said with all this stuff shutting down, publishers aren’t; they still have their deadlines. So, it’s business as usual for them because they continue to do everything online anyway,” says Dammer.

Since March, Dammer has filled 232 orders comprising of 930 photographs, including rush requests.

Digitization technician Anita Dammer in the UCalgary archives with boxes of Glenbow archives photographs. Dave Brown photo.


It only works with access

In order to fulfill orders, Dammer needed access to the photographic collections stored at the TFDL.

Dammer is still going into the TFDL, usually once a week, to scan requested photographs.

And as she’s the only one accessing the Glenbow photographs and adhering to the COVID-19 protocols, any risk is low.

Given that it’s business as usual (to a point), the main lesson Dammer says she learned during the past six months that serving researchers in challenging times is possible.

“Initially, there was just this panic and worry and fear about the whole COVID thing. And that was dominating people’s thoughts at that time. It wasn’t a matter of, ‘well, I wonder what I can still get done,’ it was just ‘I don’t know how we are going to cope?’

That has been the most challenging part of all of this for Dammer. The technical side of providing a cultural heritage service during a pandemic has been relatively easy.

“It’s very satisfying knowing that we can still provide this service,” says Dammer.


Donations built the Glenbow Library and Archives collections. However, UCalgary put new donations on hold in 2018 as it finalized the relocation of the Glenbow Library and Archives and arranged the move.

The moratorium was lifted on March 1. That was the same day Bonnie Woelk moved from University of Calgary Archives into her new role as the Glenbow archivist.

She set out to work through a backlog of 150 potential donations to the Glenbow archives.

“I immediately began going through this list to determine which donations to accept into the Glenbow collection, contacting donors, arranging for archival material to be shipped to the university, redirecting donations that would find a more appropriate archival home elsewhere, and gratefully declining some donations,” says Woelk.

Two weeks into her new position, Woelk, like practically everyone else at UCalgary, started working from home.

And now, with the pandemic still underway, she’s hasn’t been able to meet with potential donors. Even so, Woelk is working through the backlog successfully.

Bell Telephone Company exchange in Linton Block, Calgary, Alberta. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: NA-2113-1.


Technology to the rescue

Woelk’s main challenge is making decisions about accepting donations without seeing the materials or meeting the donors in person. It’s all done remotely. And while that works, she misses the personal touch.

“I have the archival experience to make decisions about acquiring records without seeing them, but both the donors and I miss the more personal connection you get when you make a site visit,” she says.

“In pre-COVID times, I would often go to a donor’s house to talk about the donation, look at what was being offered, and give advice about how to pack the archival material for donation. But now I’m doing this all by email and phone, although I’ve done this before with donors who live across Canada,” she says

In the six months since COVID-19, the only thing Woelk hasn’t been able to provide are tours of the GWRC.

Garbutt Business College, Calgary, Alberta. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: PA-3364-6.


Assisting researchers

So far, of the three GWRC services currently available, the reference service has been the most challenging one to provide.

Glenbow Reference Specialist Kim Geraldi is still getting as many requests as she did pre-pandemic. In all, Geraldi has had 857 requests from researchers and the public for help since March.

Some of the requests are simple, such as needing help to navigate an online database. Other requests, however, are not, as patrons often request access to a large volume of files.

Geraldi can quickly answer simple requests. Complicated requests, however, are either slower than normal or put on hold until the GWRC resumes full service.

“Everything takes an extra ten steps when I can’t see the material, and they can’t see the material, and we’re not sure what we’re looking for,” says Geraldi.

“Some people still have really massive requests, and we have to put them off until we can get to them in person,” says Geraldi.

Having to wait

But that’s a difficult thing to tell researchers, especially as helping them is a favourite part of her job.

“That’s the part of the job that I love the most, going through the stuff and helping out people that way. That’s been hard for me,” she says. “So, I would like to get back on site soon for that aspect.”

In the meantime, Geraldi continues to do what she can from home. But she has to lean upon the one member of the archival staff who is still working at the TFDL to find and copy material for patrons.

Even so, as much as she misses the materials, she also misses the personal connection with researchers.

“The connection is still really great. Talking to people about their projects is always really interesting to me,” she says.

“I found a lot more people are calling. I think they’re also missing that connection as well.”


The move

While UCalgary archival staff are still moving materials from the Glenbow Library and Archives, they have placed the last barcode.

Every book, photograph, file and document that came to UCalgary from the Glenbow got its own barcode number.

Barcodes allows archives staff to inventory and track archival material and to ensure each item has a specific ID number. The barcodes also provide a way to link the original material to the digital files once digitization is complete.

The move was paused in March. It resumed at the beginning of July, and if everything goes smoothly, it should wrap up by the end of October.

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