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Preservation Snapshot at DePaul University

An Interview with Kyle Henke, Digital Archivist at DePaul University Special Collections and Archives: A Snapshot of Preservation Responses to COVID-19

Nora Gabor, Rare Books Librarian, DePaul University Special Collections and Archives

For 2020-2021, the CARLI Preservation Committee is sharing a series of interviews to explore CARLI members' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, Nora Gabor, Rare Books Librarian at DePaul University asked her colleague Kyle Henke the Digital Archivist at DePaul University to discuss.

Read the project overview here:

Interview with Kyle Henke:

What was your institution or department’s original response to the statewide closure in March 2020?

Similar to other institutions, our response was sudden and reactive. Fortunately, our department began planning for the possibility of remote work very shortly before the mandate came from the University. As a department, we were closed to the public and working remotely a few days ahead of the rest of the Library and before the University made their decision to close the Library as a whole. Out of necessity, our priorities as a department moved away from public, face-to-face interactions and services and focused on providing remote services to DePaul and the wider community.

Were there special considerations for how your department handled physical and/or digital resources? 

Based on University mandates, our physical holdings were initially off-limits. We had preemptively prepared for remote work by storing materials in our secure stacks and having staff members take essential work equipment (laptops, monitors, and additional hardware) home prior to the closure. After a few weeks, we could access our space again, but it was highly regulated and restricted. Initially, only our department head would go in and handle activities for the rest of the department. This has since expanded a bit with staff members scheduling time to come in if necessary, but always alone.

What were some preservation or conservation activities that were accomplished during the closure?

I can speak to the digital preservation and conservation activities we were able to accomplish while working remotely. To that end, we were able to outsource the digitization of legacy audiovisual physical materials such as VHS tapes, Betacam tapes, audio reels, cassette tapes, and additional media formats. In total we had over 450 pieces of media digitized that comprised over 6 TB of digital data. After digitization, while still working remotely, the digital materials were sent to the Digital Archivist’s (my) home where I made them accessible for staff to review through cloud storage (OneDrive). From there, we identified staff library-wide that could be trained on reviewing and providing brief metadata on the files. In addition, web archiving was able to receive more focus. While web archiving had previously been an occasional activity, it had not been as robust or focused due to other pressing priorities. As information  about COVID-19 continued to fluctuate and change, it became essential to capture how the institution was addressing and updating the community on the institution and the pandemic. 

How were you able to accomplish those activities?

Due to much earlier pre-planning unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic, we created an inventory of all audiovisual materials held in the collections. Using that inventory, a priority list was established based on several factors including media format, collection use, in-house accessibility, and future research needs. The audiovisual digitization project included having one staff member go into the department and package the materials to be sent out, receiving the materials back from the outsourcing company at our own homes, and uploading access copies to cloud storage for internal accessibility while storing preservation and access copies on external hard drives. Web archiving became a focus for some of our student workers due to the change in work capabilities while remote. The entirety of the work could be done remotely through the browser-based webrecorder platform now known as Conifer.

How did re-opening impact preservation/conservation activities in your department?

We are currently still closed and working remotely as a department while some in-person services have resumed in the Library as a whole. Staff access is available to the space but is limited and minimal as a precaution. Access to our physical space is used to access materials as needed, to answer research questions that have come in since remote work began, and to perform and film asynchronous instruction sessions for class sessions.

What are you doing to fulfill patron or institutional requests during this time?

Our department has delegated reference days where a staff member will monitor phones and email for inquiries that come in and track them in a shared log. This was a practice prior to the pandemic in order to distribute the work and responsibility and has continued. We respond to inquiries and note our limited accessibility to materials and return to their question when available, or we communicate other solutions that will inform and benefit the researcher. We have one staff member who comes in once a week to handle as many of these requests as possible; if additional staff come in on separate days during the week they often are focused on a project (instruction, digitization, etc.) which may include responding to researcher inquiries. 

What did you learn from this experience?  Has your department or workflow changed?

As the Digital Archivist, I learned that I am set up in a way that I can perform the majority of my job responsibilities remotely. From a day-to-day perspective, many of our systems were already cloud based (ArchivesSpace, Preservica) and remote access to our network drives and my office workstation is possible. The biggest change has been our communication styles and methods. While we are all on Zoom and email these days, impromptu in-person conversation and discussion were more common than phone or email within our department prior to the pandemic. Those casual conversations now require more structure or time considerations that previously were not necessary. We have, however, actually set aside time for casual conversation with each other that does not involve work in order to stay connected as people who have lives outside of work. 

One consideration I had to make was to determine how and when I overload my home internet connection. I have often relegated tasks to run overnight when the internet in my home is not being actively utilized and will not cause issues performing other work at the same time. Lastly, our department has put at the forefront of our thinking how we go about providing services in a “resumed” world that now has different expectations or capabilities due to the adaptations made while working remotely. Access to the collections, face-to-face reference, and researcher assistance all have new avenues that we can explore and utilize, and our workflows and practices must adjust to provide services to support all of our community and researchers.

Are there any practices you started or policies you instituted during the closure that you would like to continue in the future?

Our web archiving has taken a big leap forward. More strategy is being developed and is continually reviewed as we plan out a web archiving program that is more systematic, routine, and proactive. Overall, the idea of updating and creating new policies have become more focused and directed to consider accessibility of materials, tools, software, or hardware in different environments.

Which sources have you relied on to inform your digital preservation policies?

Virtual conferences have opened up the ability to attend conferences while minimizing the time and cost of a traditional in-person conference. I’ve attended a few conferences (BitCurator Users Forum, #WeMissiPRES) that have brought together practitioners to discuss the current field of digital preservation, and it is impossible to not discuss how we are all coping and managing both ourselves as well as the work we perform. Some specific resources I’ve come across or given more attention to since going remote include:

How did you learn about those sources?

Twitter. Twitter is a digital archivist’s best friend. I tend to focus on individuals rather than institutions as they are the practitioners and can explain their strategy, process, and thinking along with the way to present the results that the institution makes available to the public. The ability to follow colleagues from around the world and communicate directly or indirectly has really expanded my knowledge and that of the profession as a whole. Learning from and understanding the practices being developed and employed across the world is extremely helpful.

Return to A Snapshot of Our Preservation / Conservation Response to COVID-19 at CARLI Member Libraries, the homepage of the Preservation Committee's 2020-2021 Annual Project.