Q: Which part of the Libraries do you work in, and what’s your role?
The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) is Columbia University’s principal repository for special collections. The holdings include hundreds of thousands of rare books and nearly 80,000 linear feet of archival material, which are records created by people or institutions as they go about their activities that have enduring evidentiary value. Our team of about 30 archivists, curators, collections managers, and public services staff stewards the collections in our care through their entire life, from acquisition and processing to access and use.
I’m trained as an archivist and oversee the seven-person processing team. What is archival processing? It is the act of gaining intellectual and physical control over a set of records, so that they can be used by researchers. One of the unique aspects of archival description, as opposed to library cataloging, is the emphasis on aggregate description. The scope and scale of the collections is such that it is impossible to describe every single letter, report, or item. Instead, we describe groupings (e.g. Annual Reports, 1900-1962). The profession has found over the last century that for most materials, this is sufficient to provision access, while allowing us to work through material at a reasonable pace.
Q: What was the most notable challenge that you and the staff of the RBML faced in transitioning to remote work in 2020?
Our processing work before COVID was focused on paper materials. However, we always knew that there was work around description and metadata that was perpetually on the back burner, and in March of 2020 we got the opportunity to really look at what remained to be done. We found plenty to do, from reviewing our authorities to converting hundreds of legacy PDFs into fully-encoded finding aids.
Q: How did you overcome this and other challenges posed by the pandemic?
Everyone has had a different experience of the past year. The biggest challenge I’ve personally found has been balance — between work and life outside work, between encouraging the flood of creative thinking unleashed by the pandemic with the reality of existing needs, between rapid-fire and non-stop email and Zoom communications and in-depth projects. In September 2020, I took on the additional role of Interim Director of the RBML, and that magnified the challenge of balance. Twelve months into this crisis, with good news on the horizon, I am hoping for a period of stability, just to catch my breath — but I’m aware that fully reopening the University (and society!) will bring a new set of opportunities and challenges.
Q: As the Libraries have gradually re-opened, how have the RBML’s resources and services adapted and changed?
The RBML spent the summer of 2020 preparing for a very different setup of services, reflecting the needs of our communities and our constrained abilities to meet them. In September, we opened a re-imagined reading room in Butler 601, by appointment and limited to Columbia University affiliates. We also significantly expanded our scan-on-demand and reference services, in an attempt to serve researchers who are unable to visit the reading room. Our collections management team has had a significant onsite presence since June, to tend to the physical needs of the collection and allow some limited acquisitions.
Q: What are your priorities as Interim Director of the RBML?
I’ve tried to represent the RBML’s interests within the Libraries, keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly in our challenging environment, and make sure the awesome RBML team feels safe, supported, and appreciated. I’m also trying to lay the groundwork for applying the work lessons learned over the past year to our re-opened near future.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in 2021 in your work in the Libraries?
One big difference between the RBML and most other parts of the Libraries is that before COVID, about two-thirds of our roughly 6,000 reading room visits a year were from non-Columbia affiliates. We’ve done our best to provide that group some level of access, via reference and scans, but our ability to serve the broader community is limited right now. I look forward to welcoming our outside researchers back as soon as we are able.