Starting a New Job During the Pandemic – Sue Halwa

In January 2020 I moved across the country away from family in Toronto to start a new job at the BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. This was my first qualified archivist position and so I was very excited and naturally apprehensive, especially given that this was such a world-renowned institution. The BC Archives houses the archives of the provincial government as well as private records.

I had been in the job less than a month when news emerged about a deadly virus making its way across the world. When the first cases were diagnosed in eastern Canada it was only a matter of time before it reached us. By early March businesses across the country were shutting down and many were sending all their employees to work from home.

As expectations of a lockdown at work ramped up, managers were hurriedly making plans for what projects staff could be doing from home and set about providing us with laptops. Then one Wednesday afternoon, the email finally came sending us home. We hurriedly packed up our stuff and said goodbye to our colleagues, not knowing when we’d see each other again. The very next morning I flew back to Toronto to be with my family not knowing when I’d be back in Victoria.

Oscar helping to set up a workspace at home

Getting used to working from home was challenging. As archivists, whose main duties include managing the reference room and processing records, we wondered how on earth can we still maintain our jobs if we don’t have access to those vital records? Given that I had just joined the organization, felt like I didn’t know anything and was still under probation, I was very concerned. One of the projects I was involved in was related to a transcription project of pioneer medal application forms. These were given out to British Columbian residents in 1971 as a means of commemorating the province’s entry into Confederation 100 years earlier. People who were eligible for the medals completed application forms providing family history details and their occupation. These records series are now of great use to genealogy researchers.

A digitised Pioneer Medallion application form

One of the jobs during lockdown was to transcribe these records so that they could be more searchable to researchers. Because the forms had already been digitised staff could log in to the Transcribe database and access the forms to transcribe. We had about 30 people across the organization transcribing these, many of whom, due to the nature of their job, couldn’t work from home, such as carpenters, exhibition designers and front desk staff. My role was as editor of the project, which really helped my understanding of BC history and geography.

As a reference archivist I was still able to somewhat respond to email enquiries from researchers, but a lot of the time I couldn’t do a whole lot without access to the records. There were two archivists in Victoria who were given permission to go into the archives once a week to fulfill urgent requests, such as obtaining copies of divorces, or for other legal cases.

Sue in the reference room at BC Archives

Other activities that we could do from home were cleaning up some of our online descriptions or creating file lists from government records accessions that had been transferred to us from various ministries across the province. Other archivists took part in conferences that were now held on Zoom and still managed to present papers.

In terms of learning and development, we all had weekly staff meetings on Zoom and I had one-to-one meetings with my manager. We were all encouraged to enroll in as many e-learning courses as possible on the intranet.

On a wider scale, the Royal BC Museum already had a well-developed online engagement program established long before Covid-19 arrived, but when lockdown happened the learning team used this a foundation for their RBCM@Home series. Different staff from across the organization (archivists, anthropologists, paleontologists, etc) hosted live webinars from home talking about looking after photograph collections, plants in the back yard, fossils along the beach etc. These webinars were very well attended and we received lots of positive feedback, especially from people isolated at home or in senior’s residences. We came back onsite mid-June, and are still operating under strict Covid-19 protocols, especially now that we are in a second wave. We are only allowing a maximum of 5 researchers in the reference room at a time, appointments must be made and records need to be requested at least one week ahead of time so that they can be retrieved and any records offsite must undergo a 72-hour quarantine. All staff and public are now mandated to wear a face mask. We are working a combination of some days onsite and some at home as a way of reducing the number of people in the building at one time in accordance with BC Government public health guidelines.

BC Archives file room Covid-19 notice

In hindsight, this was not the ideal way to start a new job, but it has given me the opportunity to really get used to our collections as well as take on new skills, such as editing or understanding how to set up Webex meetings! At the time of writing, we are now in the second wave with higher cases than when we were first sent home, but we are still managing to carry on. We are still able to do our jobs for the most part, but have now adjusted to the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future.

Sue Halwa, Archivist, Royal BC Museum (BC Archives), Victoria, British Columbia

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