Archival labor at Ingenium during the COVID-19 pandemic: I would prefer not to

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Editors’ Note: This is one in a series of posts about the intersection of archives and public history in the age of COVID-19 that will be published throughout October, Archives Month in the United States. This series is edited by National Council on Public History (NCPH) board member Krista McCracken, History@Work affiliate editor Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, and NCPH The Public Historian co-editor/Digital Media Editor Nicole Belolan.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, I had an invitation from the curatorial team at Ingenium (where I work as an archivist) to participate in Curating under quarantine, a multi-project initiative in response to the pandemic. Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation includes the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. Our curators aimed to investigate rapid response collecting and to document the pandemic. The curators also planned to write about their own experiences of the pandemic and to give the public insight into how it affected their work. So, with this piece, I suppose the reluctant archivist has joined the project after all, though my initial response to the concept of rapid response collecting, was “I would prefer not to.”

Image is a screen shot of Ingenium’s Digital Archives portal. Underneath the banner with links to other corporate websites there is the portal title, Digital Archives, a button marked ‘Explore’, and a series of black and white photographs representing different collections.

Ingenium’s Digital Archives. We’ve shifted our work to the digital, making more photographs available online at a faster rate than we had originally planned for this year. Screenshot courtesy of Ingenium

Like Melville’s scrivener Bartleby, I opted for inaction. It’s not clear in Melville’s story whether Bartleby had an underlying philosophical or ethical objection to the work he was not performing, but I had a practical rationale for not actively seeking to document COVID-19: everyone else seemed to be doing it. Beyond the world of Canadian museums, the Canadian archival community has been soliciting donations of diaries, websites, artworks, and photographs that reflect their community members’ COVID-19 experiences. David Rajotte, editor of Documentary Heritage News, has been keeping track of these projects in this document (see section 6). Archivists expressed concern that fragile, ephemeral digital records might disappear as soon as COVID-19 disappears, if plans were not in place for long-term storage and curation. There was a feeling that social media and the internet had to be crawled and captured (ethically) before it was too late! Data fans dreamed about what they could do with COVID-19 data, if it was gathered correctly in the first place. These concerns are valid, and I’m glad many institutions with well-delimited publics are acting, but it was not for me.

Ingenium collects the archives of individuals and companies working in science and technology in Canada. Our collections document both eureka moments and the slow, incremental technological change that happens patent after patent, technical drawing after technical drawing. From one of the first flight attendants in Canada, to a family business that grew into a seed empire, we seek records that show a life’s work in science or a company’s adaptations to tech trends in its industry.  I’m gambling that COVID-19 will appear in the archival record left behind by these companies and individuals, even without specific coaching and immediate acquisition during the crisis. We’re looking for a complete record, or as complete as possible. My passivity in contrast to the documentation efforts of others might come back to this principle, as well as a certain optimism: there was life and business before COVID-19 and there will be life and business after COVID-19.

Museums or archives that have a regional or community-based mandate are very usefully creating and preserving a snapshot of their region or community during the crisis, but that’s not the kind of collection I’m looking for at Ingenium. Universities are capturing their institutional records, documenting the reactions of their staff and students, and may be seeking to gather research collections through web and social media archiving and other initiatives. I wonder how complete these research collections will be, or how completeness will even be evaluated with regard to this work.

I anticipate that our curators will appreciate working through the data being gathered by other institutions in the future when developing an exhibit on COVID-19 in ten, twenty, or fifty years.  But how will researchers like our curators search through the many collections? I have a vision of them looking through search results, trying to see what they can make of social media snapshots or other documentary fragments of people’s lives. Hopefully if Ingenium curators want an example from the fields of science or technology, they will be able to draw upon the archival collections acquired as per our regular priorities and procedures. The future archivist will help them out by retrieving the relevant COVID-19 data or files from the rest of the company or individual’s records. If predecessor archivists were kind to their successors, files will be flagged by the Library of Congress subject term “COVID-19 (Disease).” But then, as the future curators weave their stories for the exhibits, I hope they might also ask the question: what happened to this person after the vaccine? And, what was the company doing before it reacted to COVID-19? A more complete archival collection will help them answer those questions.

Our curators came to the conclusion that rapid response collecting is not going to work for Ingenium artifact acquisitions, or perhaps it is the “rapid” that they’ve rejected. They are doing the research necessary for future acquisitions, but they aren’t seeking the objects just yet during this time of ongoing trauma. Instead, they are letting the scientists and innovators concentrate on their work during the pandemic, instead of asking them to participation in its memorialization. For the curators, it’s less of “I would prefer not to” and more “When the moment is right.”

Melville’s Bartleby eventually starves to death from doing nothing, but that’s where the analogy fizzles. After explaining in such detail what we are not doing, let me now briefly describe what Ingenium’s archives staff have been laboring over as we work from home.

Acquisitions had stopped at Ingenium prior to COVID-19. This was a necessary moratorium started in 2018 as we began a tremendous amount of work related to moving collections from three storage buildings into a new, purpose-built collection and conservation centre. However, some of the labor required to manage archival acquisitions continues; collecting strategies, correspondence with potential donors, and background research is ongoing, if at a slower pace.

We have been working on protocols for returning to the reading room, but we don’t have a firm timeline yet for reopening. We are hoping that researchers who received grant money for archival research will be able to extend any deadlines; it seems an easy concession that granting agencies could make to help us all respond to the pandemic. Reference work has been hampered in cases where we cannot consult our archives to answer a question. However, we have helped many clients with image requests using collections that are already digitized or online.

Image is a screen shot of Ingenium’s Digital Archives portal. Underneath the banner with links to other corporate websites there is the portal title, Digital Archives, a button marked ‘Explore’, and a series of black and white photographs representing different collections.

Aperçus du Canada. One of the photographs we’ve recently made available in Digital Archives show the art deco Canadian National Railways display at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris. CSTM Archives. CN 39618.


The rest of our work has shifted. All descriptive and preservation work that requires close communion with our non-digitized records has stopped. We have changed our focus to the many collections that have been digitized. The output of more than twenty years of digitization work at Ingenium needs to be migrated to a new digital asset management system. The digitized archives mostly consists of photos, which often require additional metadata and copyright research before we release them on our public Digital Archives portal. This work has accelerated because my two colleagues have focused almost exclusively on it while working from home. I’ve also had time to work on planning documents, charting out what I think we should do over the course of the next five years.


Lastly, we’ve been able to undertake training and reading scholarly literature in our field—something that rarely gets done during the hustle of a normal work year. Our senior managers are encouraging us to pursue career development during this strange moment. It is a luxury that I will fight to retain post-COVID-19. It is refreshing and revitalizing to learn about the work of colleagues in areas such as decolonization, anti-racist description, digital preservation, and linked data for archival information discovery. Archival labor feels less laborious with inspired work spurring you on and provoking you to do better. Melville’s Bartleby lacked such inspiration. The story ends with the narrator’s cry, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” I’d prefer to end this blog post with something equally dramatic, but will passively resist the impulse.

~Adele Torrance is the archivist at Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation.  In this position, she is responsible for managing the archival collections acquired by the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

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