Remote collaborations: remaining connected while collecting and preserving history

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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.

Undergraduate students at Illinois College are gaining and refining transferable skills while working with the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives. Archive Your Story is an evolving initiative that collects the campus community’s COVID-19 experience. In spring and summer 2020, students collaborated to initiate and lead a key component of the project, collecting and transcribing remote oral histories. The project resulted in an evolving digital learning laboratory—our team test piloted creating and collecting born-digital records while collaborating in a virtual work and learning environment. 

This is a promotional material for "ARCHIVE YOUR STORY" at Illinois College. The color scheme is blue and white. The text is sans serif. There is a microphone in the background.

Illinois College’s Archive Your Story initiative began in March 2020 to document the campus community’s experience of COVID-19.

The Archive Your Story initiative serves to support specific archival collecting objectives while also upholding broader institutional goals to serve our students with transformative experiences and empower students to make a difference in the world. 

Founded in 1829, Illinois College (IC) is a small, private liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 1,100. Collections housed in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives (established in 2014) and the Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum (established in 2011) include institutional, local, and regional history records tied to the school’s history as the oldest degree-granting institution in the state.  A student work program with the museum, archives, and special collections was formalized in 2016. The program is competitive, with an average of 50-75 applications received each term for 10-15 part-time paid positions. Students from a range of academic disciplines participate in the work program to support short- and long-term projects and strategic initiatives. 

In mid-March 2020, when IC shifted to remote learning, the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives implemented Archive Your Story, an initiative designed to document the campus community’s COVID-19 experience. The campus community is defined as current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the college. This broad definition aims to support the collecting scope of the campus archive and serve stakeholders. The project strategically builds upon previous collecting initiatives led by students, but marks the first fully remote and digitally collected project. 

IC work program students interested in conducting and transcribing oral histories attended informational and one-on-one technology training sessions. During the early days of the project, content collected by the Society of American Archivists on crisis documentation and timely discussions concerning remote student employment from the Association of Academic Museums & Galleries proved helpful in developing project objectives and fostering a flexible online learning and work environment. Feedback from early project participants was positive; one anonymous survey noted “It was very straightforward in setting up the interview and . . . easy to use.” Another survey included the comment, “The experience was easy to navigate and well organized.”

This is a color photograph of a person in their twenties sitting down in front of a laptop. They have red hair and a re wearing glasses, a headset, and overalls.

Archive Student Assistant Abby Garrett working from home during the summer of 2020. Photo credit: Abby Garrett


In mid-May, with the end of the spring term, some students paused or stepped away from Archive Your Story, while others deepened their involvement. Project participation by campus and community members evolved as COVID-19’s impact evolved. Students increasingly became active stakeholders in the initiative and their energies shifted to deepen project resources with research. For example, one student compiled a spreadsheet of other COVID-19 collecting initiatives, tracking local and global outreach and engagement strategies. Another student increased the accessibility of existing IC oral histories and digital collections with relevant research and adding collection metadata. 

In May and June, students collaborated to edit and modify the interview structure following a team discussion of how the project could potentially document COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. In June and July, team discussions focused on ways to sustain and potentially expand the project’s scope. Our team brainstormed deliberate ways to communicate with the campus community as fall 2020 approached, including reviewing and refining outreach strategies and project promotion.

This is a screen shot of a meeting. It is titled "Oral History Team Meeting." It includes two images titled "Umbrella Project" and "Oral History Project" At right, the screenshot includes a student speaking.

Students serve as project leaders and active stakeholders in the initiative. In summer 2020, Archive Student Assistant Asia Watson provided feedback on the graphic design for project outreach. Screenshot credit: Samantha Sauer

Project Takeaways (So far) 

Our team has been able to increase awareness of the IC museum, archives, and special collections. Through outreach, we continue to mindfully invite members of the campus community to share their stories in their own voices. Institutional advocacy continues to be a key factor as we explore ways to sustain the project moving ahead. We are fortunate that numerous IC departments support the student-led work and research and have collaborated to make the project possible.

Because of the project team’s proven capability to meaningfully employ and support students during the 2020 spring semester, in mid-May the museum, archives, and special collections were asked by the college to hire additional students, new to the student work program. The new students conducted special projects research with existing online collections. The process provided a framework for future remote work, internships, and student engagement. During a regular semester, IC employs approximately 400 students in part-time paid positions, and the museum, archives, and special collections typically support 10-15 students with its student work program. In summer 2020, IC employed 24 remote students—6 were employed with the museum, archives, and special collections.

The policies and procedures developed and refined as a result of remote work and research with the Archive Your Story initiative have resulted in guidelines for future digital collections-based initiatives. For example, in the 2020 fall semester, the museum, archives, and special collections are collaborating with the course “Healing & Healthcare” to conduct a class-specific project remotely documenting health and safety modifications implemented on campus as a result of COVID-19. 

One of the additional outcomes of this project was that students remained meaningfully engaged with the college. This sense of connection was supported through email communication, one-on-one meetings, as well as regular team meetings. Response to these communication checkpoints indicated that student leaders highly valued our collaborative work and learning environment. One student leader commented: “I got a lot of helpful support from the team, especially the team meetings. It is very nice to be part of the team and get to know what others are doing and share our thoughts.” In an anonymous August 2020 survey distributed to project leaders, 100% of student survey respondents indicated that their participation in remote work and research helped give them a higher degree of purpose and drive. Additionally, 100% of the students noted that they felt like they were making a difference by preserving and sharing history. 

Together, our team continues to explore meaningful ways to collect and preserve campus and community history with best practices. During a highly disconnected period, we continue to remain connected through evolving collaborations. 

~Samantha Sauer is the Illinois College archivist with the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives, curator of the Paul Findley Congressional Office Museum, and an assistant professor of history. She teaches courses as part of Illinois College’s public history program.

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