Bennett and Sobers in the midst of a weekly check-in. Image courtesy of William Bennett.

Finding Our Way Ahead

Since our last post, we have moved back to working on site in our new, hybrid normal. See how our proposals for new workflows are turning out!

Last summer, as we began moving tentatively into working on site once more, we shared how we were beginning to rethink our approach to integrated and interdependent conservation and digitization workflows at the Archives. Pre-pandemic, there were known issues with communication and collaboration between the two departments and the relationship was reactive rather than proactive. We knew a change was necessary, but did not have the opportunity to implement one. This summer, we want to offer you a look into how we have modified last summer’s approach since we have returned to working in regular hybrid schedules. We’ll also share the tools we’re currently using to ensure the best standard of care for our collections as they move through our digitization and conservation steps. 

Our original plan was formulated in the period when schedules and on-site work at the Smithsonian were arranged to limit contact. Archives media digitization manager Kira Sobers would conduct a preliminary review and note concerns, applying a rating to each folder that was maintained in a spreadsheet. We quickly realized that a spreadsheet was not conducive to the different types of information we wanted to track and sort, and so we turned to using Tasks in Microsoft Teams as an easier collaboration tool.

Our new workflow process is front-loaded with cooperation and collaboration. As digitization requests come in, Kira still pulls collections for review. However, instead of recording findings in a spreadsheet asynchronously, each Monday morning, she and conservator William Bennett gather in the conservation lab to go over anything flagged as potentially needing treatment. Depending on the week, there may be several boxes or folders to review, or there may even not be any—it’s largely dependent on the volume of new digitization requests. We look over each requested grouping, and as William notes preservation and conservation issues, or reviews ones that Kira has already observed, Kira creates a task within Microsoft Teams and adds a checklist of all conservation or preservation interventions that William recommends. Carrying this out first thing on a Monday allows for advanced planning by both parties and is a natural beginning to the work week.

At left, a brown-haired man leafs through a folder of archival correspondence laying on a white work

When requests are first created in Teams, they are placed in a “Requests” category, and following assessment they move to “Awaiting Assignment.” This way preservation coordinator Alison Reppert Gerber and senior conservator Nora Lockshin can dip in and see what is available for assessment or needs treatment at a glance, keeping all of our Archives preservation team members up to speed. When William begins working on a given request, he marks the status within the task as “In Progress” and assigns it to himself. He then adds it to one of the turnaround categories and chooses a due date determined by when the intervention begins and the expected scope. Each category is defined by a combination of the amount of material requested for imaging and the complexity of the different treatment actions proposed during assessment. An example of what falls into each category can be seen in the screenshot below.

A series of white squares on a gray background visually represent conservation requests, spread acro

We’ve found several specific features of Tasks to be helpful, including the automation of notifications by assigning multiple people to a task. When William marks a digitization treatment request as completed, Kira is already also assigned to it, and she receives a notification letting her know that it’s available to be imaged. Additionally, the system will send reminders about upcoming due dates to anyone assigned to the task, which helps keep everyone accountable and on top of projects in progress. Tags allow us to indicate where the record is currently stored, or what kind of treatment is needed so that certain actions that require advance preparation can be grouped for greater efficiency in time management. Additionally, we can also now take advantage of prepared materials like adhesives, like our wheat starch paste or cold gelatin mousse adhesives, that have specific shelf lives.

In our last post, we did mention that we hoped to build a tracking module that would live within our collections management system, which is still on our wish list (as it is for other members of the Archives staff!). In the meantime, the functionality of Teams is meeting most of our needs and we’re happy with what we’ve been able to create and accomplish using it. We expect to extend this workflow or mimic it for other streams of conservation and digitization requests in the coming months, and to begin pulling in our colleagues who originate the requests, so they become part of the ecosystem and receive notifications of progress.

A range of blue-painted metal shelving holds a series of gray document boxes and larger gray or yell

We are sure that modifications will continue to be made, especially as other staff are onboarded to the workflow, but we’ve both been really pleased with how our current practices are working out thus far. William personally feels more empowered to tackle the backlog and to meet the volume of requests as new ones come in, and Kira appreciates the ability to see the progress of a request and get completion notifications in real time.

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