On 21 October 2020, ACOR participated in the Middle East Librarians Association Annual Conference (MELA) for the first time, presenting on how our library and archives adapted to the changing conditions of the pandemic, alongside panelists from institutions across thirteen different time zones spanning from California to Qatar. Below is a text adapted from a presentation delivered by archivist Jessica Holland, which you can also watch as a video recording at the link below.
Challenges – COVID-19 at a time of change for ACOR
Jordan has experienced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This began with the closure of the airport on Tuesday, 17 March, which led our interns, fellows, and residents to rush to find flights home. In the days that followed, emergency law was announced to ensure compliance with measures that included comprehensive lockdowns and restrictions on travel between regions in the country and even between neighborhoods. A driving ban lasted until the end of April. From March to June, on days where there was not a comprehensive lockdown, sirens announced a sunset curfew. Schools remained closed until September, and, as October 2020, the majority have since converted to remote learning.
With airports and borders closed from March to September, our library and archives team sought solutions in order to keep serving those who had planned to travel to Jordan for research or to lead educational tours, not to mention educators within Jordan who regularly use ACOR’s library. All such activities were now postponed indefinitely.
Changes underway at ACOR
ACOR was already in the midst of major changes even before COVID-19 altered all of our lives. In the two weeks prior to the travel ban and lockdown, Carmen “Humi” Ayoubi, ACOR’s library director of thirty-two years, retired, and the institution as a whole gained a new director, Dr. Pearce Paul Creasman.
Fortunately, ACOR had a strong foundation to build upon in these strange times. Since 2016, ACOR has implemented a project to digitize, describe, and share online a large proportion of its photographic archives. This investment in a digital humanities project—“the ACOR Photo Archive”— made it possible for our team to keep building resources for our user communities during lockdown despite not being able to serve them in person.
For those not familiar with the project, the ACOR Photo Archive includes a variety of collections donated to the center, as well as institutional archives, which in total span eleven countries in the region over the past eighty years and include photographic negatives, prints, and slides. These photographs record significant changes relevant to cultural heritage, social and political history, and environmental change. The dedicated archive platform also compiles for the first time all major transliterations and Arabic script versions of 200+ prominent heritage site names in Jordan, improving search capacities.
This project took the library from a state of providing access to resources to producing a resource itself. It brought the team into contact with experts in library science, archival methods, and photography conservation from around the world, activated latent skills of existing staff members, and trained new project staff in their roles as archivists, technicians, assistants, and interns.
The resulting increase in digital literacy for our library and archives project staff meant that ACOR as a whole was in much better position to cope with the sudden shift to remote working than we might have been otherwise.
That being said, we faced some serious challenges. When we began working from home in mid-March, our main focus was our imminent project deadline and concrete target of 30,000 images to be published online by 30 September 2020. Even though there was a kind offer by Department of Education to extend the deadline for outstanding project tasks due to the pandemic, we felt that, with our strong team, we were able to meet the digitization and upload target for the project without interruption.
The immediate transition to working from home presented challenges that readers will be familiar with, and also some challenges perhaps more specific to Jordan, such as household internet access not being particularly prevalent beyond what a mobile device can provide. Mobile data packages are typically generous enough to cover most “recreational” uses of the internet, such as WhatsApp and YouTube, and so, prior to the lockdown, there was not much, if any, need for dedicated home connections. Of course, relying on mobile data is not feasible for extended periods of working from home, particularly when essential tasks include video calls and the processing of large images and metadata.
Finally, as digitization is a core component of the Photo Archive Project, our team needed access to physical photographs, We had to react fast to the rumors of an imminent lockdown that circulated in the days before the airport closed.
Division of digitization/description labor
In the three-days’ notice before the total lockdown, archival technician Razan Ahmad rapid-scanned slides to produce a backlog for her and library and archives assistant Eslam Al Dawodieh to work on in the weeks that followed. Simultaneously, Ashley Lumb, who, as project archivist, was living at ACOR and thus had access to the material, continued to scan images, which were then edited, described, and uploaded by team members from their homes.
As weeks turned into months, we moved from the immediate crisis response into sustaining workflows. We rearranged our project timeline to focus on tasks that could be done remotely, moving a scheduled period of image and metadata quality-control checking forward by several months and then dividing up the tasks involved into component parts (slide scanning, photo editing, metadata description and checking, uploading images to the online platform), spreading these out among the team.
By doing this, we were able to process and publish 3,500 images through our online archive. This meant that we almost reached our target of 30,000 images online several weeks ahead of schedule.
Second phase of the pandemic in Jordan: June–August
Over the summer, there was almost no community transfer of COVID-19 in Jordan, so staff began working in the office again. Even though Jordan was going through a period of relative normality, we recognized the need to realign our outreach strategies to account for the fact that our global and local research communities had now moved largely online. We prioritized sharing video content about the archive online in English and Arabic, in short and longer formats, and experimented with paid promotions on social media. This had great results, with some one-minute clips garnering 2,700 cross-platform views. Assistant librarian Samya Khalaf Kafafi’s Arabic-language introduction to how the archive can be used to teach the Jordanian school curriculum was made available for online viewing just before schools converted to 100% remote learning last month.
Initiating new digital projects
ACOR implements the USAID Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engagement of Local Communities Project (SCHEP), the typical activities of which do not overlap much with library and archive programming. However, given the effects of the pandemic on international and national visitors to touristic and heritage sites, an archiving project was developed with SCHEP as a way to continue facilitating, on a remote basis, the transfer of knowledge and best practices in the field of heritage preservation and sustainable development.
By collaborating with our colleagues in SCHEP, ACOR’s library and archive has been able to design and implement our first born-digital archive project, described by fully bilingual metadata, thus making it a valuable future resource for both English and Arabic speakers.
Building online user communities
The Photo Archive Project also helped ACOR build collaborations with local open-access organizations, therein further expanding our user communities. Prior to the pandemic, project staff initiated a collaboration with the Jordan Open Source Association and Wikimedia Levant to host ACOR’s first-ever Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon on the theme of Jordanian heritage in October 2019 and then to offer Wikimedian-in-Residence opportunities at ACOR from January to June 2020. We stayed in touch with this online editor community through a Facebook group called “Open Jordanian Heritage.” In June, Jacqueline Salzinger, ACOR’s development and communications officer, was able to utilize this network to connect to U.S. audiences through a 24-hour Virtual Edit-a-Thon that drew participation from both MENA and North America. The June event was coordinated with the help of interns who had been repatriated to the United States in March as well as ones newly engaged as remote summer volunteers. Most recently, ACOR held an edit-a-thon dedicated to increasing the amount of information about Jordanian academics on Wikipedia on 24 October.
Lessons Learned from 2020
Digital projects should be valued as core activities—not fashionable “add-ons” to library services
Overnight, “secondary” digital projects and outreach activities became the primary methods through which we could continue to provide resources of value to our user communities and actively engage with them. This demonstrates the vital importance of such activities as part of our core library and archives services.
Collaborate in order to weather the storm together
The 2020 Middle East Librarians Association conference—held, as you might expect in 2020, online—presented an opportunity for us to share how ACOR has been adapting to pandemic circumstances and to see how others have as well. This has demonstrated MELA’s immense value as a support system of global reach. Ultimately, we always have so much to learn from one another, but now more than ever, this transfer of knowledge and advice between professionals across the field has become a lifeline.
About the author:
Jessica Holland is the ACOR archivist. Her work specializes in digital curation and outreach activities as part of a long-term strategy to make ACOR’s significant archival holdings more accessible to the public. Jessica’s background is in art history, curation and museums. She received her B.A. from the University of Cambridge in History of Art (2013), and her M.A. from SOAS, University of London in Near and Middle Eastern studies with intensive Arabic, having submitted her thesis within the digital humanities field (2018).
You can read more about the ACOR Photo Archive Project (2016–2020) at photoarchive.acorjordan.org.
Browse the over 30,000 published images for yourself at acor.digitalrelab.com