By Jeanine Nault on Thu, 03/18/2021 - 12:53
One year ago, we closed our doors and left our offices for what was being called, “Enhanced Telework,” for the safety of our staff and visitors during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. We packed up our laptops and watered our office plants one more time, not knowing how many days or weeks it would be before we could return. None of us imagined 12 months later we would still be working from our homes and our museum doors would still be closed.
Figure 1: DPO Mass Digitization Officer, Jeanine Nault, practicing COVID-19 health and safety protocols moving collections in April 2020.
But in April of 2020, we began drafting a document with the aim to provide a mostly comprehensive approach to health and safety for our mass digitization projects and the teams that work on them. We call it the Work Safe Initiative. The document evolves as health and safety guidelines have shifted, and we seek out as much relevant information from as many reliable sources as we can, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and various professional organizations in our field, including Project REALM from OCLC and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Our first step was to resume operations on our projects that were in production at the time Institution-wide enhanced telework was implemented, which were 2 projects at the Natural History Museum, our conveyor project in the Botany department and a project in the Paleobiology department. We have safely brought the Botany project back, but there is currently no timeline yet for the Paleo project.
We believe, generally, that mass digitization is in line with some of the New Normal goals sets by the Smithsonian such as:
- Conducting essential work that cannot be done remotely – we must be with the collections to complete these projects
- Identifying and implementing changes to encourage and inform safe work practice through our documentation such as the Work Safe Initiative
- Increasing levels of mission critical collections care and oversight – with prolonged closures of physical museum spaces, the shift toward a digital and “virtual” Smithsonian leads to increased need for digitizing collections and enhancing records
- Increasing levels of mission critical research – as fewer researchers are, or will be allowed, onsite, creating large datasets from mass digitization projects informs both traditional research as well as newer methods like machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI)
- Increasing levels of mission critical education and outreach – as more K-12 learning is online, mass digitization projects inform SI online platforms such as the Learning Lab and the Transcription Center
The Work Safe Initiative specifically describes the necessary health and safety measures to ensure team wellness, collections care and safety, and project production requirements.
Our project production requirements demand that the projects in production have enough physical space for team members to maintain the appropriate social distance of 6 feet, as well as access to restrooms and the installation of Plexiglass sneeze guards if needed. Our health and safety measures require additional handwashing, glove use, and equipment sanitization which impacts our daily and project throughput rates, but keeps our teams safe, which is the most important benchmark of our Initiative.
In addition to social distancing, team members self-monitor for symptoms and sickness and stay home if they are not feeling well. They also wash their hands regularly throughout the workday, use hand sanitizer, and wear gloves. There is also a Smithsonian-wide mandate for those working onsite to wear a mask. Finally, to further ensure the health and safety of our team members, project equipment is cleaned daily, using cleaning products that are safe to use in museum collections space and around museum collection objects.
As with all our mass digitization projects, safety and care of collections is of the utmost importance. None of the new workflow additions will cause any harm to collections or their storage, and all of these health and safety measures are discussed and agreed upon with the museum staff before production begins, and any substitutions or changes necessary to ensure the safety of collections is documented and agreed upon by all project stakeholders.
We have successfully implemented our Work Safe Initiative in our Botany project, meaning that none of our team members have become ill, and we are operating at approximately 75% of our pre-COVID-19 throughput, between 3,000 and 3,500 botanical specimen sheets every day. Despite our closures, and the major reduction of our capacity to perform mass digitization projects, we have still been able to digitize over 300,000 botanical specimens, adding to the over 3 million we had digitized before the pandemic began.
Behind the scenes, we have been piloting new informatics-based projects using transcription, optical character recognition (OCR), and georeferencing to enhance and create collection records at museums all around the Institution. We anticipate continuing this work even as we begin to see a near future where we will be able to return to our museums, collections, and projects. When we do, we plan to evaluate and implement the necessary parts of the Work Safe Initiative to maintain the health and wellness of our teams working back onsite in the museums and storage facilities.
The work we do in the Digitization Program Office (DPO) has never been more important, nor more visible, than it has been these past 12 months. Our work has made it possible for our collections to be accessible online for research, for learning, for teaching, and for connection to history, science, art, and culture.