Working during COVID: Appalachian archives respond

This article appeared in the Volume 2, Issue 2 Fall 2020 issue of the Appalachian Curator. Click here to view a PDF of the full issue.

Appalachian Curator editors asked regional archivists how they responded to working during the COVID pandemic. We received ten responses from a range of collections that reflect the different types of archives we have in Southern Appalachia – large research universities, smaller public and private liberal arts colleges, and a public library.  Several general themes are consistent in these responses – repositories closed, staff developed new workflows and tackled new projects, and many places have reopened with limited hours, limited access, and different workflows.

West Virginia University

Like so many other archival institutions, COVID-19 significantly impacted the West Virginia & Regional History Center (WVRHC) at West Virginia University Libraries.  Beginning in March, in-person public operations ceased and the majority of staff began working from home. The transition to working physically away from our collections was not easy but it enabled WVRHC staff to re-prioritize and focus on data cleanup, research, professional development, and other functions that are easy to let go during the normal day to day operations.  Our reference staff continued to accept questions from researchers, compiled them in a queue, and answered remotely those that could be.  Acquisitions were severely limited, though a few contactless pickups did take place.  Arrangement and description of collections transitioned to creating digital inventories and contents lists for those that were only held in analog form.

For two months during the summer, 40 percent of the Center staff were furloughed by WVU.  They returned at the end of July.  Beginning on August 10, WVRHC staff returned to working in the building in a limited capacity.  Most are working a hybrid schedule, with a few remote only and a few onsite only. Half shifts have been instituted to reduce the number of people onsite at any given time.  In-person researchers are limited to WVU faculty, staff, and students by appointment only.  This is a major change from our normal operations as our patron base is at least 50 percent from the general public.  Previously, the Center did not require appointments for use of materials but we have found that it has improved staff and patron experiences. We will consider adopting this method when we are open to the general public again.  Reference staff continue to take in questions from non-affiliated patrons and have been working through the queue with the help of student workers and graduate assistants who are working onsite. Class instruction is all virtual. Archives and manuscripts processing, arrangement, and description has resumed but is balanced between what needs to be done onsite and what can be done from home.

Information about access to the WVRHC during COVID is in this libguide.

Lori Hostuttler

Assistant Director

West Virginia & Regional History Center


Carson-Newman University

We at the Mildred L. Iddins Special Collections at Carson-Newman University are here and working our regular hours.  While we are open to the campus community for walk-in inquiries, we are not open to the public.  However, we continue to answer any and all reference questions that come in by phone, email and the library’s website.  One staff is small and made up of one full time person and one part time.  Our part time person is splitting time working in the Special Collections and from home.  Honestly, our workflow has been pretty much the same as before the pandemic and we feel blessed by God to continue doing what we enjoy doing!

Albert L. Lang

Special Collections Librarian & Archivist


North Carolina Collection at Pack Library, Asheville, NC

On March 19 the Buncombe County Public Library System, including the North Carolina Collection, closed due to Covid-19. No one was allowed in the buildings, but we were allowed to work from home assisting patrons with research and reference questions. The NC Room hosted several virtual classes including ones teaching our patrons and researchers on how to navigate different online resources while we were closed. Other library staff were deployed to assist at the nonemergency 911 call center and the ABCCM food pantries. On May 11 we were allowed back into our space, but the building remained closed to the public. During this time we were able to work on reorganizing several collections and catch up on some processing while also responding to inquiries through email and phone. This was all in addition to spending a few days a week assisting other branches with curbside library service. Word finally reached us that starting the week of July 6 we could begin welcoming patrons and researchers, by appointment only, back to the NC Collection. We were fully booked each week and enjoyed being able to interact with our patrons and researchers again. An exciting development that occurred during the closure was an opportunity to collaborate with Engaging Collections, an organization that partners under represented local artists with archives. They are working together to reimage our space to make it more welcoming. Due to this project, the NC Collection will once again be closed to the public until around the first of the year, but we will still be available for phone and email questions. We are looking forward to re-opening our updated space and welcoming everyone back in the New Year.

Kathy Hill

NC Room, Pack Library, Asheville NC


Warren Wilson College

Warren Wilson College officially shut down when state and local “Stay Home-Stay Safe” orders were issued. In the days ahead of the shut-down, I gathered up journals, books, and some non-essential research and archival materials and brought them home. I turned the quarantine into a study & reading time, a time to catch up on all those articles in the American Archivist I’d been meaning to read but never seemed to have time for, to watch as many webinars courtesy of LYRASIS on digital preservation as I could stand. It was kind of like being back in school. For someone who is an introvert, I enjoyed my enforced time at home with my husband, dog and adult son, though we all worked steadily through the 4-month shutdown. I got some significant planning, writing, digitizing and study done. WWC began allowing people back on campus in mid-July.  The college opened in August with a hybrid learning plan, and allowed about 80% of students to return to campus. As of this writing, it’s the end of week 7, and we have no positive cases nor anyone in quarantine; that’s due to everyone’s adherence to the 3Ws. The Pew Learning Center/Ellison Library has reduced public hours, and we all take a 4.5 hour circulation shift to assist our student workers. I’m still working from home for about 40% of my hours, but feel reasonably safe to work alone in the college’s archives.

Diana Sanderson,

Warren Wilson College Archives, Asheville NC


West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont State University

The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center is on the campus of Fairmont State University.  We were closed from March to August.  The director, the projects director, and the work study students worked remotely. We came back the second week of August. Currently, we are holding face-to-face classes for our folklore and museum studies students in the Folklife Center, but we are closed to the public. The campus is closed to the public.

We are using this time to update our permanent exhibit.  The work study students are creating 2-minute audio tracks to go with each of the 10 panels in our permanent exhibit.

We have offered the following online public events using WebEx.

  • A workshop on oral history collection
  • An evening of storytelling
  • An online author series featuring three WV writers

We are working on an oral history project and interviewing informants by speaker phone. We are also providing some folklore content in our Facebook posts.

Francene Kirk, Ed.D.

Interim Director, WV Folklife Center


Berea College

Berea College ceased in-person classes on March 13 and closed the student dormitories two days later. As of March 17, all campus employees who could work from home were asked to do so. At that time Special Collections and Archives staff closed the reading room and started working remotely, with occasional visits to the office for matters that needed to be handled on-site. As in-person classes resumed in August, Special Collections personnel returned to campus on a regular basis and two student assistants joined the team. New cleaning and safety protocols were established for the department, including making the reading room open by appointment only and quarantining all materials paged to the reading room for 36 hours after use. Fall campus guidelines mandate the wearing of masks and observance of social distancing. They also exclude off-campus visitors, including archives researchers. Library regulations have banned holding class sessions in the building, so our normal teaching engagements with students are on hold. However, a virtual workshop is in the planning. Remote consultations and a few college staff research visits are keeping Research Services Specialist Sharyn Mitchell busy. Collections Archivist Lori Myers-Steele has created a COVID-19 archive ( ) and worked on processing collections. Sound Archivist Harry Rice is completing a significant CLIR oral history digitization grant. New department head Tim Binkley has curated an online exhibit on woman suffrage ( and worked on collections housing and shelving issues. During this period of fewer in-person engagements, the team has also stepped up social media outreach. At present, one staff member continues to work remotely most of the time. The others rotate days out of the office to decrease the number of persons in our work space at the same time. We look forward to planning post-COVID-19 classes, events, exhibits, and research visits.

Timothy S. Binkley,

Head of Special Collections and Archives

Berea College


East Tennessee State University

ETSU staff began working remotely on March 23, and the Archives staff transitioned all meetings, instruction sessions, and reference appointments online.  Two staff members were able to access collections two afternoons each week, in order to scan materials for electronic delivery to patrons and to survey the collections and facilities.  Staff returned to campus on a staggered schedule beginning July 1, and our reading room reopened to the public – by appointment only – beginning Monday August 10.  Student workers and graduate assistants returned beginning in late August.  We have strict requirements for mask-wearing and social distancing, and we also quarantine all collections for 72 hours after their last use.  For smaller requests (e.g., single folders or a limited number of photographs or A/V items) we continue to digitize and send electronically, so our in-person researchers remain limited.  Since over 80% of ETSU’s courses are online for this semester, our instruction sessions have also transitioned to online-only.  To facilitate access to collections, we continue an aggressive digitization schedule, and we have also begun providing streaming access to a limited portion of our A/V holdings.

Jeremy A. Smith, PhD

Director of the Archives of Appalachia

East Tennessee State University


University of North Carolina Asheville

Special Collections at UNC Asheville shut our doors on March 16 when the university went exclusively to online instruction. We had two days in the office to prepare for working remotely and were not allowed back in the office until the last week of July, two weeks before UNC Asheville’s Fall Semester began in mid-August. We established a daily routine in March where the staff (Gene Hyde and Ashley Whittle) meet each morning for a meeting via Google hangouts, and we keep a shared remote working log tracking our daily activities. As of August our reading room is open by appointment only with strict mask and social distancing guidelines, and access is limited to UNC Asheville students, faculty, and staff per university COVID regulations. These access regulations will continue through the Spring semester. We are rotating shifts in the office to meet with researchers and return to hands-on processing and digitization, and between our two staff members we are in the office 2-3 days each week, working remotely during the rest of the time. We are digitizing material to meet researcher requests but in limited amounts due to time and staffing. We have a number of community researchers waiting for us to open to the public but we have been given no indication as to when that might be. We’re being as flexible as possible and making this work as best we can. Given all this, our overall numbers are better than we hoped – the Fall 2020 semester’s reference stats were at 77% of Fall 2019.

Gene Hyde

Head of Special Collections


Appalachian State University

The Special Collections Research Center at Appalachian State University closed to researchers in mid-March, when the campus closed to students and non-essential personnel.  The SCRC team worked on a variety of projects while at home over the summer, including finding aid clean-up, research and scholarship, website migration, and remote reference assistance.  Campus employees were not allowed into campus buildings without permission from the Chancellor, so some of our reference inquiries had to wait until we get could access the physical collections again.  Eventually, folks began to return to the building, with permission, in order to get ready for the fall semester.  We have circulating secondary source materials, so we established appointment hours for students, faculty, and staff to browse and check-out resources, though books can also be requested from the cataloged and mailed, should folks not feel safe coming into the library.  We also established appointment research hours for the manuscripts, archives, and rare books.  We recently increased the number of days and appointment hours for the circulating collection, based on feedback we received from students and faculty.  The library remains closed to non-App State affiliates, so we’re still providing quite a bit of research assistance to off-site researchers, but we can at least access the collections now.  We’ll see what the spring brings!

Kim Simms

Coordinator of Special Collections


Mars Hill University

The Southern Appalachian Archives and its parent organization, the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Appalachian Studies, closed with the rest of the Mars Hill campus in mid-March, 2020. In the months that followed, archivist Karen Paar received notice that the Ramsey Center and the Special Collections reading room were to move to another part of the library building. She returned to work early to prepare for that move. The Mars Hill University library and the Southern Appalachian Archives remained closed to most researchers until the students’ return to campus in early September. From that time on, the archives has been open by appointment to members of the campus community. We observe CDC-recommended precautions and quarantine materials that are used by researchers. The main use of the archives and Special Collections books has been from our Hart-Melvin Archival Research Fellows. This faculty-student team got a late start because of the delayed return to campus, but they have diligently appeared in the archives for research two afternoons a week. We are handling other reference requests remotely.

Karen L. Paar, Ph.D.

Director, Southern Appalachian Archives

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