My COVID Librarian Hero

Caroline Wigginton, University of Mississippi

One of my distinct pandemic memories is of sitting in my quiet office on an almost empty campus in October 2020, attempting to write but mostly mourning a cancelled long-term fellowship at a research library. I remember it as a dreary fall day, overcast and occasionally spitting rain against my window. I was supposed to be drafting the fifth and final chapter of my new book Indigenuity: Native Craftwork and the Art of American Literatures (UNC Press, Fall 2022). The book, as the title suggests, is grounded in archival and special collections research, and I thought I had completed the chapter’s research over a year before. That day, I felt grief because, as often happens, I realized I needed to look at some additional materials, ones I hadn’t anticipated until then might be important but which were likely at that research library. A quick check of their online catalog confirmed that the materials were indeed there, a discovery that was entirely unhelpful.

To some, words like mourning and grief might seem overblown. But for me the feelings of purpose and pleasure that come from scholarly writing underpinned by archival research sustain my mind and spirit in the midst of more mundane professorial and administrative tasks. Writing can be painful, slow, anxious until, suddenly, it isn’t. Intellectual euphoria. I had been on the brink of one of those moments as I considered the long career of turn-of-the-century Ho-Chunk book illustrator, artist, author, and teacher Angel de Cora, and then the pandemic brought me up short. I suspected that her circa-1900 book design work—covers, title pages, historiated initials, illustrations, chapter head- and tailpieces—was co-extensive with a multi-century Indigenous practice of repatriating visual and decorative aesthetics to print, but how was I to be sure? I had no access to books, only to tantalizing catalog entries that said things like “illustrated endpapers” and “embellished boards.”

A librarian saved me. Some of the books I was interested in were also held in Amherst College’s Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection, which moreover had some of them digitized. I could catch glimpses of what I needed to know. Luckily, I knew the Head of Archives and Specials Collections, Mike Kelly, from conferences. We were friendly and shared academic acquaintances. I suspected he would not find questions intrusive, and he might even enjoy answering them. I emailed him about the bits I could see, asking for clarification when digitizations lacked sufficient resolution or didn’t include the necessary parts or angles. I then asked about books under copyright, for which I could only access tantalizing catalog entries. Mike was my COVID librarian hero, replying quickly from his home while he worked remotely and then, a few days later, going into the stacks and taking digital pictures that he then shared with me, adding in bonus images of things I hadn’t even thought to ask about. We discussed our mutual interests. I wrote more and revised more and then shared a chapter draft. Whether the sun came out down in Mississippi, I’m not sure, but I felt lighter, renewed, eager.

This experience of intellectual collaboration across distance, over email, and through digital image sharing is a consoling one for me. It demonstrates how relationality—something I explored in my first book—underpins publication, in this instance my own practice. That chapter, indeed all my work, is collaboratively created, even if the author, according to the title page, remains just me. Moreover, that experience demonstrates that remote collaboration across institutions and across disciplines and units can help compensate for the stultifying sense of alienation that many of us, including those who conduct archival research, have felt during this long, dreary pandemic season.

But I also understand that my ability to reach out to Mike arose from a multi-year history of in-person encounters that created a relationship and exposed me to his curiosity and expertise. Perhaps someone at the research library where I had planned to be a fellow would have been similarly enthusiastic and generous, but contacting them required more risk and more uncertainty. Additionally, I would have felt presumptuous asking open-ended questions. Indeed, in another instance, I did contact a librarian I had never met, one at an institution I had never visited, but only to purchase scans, not to ask questions or share ideas. What, then, can this experience offer to new scholars and researchers? If I were a doctoral student, could I or would I email a special collections librarian thousands of miles away and ask them my questions, much less expect them to unlock the doors, enter the closed stacks, and join me in my project? Would I have experienced those moments of archival consolation and intellectual exhilaration?

The pandemic has brought loss upon loss, and I mourn truncated scholarship and thwarted relationships, especially for our newest community members. As we slowly restore ourselves and our academic communities, we might ask how to reseed and nurture research networks, including among junior scholars and librarians and other special collections staff. And we should applaud the numerous but mostly unremarked acts of heroism by librarians, archivists, and curators that have helped us weather the pandemic.

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