Serendipitous Preparedness

Garfield Lam, Reference Archivist, University Archives, the University of Hong Kong

People often say ‘everything happens for a reason’. While we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been thinking about what I have learnt from this experience.

The pandemic is unpredictable, just like many things in life – which is why we make plans to be prepared and there is no difference in our profession. Libraries, Archives and Museums have preparedness plans for disasters. The on and off lockdowns and social distancing rules in Hong Kong affect our daily work in the Archives severely; especially for me as a Reference Archivist, who works closely with the physical collections and researchers. Since March 2020 I have been digitising a great deal of material to provide researchers access to our archival collections through digital means.

Looking back, my visit to the Institute of Conservation and Restoration (IBR) (https://www.bsb-muenchen.de/en/about-us/head-office-departments/ibr/) at Bayern State Library (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek) in Munich in October 2019 perhaps prepared me for this unprecedented and unpredicted challenge at work. The visit gave me an in-depth insight into the process of digital preservation, standards of digitisation including facilities as well as quality control, and how digitisation helps with providing inter-institutional access across German speaking countries and beyond. It seems to me that the visit prepared me for not only initiating the swift decision on digitising some of the popular materials for easy access right before the start of the lockdown but also for our ongoing uncertainty of prolonged closure of the University due to Covid as well as protests.

Between stacks at Bayern State Library, Germany (Photo: Garfield Lam)

Our digitised collections for research has already grown more than tenfold since March 2020 comparing to the entire year of 2019. It reflects not only the solid foundation of our up and coming new digital repository but also the needs of research and access. Our number of enquiries as of today in October has also already grown 63% compared to year 2019 and researchers are from diverse backgrounds and countries with interesting projects including students, curators, genealogists and authors from UK, USA and Germany. Most researchers are preparing for publications and exhibitions, both physical and virtual. The soaring numbers of ‘virtual’ researchers may imply that more people are focusing on their learning, educating and researching for their works during lockdown and our virtual research service is crucial in terms of providing email research consultation and widening the accessibility to materials.

Our fast growing digitised collections as well as enquiries have also given us strong evidence of the urgent need for a digital repository for online exhibition and providing digital access to our materials. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to prove the University Archives is a key knowledge hub for preservation, research, education and digital access to the history of the University of Hong Kong.

My visit to the Bayerische Staatbibliothek was serendipitous – it may not be planned for the unpredicted global pandemic but it surely did prepare for my digitisation tasks for the unforeseen lockdowns. So as the digitised collections that we have been accumulating now – they are not only supporting the ongoing research but also preparing for the wider access and outreach in the future, with or without the pandemic. Preparedness is the key for anything, anytime and anywhere.

HKUA twitter post (https://twitter.com/hkua8) relating to the visit to the Bayern State Library with colleagues. From left to right – Archivist Garfield from HKU Archives, Curator Chris from HKU Museum, Librarian Edith from HKU Libraries, Ms Qiu from Sen Yat-sen University Guangzhou and Conservator Jody from HKU Conservation. (Photo: Garfield Lam)

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