The effects of COVID-19 have been wide and far reaching. The pandemic has significantly affected the archives but in perhaps surprising ways.
In early March things were operating normally but with a heightened awareness of the changing nature of our understanding of the virus and its potential impact until the archives, and the entire Canadian Mennonite University campus, was closed down on March 20, 2020. For the next two weeks Selenna Wolfe and I worked from home. Plans were made for an extended work from home period. On April 3, Selenna was placed on temporary layoff until August 17. Conrad was allowed to come into the archives for a few hours once a week. Starting May 25 Conrad was allowed to work from the office part time and gradually back to full time work in the office. During the work from home period, the Archives’ website was updated, writing projects were undertaken, meetings via Zoom were attended, Selenna took some professional development, and new ideas were considered.
As people were spending more time at home some of the “one day I want to” projects were started including sorting through family materials and starting family research projects. These projects lead to more email inquiries about archival materials and resources. Most of these requests were placed on hold until staff could return to the office on a more regular basis. Some volunteer projects could continue away from the office. Helen Ens and Erica Ens continued translating, Carole Grier began typing manuscripts, Henry Fast continued indexing the newspaper Unterhaltungsblatt, and Alf Redekopp migrated our finding aids into the Mennonite Archival Information Database (MAID). MAID itself underwent a huge shift with five new partners joining MAID and the migration of their finding aids was completed.
Our grant application for the digitization of film and sound recordings was not approved as the funder decided to direct money towards “projects that benefited vulnerable populations” during COVID-19. However, in mid-January the application to the federal Young Canada Works program was completed and on April 30 we were notified that our application was successful. We were fortunate to hire Andrew Klassen Brown who has worked at processing records previously at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies. In addition to processing congregational records from home, Andrew has written Facebook posts and scanned the magazine Intotemak.
Travel has been severely impacted with the global lock down. Our friends at TourMagination, that specialize in Mennonite heritage tours, adjusted their plans and called together a dozen Mennonite archives and museums in North America and created “The Anabaptist Story Lives on: Virtual Museum and Archive Tour.” The Mennonite Heritage Archives was the first “stop” on the tour and Conrad’s thirty minute presentation was viewed by over 270 screens. It was followed by a lively thirty minute question and answer period. Response to the presentation has been very positive and can now be viewed on our website.
Conrad was part of the production of Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba 1890-1940. Over half of the photos in the book come from the Mennonite Heritage Archives and features four photographers from the East and West Reserves. It and the accompanying exhibit was delayed since the archives was closed, affecting last minute fact checking. The launch finally happened outdoors on July 23rd at Altona’s Gallery in the Park.
Another new initiative is our participation in the “Anabaptist History Today” website collecting stories related to COVID-19 and the current remarkable historical, biological, and social events of our day. All Mennonites/Anabaptists in North America are encourage to submit photos, video, poetry, essays, works of art, or personal reflections. Sixteen Mennonite historical agencies in Canada and the USA are collaborating on this project, launched at the end of July, 2020.
Conrad and Selenna are now back working in the archives full time. Unfortunately, our volunteers will not be coming to the office for the time being. While the archives has been negatively affected by COVID-19 and its ripple effects, work has continued and offered some unforeseen positive opportunities.
By Conrad Stoesz, Mennonite Historian
September 2020, Volume 46, No. 3, page 6