Starting a New Job (Remotely) : An Interview with Kim Ross, Mellon Library Fellow at the Peabody Essex Museum

In early April 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim Ross (Ojibwe, Walpole Island First Nation) began her new position as the Mellon Library Fellow in the Phillips Library as part of the Native American Fellowship Program of the Peabody Essex Museum. While the museum, which houses the oldest ongoing collection of Native art in the western hemisphere, is located just north of Boston, Massachusetts, Kim was quarantined at home in Brooklyn, New York. Here she shares her experience as a new remote employee in an art museum library. 

Kim Ross sitting at her desk, holding a pen.
Kim’s work from home office

SB: Can you describe for me your position at the Phillips Library and how COVID-19 has affected your position?

KR: I’m currently the Long-Term Mellon Library Fellow with the Native American Fellowship Program at the Peabody Essex Museum. In the context of this fellowship, I am working on a project to help the Phillips Library achieve their goal of enhancing access to materials related to Indigenous subjects. Right now, I’m focusing on the vocabulary used for cataloging these materials, finding alternatives, and designing methodology to incorporate Indigenous terminologies and worldviews into the library’s catalog records. 

COVID-19 restrictions came into effect around the same time that I was planning to move to Salem and begin this fellowship, so I’ve been researching from my home in Brooklyn since early April. It’s been an interesting experience, because it’s the first time that I’ve started a job remotely and I’m working with a collection that I can’t physically access. The restrictions have really pushed us all to move to online platforms, and it has enabled certain aspects of the fellowship to happen that otherwise may not have been possible. For instance, it’s been easier to communicate with people that otherwise I maybe wouldn’t have been able to meet in the early stages of my time at PEM. I’ve also been able to attend more training and workshops than would have been possible under normal circumstances, because it would have been cost or time prohibitive. But there are also disadvantages: I am missing out on a lot of the in-person connections and mentorship that I would be receiving if I were there physically as well as the whole experience of that environment to inform what I’m working on and define certain goals.

SB: You actually touched on this already a little bit, but what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of starting a job remotely?

KR: When you’re starting any job, there is a certain amount of anxiety and nerves involved because it’s a new experience. You’re meeting new people. You’re going to a new place. One of the advantages of starting remotely for this position is that that wasn’t a factor. I am still meeting new people and in a new space, but it is from the comfort of my home, so it feels a little bit different. When you’re meeting people virtually, it’s a different sort of connection than the kind that you make in the real world. You can’t negotiate signals and cues as you would face-to-face, which could be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on how you look at it. I respond better in person than I do through, say, emails, and virtual conferencing doesn’t really allow for the full expression of someone’s personality. 

As for the advantages, the ability to be present in places that wouldn’t otherwise be possible is a notable one. For instance, I can be at an all-staff meeting at 9:00, a conference in Chicago at 11:00, and back home for dinner by seven o’clock – which definitely is an advantage. As a result of that ability to “travel” so quickly, I can meet far more people and ask many more questions than I could if I were limited to working in a single location.

The exterior of the Peabody Essex Museum Collection Center
The Peabody Essex Museum Collection Center, housing the Phillips Library. © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

SB: My next question is, what tips and tricks have you learned for time management or motivation and accomplishing goals–or anything like that, really–while working remotely?

KR: It’s been over two months since this fellowship began and there have been peaks and valleys as far as my motivation level goes while working from home. They say that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit. The hardest part for me has been time management. Working from home there is no physical separation between work life and personal life. When you’re self-quarantining and only leaving your home to get essential things, your kitchen soon becomes your office and your desk becomes your craft table. Because everyday is basically the same as the day before, there was a period of adjustment during which time management was a real challenge. 

Since COVID my weekends seem shorter. I could probably use a three-day weekend instead of a two-day weekend due to that lack of separation between work and home. I need that break that comes from shutting down the workstation and physically leaving work. The same goes for Monday morning; it takes a little longer to switch from weekend mode to work mode because I’m still at home. I can see all of the things I didn’t get finished on the weekend, and they’ll continue to be a distraction until I have the time to finish them.

It’s definitely become easier over time. I find working with a passionate and motivated team to be very helpful. Because the people that I’m working with are interested in what they’re doing, they inspire me to be committed and involved as well. That sort of motivation is contagious. 

I accepted this fellowship because it would allow me to develop projects related to subjects I’m passionate about and provide me with training within an outstanding institutional framework, so this collective motivation has been a vital force that has confirmed for me that what I’m working on right now is meaningful and relevant to a lot of people. 

SB: What skills do you think new librarians need in order to succeed in a work-from-home environment?

KR: When you’re working from home, you definitely need to be able to manage your time. It also helps to check in with the people you’re working with, just a little face time that will allow you to touch base, process feedback, and make sure that everyone is on the same page.

You can’t be afraid to ask questions and reach out for help. It can often feel like you’re interrupting someone when you come to them with questions or concerns, and this feeling is magnified by the circumstances of working remotely, because you really can’t be sure if they’re busy at that very moment. But you can’t overthink these considerations. Remember that this is collaborative work. You are a part of a team, so don’t be afraid to reach out. Even if they are busy, you’ll find that everyone will reply to that email as soon as they have a moment to do so.

Exterior view of the Peabody Essex Museum
Exterior of the Peabody Essex Museum. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Allison White

SB: What have you learned from working from home?

KR: So much! One-on-one introductions to PEM staff from Collection Services, Curatorial, Finance, and Communications has been an incredible resource. Learning about what each of these individuals do at the museum and how each of the departments intersect with the library has taught me a lot about the internal functioning of the institution. I’ve been attending department meetings where I’m learning about project management and the many aspects of operating a museum, all while observing leadership in action. It has been an enlightening experience to put faces, voices, and names to specific roles and also to have the opportunity to interact with and ask questions to the leadership team. 

I’m also being encouraged by the NAF program mentors to pursue professional development through workshops and webinars offered by PEM as well as from outside institutions. These activities are helping me to think more critically, ask better questions, and focus my direction for this project. It’s interesting to think about, because I’ve always thought of myself as an in-person, practical learner, but I’m realising that isn’t 100% true. This kind of encouragement really corresponds to my own ideals regarding a professional working environment, and this fellowship has really been the first time those expectations have been met. 

For my work on the Indigenous terminology project, I’m learning to catalog and learning how tribal libraries and other diverse cultural institutions approach this topic. Conducting this research from home is opening my eyes to how standard vocabularies make accessing materials related to Indigenous subjects extremely difficult as well as the problems and obstacles these vocabularies create for accurately cataloging these materials. I’m building a document of preferred terms that can either replace or modify the culturally inappropriate terms currently in use in our catalog. I’m also writing a local note for use in our bibliographic records that will both explain the subject headings and signal to users that this is something we’re actively working on. 

Kim and Sarah talking in a Google Meet window
Sarah (below) interviews Kim

SB: What challenges and/or positive changes, so one or the other or both, do you anticipate once you are finally able to start working in person, in the office? So it could be like what are you looking forward to versus what are you dreading, or, you know.

KR: I look forward to having a separation between work and home again. That period of time between work and home, when you get to reset and check in with yourself. Like a lot of people, that is something I’ve really felt the absence of since I began telecommuting. But working from home is very convenient and I’m enjoying not having to structure the essential things, like eating, and the personal things, like laundry, around my work day. 

It will be a big adjustment to go from interacting with only my partner to interacting in a group setting with people who I’ve only met virtually. Those adjustments will be the main challenges – going back to being a social creature and sharing physical space – but it will be a welcome challenge. I miss people. 

SB: I love everything you just said. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but you’re right. I think on some level I’m going to have to relearn social skills because these screen-to-screen interactions are not like real in-person interactions. How can colleagues and supervisors help a new remote employee to succeed?

KR: I’ve been really lucky at PEM. Karen Kramer and Jennifer Himmelreich, NAF program Director and Manager, respectively, and Dan Lipcan, Head Librarian, have each been really great mentors and supervisors. Since the application process, they’ve been extremely welcoming and really good about maintaining communication. I don’t have any sort of hesitation about approaching any one of them with a question or just to say, “Hey, do you want to chat for a little while?” The Phillips Library team has been equally supportive and welcoming. 

The best ideas come through collaborative work, so if supervisors are looking to help new employees succeed, there needs to be a support system in place, a shared vision, and a palpable general enthusiasm for the work itself.

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Kim Ross is the 2020-2021 Mellon Library Fellow in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She is currently working on a decentering plan of action for the Phillips Library. Sarah Bilotta is cataloger at the Phillips Library and an ArLiSNAP blog co-editor. Together, they are working on a project to address bias in the Phillips Library’s cataloging.

The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is the Museum’s research library. It includes several hundred thousand printed volumes, a linear mile of manuscript collections, as well as thousands of logbooks, account books, diaries, printed ephemera, maps, photo albums and photographs. The Phillips Library and Native American Fellowship Program at PEM are proud to welcome Kim Ross as our 2020-2021 Mellon Library Fellow and hope to see her in Salem and Rowley soon.*

*Since the time of this interview, Kim has relocated and is now working from her new home in Massachusetts.

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