Kansas City’s WWI Museum is avoiding layoffs by giving employees thousands of pages from its archives to digitize


(CNN) — A museum in Kansas City, Missouri is avoiding laying off its employees during the coronavirus pandemic by giving some of them a big project to take on.

The National WWI Museum and Memorial said it is moving 10 of its employees to a team dedicated to digitizing thousands of letters, diaries and journals.

Three of the 40 people who work at the museum were already working on digitizing and transcribing collection materials from World War I, Mike Vietti, Director of Marketing, Communications and Guest Services at the National WWI Museum and Memorial told CNN.

Now it will be a bigger effort, one that will also prevent people from losing their jobs.

After the state implemented social distancing guidelines during the pandemic, the museum decided to close its doors on March 14, leaving just the memorial open for people to utilize as a place to walk around and get some fresh air.

But many museum employees’ day-to-day roles involved interacting with visitors. Fortunately, Vietti said the museum and memorial began working on a staffing plan in early February — anticipating that the virus could have a significant impact on typical daily operations.

“Despite losses to a significant portion of our revenue stream, we view the adjustment of our teams as a creative solution that allows the organization to continue to keep staff in place during this incredibly challenging time when unemployment has skyrocketed,” Vietti said.

‘Thousands upon thousands of pages to transcribe’

With 10 new team members, the museum has been able to digitize more than 100 letters, diaries and journals so far

One of the documents the staff has digitized is a letter from Charles Darby, a bugler serving with the 81st Division in the US Army, according to Vietti.

In the letter, written to his mother, Darby writes about getting shot, contracting the flu, interacting with German prisoners and his plans for when he gets discharged.

Digitizing letters likes these makes them more accessible to the public, and easier to translate into different languages, Vietti said.

The entire collection contains about 300,000 objects, including soldiers’ letters and journal entries.

Transcribing the letters has always been on the museum’s to-do list, but Vietti said because of time constraints and staff capacity, they haven’t been able to complete the process.

The museum estimates that it takes approximately two to five hours to transcribe each letter, depending on the length.

“It’s challenging to say how long it would take to transcribe the entire collection because there are thousands upon thousands of pages to transcribe,” Vietti said. “And, the collection is never complete in the sense that we have people from around the world who donate to the Museum and Memorial on a regular basis, so the collection continues to expand and grow.”

The museum and memorial, a nonprofit, relies on admissions, donations, and facility usage for revenue. It extended its closure date through Friday, April 24.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated with the correct number of pages that have been digitized.


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