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A Covid-19 Digital Archive

by on June 26, 2020

A high school senior laments missing prom and graduation. A baker sends photos of cookies she created to make fun of the toilet paper shortage. A young mother journals about multiple trips to the emergency room before finally being diagnosed with COVID-19. These were a few of the stories and images received through a digital portal set up to collect material related to the pandemic for our library’s local history archive.

Pivoting to online avenues for engaging the public during the pandemic, many archives, libraries and museums launched digital collecting projects. Digital collections enable cultural heritage organizations to gather primary source material about the pandemic in real time, even while buildings are closed, while also giving the community an outlet to express their individual perspectives on this unusual time. 

Local history archives that are part of public library systems tend to have limited staff and resources compared to independent museums. As a librarian at one such archive, I hope my experience with launching a COVID-19 digital collection portal might be useful to others. 

After participating in the Virginia Museum of History and Culture’s project “Share Your Story: Documenting COVID-19 in Virginia,” it occurred to me that our local history archive had a unique role to play in collecting digital material specific to our county. We had an opportunity to capture specifics meaningful to residents: local restaurants delivering take-out food via robot, neighborhood car parades honoring essential employees and graduates, the airport looking barren on what would normally have been a bustling travel day. These images and experiences will be of interest to future generations studying the impact of the pandemic on our county. 

In early April, I proposed to colleagues the idea of using a Google Form to collect stories and digital materials from our community while the building was closed. The deed of gift information and thank-you note could be embedded in the form, negating the need for separate documents. The form would allow typed responses as well as uploaded files: images, video or audio. All agreed, so I drafted the form and it was quickly launched via our website and social media pages and promoted via notices to local media outlets.

The level of interest in the project was greater than anticipated. Within two months there was more than one television segment on the story, as well as coverage in print and online. Items in the digital collection now number in the hundreds and include stories, drawings, photographs, video clips and links to podcasts and blogs. Contributors range from children to senior citizens, teachers to small business owners. By gathering diverse narratives from all demographics within the county, we preserve a fuller record of what has occurred for future generations.

Below are a few tips based on my experience with this project.

Leave it creative and open-ended. People will surprise you with their ingenuity. In a difficult situation, it’s important that people be able to respond in a way that is meaningful to them, whether by typing a few sentences, uploading images, or sharing a link to their blog. By enabling all of these options on the form, we received a maximum variety of contributions. 

Plan in advance for publicity. It’s a good idea to have, if not an official press release, at least a written description of the project ready to draw upon when asked. Often there is short notice to prepare for interviews or articles. Be sure to credit contributors who have elected to receive credit if the material they submitted is shared. (We also have a “keep me anonymous” option on the form.)

Be aware of legal and ethical issues. The Society of American Archivists offers a resource kit: Documenting in Times of Crisis. It’s thorough, covering everything from emotional support to budget, including sample templates and forms. When launching a project quickly in response to crisis, it’s not always possible to foresee all possible issues that could arise, but at least be prepared to sequester sensitive contributions (such as a journal that names other people) until staff can determine how best to handle such items.

Be flexible. The need to adapt as the project develops is likely. As community interest in our project grew, we decided to drop the original June 10 deadline and collect indefinitely. Community experiences in April may be very different from those in June or July, as the situation evolves. We also hadn’t anticipated needing to share items with the public until a later date, but due to interest in the project we began putting samples on our Friends of the Virginia Room Library Facebook page.

Next Steps

The next step is to make the majority of the collection digitally browse-able by the public. Beyond that, I hope to eventually connect our local COVID-19 collection with those of other towns, cities and states around the country for future researchers. Currently we’re investigating Biblioboard Creator for these purposes. Other options for tools to collect, catalog, and enable public access to a digital collection can be found in New York University Library’s Guide to Digital Humanities Tools & Software. For a recent video introducing several different approaches to this type of project, see Collecting in Crisis: Responsive Collecting in a Digital Age by the Maryland Historical Society and partner organizations.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in this article are my own and not meant to reflect those of my employer or any other individual or organization.

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