Life during the pandemic. Photo: Camilo Vergara. Prints and Photographs Division.
People chatting in the sun beside a taco truck in Oakland, California. A woman peering warily over a surgical mask in a Newark, New Jersey, bus line. Cheerful-looking mannequins sporting face coverings for sale in the Bronx. A sign reading “no gloves, no mask, no service” taped on the entrance to a Royal Chicken and Biscuit restaurant in Newark.
What do these images have in common? They’re all by Camilo José Vergara, noted for photographing urban communities where life is often hard. They are also among the very first items the Library acquired documenting the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. And they will be far from the last: The Library anticipates a collecting effort that exceeds its coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — which was huge.
“That touched certain aspects of our society,” said Joe Puccio, the Library’s collection development officer, of Sept. 11. “But this thing is touching everything — from science and health care to business to entertainment to education — it’s everything.”
The job of the Library, he said, is to “determine what’s the most important material to acquire and what a researcher in a hundred years will need to see from what is being produced today.”
The Prints and Photographs Division is adding new pandemic images by Vergara to the website every week — since 2013, the Library has been the permanent archival home for the MacArthur Award-winning photographer’s work.
Known for portraying changes in the same locations over time, Vergara is capturing over and over again busy intersections, mostly in New York City, to show the evolving response of all kinds of people to the pandemic: street vendors, shoppers, school children, people on their way to work or coming home, police officers. A National Building Museum online exhibition from earlier this year, “Documenting Crossroads: The Coronavirus in Poor, Minority Communities,” highlights Vergara’s project.
His pandemic photos are among the first Library collection items to be publicly accessible. A fast-growing list of pandemic-related content in other subject areas — science, education, economics, psychology — is also available online to those who have access to the Library’s subscription databases, consisting now mostly of staff, however, since the Library is closed to the public.
Researchers will have to wait a while to sift through most of the Library’s pandemic content, including newly acquired websites, to allow for processing and adherence to Library policies. “All of our content is embargoed for one year,” said Abbie Grotke, head of the web archiving team in the Digital Services Directorate of Library Services.
Gathering the Ephemeral
Already, though, web content is an enormous focus of collecting. Teleworking recommending officers from across the Library — the staff who propose materials for the Library to collect — are nominating a steady stream of sites and pages within sites to add to existing thematic collections as well as a catch-all space for content that falls outside the themes.
“At this point, our focus is on collecting and making sure we’re preserving,” Grotke said. “How we present it to the public may evolve.”
State and federal government websites are major sources of nominations, said Rashi Joshi of the Collection Development Office, who supports recommending officers in acquiring digital collections. The sites are important, she said, because they reflect governmental responses to the pandemic and public guidance.
Other collecting emphases include sites documenting the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, and sites related to business, community and individual responses to the pandemic. Culture is also a big focus.
Melissa Wertheimer, a recommending officer in the Music Division, is leading a team researching performing arts sites. “We’re scouring the web for content related to all the division’s collecting areas,” she said.
Examples so far out of 200-plus nominations include videos of distance performances by dance companies, original musical compositions inspired by quarantine, blogs contemplating the future of public performance and online projects like the Social Distancing Festival, which promotes virtual shows whose live editions were canceled because of the pandemic.
Some websites the Library has collected for years are also now capturing virus-related content, Joshi noted. These include sites devoted to web comics and emerging cultural traditions. One such site, Urban Dictionary, an online compilation of slang, has added “coronabrain” to its inventory of terms.
Helena Zinkham, chief Prints and Photographs, believes social media — which in the Sept. 11 era was just getting started — will turn out to be an especially rich source of pandemic collecting. While the web archiving team acquires sites, Zinkham’s division is researching images presented in venues such as Flickr.
“We’re able to see the kinds of photographs being made by everyday people,” she said. “We’re not planning to vacuum them up, but selectively we can reach out.”
Documenting Culture, Data
In other collecting areas, Asian Division recommending officers last month selected 142 Chinese-language print titles on COVID-19 in China. Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate librarians are facilitating their delivery, and cataloging librarians are prioritizing their processing so they can quickly be made available.
Since March, John Hessler of the Geography and Map Division has been involved in mapping the pandemic and searching for geospatial data and cartographic visualizations to add to the Library’s vast map collections.
And the Copyright Office has already registered dozens of pandemic-related titles, including “Cornavirus Gas Mask Skull,” a visual arts work, and a sound recording called “COVID #19 Baby!” Recommending officers will review associated deposits to determine which to add to the Library’s collections.
The American Folklife Center (AFC) plans a “multipronged and multiyear approach” to pandemic collecting, said its director, Betsy Peterson. In April, Rep. Ami Bera of California introduced a bill in the House of Representatives charging AFC with directing a COVID-19 oral history project to document the experiences and stories of people across the U.S.
Should the bill become law, Peterson envisions establishing a fellowship program to interview first responders, essential workers, COVID-19 survivors and others, including planners of emergency and civic responses to the pandemic.
AFC is also the archival home of StoryCorps, which in March launched StoryCorps Connect, a platform enabling people to interview loved ones remotely, and it is cooperating with other organizations to document the pandemic.
“I think the Library can join and learn from these efforts and, I hope, help amplify them through development of a national COVID-19 oral history collection,” Peterson said.
“Our problem,” said Puccio of the Library wide collecting effort, “is that there is just so much content about this situation. But I think in the end – like in 10 years – we’re going to look back and say, wow, we did a heck of a job collecting back then.”
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