“Here’s my photo diary of the impact of a small but incredibly destructive bug”: first transfers to the COVID-19 Collection

Documenting what we do, what we see and how we feel, the first donations have arrived for the University Library’s COVID-19 Collection.  

Launched in April 2020, this initiative seeks to document the disease’s impact on the Collegiate University and city of Cambridge. How is the pandemic affecting patterns of work, social activity and leisure? In building a themed collection like this, the Library particularly invites contributions from staff, students and the broader Cambridge community.  

Empty river, idle punts, fishing heron. Photograph by Dr Dora Pereira, March 2020.

Acting quickly is crucial for two reasons. Personal responses, unofficial records, might be considered ephemeral. It is vital to emphasise their importance for cultural history from the first – their role as eye-witness accounts – and capture them for posterity. And though records of all kinds are in scope, everything from journals to images to websites, and in all formats, physical and digital, digital records are particularly vulnerable to loss by their very nature.   

Early donations can be characterised as diverse and creative. A College chaplain writes a new hymn for Holy Week and sends an audio recording; College conference managers and local hoteliers discuss on video the complete absence of visitors to the city; an alumnus and benefactor documents in images the provision of face masks to front line NHS and care staff in Cambridge; a bookseller recommends books for reading in quarantine. We have all altered the methods and manner of the day job in face of the crisis.  

But we’re also responding emotionally. A journalist takes solace in nature and photographs the changing seasons; a four-year-old draws a picture of Mum and Dad brim full of virus and trapped in a cage; a nurse writes poetry to mark the death of a victim. 

Clare College and bridge. Photograph by Dr Dora Pereira, April 2020.

The aim is to make this material available for research, but while the full range of University Library operations is not possible, the priority is to reach out and secure material created in digital formats. Potential donors of physical materials are encouraged to act as their own archivists for the time being until the building reopens. 

In the coming months, the collection is promised posters, parish newsletters, and hand printed zig-zag books, among other things. We know we’ll be collecting responses to the pandemic for as long as it continues to determine our local, national and international story.  

Scudamore’s punts and boathouse Sheep’s Green. Photograph by Dr Dora Periera March 2020.

For more information and guidance on how to contribute your records, Jacky Cox, Keeper of the University Archives, and Caylin Smith, Digital Preservation Manager, have published an overview of the project and FAQs


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