Library of Congress gathering pandemic documents, artifacts to preserve history

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The pandemic will be over eventually. Now the Library of Congress is making sure it isn’t forgotten. Several of its curators are putting together collections of photographs, other artwork, maps and many other documents showing the scope of the pandemic. Director of the Special Collections Directorate at the Library of Congress, Michelle Light, had the details on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Light, good to have you on.

Michelle Light: Thank you for having me here today.

Tom Temin: Let’s begin with what it is the Library is collecting that is COVID related. It looks like there’s been a lot of artwork spawned by the pandemic.

Michelle Light: We are collecting a variety of materials from all disciplines and multiple perspectives so future generations can understand the scope and impact of the pandemic. So for example, you mentioned artwork. We’re collecting artwork, documentary, photographs, maps, datasets, websites from government agencies and organizations, as well as books and journal articles, newspaper articles. We are collecting very broadly, so a variety of users can learn from the pandemic in the future.

Tom Temin: And you must have a variety of people within the Library with, I guess, domain expertise, knowing what articles should be preserved, what photographs, what pieces of art and so forth.

Michelle Light: Yes, exactly. So for example, experts in our science, technology and business division — they are leading efforts to define a plan for what websites we should harvest and capture for the future. They are looking to harvest a very well balanced collection of websites that will include government information, social and cultural impacts, scientific material, as well as those personal narratives or personal expressions. We also have curators in our prints and photographs division, they are focusing on identifying documentary photographs, collecting art posters. In our music division, we have the specialists focusing on working with performing artists to understand what kinds of expressions they are having in response to COVID. So there will be some music and manuscript material of musical performances, and that kind of expression in response to this unprecedented time we’re in. And we also have the geography and math division, focusing on collecting the huge amounts of geospatial data and analysis being used to fight the disease around the world. So experts in this area are gathering all kinds of data on whether it might be genetic data or information about the maps you might have seen about cell phone usage to understand how the community is distancing or not distancing in the pandemic. So we have a variety of specialists gathering all sorts of material to tell the first story about the pandemic for the future.

Tom Temin: And the library solicited materials from certain artists, there’s photographs by Camille Jose Vergara, there are drawings by Toni Lane, different well known artists. But let me ask you this, are you also collecting and archiving some of the more controversial material? Some people didn’t believe that there really was a pandemic or some people thought the whole idea of masking and the whole idea of the vaccines is a fraud, admittedly a fringe element, but it’s gotten a lot of attention. Will that be part of it also?

Michelle Light: Those materials will be part of the coronavirus web archive. We are collecting a variety of responses and collectives about the pandemic. So yes, those personal reflections, the range of opinions and reactions to the restrictions of the pandemic. We hope to capture a representative sample of that in our web archive.

Tom Temin: Now these are digital materials, there are posters, there are physical materials, there are documents, a lot of different formats and forms. How will it all be housed in some coherent way?

Michelle Light: We have a variety of strategies to preserve and provide access to both digital material as well as to the physical posters or the physical books that we might be getting as part of this collecting effort. For example, some of the photographs that we have been collecting on like you can you can find right now, we have a collaboration with Flickr where we are inviting users to submit digital photographs and their digital artwork. We have about 2,000 images in Flickr and we’re collecting about 300 of those so far for our collections. The photographs that Camilo Vergara have donated. He’s donated about 2,000 images. And those images are all focusing on pandemic photographs largely about New York City, but soon about other areas. And all of those will be available on the web. For the web archives, we have about a year embargo period before we release those to the web. But in 2022, everyone will be able to come to our website and find all of the web archives that we have collected as part of this. So there’s a range many of the materials you will soon be able to find on our website and other materials. The public is welcome when we reopen to come in and view these materials in our reading rooms.

Tom Temin: And what is the long term plan for preserving all this material in this coherent way, because this has been a big event in American history last year — that’s as long as we celebrated the bicentennial of the nation?

Michelle Light: When we collect materials and add those materials to the permanent collections with the Library of Congress, we make a commitment to preserve them forever. So we have many measures in place to ensure the web archives that we collected will be available and usable long into the future just as much as the books that we collect and put on our shelves. We expect that the materials will only grow in number as more people study and reflect on coronavirus. We expect the number of books and articles and data sets about the coronavirus to only grow over time and we will continue to collect all that material. So the materials we’re collecting now are really just the start. But we wanted to make sure that we could capture this moment in time, particularly those unique materials that if we didn’t ask now to grab them and preserve them, they might have been lost. So we have a combined effort of this proactive with collecting effort, as well as routine collecting efforts where we will continue to get all of the materials that are published about the coronavirus.

Tom Temin: Here’s a detail question for you the photography, which I imagine was done digitally, nobody does film much anymore, or maybe they do, but the digital format, who knows whether that’ll be readable in 10 or 20 years — are you also doing things like, I don’t know, dye transfer prints are some way of having a physical manifestation of something digital, so that you can look at it a long time from now?

Michelle Light: The Library of Congress has a infrastructure for preserving digital information. We have state of the art best practices in order to ensure that those bits of information survive long into the future. So rest assured that the digital information that we’re collecting now we have many ways to preserve that information and migrated into the future so that no matter what kind of equipment people might be using 100 years from now, they will be able to get access to the digital image. So we’re preserving the digital materials digitally. For an exhibit, we might print it out and display it. But we are making that commitment to preserve the materials in their original digital form.

Tom Temin: And you are the director of Special Collections, anything else exciting going on in special collections?

Michelle Light: Special Collections includes several divisions, including the American Folklife Center, the Veterans History Project, Geography and Map, Manuscript Music, Prints and Photographs, Rare Books and Special Collections. So there are many things going on, including a variety of public programs that people can find on the web. We have several webinars and informational programs so you can get a taste of what the library is doing right now from your computer. So please check out our website and find all of the resources, both our collections as well as the public programs we’re making available.

Tom Temin: But in the meantime, the irony is that to get to see in person, the pandemic stuff, we can’t do it until the pandemic is over.

Michelle Light: For many of the physical materials, yes that is true. But you can see, for example, some of the photographs that we have been collecting, we are making those when we receive them digitally. We are making those available on our website promptly for the music division. For example, they did a Boccaccio series where they had artists do very short compositions in response to the pandemic, you can find those performances online. So there are a variety of materials that we’ve already made available for people to appreciate now.

Tom Temin: Michelle Light is director of the Special Collections Directorate at the Library of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle Light: Thank you for having me. Have a great day.

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