Alvin V. and Nancy Baird Curator of Historical Collections Dan Cavanuagh & Historical Collections Librarian Emily Bowden
Dan Cavanaugh immediately realized that the pandemic would be historically significant. Moving quickly, he created the interdepartmental UVA COVID-19 Archives project, the purpose of which is “...to acquire, process, preserve, and disseminate rare and unique resources documenting the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 at the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville/Albemarle region, and the wider Commonwealth of Virginia.” (quote from UVA COVID-19 Archives Long-term Plan).
The project team includes staff not only from the Health Sciences Library, but also from Small Special Collections Library, Preservation Services, the Scholars’ Lab and Scholarly Communications.
In this interview, project leads Dan Cavanaugh (Alvin V. and Nancy Baird Curator of Historical Collections), Emily Bowden (Historical Collections Librarian), and Kara McClurken (Preservation Services) discuss what it is like to work on something so unprecedented in the modern world. The interview was conducted and edited by Kimberley Barker.
Why is this project important?
Dan: We all recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic is a truly unprecedented event in the history of UVA, Central Virginia, and the United States. No single event has had such a sharp and wide- ranging impact on our society since World War II. We will likely be a different people and a different society when we emerge from this pandemic. By documenting what happens locally during this pandemic, I hope that we are developing a resource that future generations can analyze to understand how our actions today have shaped their lives tomorrow. I hope that we are developing a resource that will inform and improve future decision-making. And, I hope that we are developing a resource that will help people who lived through the pandemic reflect upon and remember these days, and what these times meant to them.
What are the parameters and scope of the project?
Emily: The focus of our collecting efforts is on materials documenting UVA and the Charlottesville-Albemarle region. As time and resources permit, we are expanding this scope to include some content from the wider Commonwealth of Virginia.
Dan: At this time we are focusing on the collection of ephemeral online resources (e.g. websites, online petitions, streaming video, blogs) produced for a mass audience. These materials are created by a wide range of creators including departments of the University of Virginia and the UVA Health System, media organizations, local governments, educational institutions, and community groups. We are trying to document as much how the pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our lives at UVA and in the surrounding Albemarle-Charlottesville region.
We are waiting until the end of the pandemic to collect other kinds of materials for our archive including oral histories, social media content, institutional records, and personal records. There are a number of reasons for why we don’t want to collect this content now. For one, we want to focus our limited resources on the capture of the most ephemeral materials, which we know from experience are online content. Just in the past two months, we have seen sites with important content about the pandemic rapidly transformed and in some cases even taken down. Since so many of our interactions with each other and the public during this pandemic are done in an online environment, we really need to capture some of this content before it disappears. Otherwise we will have a distorted archive that does not come close to representing our experiences during this time.
There is some content that we are not collecting now so we can ensure that individuals have the right to be forgotten. For example, we are only capturing websites that are clearly designed for mass distribution. This is a difficult time for many of us, and we are vulnerable. We don’t want to collect information from places (e.g. personal and community group facebook pages) where people are reaching out for help from others in our community with no expectation someone might be recording their experience for research. We also don’t want to collect materials directly from individuals as this pandemic occurs. We want to allow individuals time to reflect on the pandemic and we want to ensure that they are fully committed and informed about what it might mean to be vulnerable, to share their personal experiences with us, and donate them to an archive where they might be viewed by researchers.
Some time after the end of the pandemic, we can build direct relationships with individuals and organizations. We can then work with them on a more personal basis to preserve their experiences for future generations in a manner that respects their dignity and their right to privacy.
In addition to our effort to capture ephemeral online resources, we are now putting together a team and some documentation that will prepare us to do this other work when the time is right.
Emily: It has been great to have the expertise of individuals across the University collaborating on this effort. In particular, I really appreciate Lauren Work (Digital Preservation Librarian) and Kara McClurken (Director, Preservation Services) so generously giving their time and talents to the project.
This project is collaborative in nature; why was that important for its success?
Dan: I have been so grateful for the support we have had from leadership at both University Libraries and HSL for this unique collaboration. Collaboration is critical to the success of this initiative. For one, no one unit in University Libraries and the Health Sciences Library has all the skills, tools, and experience necessary to accomplish our goals. By integrating individuals from different areas into a single team, we can take full advantage of the talents of the great people at the University of Virginia regardless of their administrative unit. We can have the right people, doing good work, at the right time. Two, the pandemic is having an effect on every aspect of our lives. We need to document that. By collaborating, University Libraries and HSL can pull together our experience with different content areas (e.g. UL-UVA Academic, Virginia History; HSL-UVA Health, Health Sciences History) and more completely document this experience.
Please speak to your roles, and the roles of others in this project.
Dan: There are more people than us involved with this project. The University Library and the Health Sciences Library have built an integrated team that crosses University repositories and units. Roles are given to individuals based on the needs of the project and the abilities of the individuals. We have filled the current roles and we will need to fill a few more roles in the coming months:
Project Coordinator, Assistant Project Coordinator, Web Crawling Lead, Web Crawlers, Content Leads, Digital Processing and Preservation Lead, Arrangement and Description Lead, Policy and Intellectual Property Rights Advisor, and Web Developer.
I am the Project Coordinator, which means that I direct the project, lead project communications, design project roles and workflows (including the development of documentation), and assist with any aspect of the project where we might have a shortage of labor.
Kara: I am the Assistant Project Coordinator; pragmatically, what this means is that I serve as a sounding board for Dan as he fleshes out workflow and project roles. I fill in where help is needed (such as web crawling), identify and liaise with University Library staff who might provide additional time/expertise on aspects of project
Emily: I’m the Web Crawling Lead, which means that I manage web crawling assignments, serve as primary contact for web crawling training and troubleshooting, and oversee tracking spreadsheets and workflows.
Is there a timeline for the project? If no, what are the challenges of working on a project that has no end date?
Emily: The project began on a very informal, ad hoc basis. As the project expanded, four phases of activity were envisioned:
• Phase 1: Emergency Collection (March 11-April 12)
• Phase 2: Building the COVID-19 Archives during the pandemic (April 12- a yet-to-be defined date that signifies the end of the pandemic)
• Phase 3: The COVID-19 Archives after the pandemic (end of the pandemic - a date when we can no longer dedicate special resources to the archives)
• Phase 4: Maintaining the archives for future generations. (a date when we can no longer dedicate special resources to the archives -- perpetuity)
Due to the evolving nature of the current public health crisis, it is hard to affix definitive end dates to particular phases of the project; however, having this framework helps to maintain a balanced and sustainable approach to our collecting efforts.
In what ways do you think that this project will be historically significant?
Emily: For so many reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic is a truly unprecedented event. As such, we recognized early on that documenting this time and the effects and challenges it has brought to UVA and the Charlottesville-Albemarle community would be an important endeavor. The materials collected and preserved during this project will be a critical record for future researchers, students, and community members, to show how events unfolded and how local governments, institutions, community organizations, and individuals responded to the pandemic.
Kara: The University has experienced crises before (and will continue to do so). Over the last decade, the Library has been refining how best to document those events. One thing that makes this different from other events is the extended nature and the comprehensive impact. Events that have made national news in the past have been shorter in duration nor have they impacted every single member of the community in so many different ways.
What else would you like to share about the project?
Kara: Dan has done an incredibly thorough job of thinking through the documentation, resources needed, and impact of the work we are doing. I have been incredibly inspired and appreciative of his strategic approach of breaking the work up into 4 distinct phases, of gathering buy-in from stakeholders, and adjusting workflows and staffing as resources change over time. He has created a flexible, well-thought out comprehensive plan that can adjust to changing circumstances.