Current Issue #488

We’re living through a historic moment, and the State Library wants your help to record it

WS Smith, State Library of South Australia PRG 280/1/9/374
The State Library of South Australia’s collection includes striking scenes of city quarantine camps during the Spanish Influenza pandemic 102 years ago – now it’s our turn to document COVID-19 for the future

The State Library of South Australia has launched an online campaign to crowdsource material for a future collection that captures our state’s experience of COVID-19.

Compared to harrowing scenes around the world, South Australia’s experience of COVID-19 has in some ways been a most welcome kind of anti-climax. There is still plenty of very real discomfort and uncertainty, but unlike other epoch-defining moments (World Wars, early-20th century pandemics, moon landings, or terrorist attacks) it’s a time more often marked by absence than big, noteworthy public moments to record in our diaries. Instead, we’re each living out millions of small, socially distanced COVID-19 experiences that are by definition private.

But although it might not feel particularly historic to spend this much time in pajamas, that doesn’t mean we won’t look back on this moment with great interest. Which is why last week the State Library of South Australia enlisted the public to add their lived experience of the pandemic to the creation of a COVID-19 collection.

“As the custodians of the state’s stories, and holder of the South Australiana Collections, we realised about three weeks ago that on a number of levels we need to capture what’s happening,” the State Library’s Neil Charter explains. “It is unprecedented in our lifetimes, something that generations in the future will look back on, and part of our role as the State Library is very much around preserving our identity as a state and allowing people to have that window into the culture of the time, and understanding how we lived and how we reacted to an event like a pandemic.”

Remember My Story – COVID-19 offers an online collection point for users to upload and submit photos, videos, text and audio for inclusion in the State Library’s digital collection.

“It’s interesting to see that people are becoming collectors by themselves, from historical groups to photographers who are capturing the pandemic mainly within their community or their circle,” he says. “So on a broad state level, this is a great opportunity to say ‘here’s a facility that you can actually contribute to’.

Mark Gilbert / State Library of South Australia
Staff at the Wheatsheaf Hotel continue to sell takeaway beer through a small gap in the bar’s window

“Our librarians will go through and out of this create a ‘COVID-19 collection’, along with the gathering of published materials that’s also going on in the background – everything from Parliamentary Papers to the notices we’re seeing in places like supermarkets and businesses. They all give us a snapshot of behaviours.”

It’s been a long time since historians were primarily interested in big events and ‘great men’ of history. While official responses to a crisis are important, so is the fine grain stuff, like how many South Australians started baking sourdough bread, how parents managed to balance working from home with kids, or photos of your neighbours having a spontaneous street meeting one bin night. Things that might have a historic value we even realise yet.

“In the library we come into possession of a lot of old home films and movies shot on old camera gear, and we digitise that film,” Charter offers as an analogy. “Sometimes people say, ‘well, why is that important? Well, grandad’s film of when he went to Yorke Peninsula in 1962 might, when you look at the footage, contain all these different aspects to it whether it’s fashion, transport, petrol prices, the beach environment, physical changes to a geographic location. We get clues that add up and form knowledge that can affects future decision making.”

Along with this digital collection point, the State Library is using Facebook as an outreach tool for users to share their stories and material, acknowledging that for much of the community – from your aunt’s over-sharing on Facebook to your teenage cousin’s inscrutable TikTok videos – social media is where a lot of storytelling and documentation is already happening.

Sia Duff
While the State Library’s public-facing operations were quick to shut down, its broader mission continues

“The interesting thing I find with COVID-19 is that in the first couple of weeks, when we were all starting to fall into the groove of being home, this new way of life, there was this rush of Facebook activity where people were very keen to share every aspect of the changes in their lives. Which I found really interesting, and it was probably more open than normal because of the lack of contact we normally have physically – a sort of craving to share online.

“That’s settled back a little I think, but what fascinating collection it could be to look into how people in different areas and how they reacted and how their lives changed for better or worst. What we see on Facebook is often the brighter side of things, but there are also obviously many many unfortunate stories, and I think it’s important that we capture that as well, as a realistic snapshot of what happened.”

There’s also another consideration: in the age of social media, we’re often taught as reckless teens to heed the permanence of what we post (‘what goes online stays online,’ our parents and teachers warned). But we only need to look at Myspace, which accidentally deleted mountains of user content after several ownership changes, to know that posterity and community memory are rarely driving priorities for disrupting tech bros, venture capitalists or multinational corporations.

Librarians, at least, are a safe pair of hands.

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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