NLM historians' assembly of COVID-19 artifacts emphasizes online journals

NLM historians' assembly of COVID-19 artifacts emphasizes online journals

March 10, 2021

Efforts by historians at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to collect online journals documenting pandemic experiences, as part of a larger initiative to assemble and preserve artifacts from the COVID-19 outbreak, were featured in a March 8 Washington Post article.

When the pandemic began, many people sensed that we were about to live through something historically notable, and took pains to document it. Organizations around the country and the world — historical societies, museums, libraries among them — began collecting artifacts about the pandemic, including personal narratives.

“To us, the details are mundane,” said Jeffrey Reznick, referring to how we might feel about our own musings. He is a historian and chief of the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “But to a future scholar, they can tell us a little bit about how we were resilient in facing this profound change in our lives, or how we were not.”

Reznick and his colleague Christie Moffatt, the chair of NLM’s web collecting and archiving efforts, are part of the library’s collaborative attempt to assemble artifacts from the current pandemic era — a push that started as soon as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency. While the archive contains analog materials — it even has an Anthony Fauci baseball card — there’s “a strong emphasis” on online content. It now has nearly 6,500 “items” from the inernet, including articles, videos, press releases and personal stories.

“There’s so many opportunities to collect and document this,” Moffatt said.

The library has an extensive archive of items that tell the story of significant medical events, including materials from the 1918 influenza pandemic, the 2015-2016 Zika virus outbreak and much more. But what’s happening now with covid is on a larger scale.

“It’s been kind of really interesting looking back. It shows just how the story has changed since we started,” Moffatt said. “It’s really just a huge asteroid that it just does seem to get bigger and bigger with the impact that it’s having.”

Reznick notes that the library believes the collection will be of significance to a wide swath of people in the future, not just historians and public health professionals, but also journalists, legal scholars, anthropologists and sociologists.

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