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Inside Journal of the Plague Year's COVID-19 Curatorial Collective

NCPH Editors’ Note: This is the first of three essays about the COVID-19 collaborative archiving project A Journal of the Plague Year: The COVID-19 Archive. The next two essays address teaching with the project and issues in archival silences.

Archivists, historians, and librarians often collect around tragedy. With the increasing ubiquity of digital archiving tools, it has become easier than ever to quickly create the infrastructure for collecting. But archiving doesn’t just happen. It’s an intentional process. Rapid response archiving requires consideration of both the present (collecting/preservation) and future (researching/access). We at A Journal of the Plague Year: The COVID-19 Archive (named after Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth-century account of London’s bubonic plague) would like to lift the hood on our archive and Curatorial Collective and explain what we’ve done so far with the goal of starting conversations other COVID-19 collections and helping future rapid response collections.

As we have pointed out elsewhere, most rapid response collections work on geographically and temporally isolated events: the Ebola outbreak, the Victorian bushfires, and the shootings at a Las Vegas concert, the Pulse nightclub, and Virginia Tech, to name a few. COVID-19 is global, with no end in sight. Collecting for coronavirus is both a sprint and a marathon. There is no one-size-fits-all model for how we engage with communities in our own cities or towns, let alone across the globe, though many at institutions around the world are doing so with great care and speed.

Our team is comprised of over 150 archivists, librarians, professors, programmers, and students. Most are volunteers. As practitioners well-versed in the literature surrounding a shared authority, we modeled our leadership around a Curatorial Collective designed to share authority across discipline, geography, and position. This isn’t truly a flat hierarchy. We have Project and Curatorial Leads representing sixteen academic and public history institutions who tend to make the big decisions, but never secretly or in isolation. These groups are not fixed, and anyone is welcome to join. We communicate via Slack, which is where we keep records of curated items (the term we use to refer to the digital contributions such as photographs, news articles, and journal entries that we collect), circulate teaching materials, and collaborate more broadly. We host a weekly Virtual Town Hall to report our activities and troubleshoot any issues. (We archive these, too, whenever someone reminds project creator Mark Tebeau to hit the record button.)

Rapid response collecting is tricky. Thoughtful decision-making, as we explain below, can be compromised by the speed at which decisions need to be made. This is where the strength of the Curatorial Collective lies. Our decisions may not be perfect, but with dozens of reviewers available at any time, we’re getting pretty darn close. What follows is an insider’s view on a few topics that continue to shape and reshape the archive.

Read entire article at National Council on Public History