COVID-19: Millions of online communications from New Zealand's COVID response to be preserved

A lot of fan art for Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield was produced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
A lot of fan art for Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield was produced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo credit: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

By Eva Corlett of RNZ

Memes of Ashley Bloomfield, cartoons about takeaway cravings, and official COVID-19 warnings - The National Library and the Alexander Turnbull Library are preserving millions of online digital communications to create a snapshot of Aotearoa's response to COVID-19.

The collection includes online posts that are already within the public realm and donated material. 

In a back room of the National Library in downtown Wellington, senior digital archivist Valerie Love flicks through slide after slide on a large screen showing the mood of a nation during an unprecedented crisis. 

There's a meme of a dog appearing to wrangle sheep via a zoom meeting; daily cartoons depicting the shift and change of emotions as the world shuts down; tales of hardship posted to Facebook. 

There is an abundance of fan art for Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, she says. 

"One of the things that really struck me was that there was a lot of humour in the online materials and in social media.

"People were really looking for a bit of levity and a way to process a serious situation," Love says. 

She says there are a lot of openness in the collection, including people sharing personal feelings and experiences they may not ordinarily have done. 

Blogs went through a resurgence too. 

"For the library that was really exciting, because it allowed us to bring in voices that wouldn't usually be part of the archival collections.

"They tended to be younger and have different backgrounds, so it was really exciting to see how many people were interested in sharing their stories because they wanted to build connections," she said. 

That inclusiveness is a major benefit of digital archiving and a shift away from traditional archiving of the past, which was frequently reserved for male narratives or people in positions of power.

For a brief comparison, Love dipped into archives on the 1918 influenza crisis, which included notebooks, letters and clippings. 

A diary from a World War I soldier noted the names of people close to him who contracted the flu, while a newspaper clipping from the 1918 influenza crisis was eerily current, with its advice to mask up, maintain distancing and steer clear of unventilated spaces. 

Love says the digital archive will give future generations the chance to learn from and connect with this moment. 

"This collection really is a sliver in time, it shows how people were living during quite an extraordinary experience."

Up the road off Willis Street, artist Sam Orchard is in the light-filled studio where creates his comics. 

He points out a cartoon he created in response to the country moving out of level 4 lockdown into level 3.

With the relaxation in restrictions came the opportunity to get takeaway food, a treat many people looked forward to.  

Orchard notes at that time, he would likely continue on with many of the aspects of life he become accustomed to: staying home, making cartoons and watching bad television. 

But the cartoon has a twist. 

"Now I'll do it sitting in a kiddy pool full of takeaways," he laughed. 

Orchard's comics traverse the issues of lockdown in a diaristic manner, and they bring levity and pathos to a stressful situation. 

Importantly, he also captures and reflects the struggles of being trans or queer during that time. 

"What I wanted with the Queer and Teen series was to give a nice hug to other queer people who might be experiencing a hard time.

"A lot of the messages with the 'Team of 5 Million' makes us all the same, but we're not. For those of us who have some sort of differences, it's really important to speak to that."

His comics are now part of Aotearoa's historical canon - held in the library's digital archive.

"It's really cool to see them reaching out to marginalised groups and saying 'actually you're a really important part of New Zealand and your voice is important too'. 

"To feel like we're valued and included is amazing."

When asked how it feels to have his personal work preserved, he laughs. 

"It's quite bizarre that my small comments about me being excited to eat junk food is going to be in the National Library. It feels like it shouldn't fit, but it kind of subverts the idea of what's allowed in libraries, which is cool."

The libraries are urging anyone who might have content of interest - from tweets and photos, to cartoons and memes - to get in touch with them.

*The National Library (NLNZ) collects openly available, online content, as part of its legal deposit mandate to collect material published in New Zealand. This includes websites, blogs, Twitter harvests, memes, podcasts, electronic publications, and social media from public figures and organisations, like the PM, Unite Against COVID-19, official channels, etc. 

*The Alexander Turnbull Library, within NLNZ, collects unpublished documentary heritage material, such as the ephemera, diaries, photographs, oral history interviews, etc. The Turnbull Library is currently seeking donations of COVID-19 related material from the public, such as original digital files of work.