Archiving the pandemic

Francis_J._H._Jenkinson,_1915

Francis J.H. Jenkinson by John Singer Sargent (1915), Cambridge University Library

‘His long librarianship was uneventful on the whole’ (Gaselee)

In an April blogpost, I described how in 1915 Cambridge University Librarian Francis Jenkinson began work on a groundbreaking project to commemorate the First World War. Throughout the war years he gathered a huge collection of flyers, posters, pamphlets and books in English, French & German to produce as detailed a documentary record as possible of the European conflict. Cambridge residents were invited to take part in the project. “Such flying pieces as those which are dropped from aeroplanes or posted on hoardings would be particularly welcome”, read a 1915 advertisement in the Cambridge Magazine.

The material that was amassed by members of the public and Jenkinson’s worldwide contacts (one librarian was even sent to France to buy material) includes trench journals and pamphlets in German, French and English, produced by soldiers at the front line, magazines from internment camps, official histories and reports and propaganda posters. The collection was carefully preserved at the University Library as the ‘War of 1914-1919 Collection’ or War Reserve Collection, and today most of the material is so fragile that it has to be consulted on microfilm.

Now Francis Jenkinson’s unique archive has inspired a new collaborative project at the Cambridge University Library, which aims to document our experiences during the coronavirus crisis. Called “Collecting Covid-19”it involves the University and the wider Cambridge community in collecting material that will be used by future historians. It is organized by Caylin Smith, the UL’s Digital Preservation Manager, and Jacky Cox, the Keeper of the University Archives. They want to collect all kinds of digital and physical materials, including (but not limited to) videos, photographs, leaflets, journals and diaries. In London the Wellcome Collection is expected to coordinate efforts to collect similar material on a nationwide basis. We are all invited to act as our own archivists, and to store our individual collections safely until the libraries and museums open their doors again.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 3 May 2020

Sources: Stephen Gaselee, ‘Francis Jenkinson, 1853-1923: an address to the Bibliographical Society, 15 Oct. 1923’, Trans. Bibliog. Soc. . N.S.; v. 4, no. 3, Oxford, 1923

More about Francis Jenkinson’s War Reserve Collection here: https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/departments/rare-books/rare-books-collections/war-1914-1919-collection

‘Collecting Covid-19’ Cambridge University website: https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/CollectingCovid-19

4 thoughts on “Archiving the pandemic

  1. simonboydsite says:

    A wonderful read. It took me from the First War archive gathered in Cambridge to a present day Covid19 archival initiative, and then somehow to records of Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight, to an archive of forgotten Fordham poet James Withers, and never to be forgotten Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars. A good read indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carolyn Ferguson says:

    Various museums, including the Museum of Cambridge and the Museum of London, are thinking about collecting ‘lockdown’/Covid 19 material too. There is quite a lot going on in the sector about how best do this and whether it they should collect artefacts such as Covid quilts and the like or images – so lots of tricky questions to sort out.

    Good luck to everybody! Carolyn

    Liked by 1 person

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