The Canberra Times

Preserving history with the National Library of Australia

Preserving history with the National Library of Australia

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Barbara Cullen lived through the Influenza pandemic of 1919.

She recalls: "My husband told me that when he came back from the war just wanting to get ashore and there were all these people walking about with these masks on and he didn't know what was happening."

Not knowing what was happening is an unlikely occurrence during this most-recent global pandemic.

In the 101 years since the 'Spanish Flu', the world has changed. Penicillin has been discovered, there has been a second World War and technological advancements have seen man walk on the moon and a device created that fits in your pocket that contains most of the knowledge known to the world.

This device has increased the number of people with access to breaking news and largely changed the way it is consumed.

It also means that the way we record history has changed. Gone are the days where the printed daily newspaper was the single source of truth. Now, people turn to websites and social media for to-the-minute updates on developing situations, like COVID-19.

The National Library of Australia is tasked with the preservation of Australia's national story and is ensuring that the stories and experiences of Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic are preserved for the next generation, in a variety of formats.

"We are not always aware that we are living through a significant time in history, but when it comes to COVID-19, I think we can safely say that most people recognise the gravity of the situation," Libby Cass, Director of Australian Collections Management at the National Library of Australia, said.

"What they may not realise, is how important their contribution to platforms like I Lost My Gig and others can be for the preservation of this history."

I Lost My Gig Australia, 28 April 2020, retrieved from

Since the first case of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was confirmed in Victoria, and the government began making plans on restrictions in February 2020, the library has been collecting online content - including social media - to record our day-to-day experiences.

"Our current message to the public is that while our doors may be closed, we are still open online, and it is this online activity, and that of others, that will become what the historians of the future look back on to see how Australians lived during this most recent global pandemic," Ms Cass explained.

Web archivists have been weaving their way through identifying and collecting information such as: breaking national stories, online materials including government advisories, tertiary education information for incoming students; news sites and even travel advisories from travel companies like Qantas and Virgin Australia, which depicts how travel both internationally and regionally has changed.

It isn't just official items and documents being archived, but items born from everyday Australians as they grapple, face, interpret and deal with the impact of the pandemic. Such items include:

The twitter account of infectious disease physician Dr Peter Collingnon AM and medical school professor at the Australian National University where he shares his thoughts and knowledge as the pandemic unfolds;

The blog of Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) owner David Walsh's musings on the impact of COVID-19;

And, images captured by photographers as they visually document COVID-19 around Australia.

To date more than 900 websites have been collected, with many being collected daily or weekly to ensure data is collected at critical moments given online content rapidly changes and disappears.

Support Act | The heart & hand of Australian Music, 29 April 2020, retrieved from

Publishers are also depositing electronic publications in the National edeposit service (NED), an online service to deposit, manage, store, preserve, discover and develop published electronic material. This includes maps, newsletters or bulletins.

Much of Australia's social, cultural, and political information now originates online - making it easier to collect a vast array of historically significant items - however, physical ephemera is just as important.

Printed COVID-19 ephemera materials

While the library was initially unable to physically collect ephemera, such as posters, leaflets and signage, they are now actively seeking help from the community.

"While we preserve the history of Australia and its people through our own identification and collection of material - both online and in print - we are also assisted by substantial contributions from organisations and members of the wider community," Ms Cass said.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time of historical significance and you can help the National Library by sending printed ephemera, like the flyers in your mailbox about your neighbourhood COVID-19 support group, to the library.

Content from remote and regional Australia is of particular interest, along with content in languages other than English.

Items can be mailed to the postal address below:

Ephemera Officer

National Library of Australia

Parkes Place


The Library also plans to conduct oral histories with a group of diverse interviewees to capture the different perspectives and experiences had. Like the quote from Barbara Cullen's interview above, sourced from an interview in the Oral History and Folklore collection, first-hand accounts add great depth to the understanding of the past.

Follow the National Library's social media channels to learn how to help collect more of our national story.

You can access the webpage snapshots and collections that have been saved from a point in time about the COVID-19 pandemic and Australia, 2020, online.

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