Wednesday 8th March 2020

There is an archivist in us all

During the global COVID-19 pandemic we find ourselves in unprecedented times. Our day to  day lives have changed dramatically, as have our working lives. This is especially true for healthcare workers across the world. If you have read some of my earlier blog posts, I have touched on some of the more unusual circumstances in which life as a junior doctor in the NHS has been transformed. As medical staff our job roles have changed, we have different expectations placed on our shoulders and we are managing a different cohort of patients.

Initiatives such as the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) archive’s COVID-19 collection are attempting to capture the working lives of doctors during this global pandemic through diaries, journals, photographs, sketches, blogs, and more. It is hoped that this wealth of data will be utilised by future researchers and historians to analyse and understand what actually occurred in homes and hospitals across the world during these times. One Doc’s Story was born to capture my story and perspective during the COVID-19 pandemic in the hope that it may be of use to researchers in the future.

In a traditional sense, archives are repositories of information, both physical and digital, that seek to permanently preserve, protect, contextualise, and provide access to historical records that have been organised into coherent and cohesive collections. Delving into these records can facilitate our understanding and contextualisation of past events and situations, allowing retrospective reflection and informing current and future decisions. In a sense, one person’s medical records can be seen as an archive in and of themselves, illustrating that individual’s medical history. These medical records hold all of the key information about the person’s health and the investigations, treatments and decisions taken by medical staff. These records can be used in a variety of scenarios from court rooms to doctors’ offices and can be used to rationalise past decisions and inform future practice. Understanding the past helps us to make better decisions in the future.

Other nontraditional archives abound in the modern era – from Youtube and Twitter to the diary on your bedside table. Whilst it is difficult to ascertain the value of recording current experiences in the present moment, storing information about our life during this pandemic may have huge implications for the future. Perhaps we can inform and influence practice or policy in future pandemics. Perhaps we can help future generations understand the current global crisis through our personal stories.

My wonderful fiancée, Vannis Jones, is an archivist, a professional who appraises, arranges, and facilitates access to documentation and data relating to important periods and individuals. Today we have teamed up to look at the importance of archival materials on individuals and groups during key moments in history to display the strength of capturing our experiences.

Hello ODS readers, I am Vannis Jones, and as Manveer writes, I am a professional archivist. I am currently employed at a university as a cataloguing archivist, and have previously worked in the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA), the official repository for the archival records of NHS Lothian. As an archivist, I felt I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t encourage Manveer to document his experience as a medical professional during this crisis, so I was delighted when Manveer started this blog following the call put out by the archivist from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) for the testimonies of medical professionals globally. Today I will discuss archival records in the context of past epidemics and emphasise the importance of documenting the current pandemic for the future, even as we are in its midst.

The power of the past: the HIV/AIDs epidemic

These are examples of AIDS memorial quilts much like those held at LHSA. More information about these quilts as well as examples of others can be found on the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt website.

Whilst the global HIV and AIDS epidemic is far from over, at its height in the mid-1980s, it was enormously impactful on numerous sectors of society around the world. Those experiencing the epidemic firsthand in its early years, including healthcare professionals and patients, were not aware of how influential the epidemic would be. To them, it simply seemed like a crisis that needed to be managed at the time – causations of the epidemic were of little concern in the moment. Forty years on, researchers are seeking to understand the epidemic on a deeper level, both scientifically and culturally. 

Medical archives hold vast quantities of materials related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, much of which is still in the process of being made available to researchers. These collections are enormously meaningful in many ways that go far beyond medical history and scientific research. A deeply impactful experience that I was privileged to witness in my work at LHSA involved Scottish Names Project quilt panels (Acc15/016), memorial quilts created by friends and family of individuals who had died of AIDS during the epidemic in the 1980s in Edinburgh. An event was held in the archive by members of LGBT Age, an organisation in Greater Glasgow and the Lothians for members of the LGBT community over the age of 50. The event involved presentations by several members of the group, a short film, and culminated in viewing these beautiful, colourful, deeply personal quilt panels dedicated to specific individuals who died during the epidemic. Many of the attendees were directly involved in the creation of the panels, or intimately knew the people memorialised by the quilts, and for many, it was the first time they had seen the panels since the time of their creation over forty years previously. This was an extremely emotional and cathartic moment, allowing attendees the opportunity for closure, reflection, remembrance, and collective grief. These quilts have no direct links to medicine, but they testify to how the epidemic shaped the grieving process, memory, and the strength of Edinburgh’s LGBT community during a time of fear and truly catastrophic loss of life.

Another powerful AIDS memorial quilt from aidsquiltuk.

So, how will we record our pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic will be a topic of interest to researchers for generations to come. Not only is it a novel disease, generating swathes of research in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, but there has also been an unprecedented global response to the pandemic that has fundamentally changed how we function on personal, local, national, and international levels. Our society may very well be quite different once we arrive on the other side of this pandemic, and it will be important to give ourselves and future generations the opportunity to gain a retrospective understanding of this period of transition and adaptation.

It is not just RCPE that is seeking to collect a record of COVID-19’s impact. Archives around the world – not only medical archives, but also local authorities, universities, and even corporate archives — are actively seeking to document the impact of this pandemic on all sectors of society. I urge you to consider creating your own record in the interest of preserving our human experience. How is COVID-19 affecting your life? Your community? Your profession? Your relationships? Your habits? How might future generations benefit from this knowledge?

We are still in the early days of this pandemic, so many archives have not yet had a chance to develop collecting policies relating to the novel coronavirus. Several, however, have begun to put out calls to the public to record their own experiences or help collate digital materials. I have compiled a short list of a few avenues to pursue, should you wish to:

  • The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh is seeking submissions by physicians, both within Edinburgh and also around the globe, documenting the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 on the work of medical professionals.
  • A number of city archives, including Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, have appealed to the general public on social media to submit diaries documenting personal experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out what your local authority is up to.
  • Have you started your own blog? Do you know someone else who has? The International Internet Preservation Consortium is preserving web content relating to numerous aspects of COVID-19. Websites can be nominated here.
  • The National Library of Medicine (US) is also seeking to collect web pages and social media content relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. They welcome submissions here. 
  • The National Library of Israel has created the COVID-19 Jewish Ephemera Collection and is seeking to collect materials testifying to the impact of the novel coronavirus on Jewish people around the world. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and every day more and more institutions are putting out calls for materials. Please consider contributing your experiences to help future generations understand and learn from this crisis. And, as an added bonus, wouldn’t it be neat to have your story permanently preserved?

More One Doc’s Stories:

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