COVID-19 in local history web archives: What we collect and why

December 13th, 2021

By Karl-Rainer Blumenthal, Web Archivist for Archive-It

Something (ok, a lot of things…) very unusual happened in 2020: virtually all web archivists worldwide began collecting material on the same topic. 

Archive-It’s crawling machines churned with activity as our partners sought to preserve records of the microscopic forces moving their operations to makeshift home offices around the world. Universities, governments, NGOs, and private companies crawled proliferating policies and public statements. Meanwhile, an increasing community of practice joined programs like Community Webs to preserve and share their local communities’ own unique experiences of the global phenomenon.    

In addition to all of the Archive-It partners who preserve information about COVID-19 in the course of their regular collecting, more 200 organizations have curated more than 300 new collections specifically about the global pandemic and its effects on their regions, institutions, and local communities. Public libraries, historical societies, and other regional collectors maintain 40 of these collections, comprising over 16TB of preserved data from over 11K seed URLs at the time of writing. Browse the list of public collections below to access them each.

I asked Community Webs participants to tell me more about their experiences curating these collections, what they collect, and why. Each in their own way foregrounded the library as their unique community’s meeting space for people, information, and memory.  

“When the pandemic first hit, Birmingham Public Library set up a webpage with reliable COVID-19 information for our community” explained Web Services Librarian Melinda Shelton, citing the library’s long standing responsibility to bring order to information chaos. “We quickly realized we had to take the opportunity to preserve the fast-changing local information found only online.”

Screenshot of the archive of Jefferson County, AL dashboards from the Birmingham Public Library’s collection

Archive of Jefferson County, AL dashboards from the Birmingham Public Library’s collection

Preserving the authoritative voices in public health and government adds useful context to a much fuller portrait of the Birmingham community that Shelton and BPL can steward through web archives. “We decided to stay as local as possible and cover as many areas in Birmingham and Jefferson County that we could locate,” which eventually included “religious institutions, parks, restaurants, funeral homes, news media, radio stations, local utilities, food banks, museums, non-profits, and entertainment venues.”

“Much of the web content we saved connects to the individuals involved in our larger COVID-19 documentation project,” Natalie Milbrodt explained to me. As Director of the Queens Memory project at the Queens Public Library, Milbrodt sees the contributions from memory workers’ own lived experiences in the community reflected in the web archive.

Screenshot of an archived blog post from the Queens Public Library’s collection

Archived blog post from the Queens Public Library’s collection

Stewarding this diverse community’s memory of COVID-19 into the next generation means collecting and preserving an exceptionally broad range of media, including podcasts, social media, and other web forms.

Just precisely how future scholars, students, and neighbors will access the local memory of COVID-19 is a fascinating area of ongoing research and experimentation. In addition to the Wayback replay and full-text search tools to which veteran web archivists are accustomed, Archive-It partners are now also exploring brand new ways to represent and visualize their collected data. Case studies in integrating Archive-It’s platform with data processing tools are new, but started immediately with collections that represent different experiences of COVID-19, like this international effort.

Screenshot of a distant reading of French language content in the IIPC’s collection by the AWAC2 research team

A distant reading of French language content in the IIPC’s collection by the AWAC2 research team

Jacquelyn Oshman, Local History and Genealogy Librarian at the New Brunswick Free Public Library, looked forward to what that next generation can learn from the web archive. “They can see the chaos of the time period, the misinformation that was spreading, how it affected society, and how the uncertainty of everything affected the world.” Towards their original mission to share trustworthy, useful information then, “the collection continues to the present, now that we have vaccine controversies, mask mandates, new research, and a restoration of some normalcy to show how we are faring.”

Screenshot of an archived version of the New Jersey COVI-19 Information Hub in the New Brunswick Free Public Library’s collection

Archive of the New Jersey COVID-19 Information Hub in the New Brunswick Free Public Library’s collection

So it’s never too late to join or expand the community collecting project and Archive-It can help! Apply to join Community Webs to get started with subsidized web archiving tools and a supportive community of practice. Existing partners have a few weeks left in 2021 to boost their budgets with special COVID-19 data discounts

How will your community remember COVID-19? Browse the ongoing collections below for inspiration and let us know.

Public COVID-19 web archives in local history collections





District of Columbia









New Jersey

New York