Collecting COVID-19

Cambridge University Library appeals for help in building a collaborative history of the coronavirus outbreak

An empty Cambridge University Library during the COVID-19 lockdown, April 2020. Film by Blazej Mikula.

An empty Cambridge University Library during the COVID-19 lockdown, April 2020. Film by Blazej Mikula.


The current move to homeworking for both the University of Cambridge and the majority of the city in response to COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times. Social distancing, restrictions on movement, and sickness are affecting everyone. 


Aiming to capture the experience of the Collegiate University and the city of Cambridge during the pandemic, Cambridge University Library has launched a new collaborative collection involving both the University, and the wider Cambridge community.

A deserted King's Parade, Cambridge, during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Picture by Lloyd Mann.

A deserted King's Parade, Cambridge, during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Picture by Lloyd Mann.

“Many of the materials that give an account of this current period will be in digital formats, especially the web,” said Caylin Smith, Digital Preservation Manager at Cambridge University Library. “With this collection, the Library is responding to collecting materials that could be at risk of loss.”

Jacky Cox, Keeper of the University Archives, said: “In launching this appeal, we want to revive the shared enthusiasm for themed collecting which assembled the Great War Collection at the University Library from 1915 onwards and the more recent collection Brexit materials, launched in 2016." 

Records of all kinds are in scope for the coronavirus collection. The Library particularly wants to reflect the response of its community of staff and students to the present situation, as people adjust to new patterns of work, socialisation, and leisure.

The Library’s approach has been informed by academic historians, who want to ensure social and historical records about the outbreak are captured for future generations of researchers.

An empty corridor at Cambridge University Library after its closure to readers, March 2020. Picture by Blazej Mikula.

An empty corridor at Cambridge University Library after its closure to readers, March 2020. Picture by Blazej Mikula.

Added Smith: “How are we documenting our changed lives? We’re looking to collect all kinds of digital and physical materials relating to the pandemic. These include, but are not limited to, videos, photographs and images (including posters and leaflets), audio recordings, creative projects, as well as journals and diaries.”

Assembling the resources for collective history requires planning by archivists to ensure their long-term safety and usability, and of course contributions from creators. In the coming days, the Wellcome Collection is expected to announce its coordination of efforts to collect similar material on a nationwide basis.

To enquire about depositing digital materials with the University Library, or to ask any questions or provide ideas about this initiative, please contact digitalpreservation@lib.cam.ac.uk

For an overview of the project, please see this webpage.

For a list of FAQs about the project, please visit this webpage.

The Library is also interested in preserving online materials relating to the pandemic, including individual websites.

Collected websites will be added to the UK Web Archive,which is a collaborative initiative in partnership with the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries.  

While the University Library remains closed, the transfer of hard copy material is not possible. We ask that creators hold on to these records, act as their own archivists, for the time being, and we will advertise at a later date how these materials can be deposited. 

For both physical and digital materials collected, the aim is to make these primary sources available to researchers exploring this period of collective history. Please mention in your email if you have any concerns about making your material(s) available in this way. 

"Do remember the University Library in the weeks to come as we build this community archive together. We may be  physically closed to our readers, but our digital collections are available to access online, and we look forward to welcoming you back to the Library in the future."

Jacky Cox, Cambridge University Library

The main corridor at the University Library, March 2020. Picture by Blazej Mikula.

The main corridor at the University Library, March 2020. Picture by Blazej Mikula.