New Challenges and Opportunities: COVID and Memory

On International Museum Day, memory institutions, collection-holders, and visitors alike are called to reflect on the power of cultural materials and the stories they tell. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is calling on its network to rally around this year’s theme: “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”, celebrating the diversity of perspectives that make up all aspects of museums. Please visit their dedicated website to International Museum Day to see more of this year’s celebrations.

For memory institutions (galleries, libraries, archives, museums), there is a longstanding conversation on the power of cultural heritage as a means to promote cultural exchange, mutual understanding and peace. This conservation is more important than ever this year, as COVID-19 has brought radical changes to all sectors of society.

Let’s take the opportunity of International Museums Day to touch on several points of discussion regarding the effects of COVID-19 on the heritage sector, and what they could mean for libraries and the heritage professionals working therein.


Creating Tomorrow’s Heritage

In an earlier blog post, we’ve touched on the importance of primary sources in providing historical context and lessons-learned when facing difficult times. Looking to the past can help people understand how medical, social, and political response at the time mirrors and differs from what they are currently experiencing.

During the American Great Depression of the 1930’s, the government-sanctioned Farm Security Administration hired 10 photographers to go out and document the country during this period of extreme poverty. The goal was to

show people in cities back East what the Great Depression looked like for the rural poor – to give it a human face. The resulting photographs are still today among the most iconic of both this era and of American history as a whole.

Migrant Mother Photograph

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange

To me, this story is one that perfectly encapsulates the power of documentation. Not only in the act of supporting the artists and photographers to create material, but in the way this material is used and shared – in this case raising support for relief programmes and legislation.

To pass along the opportunity for future generations to connect to our current experience, there is a need to document the response to COVID-19 now, in as many voices and perspectives as possible.

Libraries are helping record their communities’ responses to COVID-19 and their experiences living with the measures their governments are taking to stop the spread. Libraries in the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Spain and beyond are providing opportunities for their communities to directly share stores, photos, and other primary sources recording their experience.

A child's drawing depicting COVID-19

The Municipal Libraries of Huesca asked children to respond to COVID through art.

For born-digital material relating to COVID-19, the International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC) has launched a call to record web archiving efforts related to the COVID-19 outbreak. You can contribute on behalf of your institution here: Mapping COVID-19 web archive collections.

This work promises not only to help researchers to develop insights to inform future policies, but also societies as a whole to come to terms with what has happened.

Prioritising Digitisation and Access

With the closure of most cultural institutions worldwide, culture is existing on digital platforms more than ever before. In ICCROM’s recent lecture series, Protecting People and the Heritage in Times of COVID, this phenomenon was discussed in terms of ways digital engagement can bring about a paradigm shift in society’s access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage.

An example that was shared by Shubha Chaudhuri of the American Institute of Indian Studies was that of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) knowledge-bearers, who may be losing their ability to sell goods and performances with the closure of marketplaces and collapse of global tourism.

Libraries and museums can play a role in preserving the core value of ICH as social practice – not just as goods to sell – by providing access to diverse cultural expressions through providing a space for them, preserving materials, and promoting digital access.

Moreover, this period of raised awareness of and participation in culture on digital platforms can be an opportunity to promote the importance of digitisation and access to documentary heritage. More than ever before, there is a sense of urgency to implement the policy of digitisation recommended by UNESCO in the 2015 Recommendation for the Preservation and Access to Documentary Heritage, including in Digital Form.

By tapping into this, libraries can promote digitalisation of collections, secure storage and access to a wide audience who may be more receptive than they were pre-COVID.


Multi-hazards: facing new threats

Unfortunately, the disruption caused by COVID-19 compounds pre-existing threats in many of the most vulnerable places in the world. International bodies including UNESCO and Interpol have reported an increase in looting at sites and of illicit trafficking of cultural goods on the international art market.

During ICCROM’s lecture, Abdelhamid Saleh of the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation, which is actively working with museums in Yemen, reports that Yemeni museums are struggling with the interface of disaster, armed conflict and COVID-19. We have heard similar feedback from partners working in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the MENA region.

Capacity building in multi-hazard approaches to disaster risk reduction and recovery are necessary. This should include immediate intervention in favour of digitisation and secure storage. In the example from Yemen, museum workers are being trained on security and digital storage, with positive enhancements such as digitised collections beginning to be stored in multiple locations.

Considering that important pieces of documentary heritage are often held in private family collections in the MENA region and elsewhere, addressing these multiple threats are even more dire. There is a need to reach beyond the institution to secure all expressions of cultural heritage.

More than anything, there is a need for international cooperation. Regional practitioners with local knowledge and connections must be backed by a multilateral international effort in order to face these multiple hazards. IFLA is seeking out participation in such partnerships, to ensure libraries and documentary heritage are adequately considered in future interventions.


In this blog, I’ve identified three areas where the COVID-19 pandemic has affected thinking about how libraries fulfill their mission as memory institutions – archiving the present, digitization and digital access, and developing comprehensive approaches to dealing with risk.

None are new, but in each case, the current situation has helped underline the importance of libraries’ work, and the urgency of action.

But the list is not exhaustive. We would like to hear from you.

What changes to your preservation and conservation practice do you predict for the future?

What new opportunities and challenges will the heritage profession and memory institutions face in the post-COVID world?

We continue to take part in a global conversation with partners in libraries and partner NGOs to help our community face these challenges and take these opportunities to continue preserving and telling our stories.