Is It Too Soon to Collect Covid-19 Material?

- by Michael Stillman

Vaccine research at Oxford (Bodleian Libraries photo).

It is not unusual for people to collect items related to terrible events, like wars, but usually they are of past, historic events. Is this one a little early? The Oxford University History of Science Museum and the Bodleian Libraries recently announced that they are starting to collect documents and artifacts relating to the Covid 19 pandemic. It isn't even over yet, so at a minimum, we can say this collection will be incomplete for a while. They have described it as a two-year project so we certainly hope the pandemic will be over before it is completed.


Oxford has asked anyone associated with the university to contribute objects, documents, and personal stories. This is not just a random collection relating to Covid but they have a particular purpose, which could be described as preserving bragging rights. As described on the Bodleian website, “Material collected and professionally preserved now will enable future generations to understand how Oxford University rose to the challenge in its extraordinary response to the global pandemic.” They were deeply involved in the research to generate the Astra/Zeneca vaccine. Two new positions were opened for this project. There will be a dedicated Collecting Covid Curator at the Science Museum, along with a dedicated archivist at the Bodleian Libraries.


What are appropriate documents for the collection are more or less obvious. By personal stories, they are asking those involved with the Covid research at Oxford to share their memories. As for objects, that is probably the most interesting short term. Some examples they list are a vial used to deliver an early dose of the vaccine, a prototype ventilator, and a bottle of beer created by a local brewery to thank the Oxford Vaccine Group for their work. Other items include a glass cabinet for growing cells used in the trials and a one million times actual size sculpture of a single nanoparticle of the vaccine by artist Luke Jerram.


If this sounds a bit early to be collecting Covid 19 material, Head of Archives & Modern Manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries Susan Thomas said, “The sorts of materials and memories we hope to uncover through this project are surprisingly vulnerable to loss. It is timely to start the process of gathering these things to make sure they survive to inform future research and reflection.”


While private collectors may not have the same incentive to collect so early as an institution trying to preserve recognition of its role in the event, there are obvious benefits to collecting early. Eventually, today's events will become historic, and at that point the best material will be far more expensive if not lost. Of course, that requires some prescience in knowing what will be valuable, but it is safe to say that an event of this magnitude all across the world will have its collectors. Get in early and be prepared to wait.