Collecting COVID-19 History at the National Institutes of Health
By Gabrielle Barr and Michele Lyons
Since January 2020, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been at the forefront of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became the public face of the NIH when he began serving on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. NIH researchers—many of whom changed their research focus during this pandemic—are working hard to develop diagnostic tests, therapeutics, and vaccines; initiate clinical protocols at the NIH Clinical Center; and disseminate the rapidly accumulating knowledge about the virus. This response to the pandemic required laboratory, clinical, animal-care facilities, information technology, and administrative staff to change how and where they worked.
The empty parking lot of NIH’s main administration building in early May 2020. Administrators and many other NIH staff quickly adjusted to telecommuting.
To document this historic endeavor, the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum (ONHM) began a collaboration with the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the NIH Records Management Program. These three components formulated the NIH COVID-19 Collecting Plan, which has outlined the types of material sought, the responsible collecting units, and the final repositories. The types of materials include objects, photographs, websites, articles, news releases, video clips, social media, signage, emails, public correspondence, and manuscripts. Although the emails of senior officials are automatically routed to the National Archives and Records Administration, other types of material require active collecting. The NLM, whose collecting mandate is broader than solely the activities of NIH, is crawling thousands of relevant web sites as well as securing digital artworks. The ONHM is relying on its staff of two—one of whom joined the office via telecommuting in April—and its volunteers to document the NIH’s role in the research and clinical realms, the daily challenges of managing an agency of over 30,000 people during a pandemic, and NIH’s image in popular culture.
We have been using BOX, an NIH-approved application, as a place to store and organize files. BOX has also been a helpful tool for tracking incoming submissions and for planning for the next stages of documentation including conducting oral histories and acquiring objects currently being used by NIH staff as part of their jobs. Guides and the application of metadata are already being created by ONHM to contend with the quantity of materials and in an effort to make resources available as soon as possible.
The loading dock door of NIH’s Building 2 sports one of the many signs on campus reminding people to maintain physical distance. A digital version of the sign has been added to the NIH COVID-19 Collection.
To capture the experiences of all NIH employees, contractors, trainees, and volunteers who would not necessarily be part of the official record, ONHM launched the website “Behind the Mask: Real Stories from NIH Staff During the COVID-19 Pandemic” in May 2020. This project seeks reflections as well as documents, photographs, and other media that help narrate NIH staff stories. ONHM has promoted the venture in a variety of ways including having the project webpage and flyer translated into Spanish for people who do not speak English as their first language. Submissions have included photos of the NIH Clinical Center ICU staff, an account of the challenges of creating new procedures for procurement officials who are teleworking, and a video about one person’s experiences at home with young children.
This prayer candle featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci was donated to the NIH Stetten Museum collection as one of several examples of popular culture’s take on NIH and the pandemic.
As the weeks have progressed, we have contacted more NIH representatives to assist with collecting. These include representatives from the Office of Facilities Management, the public affairs office of the Rocky Mountain Laboratory (located in Hamilton, Montana), and representatives from NIH publications. The NIH COVID-19 Collecting Plan has been presented to the scientific directors of all institutes and centers (ICs). In the coming weeks, the collecting team will be approaching representatives from the IC communications offices to aid with collecting, planning for oral histories, and promoting “Behind the Mask.”
This pandemic is the first to occur in a digital world. Even though the amount of information is daunting, we will not learn any lessons without a conscious and conscientious collection of our part of this story.
Gabrielle Barr is the Archivist and Michele Lyons is the Associate Director and Curator of the Office of NIH History and Stetten Museum.