Cataloging COVID-19 with the Library of Congress

In September 2020, the Library of Congress launched their “COVID-19: American Experiences” project: an open call to all Flickr members based in the United States to share photos of their experiences living through the coronavirus pandemic. Almost a year later, we met with the Library of Congress staff members responsible for this project to talk about the community response to this open call and to reflect on some of the goals they set.

Social Distancing Circles

“The partnership with Flickr to create this project was not just about the library documenting the pandemic for our collection. It was also about involving people and creating a community where people can participate by contributing images. […],” said Adam Silvia, a Curator in the Photography, Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

To date, more than 900 unique members have contributed to the group, and close to 389 images have been selected for permanent acquisition.

The chosen images will be accessible through the Library’s online catalog. In addition, a majority of them are already available in the two galleries the Library of Congress created in its Flickr account: one for images in the public domain or uploaded with a Creative Commons license and another for photos with full rights restrictions that will display in the Library’s online catalog only in thumbnail format.

“We’re going to be preserving photographs from people from every state in the country and Washington, DC,” Silvia said. “That would not be possible without crowdsourcing.” According to the curator, this sort of broad outreach approach they tried by setting up a Flickr group is “invaluable” for the Library to “build a more representative collection.”

Broadway Theatre - Mt. Pleasant, MI [Explored]

When asked about the criteria used in selecting images for acquisition, Silvia said they try to be as inclusive as possible. “Not only including as many people as possible but also covering as many different subject matters as we can.”

And what were some of the most popular subjects? The answer, of course, involves masks.

“There was definitely a tendency to send photographs that reflect how people felt,” according to Helena Zinkham, Chief of the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. From almost claustrophobic settings to using the outdoors or communicating through windows to stay sane. “We asked people to just think about their privacy. We weren’t seeking deep grief,” she said.

Other popular themes included hospital workers going to and from work, or people photographing their local movie theater. “Most people enjoy going to the movies and some may have taken it for granted. During the lockdowns, many theaters closed, but they used the signs that previously displayed the movies that were playing to instead give words of encouragement. Photographing these signs was a very visual way of documenting how this crisis impacted their communities,” Silvia said.

Friday Evening

“Among my favorite photos are ones by a woman documenting how the pandemic impacted her relationship with her mother […] beginning with not being able to go inside the nursing home and having to meet through a closed window and ending with her mother being vaccinated.” — Adam Silvia, Curator in the Photography, Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

The themes were as varied as they were interesting. Some personal favorites from the librarians include a woman caring for her elderly mother, a young boy celebrating Halloween remotely through his computer with his bright green costume on, or a mosaic that someone created of all the floor markers that help businesses visually communicate the need for social distancing.

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“People put a lot of thought into which photographs they were going to upload and even planned how they were going to tell the story of how they experienced the pandemic,” Silvia said.

The Library is so pleased with the community response so far, it plans to leave the group open for at least another year. “Because the pandemic certainly hasn’t finished and people will continue to reflect on the experience,” said Zinkham, who admits she’s curious about what the so-called new normal will look like.

Six feet or two meters please

To participate, join the “COVID-19 American Experiences” group on Flickr and submit your photos for a chance to have your work considered for permanent acquisition at the Library of Congress.

In the meantime, we invite you to visit the newest albums the Library of Congress has shared in their Flickr account, and contribute your knowledge… or just peruse and learn!

  • Pride in the Library: These images of artists, writers, photographers, and more serve as an introduction to the rich and diverse stories of LGBTQ+ life found in the Library of Congress collection.
  • African American Children in the Civil War: Among the featured images are cartes de visite—small card photographs that were sold to raise money for formerly enslaved people’s education.