From official government announcements to cat food receipts - archivists are making sure every aspect of the Covid-19 crisis will be remembered, reports Kim Knight.
A century from now, historians will look back on the official records of this country's coronavirus lockdown and wonder: Why was police officer O'Leary's mother wearing a bra as a face mask?
Archivists are collecting materials that will tell the story of New Zealand's Covid-19 response. You'd expect them to include the declarations of a national state of emergency and recordings from the daily prime ministerial media briefings. But an online advertising campaign starring the spoof cops O'Leary and Minogue from television's Wellington Paranormal?
Absolutely, says Honiana Love, chief executive of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.
"Our mandate to collect is reasonably wide ... so at the moment we are recording the daily stand-ups, Parliamentary TV, particularly the epidemic response committee - but we're also trying to pick up some of the social media things. Things like [microbiologist] Siouxsie Wiles' Covid chats, the Paranormal series with the New Zealand Police ..."
In case you missed it, that series mixes humour with a serious message. One minute Officer O'Leary is on a video chat to "the Prime Minister's bloke" Clarke Gayford; the next, she's advising her mother that homemade personal protective equipment (including repurposed underwear) is not necessary inside her home bubble.
"What we really look for," says Love, "is what, in 50 years or 100 years' time, is going to tell the social history of this moment. We don't want to have just the official record, we want to make sure it's rounded out and actually tells the story of people ... about how people dealt with trying times."
Three agencies have a critical role in maintaining the country's archives: Archives New Zealand holds the official public record of government; the National Library (particularly via its Alexander Turnbull Library) is the collector of personal materials like diaries and unpublished works; Ngā Taonga is in charge of saving sound and moving image archives. All work closely with regional and community archives (such as those in libraries and local museums) and the national museum, Te Papa.
Right now, archivists are mostly confined to home. Staff employed by the official agencies are trawling hashtags, newspapers and broadcast media for potential material that should be saved but the public is also being urged to think about what's being created that might one day be added to the national collection - video diaries, written journals, blogs and photographs from within our isolation bubbles, for example.
"In the past we found out about social history through people's letters to each other and people's diaries," says Love. "People are chronicling in really different ways these days. A lot of that is online and a lot of that is through small chat videos."
This is a global pandemic like no other. In 1918, when the so-called Spanish flu hit, New Zealand's telephone system still relied on an operator to put through calls. When British diarist Samuel Pepys chronicled the Great Plague of 1665, many people could not even read or write. This pandemic is being recorded by a generation used to living its every Saturday brunch out loud and on the internet.
"So we're picking up everything from the official Government record through to the TikTok that the kids made about being in lockdown," says Love. "All of those things are possibilities for the archives. We know that we can't collect everything and we'd be silly to try. We try and look for sources that are going to stand up to the test of time, that are actually going to help people in the future to understand what it was like for their grandparents."
There is something quietly reassuring about speaking to an archivist while we're in the middle of a pandemic. Some of us are lying there at 4am worrying about the end of the world but an archivist is planning for the time this all-consuming and terrifying disruption will just be another slide in a university history lecture.
Once, says Love, archivists could wait 30 or 40 years to see exactly what documentation was best saved to tell a particular story.
"With digital media, you've got to collect today. The benefit though is now we're able to collect a lot more of it. So we can do a big grab-bag of everything and leave it for some other poor archivist in the future to work out - to chuck out the dross that we collected."
Why do we need to archive the video footage we took in the queue at Pak'nSave? Or the family Zoom talent show?
"It's about being able to connect with our history," says Love. "The moving image, in particular, can be very visceral in terms of understanding what it was like for those people at that particular time. For me, it's part of my mental and somewhat spiritual wellbeing to feel that connection with both the past and future."
A personal example from Love: "As a kaikaranga [a woman who calls visitors on to a marae], to listen to the women who are doing karanga 100 years ago? I can hear their voices. It's a pretty precious experience."
Richard Foy, chief archivist at Archives New Zealand, says, "No one else will collect the history and memory of New Zealand better than we will. And I don't think anyone else is as interested."
He acknowledges official government documentation may appear banal and bureaucratic ("even the announcements around alert levels - it's administrative") but records hold governments to account and help future decision-makers who may also need to act hard and fast in uncertain times.
"History does repeat itself. And what do we learn from it?"
He's speaking to Canvas via Zoom, one of the video platforms that replaced face-to-face meetings when we all worked from home. On screen, he throws up a page from a 1921 bylaws booklet. It was produced by the Ngāti Whātua District Māori Council in the wake of the Spanish flu. The language is formal and olde worlde but, in essence, the bylaws are about what we'd now call contact tracing and social distancing.
"People talk about unprecedented times," says Foy. "History and the archival record is really important to help us get perspective. To kind of realise it's unprecedented in our lifetime, but not necessarily in human history. That's what archives and records do. They give us perspective."
Foy is sitting at home in Wellington. In the back of the video feed is a couch and what looks like a pile of plush cushions. "Oh," he says. "Wait ... " And when the camera comes back on, there is the country's chief archivist wearing a candy pink unicorn head.
"It's my personal protective equipment! To be absolutely honest, I did wear it the one time I went to the supermarket. I think we'd been in lockdown for about a week. I was a bit paranoid - everyone was like, 'Oh, I don't have a mask.' and I thought, well, that would be non-threatening and it might give people a bit of a laugh. A beautiful unicorn, a sense of hope."
At least one shopper took a photograph, says Foy. "And to be honest, that sort of thing is precisely the sort of story and record and 'taking account' that people ought to be capturing ...
"I do imagine that the things that people will go back to will be the things that are the expression of our sadness, sometimes our anger, but hopefully our hope and joy."
Legally, government agencies have up to 25 years to lodge materials with Archives New Zealand. Ngā Taonga must collect sound and moving images today - in case they are gone tomorrow. This week, both Auckland Museum and the Auckland Medical Museum Trust have called for public input into Covid-19 related items that should be collected.
Foy says now everyone is a content producer it is inevitable we self-curate, but even a popular Instagram filter is a reflection of a particular time. What's most important, he says, is that archives come from a diverse range of sources.
"If you only went by the official record, then you only get a particular viewpoint. But if you only went on one Facebook group, then you get a very distorted view. Archivists are really interested in establishing context and providing the fullest context you can so that you, as the researcher, reader, historian or whatever, you can make up your own mind."
The Covid-19 crisis is, says Foy "completely indifferent to us as individuals. It doesn't care about our politics, age, height, shoe size, religion, hair colour ... what that means is we really do need to get the diversity of voices in our memory and our history."
What does he think will resonate most?
"Stuff like photographs of empty streets. Photos of teddy bears in people's windows. It might be the docket from going to the supermarket and spending lots on toilet paper. Odd things which actually give you a true sense of what it was like for you and I ... the ephemera is just as important as the big, hard-hitting news story. That little docket that shows I spent way more on cat food than I ever thought I would, the Instagram photo streams of peoples' home-cooked creations. Archives New Zealand will have the official record but it will be very sterile. The record from the community is going to be quite different. For the National Library and other collecting institutions it's much more about 'how do we get a sense of what life was like?'"
There are currently more than 200,000 items of ephemera - items originally expected to have only a short-term use - in the National Library's Alexander Turnbull Library collection.
"The mundane is important," says chief librarian Chris Szekely. "The Turnbull Library has lots of things in its collections from bus tickets to butter wrappers, beer coasters and letterbox junk mail. There are thousands of letters and diaries that were never written as artefacts that might one day be considered of national interest. They reflect facets of the lives that most of us have as regular people."
His institution is encouraging New Zealanders to keep documenting their Covid-19 experiences for themselves and their families and then to consider talking to a local library or a national agency about possible wider interest in maintaining the archive.
"Look at the wartime diaries, especially by women. That whole insight into domestic life - what they prepared for dinner, what the kids had for breakfast - just domestic, everyday routine things, that are happening during extraordinary times. That's incredibly important."
Szekely has been keeping his own one-minute daily video diaries. So he knows when he shifted his compost heap but he also knows how "incredibly affected" he was by the March 29 news of the country's first Covid-19 death.
"There is an innate human need, I think, to share. And people share in all sorts of ways. What people shouldn't do is think, 'Well, nobody's interested in what I think or what we're doing.' Every New Zealander counts. That's not the same as saying we collect everything, we do take a curated approach and we're mindful of the voices that are missing. Young voices. Different cultural communities, different geographic communities. It's a great opportunity, in a time like this, to fill some of those gaps. So that their voices get to be heard as well."
What are the collectors personally collecting?
Richard Foy, Archives New Zealand: I've been writing a daily communique for my staff. I normally only do it once a week and it's called the Captain's Log because I like to pretend I'm a Starfleet Captain but since we've been working from home I've been doing a "Captain's Communique". It may actually become part of the official record for our organisation. I suspect, if I look back through the archive, we probably don't have that kind of record. Normally, we just hold key decisions, and here I am having a reasonably intimate dialogue with all my staff about my descent into madness from working from home.
Chris Szekely, National Library: My own daily video diary is full of mundane stuff that reflects my personal experience of lockdown: from what I had for lunch to what I planted in the garden to walking an hour to wait in a supermarket entry queue. I delight in receiving these sort of trivial missives from family and friends and vice versa.
Honiana Love, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision: My kids call it hoarding but I call it accumulating. Some of the things I'll be saving? Some of the funny family stuff - but I don't know that it would ever be at the level of needing to go into an archive. I think it can just stay in the family and the kids can delete it when I die.
John Sullivan, National Library: The postie always gets through, even when the rest of us are in lockdown. As well as letters, cards and bills, they also bring circulars, official information handouts and community notices. I have seen a few of these come through my letterbox. We might like to consider keeping these. It is interesting to know what information is still being conveyed on paper in these days of instant electronic communication.