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Online Lunchtime talk 4 with Helen McCarthy Exploring the Digital Record of Everyday Life in Covid-era Britain

June 14, 2023 @ 12:30 pm

The fourth LUSTRE lunchtime talk on Exploring the Digital Record of Everyday Life in Covid-era Britain with Professor Helen McCarthy from Cambridge University took place on June 14.

Please find the recording below.

Abstract: The arrival of Covid 19 in spring 2020 radically altered the conditions of life for nearly everyone in Britain. From home-schooling and Zoom calls to social distancing in parks and mask-wearing in shops, the sense of living through extraordinary times was inescapable. For many, it was accompanied by a powerful compulsion to bear witness. Curators at the British Library have identified over a hundred ‘testimony projects’ launched by archives, museums and other institutions early in the pandemic with a view to capturing and preserving a diversity of lived experience. To these might be added countless private efforts by individuals across the country to document their ‘new normal’ through diary-keeping, journaling, photography and art. Much, although not all, of this material has adopted a digital form, reflecting the practical constraints on archival and curatorial work under lockdown, as well the more general pivot towards virtual worlds necessitated by the virus. In my paper I ask how future scholars might approach this born-digital archive when they come to write histories of everyday life in Covid-era Britain. Focusing on the UK Web Archive, I briefly survey the four thousand websites and social media accounts comprising its Covid 19 collection before diving deeper into a handful of case studies. These include a number of personal and collaborative blogs, a crowdsourced national photography project and a ‘zine produced by Essex teenagers. I will suggest that this digital archive of what we might call the ‘Covid everyday’ was configured by a structure of feeling which took powerful shape during the spring and summer of 2020 and had a democratising impulse and ethic of care at its heart. When reading this archive in the future we must be mindful of the values – of kindness, resilience and community – that animated its moment of construction.

Speaker: Helen McCarthy is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Cambridge and author of three books, most recently Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2020), which was shortlisted for the Wolfson Prize. She is currently co-editing a special journal issue on Britain in the Nineties and developing a new book project on the social and cultural history of retirement in Britain from the 1950s to the present.