Contemporary collecting in the time of COVID-19

This time one year ago New Zealanders had 48 hours to prepare for the move to Alert Level 4, the nation was thrown into the unknown…

Friday 28 February 2020 - the first COVID-19 case is reported in New Zealand. We become the 48th country in the world to have a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Saturday 21 March - the Government introduces the 4-tiered Alert Level system, the equivalent of Alert Level 2 restrictions had come into effect the previous day.

Monday 23 March, 1.30 pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces New Zealand has moved to Alert Level 3.

We have 48 hours to spare, it is scary. There is a sense of trepidation, panic, uncertainty, and heightened urgency. For some, an undercurrent of excitement, for others, the sheer fear of going headfirst into the unknown. Some of us panic, some lay low and wait nervously, others look to assist those more vulnerable. We all try to figure out, ‘what will this mean for us?’

We hear the word ‘unprecedented’, used for the first of many times.

Image: Health worker Amanda Hunter in PPE gear, and handknitted teddy bear with mask,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 3952

The following reflection on going into Alert Level 4 in 2020, was written by Gerard Wingerden, and is part of Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections archive NZMS 3952:

“I must admit it took me a little time to settle down what with my house shifting over the two days prior to the lockdown, and then sorting, finding places for all my possessions. And I must admit it wasn’t very easy settling down to the reality that we are experiencing what is in all likelihood the single most profound and significant event to happen of my life time, i.e.
a) The biggest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu.
b) The financial aftermath to be worse than the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with some commentators suggesting that we could be heading into a depression, the like we haven’t seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
c) This being the biggest world event since World War II.
So, by all accounts, COVID-19 and its aftermath are likely to be the most profound and significant event to happen of my life, being as it has the potential to combine the worst elements of all of the above three events.”

Another Gerard, this time Gerard Richards, wrote the following excerpt, which he has called 'The last manic days before lockdown'. It is from his journal, which is part of Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZMS 3952:

"Somehow it just seemed to creep up on me unawares. There I was cruising along, hunkered down, dealing to the usual array of domestic and work grind suspects. Then wham! seemingly out of nowhere, well not quite, the script had been mushrooming for several weeks, the new grim reality was in my face!

The place was about to shut down! What the hell! I was gonna have to burn some serious rubber, to round up a cache of essential chemicals and stimulants… before the show ground to an unceremonious halt. Okay, so I... campaign on the last two days of freedom. This of course, was to ensure my adrenalin reserves were cranked right off the meter, to add to the thrill factor of the wild ride...

Strangely, high on the agenda of this sacred pilgrimage to retail outlets all over Auckland, a garden centre suddenly gripped me as crucial! It seemed there were plenty of others driven by the same obsession! Finally, after beating away rival vegetable buying maniacs, at my third garden centre, I managed to nail down my 12x plants... I’ve never grown vegetables in my life, but all of sudden this loomed like a hard core necessity of the twisted world we were heading towards…”

Image: Seedlings bought for Lockdown, Hazel Petrie, 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 3952

Image: Suddenly there is a new code of conduct at the supermarket, Bridget Simpson,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 3952

Image: Our supermarket shelves empty, Jodie Moller,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 3952

Two days later, the 25th of March 2020 arrives.

A State of National Emergency is declared at 12:21pm on 25 March 2020 for the first time, it is distinct from the COVID-19 Alert System. The declaration is made by the Minister of Civil Defence Hon. Peeni Henare, in consultation with the Prime Minister Re. Hon. Jacinda Ardern following advice from the Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management. It covers all of Aotearoa New Zealand including the Chatham Islands, Stewart Island and other offshore islands. 

Alert Level 4 comes into force at 11:59pm.

Now we are all in ‘lockdown’. The need for communication with others, along with food and other essential supplies dominate our lives. People organise how to navigate their lives and try to make sense of their ‘new normal’.

Image: Excerpt, journal entry, Jan Robertson’s first journal, 
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 3952

Image: Ripe bananas sit below the Alert Level 4 sign inside a local Onehunga dairy,
Stephen Lasham, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 3952

25 March 2021

One year later, and we have come a long way. Sadly, during this time, in Aotearoa, some people lost their lives, and some, their livelihoods. There have been ups and downs for many throughout the different Alert Levels. We have largely adjusted to our new reality, going into lockdown is now much more of an orderly process, we know what it may look like, but it is still a worrying time for many.

Contemporary collecting in the time of COVID-19

'Contemporary collecting' is a type of archive collecting activity which is particularly useful when responding to unexpected events of high importance. This is the method we are using for Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections' 'A snapshot in time: COVID-19 archive' NZMS 3952.

Collecting archives during the time of a significant event enables us to capture significant aspects of a time, place, or event. Here, the word ‘significant’, refers to items or collections which have importance in a national or regional sense, or things of rarity which may not be found elsewhere.

This style of collecting may mean that some items may not have high technical specifications, as found in other collections. However, the content is of significance, and as such, warrants a place in our archive, and in Auckland Libraries resource Kura Heritage Collections Online. Please note, 'A snapshot in time: COVID-19 archive' NZMS 3952 is currently being processed and will appear on Kura later this year.

Items collected this way can provide a sense of immediacy, documenting people’s thoughts, feelings and reactions at a pivotal moment in time. Such details can be forgotten later. Instead, contemporary collecting can mean we see the raw, documentary material: the first-hand experience of a person at that moment in time.

We only have to look at World War I letters, written from the Western Front by soldiers, in the midst of turmoil, to see how valuable it is to have records of the human experience of a momentous event. It is often much later after an event that the value of collecting such material comes into sharp focus. Often the official record is kept but little of the personal record of the time. Another example of this can be seen in a parallel event, the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918.

Contemporary collecting also presents us with an opportunity to engage with, and invite, individuals and communities from across the diverse populations of Tāmaki Makaurau to consider sharing their taonga with us for the benefit of future researchers, school students and whanau.

It is hoped this will result in an increase in the breadth and depth of our collections over time, and enable voices across our communities to be collected, cared for, and heard, now, and in the future, in an increasingly democratic fashion.

Across Aotearoa, libraries, museums, archives, and cultural heritage organisations, have been working to document and record the individual, family, community, and organisational stories that represent Aotearoa New Zealand’s experience of COVID-19. View more items from Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections' 'A snapshot in time: COVID-19 archive' and see material collected from across the motu in this blog post from the National Library of New Zealand.

Image: 'A snapshot in time: COVID-19 archive' promotional flyer, 2021.

Ngā mihi nui to all of the people who have donated to the 'A snapshot in time: COVID-19' archive. We are continuing to collect items. Please contact Sharon Smith via email ( if you would like to take part.