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Life on a Screen

Our archivist, Oliver Mahony, shares his lockdown diary of work and home life and the aspects of both that have become virtual.

So this is my lockdown diary. Why write it? I suppose because I am an archivist and a record of this period, however imperfect, is at least one viewpoint that can be preserved for future research (GDPR permitting).

About three weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown, the days are beginning to merge together. Both of the Oxford colleges where I am the archivist, Lady Margaret Hall and St Hilda’s, are essentially closed with only skeleton staff including porters and maintenance team members on site. About 100 students are still at Lady Margaret Hall. At St Hilda’s, the porters tell of students struggling with the social distancing rules. The Lodge itself (I am told) is full of pot noodles for confined student to feast on now that the dining hall is closed. I feel for the students away from home at this time.

The day is split into digital tea breaks. At 10.30am we meet at LMH for virtual coffee on zoom and at 11am, virtual 11sies at St Hilda’s; the computer screen is split into squares with our faces filling them, as we discuss our visits to the garden and TV shows to stream. At 3.30pm the Library team meets up, which is lovely and then on Friday, the archivists meet up remotely. My phone pings through the day with new messages on Teams and WhatsApp: an image of a tree in the sun, an image of a colleague’s cat, recipes, emojis of thumbs up. Well, it is cheaper than therapy.

In terms of work, there are plenty of policy and guidelines to work on, sound recordings to list, and digitised images to provide. I like the structure that this strange situation offers me. I have no choice but to work on certain saved documents as they are the only items I have access to. I can’t catalogue documents as I am away from the office.

Some days can feel tough but are broken up by my permitted one allotted exercise a day. It is interesting walking past (at a two-metre distance) the Co-op. People stand outside only being let in one at a time. The shop floors are covered in tape denoting the two-metre space and the staff are wearing mouth masks behind plastic shields at the tills. At least people now adhere more or less to these rules. Let us hope everyone continues to do so.

St Hilda’s Librarian, Jill, visits the College weekly to check on the Library. Jill has messaged us all via the Teams app to let everyone know that Teabag the cat, who spends her time mainly sleeping in the Lodge, is still going strong. We responded to a student file request, which was an interesting experience. Luckily as Jill was on site she could enter the secure archive and rare book store room. Becky, our Academic Administrator, emailed across the student’s name and date of matriculation. I sent Jill an image of the relevant box and shelf number (luckily I had taken film of the store room shelves before lockdown so I could update our box location list). Jill then securely scanned across the relevant pages to Becky. Now that is what I call team work!

Other tasks have included answering a student enquiry relating to the College buildings. This posed some problems. I am at home and the papers are back at Cowley Place. Luckily, my predecessor, Elizabeth Boardman, produced some great documents relating to College history. I also hold a copy of the late, great Dr Maggy Rayner’s indispensable ‘Centenary History’ of St Hilda's, along with a library of digitised collections. I shall need to gather this material together to email to the researcher, with a note saying that a fuller response will follow. It is better than nothing, I guess!

I discuss with my colleague Chiara, St Hilda’s Reader Services Assistant, upcoming Library & Archive social media posts. Chiara has spotted a reference to the 1918/1919 influenza epidemic on the account of another institution and wonders if the archive holds anything similar. I am struggling to find anything until I remember that we hold transcripts of the letters home of Margot Collinson (St Hilda’s 1917), a wonderful woman and the source of thousands of great quotes. Along with insights into everything, from WWI to tutorials, hockey matches, rowing, May Morning, and skating on the frozen river, she also discusses the effects of influenza at St Hilda’s Hall, as the College was then known, in late 1918. I email across some quotes. All I need to do know is contact Margot’s relatives to get permission to publish.

Away from work, my five-year old daughter, Eleanor, and wife, Kirstie, are about to start a video call with some of Eleanor’s friends, who she is missing very much, and their parents. There is a lot of laughter and a mixture of adult and tiny voices happily emitting from the phone. It is a lovely soundtrack to work to.

When May Day comes, it is not as we know it. I am awoken from the first decent lie-in for ages at 6am by a Morris dancer with an accordion walking down the middle of my village street, followed at a distance by his colleague banging a drum.

This year, the traditional Oxford May morning experience, with the choir at the top of Magdalen Tower, morris dancing, and early morning revelry has transferred online. I am dubious how well this sort of thing transfers. Maybe we are going a bit too over the top with trying to replicate the outside world experience onto a computer screen? However, I heard from a friend they enjoyed it so that is the important thing. I just hope people haven’t attempted to recreate jumping off Magdalen bridge from the top of the staircase!

The news surrounding this pandemic is constantly changing, so much so that it is hard to keep pace with all the developments and opinion. I look forward to keeping my eye on Parliament and I am intrigued at how the new semi-virtual Prime Minister’s Questions will develop. I am easily excited these days. I find it a rather novel experience; respectful, lack of shouting across, clear questions and answers, who knows it may catch on. There are serious questions around the lack of PPE equipment within the NHS, the rate of testing, and the initial reaction to the pandemic relating to distancing and restrictions. In early March, Bath hosted a half marathon. It is good that Parliamentary scrutiny is back.

As Trinity Term begins, the only certainty is that this is going to be a very interesting term!


Oliver Mahony, St Hilda's Archivist, at the start of lockdownRainbows in windows show community support for the NHSTeams Lockdown chat at St Hilda's CollegeSocially-distant shopping during lockdownSocially--distant shopping during lockdown