Queens Memory COVID-19 Project

On March 16, 2021, Queens Public Library (QPL) closed its physical locations as part of the citywide lockdown. New York’s COVID numbers were growing exponentially, and our borough of Queens became the epicenter of the epicenter of the global pandemic. In coordination with the New York City Mayor’s Office, to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our staff and the public we serve, all QPL locations were closed on March 16 and would not reopen until the following summer for limited service. All QPL in-person programs were suspended, including those organized by Queens Memory Project, and all QPL staff members shifted to remote work.

The team behind the Queens Memory Project, a community-led archiving program co-administered by QPL and Queens College CUNY, shifted practices to be fully remote and focused on what was happening right outside our doors.

On April 9, Queens Memory, together with our partner Urban Archive, launched the COVID-19 Project to help our neighbors and ourselves process our experiences of the pandemic, collectively and individually, and to capture a lasting record of how Queens residents were living, working, learning, and helping one another during an unprecedented time.

Alongside our collecting, archiving and oral history recording efforts, we created several series of virtual programs that highlighted contributions to the archive, created new uses for the oral history interviews we were recording with community members and provided ways for the public to connect at a distance.


This project was borough-wide and open to participation by those living outside of the area due to our implementation of remote interviewing protocols. All photographs, videos, interviews and other materials donated to the collections pertain to the lives and experiences of those who live, work, and/or go to school in Queens.

To reach the Queens public, we created the @queensmemory Instagram account and shared our inaugural post on the same day as our COVID-19 Project launch. Social media, particularly Instagram and Facebook Live, became integral to our communication and outreach strategy. We used social media to reach new audiences, share public contributions to our archiving effort, and recruit volunteers and invite people to share their stories with Queens Memory.

With the help of QPL’s Communications department, the COVID-19 Project was highlighted by local media within days of its launch, with stories appearing on NY1, Univision, and WNYC. On May 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the COVID-19 Project in his statewide daily e-mail update, noting that “The Queens Public Library is documenting stories of New York City residents during Coronavirus. Through the Queens Memory COVID-19 Project, the library aims to create a historical record of how New Yorkers are experiencing this pandemic.”


The shift to remote programming enabled Queens Memory to reach new audiences through live events and streaming recorded programs, including edited interviews recorded by QPL general librarian Jo-Ann Wong with local business owners that were released as part of the “What Shapes Our Communities” series on Facebook Live, “International Open Mic” organized by EunWoo Nam and Diana Munoz that brought together participants around the globe to share the songs that were helping them get through lockdown, and a new workshop series to introduce Queens Memory’s approach to oral history to interested volunteers and prepare them to conduct remote interviews for the archive.

Archiving, Oral History, Workshops, Digitization, Exhibition, Other

Crowdsourcing: The public was invited to share their first-hand stories about their pandemic experiences in any digital format, which were accepted through a toll-free phone number that linked to a voicemail box and AirTable forms for QPL’s Digital Archives team to process and archive. Submissions included video diaries, scans of original artworks, photographs, voicemail messages, and text pieces.

Mapping: Urban Archive created an online project map that was regularly updated to reflect the locations of participants’ stories. Visitors to https://queenslib.org/covid were able to “visit” places in their neighborhoods and beyond by interacting with people’s stories.

Oral History: The pandemic led to major shifts in Queens Memory’s approaches to oral history. In response to overwhelming public interest, we began to host weekly virtual training sessions to introduce new volunteers to oral history interviewing and facilitated matching and outreach between interested interviewers and interviewees. Prior to this time, Queens Memory interviews had been recorded exclusively in person; during the pandemic, we shifted to an entirely remote approach utilizing phone recording and video conferencing platforms (Streamyard, Webex, Google Voice, and Zoom) and created new guides to oral history interviews for interviewers and interviewees.

Podcasting: With the support of a grant from the New York Community Trust, Queens Memory was able to hire a team of audio professionals to produce and edit the second season of the Queens Memory Podcast, “The Borough We Became: Queens Residents on Life During COVID-19.” The series was released every week between August and October, and included a weekly public listening party hosted on Facebook Live to bring the podcast team and guests from the week’s episode together. The series was recognized by the 2021 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition and received the Impact Award for “Intersection,” an episode produced by Sam Riddell.

Public Programming: The COVID-19 Project included a wide range of virtual public programs, from live creative workshops led by local artists to edited compilations that brought together archival submissions around shared themes to panel discussions focusing on issues around immigration, food insecurity, and racial justice.



The COVID-19 Project brought dozens of new volunteers and participants to Queens Memory, helped launch new approaches to public programming and volunteer trainings, and created a collection reflecting diverse experiences of the pandemic in a range of media forms.

Language accessibility was achieved with the help of QPL’s Metadata Services and Marketing departments and volunteer translators. Major outreach materials were available in English, Mandarin, and Spanish, and submission forms were also available in Arabic, Bengali, Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, Russian, and Urdu.

Submissions to the COVID-19 Project were featured and shared in a range of forms, including the Urban Archive map at https://queenslib.org/covid, the Queens Memory Podcast’s second season, the two-part compilation “The COVID-19 Project: Navigating a Pandemic” that aired on QPTV, and as the source material for creative works produced by visual artist Azikiwe Mohammed and playwright Harris Doran.


We consider the COVID-19 Project a major success and milestone in Queens Memory’s history, but we hope we never have to launch another rapid response archiving effort under emergency circumstances. The pandemic created unprecedented circumstances and work conditions that allowed us to work closely and quickly with many colleagues at QPL and Queens College, Urban Archive, project partners, and an active volunteer base.

The team created entirely new workflows to manage the influx of public submissions and oral history interviews, wrote new outreach materials and interview guides to explain our work and oral history, launched new educational workshops to welcome a steady stream of new volunteers, and crafted new communication and outreach strategies to utilize social media to reach people who were often learning about Queens Memory for the first time.

Accessibility is a top priority for our team, and our experiences with the COVID-19 Project revealed some key differences between our pre-pandemic work. We prepared submission and outreach materials in a number of languages, but most of the submissions and interviews were in English. In terms of demographics, many of our participants tended to be younger than our pre-pandemic audience, which skewed older. We also see that certain neighborhoods (particularly western Queens) are better represented in the collection, which also reflects the younger, more digitally connected audiences we were reaching through our outreach efforts and programming offerings.

The project team included Queens Memory staff, Queens Public Library’s Metadata Services, Marketing, Communications, Government Affairs, and Institutional Assessment departments, Queens College CUNY’s Special Collections and Archives, and Urban Archive. In addition, the team was helped by volunteers, undergraduate interns, graduate fellows, project staff, and external consultants. The collaboration between many colleagues and partners involved the creation of entirely new workflows for processing, outreach, publication, and public engagement.

Activity Timeline

April 9, 2020

The COVID-19 Project was launched by Queens Memory as a borough-wide campaign, created in partnership with technology nonprofit Urban Archive, to collect personal stories about life at the epicenter of the pandemic.


April 23, 2020

Queens Memory launched its streaming program offerings with “My Shelter in Place Karaoke Playlist.” Hosted by artist EunWoo Nam on Webex, the program brought together participants from all over Queens and beyond to share stories, sing songs, and read poetry.

May 19, 2020
Sharing Memories: Oral History Projects During COVID-19


With facets of our everyday life constantly shifting as the pandemic continued, it was critical to document our feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Despite the challenging times we faced, institutions and community organizations continued to collect recordings even when we couldn't be in close proximity with one another. This webinar was moderated by Traci Mark, Studio Manager at METRO Library Council. Panelists included Meral Agish, Community Coordinator for Queens Memory Project at Queens Public Library, and Kimberly Springer, Curator for Oral History at Columbia University.

July 26, 2020 - August 25, 2020

“The COVID-19 Project: Navigating a Pandemic,” a two-part edited compilation of public contributions to the COVID-19 Project and recorded Queens Memory programs, aired in two parts on QPTV.




August 6, 2020 - October 23, 2020

Release of “The Borough We Became: Queens Residents on Life During COVID-19,” the second season of the Queens Memory Podcast. New episodes premiered every week and were accompanied by virtual listening parties on Facebook Live featuring guests whose stories were shared in the podcast.


September 22, 2020 - November 17, 2020

Queens Memory and Queens College CUNY co-hosted the three-part series, “How Can We Do Better? Creating a More Just and Inclusive Future,” which was sponsored by the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding [CERRU], Queens Memory COVID-19 Project of Queens College and Queens Public Library, the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK Program, and the Queens College Black Latinx Faculty Staff Association (BLFSA).





October 1, 2020 - June 30, 2021

Queens Memory launches the Ambassadors Program to support staff-led local history projects in 10 QPL branches. The groups were selected to receive specialized training and hands-on support to record oral history interviews and host virtual programs to share their work with the public.


February 15, 2021 - June 1, 2021

11439 – 39202, a solo show of more than 30 textile works by Azikiwe Mohammed at the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University. Mohammed created several pieces for the show that were directly inspired by public contributions to the COVID-19 Project.



March 18, 2021
A People’s History of the Pandemic in NYC, part of Brooklyn Rail's Common Ground series


Meral Agish and Lori Wallach from the Queens Memory Project and Denise Milstein and Ryan Hagen from the NYC COVID-19 Oral History Archive reflect on the past year. We’ll conclude with a reading by poet Connie Mae Oliver.

June 25, 2021
“I See You and You See Me” premiered on PBS.

A film produced by Queens Theatre and Madison Square Films and was written, adapted, and directed by Harris Doran based on public contributions to the COVID-19 Project.


December 8, 2021

The Queens Memory Podcast was recognized by the 2021 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. “Intersection,” an episode produced by Sam Riddell, won the Impact Award, with praise from the judging committee: “We were impressed with how the people who made this piece, and the people it was made for, clearly expressed its impact on them and on the Queens community; its impact will also live on as part of a future archive of this moment in time. We want to see more of this kind of work in the world.”





March 1, 2022 - April 30, 2022

The “Queens COVID Remembrance Day” exhibit was presented for public viewing at Elmhurst Library, located in a neighborhood that was the “epicenter of the epicenter” of COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic. The exhibit consisted of 270 portraits of Queens residents who died from COVID-19, created by 17-year-old artist Hannah Ernst who began drawing portraits of COVID-19 victims after the loss of her grandfather, Calvin “Cal” Schoenfeld, in May 2020.



October 20, 2022
Capturing the Epicenter: How the Pandemic Transformed Our Queens-Based Oral History Practices

[This presentation was not recorded.]

Meral Agish presented with Queens Memory colleagues Bridget Bartolini and Storm Garner at the 2022 Oral History Association Annual Conference.


October 22, 2022
Documenting Spaces of Relief in Central Queens, NY, through Oral Histories

[This presentation was not recorded.]

Meral Agish presented with Queens Memory colleagues and collaborators Bridget Bartolini, Pedro Cruz Cruz, and Oscar Zamora Flores at the 2022 Oral History Association Annual Conference.

November 19, 2022
DHPSNY Dialogue: Collecting in Real Time

[This program was not recorded.]

What does it mean to collect in real time? What are our obligations and responsibilities as people who work in and volunteer for collecting organizations in New York State? What are our examples of both success and failure of collecting in real time? Join co-facilitators Meral Agish (Queens Memory Project), Terry Alford (Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission), Aria Camaione-Lind (Aria Strategies), Dr. Monica Mercado (Colgate University), and Aaron Noble (New York State Museum) as they engage the people who power collecting organizations across New York State in a 90-minute interactive conversation about the joys, perils, responsibilities, and opportunities of collecting in real time. This program is part of the antiracism, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice programming at DHPSNY. Be prepared to engage with your colleagues, think critically about your own practice and the practices of your organization, and come away with ideas about collecting in real time that are relevant to your organization and your own personal practices.

March 16, 2023
Archiving COVID-19: Approaches to Preserving the Present


[This program was not recorded.]

Meral Agish and Lori Wallach presented an overview of the COVID-19 Project at a symposium convened by the Cedars-Sinai Program in the History of Medicine.

March 19, 2023
Together, Not Alone: Looking Back on Three Years of Resilience in the World's Borough

A public program at The Local in Long Island City marking the third anniversary of the citywide shutdown, Queens Memory participated with The Zip Code Memory Project and the Queens World Listening Tour, The Five Boro Story Project, the Asian American Documentary Network, and the LaGuardia Wagner Archives.



March 16, 2024

Holding Space for Memories of the First Wave: A Discussion and Film Screening on the 4th Anniversary of the COVID-19 Shutdown in NYC.

A public program at the Elmhurst Library, in collaboration with the Queens World Film Festival, to mark the fourth anniversary of the citywide shutdown.





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