Future Tense

How to Catalog Pandemic History

A view from above of a person's legs sitting on a floor, pen in hand, in front of an empty open notebook and closed book.
Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Daily diaries, paintings, and a photo of a birthday cake shaped like a roll of toilet paper—all among the artifacts people have chosen to memorialize the year since COVID-19’s arrival.

“When the pandemic began, we … thought immediately of the dilemma of how we archive such an important and dramatic unfolding event,” says Sarah Knott, professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington.

At Indiana University, Knott and archivist Carrie Schwier launched an archive and invited volunteers from Monroe County residents and those affiliated with the university to submit diaries, but such projects have been popping up all over the country. Local historical societies, universities and libraries have spent the past year archiving the highs and the lows of the pandemic, racial justice marches, impeachment, and other defining events. These archives take the form of objects, photographs, and diaries selected by the community.

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This type of community archive became popular in the 1960s and ’70s, says Suzanne Im, a metadata librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library who maintains the LA COVID-19 Community Archive. “More in the distant past, you had curators who decided what was preserved and archived,” she says, “But more and more like with these community archives, we’re involving people who actually create these historical materials in collecting.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, historians and writers have looked to the past, particularly to previous public health crises like the 1918 influenza pandemic, to glean information about how society reacts to mass death and illness. Diaries and letters written by those who fell ill in 1918 help us connect to those in a similar position to us over 100 years later.
But cataloging history as it’s happening isn’t a straightforward task. Schwier says with so much happening over the past year, giving the project a permanent name is “it’s kind of impossible right now,” she says, “I think we’ll just have to name it later.” The fallout of COVID-19, racial justice marches, and elections are not a monolith says Knott. “They get experienced not as a single event, but actually multiple events with divergent timelines.”

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It is easy to see how an archive can be seen as a window to the past for future researchers and students, but it can also be useful to those who construct it in the present. “There’s a real yearning, I think, to make sense of what’s going on and to know that it’s meaningful,” says Knott. “We really were thinking about the clarity and comfort that comes from giving people in the here and now an opportunity to have a reason to document.”

People who want to share more painful or controversial thoughts can put a restriction on their submission that means it will not be released for five years. Schwier says one person went as far to make that number 50 years on their submission. But Im says “people self-curate” and are perhaps less likely to share submissions that represent the more traumatic moments of the pandemic: “[M]most people are not rushing to share those types of stories.”

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Many of the archives are focusing on digital submissions—photographs, digital diaries, art work—but some have also worked to create robust oral histories as events happen. The A/P/A Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project is an effort by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University to record how the current pandemic has affected Asian/Pacific American communities around the country. Vivian Truong, a postdoctoral fellow in Asian American studies at Vassar College, is one of the collaborators leading the project. She says currently they have 20 volunteers conducting oral histories over Zoom and so far have interviewed more than 40 people.  The guiding question, Truong says, is, “What are the experiences that people are having, but aren’t really encapsulated by all of these charts and graphs that we’re all seeing all the time?” It’s not just a health story, she adds, because the pandemic has coincided with anti-Asian violence and serious economic downturn in Chinatowns around the country. While there is no shortage of news sources to draw from, “it’s not a given that these stories are going to be remembered, in a way that people want them to be remembered,” she says.

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All of these projects have received hundreds or even thousands of submissions as people are eager to share stories and artifacts from their day-to-day lives. Schwier says at Indiana University, 40 or 50 people are regularly submitting content to the archive in the forms of lengthy diaries, social media posts, and websites. As time as progressed, she says, people started to include more about the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and subsequent racial justice demonstrations in their submissions. “In a sense it feels like many have learned to live with the virus, whatever that means for them,” she says, allowing other issues to rise to the surface.

In Los Angeles, Im says most of the 2,500 submissions are digital photographs. Some show messages such as “Be right back after these messages” on the marquee of a local movie theater. Others show health care professionals dressed up in full PPE. In Indiana, a retired registered nurse drew a portrait of a masked USPS employee, and a university employee submitted a diary of his “typical workday” in May 2020. One international student detailed the earliest days of the pandemic and his hurried trip back to Hungary in a diary titled “Escape from the USA.”

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Some people take their contributions to history very seriously. Schwier says one woman left a note in her will to ensure that if she dies before her journal gets submitted to the archives, her loved ones will know where to take it.

The A/P/A Voices project, Los Angeles Public Library, and Indiana University are all still accepting entries to their archives, and many more of these archives have open-ended dates for submission for anyone searching out a repository for their memories and thoughts.  To find a project near you, the local library, historical society or university is a good place to start. “Your experience is worthy of preservation,” says Schwier, “no matter how kind of boring all of our own lives may seem to us at the moment.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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