Libraries Help Us Preserve Our COVID-Era Stories
Humans are natural storytellers. We know that history isn’t just the official accounts and what’s in the news. History, if properly told, is filled with stories passed down from people to people and through generations. Exploring stories throughout history teaches us a lot about how the world was. COVID-19 will make it in the history books as one of the largest public health crises the world has faced in the past century. But how did people living through it experience the events they witnessed, the emotions they felt, and how everything was affected by the shutdowns?
Libraries are one of the key local organizations working to capture what life is like in pandemic times. Back in the early 1900s during the Spanish Influenza pandemic, there were not as many documented cases of personal experiences and ephemera. We do not know an extensive amount about what it was like for someone living through that time period. Institutions across the country and the globe recognize the importance of preserving these experiences this time through. That is why COVID-19 archives are popping up at institutions all over the world.
By seeking the help of their local communities and historical societies, libraries across the nation and the world are creating digital and physical archives to document the effects of the pandemic on everyday life. These stories will all piece together to give insight to future generations on what this past year in lockdown has been like for different populations of people.
Preserving Important Materials
There’s plenty of information and media that libraries are interested in collecting and saving. In Cumberland County, a digital archive was developed to gather snippets of the daily lives of county residents. Cumberland County during COVID-19: Archiving History as it Happens was created using StoryMaps in ArcGIS. This platform is where they save digital submissions from the residents. They are encouraged to submit photos, videos, and stories related to their new routines which are then used to update the archive daily. There is even a map included on the archive site that shows people where all of the stories are coming from.
In addition to electronic submissions, the archive is also receiving plenty of physical materials to add to the library and archives. Local nonprofit organizations have reached out to contribute various memos that have been collected so far. A library on the other side of the world has similar goals in mind. The State Library of Victoria located in Australia called upon citizens to gather as many COVID-19 related materials as they could. These items contribute to the Memory Bank: A Collective Isolation Project, the archiving project that this library has been working on since the pandemic started. They are focused on collecting all types of stories from extraordinary moments to ordinary, everyday experiences. They request that people hold on to paraphernalia related to the pandemic, anything from leaflets to temporary take-out menus to shopping lists and receipts.
Beyond asking for physical materials, the library also requests that the public participate in weekly prompts that dive into the details of everyday life. The first prompt that library posted asked people what they had in their fridge and pantry and their most recent and final prompt asked the public to share what they would want people in 100 years to know about this time. While these topics range from seemingly trivial to deep, all of it could potentially be beneficial to future scholars studying the pandemic. In retrospect, tiny details of peoples’ lives put within the context of the archive can be very insightful.
Social media is a major aspect of life in 2020. All sorts of materials are shared across the internet every second of the day from funny videos and memes to informative posts and calls for social action. Pictures being shared in regards to the pandemic are also being collected using social media platforms like Twitter. A variety of hashtags have been created to make these pandemic-related stories, pictures, and videos easier to find. Try searching #covidstreetarchives and #NSWathome for posts that document signs and scenes that people come across.
A few examples include social distancing signs asking people to stay 6 feet apart or store signs about customer limits. Other pictures that are common include signs asking people to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and to avoid entering buildings if they’ve been recently exposed to positive cases. Thousands of photos can be shared this way, making it easier for libraries to collect data and include materials in their archives. Pandemic posts on social media show people doing virtual Zoom meetings for work, starting on home improvement projects, and spending days in isolation.
Diary entries and journaling are classic ways of documenting history. This is also a great recordkeeping method that can be used for others to learn from. Journaling entries provide detailed accounts of daily activities and many times include reactions and emotions to the writer’s surroundings. The Diary Files is a project the New South Wales State Library has embarked on during the Coronavirus pandemic. They are wanting the public to keep written records of their experiences to contribute to a collective journaling project. Many well-known people have participated in the project like Tim Ross, Michelle Law, and Wendy Sharpe. This journaling project is made up of small, daily accounts on how people are feeling and what they are thinking. They include prose and poetry and can be organized and sorted by author so people can browse through entries written by the same person.
For other interesting COVID-19 archive projects and stories, check out our article, “We Are All Living Through History. Let’s Make Sure to Archive It” on our EveryLibrary Medium.
How to Contribute to COVID Archives
Those looking to get involved can easily do so. As mentioned before, institutions and organizations everywhere are trying to preserve as much as they can from this pandemic especially because they’ve realized the disadvantages of having limited information on major historical events. A quick internet search can pull up archive projects currently occurring at different universities, libraries, and museums. Plenty of locations are looking for contributions of COVID stories to help build their archives.
You can refine your searches based on what you are interested in. For some, this may mean being active with their local community. Your public library may be working on their own COVID archives project or partnering with larger institutions to create a collection of stories. Your local library is also a great resource to help you with your search. They can connect you to other organizations in the area who are working on archival projects. You can also look into university libraries, state libraries or independent organizations.
Organizations are looking for all types of stories which means people of any background can look into participating in COVID archives. Anyone can contribute their own stories to history because everyone is going through the pandemic. They are looking for the perspectives of anyone from healthcare workers on the frontlines vaccinating and treating patients to people that are in retail settings dealing with customers who refuse to wear masks. Everyone has their own experience with surviving a pandemic and that is really what the archives are hoping to capture.
When thinking about things to submit, focus on the experiences and emotions closest to you. This could be describing your experience in isolation while you were waiting out your mild symptoms or worries you may have with family members and loved ones. They could also encompass something as basic as going to the grocery store with masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer ready to go. These projects encourage people to keep a record of their thoughts, feelings, and observations. Anything that gets collected could one day be displayed at museum exhibitions, make their way into research, or feature in pandemic retellings.
Evolving As We Go
These COVID archive projects have been ongoing for months with many reaching their one year mark. While the pandemic has been occurring for such a long time, it doesn’t mean that anything being submitted is now redundant. There have been many changes in what we’ve learned and how we’ve adapted during the pandemic. Countries that were able to battle through the first round are experiencing additional waves. There are different strains that have surfaced since the first Coronavirus case was first discovered. Some places are still doing a great job of keeping guidelines in place to prevent major outbreaks within their cities. The United States and many other places have seen a transition in power. All of these updates affect how life during the Coronavirus pandemic is for individuals all over the world.
One of the major events that applies to everyone is the development of vaccines capable of combating the virus, keeping symptoms at a mild level and even being able to completely prevent some people from catching it. Since late last year a handful of vaccines have been developed and approved in places all over the world with the Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccine coming to the forefront so far. These evolving stories will now take on a new lens with those sharing their vaccination stories and the impacts this makes in their community. Archiving organizations have been doing their work all throughout the pandemic. Now, library spaces are also being used as vaccination centers in some cities, creating a bigger connection between communities, COVID stories, and the local library. Preserving history in the making is what will help us remember- and grow- from this unexpected experience that the world is going through.