Enlarge /. Hand made face masks drying in southeast France.
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On March 13, the day the New York Historical Society closed its doors to the public, Rebecca Klassen, an associate curator of material culture, was flipping through Instagram when she noticed something. A friend from the gym had posted a picture of her story of a giant bottle of Purell. At this point, the shelves in the five districts were already free of disinfectants. The picture, says Klassen, was reminiscent of "a kind of night run in the frantic search for disinfectants". It was known as "liquid gold".
The post asked classes to send two messages. The first was an email to Margaret K. Hofer, the museum director and vice president of the Historical Society, asking if they should start collecting items from New Yorkers related to the coronavirus pandemic. The second was a DM in response to her friend's story. "Hey, can I have this when you're done?" She asked. "I want to add it to our museum collection."
People tend to view archives as huge treasures that are compiled long after an era has ended or after someone dies. But when it comes to COVID-19, archivists, curators, and librarians across the country are seeing in real time how the pandemic is affecting their communities, collecting everything from makeshift masks to diary entries to protest signs. Your mandate is both urgent and comprehensive: collect items from a wide circle of residents who together tell the story of a particular region's collective experience with coronavirus. "A lot can be lost over time," said Ayshea Khan, archivist for the Asian-American community at the Austin History Center. “Memories can shift, things can be thrown away. It is important to archive as much as possible the present moments when they occur to ensure an accurate representation of the history of our city. "
COVID-19 affects not only what is archived, but also how. Before the lockdowns, library and history center staff held fundraisers, attended events to look for discarded physical artifacts, and worked with local storage keepers to obtain the goods. “Normally we are on the street with our quick-reacting collection,” says Hofer. These days, however, archivists had to get creative. Many organizations have set up online portals for volunteers to submit digital files – audio, photos, poetry, whatever you call it. Some collections are more selective than others, but if the archive that is being created is largely digital and donor-focused, there may be reason to stick with almost anything that is within the scope of the project. "It's a comprehensive collection of resources," said Madeline Moya, media archivist at the Austin History Center. "We don't know what a researcher will be looking for at any given time." Searching these submissions will be a lot of work, but that is an issue for later. The aim for now is to collect as quickly and comprehensively as possible.Enlarge /. The Austin History Center uses its social media to collect pictures and artifacts from 2020.
At the Austin History Center, collecting for the so-called "COVID-19 files" began on Facebook, where Marina Islas, the AHC's Latinx community archivist, asked a question: "We are living in a historic moment. How does this affect yours Meanwhile, Khan emailed organizers and groups she had previously worked with to gain her experience and participated in a virtual town hall dealing with anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 Moya reached out to a well-known photographer who works with the Austin homeless community to donate recent works. Afsheen Nomai, audiovisual archivist who has been on the r / Austin subreddit for a decade, archived the contributions of one User whose daily coronavirus charts had developed a loyal following.
In New York, Klassen has made extensive use of Instagram. She has informed friends about donating items like the oversized Purell bottle, but says the app is also a way of tracking trends beyond the confines of your own filter bubble. “When you see something that is shared multiple times or visually through images, it becomes more meaningful and collectable,” she says. During the first few months of the pandemic, she noticed people posting photos of budding miniature herb gardens and handwritten thank you notes from local businesses, and looking for those pictures for collection. When the Black Lives Matter protests began in late May, the app became their way of keeping track of New York City's numerous organizing efforts and informing attendees about how to donate tokens or tell their stories. The New York Historical Society's collection program is among those that are now collecting materials from both the pandemic and protests. "Some people see pandemic collecting and Black Lives Matter collecting as two separate streams," Klassen says. "On the one hand, they are, but they are also very closely related."
Not only that, but many topics that are the focus of both are of central importance for archiving. Decisions about who should be remembered and whose voice should be heard have been instrumental in maintaining racism as long as there have been history books. Done right, community gathering can be an opportunity to redefine what types of stories, artifacts, and experiences are prioritized and preserved.
Enlarge /. The pandemic isn't the only big event of 2020, of course – museums are trying to capture materials from the Black Lives Matter protests to selected materials and school pictures. Here a protester holds a placard in Timss Square during the protest against the Black Lives Matter in early August.
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Scientists from previous pandemics know firsthand that this is essential. Nancy K. Bristow, chair of the Department of History at the University of Puget Sound and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, began her research in hopes of understanding the experiences of her working-class great-grandparents in Pittsburgh. Finding information about poorer Americans, least of all those who wielded even less social power, was a great challenge, however. “Without substantial and sustained efforts to gather the stories and experiences of people from diverse communities, we risk silencing those who are removed from political, economic and cultural power, the very people whose stories we need most have to hear, ”she says.
J. Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, agrees. He has researched influenza epidemics for years and often finds the documents available to him missing. "Archives generally collect materials from 'more important' people," he says. "As a result, we are lacking a plethora of very rich – if not sadder – stories of how everyday people experienced the 1918 pandemic."
The Austin History Center created its community archives program to fill those gaps in its collections, many of which privilege white history. Since 2000, the city has been actively seeking non-white archivists to build trusting relationships with its color communities and facilitate the preservation of their stories. For example, in recent years the center has shown exhibits showcasing Austin's first Chinese families and photos from the Villager Newspaper, the city's longest-running black community newspaper. “I got into this work because I believe archives and other forms of memory can be meaningful spaces for healing in times of trauma,” says Khan. "Especially for people with color, being able to share your story in your own words is something very powerful." Still, this spring and summer have highlighted the gaps in the history center's services. Looking at the COVID-19 materials collected so far, "there is silence, especially in our various black, brown and other color communities," she notes. "We still have a lot to do."
In a year when, in the best of circumstances, people are finding out something day after day, it can be difficult to wrap your head around anything that looks to the future, least of all a project designed to help people in the distant future to understand what is happening in the world gift. But archivists know that is exactly what must begin now. At some point this pandemic will end and these archives will be organized. History centers will create digital exhibits and physical displays. And one day, when historians, kids working on school projects, or anyone curious to know more about what it was like to live in Austin in 2020, for example, they can see for themselves. Pictures of the boarded up bars on Sixth Street, memories of how they defied the hospital and grocery store, signs made in protest outside the Austin Police Department, and yes, bottles of Purell will all be there to help them a richer, more complete draft of the story to write.
This story first appeared on wired.com.