Years from now, historians will rely on newspaper clippings, institutional announcements and personal records such as diaries to study the effects of the coronavirus on society. These kinds of documentation form part of the historical record, said Sarah Knott, an associate professor in IU’s history department.
Stories of everyday life are especially hard to collect if they’re not recorded in some way, Knott said. To address this, Knott and Carrie Schwier, outreach and public services archivist at the Herman B Wells Library, are calling for the IU community and people in surrounding areas to record their experiences as the COVID-19 pandemic develops for the University Archives.
“We wanted to respond immediately to that future historical absence by inviting faculty, students, alumni, staff and neighbors of the university to document this crisis as it unfolds,” Knott said.
Volunteers for “Coronavirus: Archive Your Story” can offer handwritten or typed diaries, drawings, stories or poems, according to the project's website, which launched on March 20.
Knott said government announcements or news stories released during a crisis don’t tell much about the lived experience. Documentation about a person’s daily life will help inform research over the period in the future.
“We would miss an awful lot of our everyday experience if we only relied on announcements from institutions, if we wanted to tell this history retrospectively,” Knott said.
In less than a week, Knott and Schwier received 30 responses from prospective volunteers, who suggested handwritten diaries, blogs, video diaries and social media posts.
“We’re in a very shifting situation, and our aim is to give people the opportunity to have their voices be part of an archive,” Knott said.
The University Archives’ collection includes documents generated by University administration and academic departments, as well as records about the University and the IU community, according to its website. The documents submitted to “Coronavirus: Archive Your Story" will show, through different storytelling mediums, the experience of living through a pandemic by locals.
Schwier and Knott plan on accepting submissions from Indiana, with a primary focus in Monroe County and the IU community. Schwier is especially interested to hear from health workers, people in retirement communities and those in shelters.
“We really want to get a diverse set of voices documented through this project,” Schwier said.
Schwier said archivists around the country are finding ways to best document this time period. For now, Schwier and Knott want to gather information about volunteers for the archive project as the pandemic unfolds. This includes their name, email, affiliation with the university, geographic location and type of file submission, such as audio, photo, video and/or handwritten text, among other questions, so they can anticipate what is coming.
Later, they will figure out how to organize the submissions for archival purposes. They want to keep it open-ended and flexible so many people can learn about it early on and figure out how to incorporate documentation into their daily lives, Knott said.
“That’s what a crisis is, right?” Knott said. “It’s something that changes under your feet.”