Libraries collect COVID-19 artifacts and stories
Numbers alone don’t always tell the whole story. In 100 years, what will future generations know about our collective coronavirus experience? Hopefully more than we know about the Spanish flu survivors, if special collections directors have anything to say about it.
In order to ensure that personal experiences are documented for the history books, libraries and universities across the nation are collecting COVID-19 diaries and archival information from anyone willing to contribute. Whether you’re a health care worker, a COVID-19 survivor, a student, a relative of a COVID-19 victim, or just a person struggling through this strange time in our history, your story matters, and experts say that sharing it will enrich the lives of others from now and into the future.
Alpena County Library, for one, is encouraging anyone and everyone to participate in sharing their stories of COVID-19 with the library’s Special Collections Department. That way, history can be captured and catalogued on a more personal level from which future generations can learn.
EVERYONE HAS A UNIQUE STORY
Kingsli Kraft of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority is not only encouraging downtown workers, residents and business owners to submit their stories to the Alpena County Library, but she has been working on her own diary entries for submission to the downtown-specific collection at the library.
“When all of this started, I wondered what impact this would have on our culture,” Kraft said of the pandemic. “What things, 100 years from now, will people look back on … what will carry on, and how will our culture have changed?
“Will you ever just spontaneously hug someone in the street that you ran into?” Kraft continued, adding that she recently had a birthday and the “weirdest thing” was not being able to hug anyone.
“I felt like I couldn’t truly express how grateful I was to the people who went out of their way to make sure I had a good day,” she said. “It felt weird to not be able to physically express my thanks.”
Kraft is a single 24-year-old woman who lives alone. Throughout the pandemic, she has been journaling, which has focused mostly on her isolation experience. She said most of her friends either live with family, spouses or roommates.
“I’m not sick of any of my roommates because I don’t have any,” she said. “I’m still kind of navigating this on my own. It has been a very different experience for me because sometimes I don’t talk out loud all day. I’m here by myself. So, the days that I have a virtual meeting, I’m like, ‘Yes! I can speak!’ It’s just something that I didn’t even think about. I just remember one day feeling really down and then realizing I hadn’t said any words out loud all day.”
She said everyone’s experience throughout the pandemic is going to be different, and therefore, more participation in something like this will make COVID-19 diary projects successful.
“Even if you feel like your experience wasn’t very exciting or interesting, there’s always something that someone else can glean from that,” Kraft said.
VULNERABILITY IS VALUABLE
Kraft has been journaling for more than five years now, and she has tips for anyone who doesn’t know where to start.
“I think the biggest struggle when people first start journaling is being authentic,” said Kraft, who serves as the Alpena DDA marketing and outreach coordinator. “It’s like they’re afraid other people are going to read it.”
She explained that people can submit anonymously to the library if they prefer not to have their name appear with an entry. She then added that being honest is the best mindset to have when someone goes into journaling.
The process can be a bit overwhelming at first, she said, but a tip for getting started is finding a prompt with which one can be comfortable. Even starting a list can help, she said, noting that listing what a typical day looked like before the pandemic compared with what it looks like now could be a good jumping off point.
Allowing thoughts and emotions flow onto a page, she said, is what makes journaling valuable and even cathartic.
“I think sometimes people are afraid of things being imperfect when it comes to journaling, but I think that imperfectness is what makes it authentic and what makes it your true experience,” Kraft said. “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes or saying something wrong, or being vulnerable, because I think that vulnerability is something that we’ve all been experiencing right now, and it’s something we can all identify with.”
INFORMATION INSPIRES PROGRESS
Kraft said collecting the experiences of those downtown will not only provide a narrative, but it will also assist leaders in future decision-making if and when similar situations arise.
“Honestly, I think anyone who owns a business at this time, anywhere in Alpena or anywhere in the world, should be documenting their experience and saving it and preserving it for future generations, for leadership to truly see what it was like,” Kraft said.
She then explained that the pandemic and quarantine experience has brought her closer to her circle of friends and family. Plus, she said that she believes virtual meetings are more intimate than in-person board meetings because in virtual meetings, people can make eye contact with one another at once.
She added that seeing people in their personal home settings also makes you feel more connected to them as human beings, and not just as coworkers or business people.
“I think it’s allowed everyone to get a glimpse of that personal touch, and that humanity, something that they can really connect to,” Kraft said. “I think that’s just brought people together even more in a way that they haven’t in the past.”
MORE SUBMISSIONS NEEDED
Alpena County Library Special Collections Librarian Don La Barre is heading up Alpena’s COVID Diary Project, which began in April. He has received some submissions but welcomes more.
Submissions he’s received thus far have included comments about the political atmosphere, general accounts of missing social gatherings and time with family, and having plans canceled.
“In a time when we are all kind of individually isolated, I think sharing that experience is really important to future generations and others, understanding what this was like to go through,” La Barre said. “But also I think it’s a way to share your personal stories, or your family’s stories, of how they persevered or dealt with being in this situation, and sharing that motivation.”
He said the Alpena community has come together to weather the COVID-19 storm as a whole.
“I think a lot of people are concerned, worried and frightened, but I also think there’s a lot of hope and there’s a lot of positivity that’s floating around, especially in our community,” La Barre said. “On our street, everyone has some type of heart in the window, or artwork that’s up, and I think that’s a really amazing thing.”
Giving people a platform to share their personal stories is essential to local history, La Barre added. He also said that right now, the focus is on digital submissions because people cannot physically go to the library, but when things open back up, there will be opportunities for physical submissions of journals, photographs and the like.
He then explained that in the future, he would like to be able to interview folks about their experiences to archive in their oral history files. Inspiration for it, he said, came from several other libraries, including the Kalamazoo Public Library, Library of Michigan partnered with the Historical Society of Michigan and Indiana University. Wright State University in Ohio also has a similar project.
WRITING BETTER HISTORY
Tim Gleisner is the manager of special collections at the Library of Michigan.
“In different periods of history, we wish we would have had more first-hand accounts,” Gleisner said. “So, obviously, like 1918, the Spanish flu. We have photos from that time period. We have some accounts, but not a lot, and what we’re trying to do is fill that gap right now in this truly historical period.”
In 1918, a deadly strain of influenza infiltrated the U.S., killing an estimated 50 to 100 million Americans, including 15,000 Michigan residents, which would be the equivalent of 50,000 today.
“When we look back at what the state collected during the 1918 flu epidemic, we find government records, but few glimpses into what the crisis meant on a personal level,” Sandra Clark, the Michigan History Center Director, said in a press release. “Our goal is to collect the stories of diverse Michiganders from across the state, and our hope is that the record we preserve in 2020 will help future generations understand what it felt like to live through this time.”
Here is one submission to the Michigan History Center’s Collecting COVID-19 project:
“My 80-year-old mom died from Covid-19 after living in a Nursing Home. Please stay home and stay safe. This virus is not a hoax or a joke. She was healthy, just old. After contracting the virus, she struggled to breathe and spent a week in the hospital where they suctioned her lungs because she was too weak to sit up and cough. Her family could not visit her or be by her side during this time because of the precautions needed so that we would not contract the virus. The nursing home was on self-quarantine for several weeks before she contracted the virus so we could not see her for more than a month and then she died alone with only strangers in hazmat suits around her. This is why non-essential travel has been limited. It’s not a civil rights issue it’s a public health issue. No one has immunity from this disease.” (Submitted by Jeannie K.)
Collecting personal stories is the first in a three-phase project. The second phase of the project will be collecting three-dimensional objects and documents related to the coronavirus emergency for the Michigan History Museum system’s collections once it is safe to do so.
The third phase, meanwhile, will involve long-term collecting of stories, through oral history and interviews, memoirs and other materials created during the reflection period after an immediate crisis. The materials will then be preserved in both the museum and archival collections, according to a press release from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
LEARNING FROM 1918
“Looking back into history helps us understand how to handle today’s public health emergency,” Jillian Reese, curator with the Michigan History Museum, said in a press release.
She explained that, when military personnel in Detroit, Bay City and at Camp Custer started getting sick in 1918, containment efforts were sluggish. People insisted that the flu had been around forever and had high recovery rates.
Michigan Gov. Albert Sleeper banned large public gatherings within two weeks of the outbreak. Many officials waited to make requests until the area’s hospitals were overrun and the flu had been circulating for months. Some communities underreported infection numbers to keep businesses open, while others protested that the restrictions were too harsh.
Michigan had 554 influenza deaths in 1917. In 1918, 6,336 died of influenza between October and December alone. Some places in Michigan, such as Oscoda, Roscommon and Kalamazoo counties, saw more than a 90 percent increase in deaths from 1917 to 1918, and most counties saw a 20 to 50 percent increase in deaths.
“Lax containment practices made Michigan’s influenza pandemic worse,” Reese said.
She said hospital workers continued to go to theaters and dancehalls. Families with sick members welcomed guests to their homes. The state saw spikes in infections after large community gatherings, including World War I victory parades and Thanksgiving parades in November 1918.
In all, Michigan had four influenza outbreaks. The last large community outbreak occurred in 1920, more than two years after the initial introduction of the disease, the DNR release explained.
Researching the 1918 pandemic, Michigan History Center staff members found little information in the Archives of Michigan revealing details about the flu’s impact on Michiganders’ lives. They want to make sure those gaps are filled when people eventually look back on the current pandemic.
REPORT WHAT YOU SEE NOW
Gleisner recalls his own experience walking down the street in his neighborhood to find a COVID-19 testing site with tents set up, and that got him thinking that everyone will have their own unique experiences to share.
That thought may have had credence as submissions to the Library of Michigan are nearing 100 right now, Gleisner said.
“We’re working in conjunction with the Historical Society of Michigan,” he noted. “We want to know common people, whose stories aren’t usually recorded, what they’re going through … how it altered their lives.”
He said he hopes that decision-makers will be able to learn from the experience.
“More than likely, this might happen again,” Gleisner said. “It’s happened before, and it will happen again. And it would be good, not just for us, but for our grandchildren to understand that this is what we went through, and this is how we dealt with it.”
He added that many more submissions should be coming in, because some people are collecting entries from their communities before submitting them altogether.
“We’ve gotten photos, we’ve gotten diary entries, we’ve gotten poetry,” Gleisner said. “The most interesting one … somebody asked us if we would take a musical composition that they did, based on their experiences with COVID-19.”
Once everything is collected, Gleisner said they will decide how to present it to the public when the buildings open back up and some semblance of normalcy returns.
“An actual exhibit, we haven’t really discussed yet,” he said. “But digitally would probably be the first place — we have a website, the Library of Michigan Digital.”
IT ALL HAPPENED SO FAST
At Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, as discussions started in February and March surrounding the coronavirus, no one really knew what to expect.
“We all started hearing rumblings about this virus, and it wasn’t really on the front burner, until, all of a sudden, the university was faced with closure, and the next thing we knew, we were working from home on March 17,” said Dawne Dewey, head of Special Collections and Archives at Wright State University Libraries. “So, when it happened, our archives, we’ve always been proactive about collecting materials for events and people and things that are happening now. We don’t wait for it to be 50 years ago.”
She said other projects were cropping up around the country, and they wanted to participate in documenting the current historical events.
The project launched shortly after Dewey and her colleagues started working remotely in mid-March.
“We’ve been very busy ever since,” she said.
One of the submissions was from a grandmother whose daughter was about to give birth to her new grandchild, “and she wasn’t going to be able to be with her, or go and see the child,” Dewey explained. “She talked about how she was upset with people who were not taking it seriously.”
She said among the submissions are comments on both sides of the issue and from people of all ages — from young students to the elderly.
“A lot of variety, and a lot of really poignant entries,” Dewey said.
Another submission was from a retired medical doctor who served in the Vietnam War, and how he dealt with diseases there, and in working with the Centers for Disease Control.
“He wrote about his experiences then and compared it to what he was experiencing today as somebody who’s in his 80s and at-risk,” she said.
Dewey then talked about the importance of participating in the project.
“We’re all living through something we’ve never lived through before right now, and we’re all experiencing it in different ways,” she said. “Future generations need to be able to read and study what was going on and how we reacted to it, and how we got through it.”
ONLINE SUBMISSION IS EASY
Ryan Gage, local history manager for the Kalamazoo Public Library, started talking with his department six or seven weeks ago about putting together an online form for people to submit their digital photos, videos and text accounts of how the pandemic is affecting their individual lives.
“We knew that this was a very unique and special time in our history,” Gage said, adding that the librarians asked, “How can we capture this moment?”
They developed an online form on the library’s homepage, and people are sending in submissions. He said they have received about 40 in the last two weeks, when the collection started.
“A lot of what we will be getting will be in a digital format,” he explained, since the library is physically not open right now, and receiving digital submissions is the safest way to collect the information.
Gage said right now is the best time to be collecting personal images, videos and written accounts, because the experience is fresh and ongoing.
“We’re kind of in the middle of it,” Gage said. “Historians want to get information while it’s happening.”
He said if people wait to tell their stories, details could be missed or overlooked.
“We know memories fade,” Gage said. “People are going to want to get back to normal … We didn’t want to lose that information.”
Gage said the COVID-19 pandemic “really has struck a national and international chord.” He added that everyone’s experience is different, and they want to capture those nuances.
Each personal account adds historical value, he said.
“Hopefully, we can get a broad picture of those experiences,” Gage said, before concluding, “The ubiquitous image of people wearing masks will be the symbol of this time period.”
Darby Hinkley is Lifestyles editor. She can be reached at 989-358-5691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.