Everyday impressions during extraordinary times: Historians, archivists document the pandemic

First-person narratives strengthen our understanding of recent and long-ago history. Think of Nelson Mandela's "Conversations With Myself" during the anti-apartheid struggles and his time in prison; Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" and "The Diary of Lena Mukhina" during World War II; and "The Diary of Samuel Pepys" during the Restoration, the Great Plague and the Fire of London during 1660s England.

Eyewitness accounts provide details about everyday living during extraordinary times. Carrie Schwier and Sarah Knott have partnered to create an archive of Monroe County residents' thoughts and experiences during the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement for social justice. Schwier is outreach and public services archivist at University Archives, and Knott is the Sally M. Reahard Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences.

From top: The Buskirk-Chumley Theater marquee offers some words of inspiration from Mr. Rogers on March 22; the Herman B Wells sculpture wears a mask on Aug. 18, a submission from Kellene Mirowski; a "Black Lives Matter" sign with a drawing of George Floyd sits against a makeshift memorial on Bloomington's courthouse square on June 8. Photos courtesy of University Archives

Still seeking insights and entries

In March, before the university moved all classes online, Schwier and Knott began soliciting Monroe County residents and anyone affiliated with the university to document their experiences and express their feelings about the times through whatever formats they chose. Eight months later, the project continues to grow strong as volunteers contribute records through a variety of formats.

"At least 50 percent of the entries we receive are text based, including Word documents and PDFs," Schwier said. "Some volunteers have sent Word documents of their observations over the last few months, while others are sending their information via email.

"Several are submitting photos, and we've had a few people write songs that they have uploaded to YouTube. People are keeping their diaries on social media accounts, and we've archived those through our platform."

Knott said people from a variety of backgrounds are sharing their experiences.

"The respondents to date were born between 1938 and 1999, and the majority come from the Midwest, but others were born in the south, the west, in Europe or in India," Knott said. "They include Monroe County residents and university faculty, staff and students.

"The broadest range is their occupation. We are represented by students, nurses, social workers, writers and artists, instructors, consultants, and lawyers. We also are including IU faculty research and artistic work around the pandemic; we want to be sure to include that commentary in the collection as well."

Schwier and Knott continue to solicit submissions for the project; interested volunteers must fill out a Google form to gather information and send their submissions via email or to the mailing address provided on the form. Guidelines have been created for entries because of the nature of the information that might be shared.

"The project began as a response to document a public health crisis, and volunteers might want to share their personal health information," Schwier said. "That information must be protected, so all respondents have the opportunity to submit their entries anonymously or restrict materials for a certain period of time.

"This option also allows people even more security in being able to be completely honest in their submissions, to vent their emotions about the current moment and others, and they can feel safe being able to do that."

After a volunteer submits an entry, it is accessioned into the University Archives collection and given an identification number for tracking. The records are each labeled with the date of submission, the format, contact information for the donor/creator, possible access restrictions and the storage location. The digital entries are routed to Mary Mellon, the University Archives' digital archivist. As it is also possible for volunteers to submit physical items, the archivists process these submissions differently.

"For items that come to us in a physical form such as a handwritten diary or printed photographs, these are placed in acid-free, preservation-quality folders in a box that will be stored at the IU Libraries Auxiliary Library Facility, which is a secure climate-controlled book and object repository," Schwier said.

Once collection of new submissions has ended, the digital items will be processed and made publicly accessible for viewing on the Archives Online search portal.

"Our plan is to accept submissions until the current crisis seems over," Knott said. "For now, it is clear that we remain in 'coronavirus days' and the intersecting social crises and political movements."

All for the future

Knott said the most exciting part about the project is that information is being gathered for the future. She said that people today know what it's like to go through the COVID-19 pandemic and related social and political movements, but what is precious is being able to look back at it in retrospect.

The inspiration

Sarah Knott and Carrier Schwier drew inspiration for the project from the Mass Observation Archive.

"The original Mass Observation, a British social research organization, recruited ordinary people to document everyday life between 1937 and 1950," Knott said. "Their diaries bring to life the usual and the extraordinary: the objects on a mantelpiece, the choice of a child's name, the arrival of a new consumer good, the experience of war -- what the organizers thought of as an 'anthropology of ourselves.'

"Mass Observation reminds us that history is made by ordinary people's actions, and that gathering and keeping their words greatly matters."

"We are creating an outlet to document everyday experiences and creativity, and we're creating a record," Knott said. "Here we are, eight months into the pandemic in Bloomington, and we're immersed in a crisis. The IU Archives project is interested in making sure we gain a full, broad view of these times.

"These times are overwhelming with loss, grief, uncertainty and overwork. When these times pass, this collection will remain so people will better understand their own feelings and experiences of 2020, and other people's. And this is for perpetuity. This is an example of what a public research university can do."

Schwier said the project creates historic research for future generations.

"This could be used by future researchers in public health, in history and in anthropology to help students in the classroom better understand this time," Schwier said. "Creating this archive is supporting IU's mission to educate."

From top: An image submitted by Nick Cullather of the Sample Gates, eerily empty, on March 21; an image submission from Angela N. Castañeda of her children Max and Eloisa standing below signs of hope displayed in the windows of her family home on March 25; another image from Nick Cullather of the Conrad-Prebys Amphitheater appearing almost empty on May 3, what would have been graduation weekend. Photos courtesy of University Archives

Surprises

Knott and Schwier said some aspects of the projects have been unexpected. Knott said she was surprised by the extent to which people have found catharsis in writing about their experiences.

"They can be creative and reflective, and they voice appreciation about being afforded the opportunity to share," Knott said. "We don't tend to think of archives as providing those types of opportunities, yet this is what we are doing. It's very moving."

Schwier said she was surprised by the range of formats that people have used to send their insights.

"It is stretching us as archivists about how to preserve these different things, which has been the challenge of our profession over the last decade or so," Schwier said. "It is getting us to think through workflow that we have considered in the past, but now has become even more important."