Archivists are chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic

By Barbara Gutierrez

Archivists are chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic

By Barbara Gutierrez
University of Miami Libraries has launched Documenting COVID-19: South Florida’s Pandemic Experience to collect valuable stories on how South Florida communities are dealing with the crisis.

How will future generations view the COVID-19 pandemic? What materials will be available for scholars, students, and the community to assess the impact of the pandemic on our society? 

Through its new initiative, Documenting COVID-19: South Florida’s Pandemic Experience,University of Miami Libraries, is ensuring that there will be plenty of archival material on how South Florida dealt with the virus.

Charles Eckman, dean of libraries, believes this historical moment is dominated by concerns related to the pandemic and social justice. 

“Most of us are reflecting on the meaning of our work and lives,” he said. “Similarly, cultural memory organizations such as libraries and archives are experiencing something of a paradigm shift in what it takes to fully document a contemporary experience.” 

Libraries are re-evaluating their practices, focusing on how and what they choose to collect, he said. 

“This review is framed by the imperative to ensure that our work is defined by inclusivity and equity, both in terms of how we conduct the work and also in terms of how we present the archival product. Documenting COVID-19: South Florida’s Pandemic Experience reflects these concerns and thus fulfills an essential role amidst this experience that is relevant on a global scale.”

Kalani Adolpho, processing archivist of the Manuscripts and Archives Management Department, and Béatrice Colastin Skokan, head of manuscripts and archives management and curator of Caribbean collections, discussed the values of archives and details of the coronavirus project. 

What is a library archive and what is its value?

Library archives house the historical and cultural traces of people as they choose to record them in documents, artifacts, and works of art. Whenever human beings have been able to and wanted to keep tangible traces of memories, there have been archives in the form of diaries, journals, letters, photographs, minutes, scrapbooks, and now blogs, digital images, emails, websites, and social media posts that serve as evidence of history in the making. These historical artifacts reflect the perspectives and lived experiences of the creators of these archives. Archives provide historical narratives that are essential to the teaching, research, and creative endeavors of students, faculty, and the larger community. 

  • Béatrice Colastin Skokan

What kind of collections does the University Archives hold? 

The University Archives is a specialized repository that preserves the history of the University of Miami. It is one of many archival collections within the University of Miami Libraries. Faculty, students, and alumni who visit the University Archives have consulted the UM Historical Photographs Collection, the Miami Hurricane, University of Miami yearbooks, publications from the various colleges and student organizations such as the Malaika handbooks published by the United Black Students, and commencement programs to name a few of the holdings. Many University of Miami collections and publications are also available in digital format from the University Archives Digital website:https://merrick.library.miami.edu/digitalprojects/archives.php.

  • Béatrice Colastin Skokan

How are you documenting COVID-19 for future scholars? Are you including videos and digital materials?

Following models we saw at other institutions, we at the University of Miami Libraries Distinctive Collections decided to create Documenting COVID-19: South Florida’s Pandemic Experience. The purpose of this project is to document our communities’ experiences and perspectives during this pandemic through community-generated and -contributed content that will be made available through our digital collections and by visiting the library. We are primarily focusing on documenting the experiences of South Florida (defined as residents of Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties) and members of the University of Miami community, wherever they might be residing at this time.  

We are collecting digital content in the form of text, photos, audio, and video files through a submission form we created that is available on our project website. 

In the future, when it is safe to do so, we will also be accepting physical or analog submissions, such as journals, photographs, flyers, and scrapbooks.  

While we will be providing examples of subject matter we are interested in—and reflection prompts for those who wish to contribute but do not know where to start—we are deliberately leaving things open to ensure we collect and preserve a wide variety of experiences and perspectives from our community members. 

We want to document everything we experience at this time—from firsthand and secondhand accounts of those who have fallen ill to how COVID-19 has impacted everyday parts of life, such as grocery shopping, dating, graduating, community organizing, protesting, working, and being a student, and how our different identities impact these experiences further.

  • Kalani Adolpho

 Have other pandemics been documented, and have you learned any lessons from that?

The 1918 influenza virus is often discussed and compared to COVID-19. Archival collections around the 1918 influenza contain important lessons for archivists, both in what is there and what is missing. While there are many surviving diaries, photographs, news clippings, etc., that have been donated to archival institutions in the United States, they predominantly reflect the experiences of middle class white Americans.

The symbolic annihilation of marginalized people in archival collections is an issue many of us in the profession are trying to correct and is likewise important to actively work against while documenting this pandemic. 

Considering COVID-19 disproportionately affects Black, indigenous, and other marginalized communities, we need to ensure their experiences are documented, valued, and preserved.

Additionally, while I have seen a lot of articles about what the 1918 influenza teaches us about flattening the curve, I have also seen a lot of people look to that pandemic in order to understand what to expect “the new normal” to look like for us.

The documentation around the 1918 influenza also shows us the importance of documenting daily life—how did or didn’t we take care of each other throughout this crisis, what did it feel like from day to day, what was public perception, and how did this change as time went on?  

  • Kalani Adolpho 

Why is it important to collect these materials? 

The only way we know anything about history is through objects and information that persist into our time—we know what happened in the past because we have documentary evidence, we have diaries, we have newspapers, we have human memory, and more, that tells us what happened. The actions, attitudes, and experiences of everyday people are crucial in the construction of the historical record, and they help us humanize and relate to the past.

Fortunately, at this point in history, we have an unprecedented amount of information being created by everyday people, but there are unique challenges with preserving information that is born digital. With paper-based materials, they can be left for decades, or for hundreds of years, and often still be accessible, but this isn’t the case for digital files. Digital files cannot be left alone for 10 years, or 20 years, and be expected to be accessible the way paper records often can. Materials created during this time will be used to construct the historical record, to inform future researchers what it was like to experience COVID-19 in South Florida, and therefore we must actively collect and begin preserving them now.

  • Kalani Adolpho