With COVID-19 archives, Brown students, faculty and staff aim to diversify the historical record

In the midst of the first global pandemic of the digital age, historians and archivists, both at Brown and across the globe, have launched countless efforts to record history in the making.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In March 2020, Kristen Iemma realized her spring course, “Archival Interventions,” could use an intervention of its own.

Iemma, a doctoral candidate in American studies at Brown, began the course in January by exploring issues of memory, race and exclusion in archives, confronting a range of questions about the role of power in the creation of the historical record.

Two months later, when the University moved classes entirely online to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, Iemma realized the perfect case study was staring her right in the face.

“As things began to escalate with the pandemic in March, it became clear that the original final assignment for the class — a traditional 8- to 10-page paper — didn't really seem to fit anymore,” Iemma said. “I gave my students the option to collectively design and build a digital archive of the pandemic. It seemed like we had a tremendous opportunity to employ a semester's worth of very applicable readings and discussions in the creation of a digital archive, and my students agreed.”

The five students in the course ultimately decided that their archive would focus on the pandemic experiences of undergraduates at Brown. They scraped content from student group websites, University resources and social media accounts in an attempt to tell a comprehensive, inclusive story about students’ experiences, feelings and hardships in the midst of an unprecedented time. Using the open-source web publishing platform Omeka, they built a publicly accessible repository for their archive, which continues to grow every week. So far, the archive contains more than 900 items, from screenshots to photos to confessional Facebook posts.

“I think my students have done a brilliant job of creating a space to record their own experiences and that of their peers, an archive truly by and for Brown undergraduates,” Iemma said.

In the midst of the first global pandemic of the digital age, historians and archivists, both at Brown and across the globe, have launched countless efforts to record history in the making. Typically, scholars are many years removed from the artifacts they collect and must infer patterns from whatever fraction of information has survived. But this time, they are aiming to preserve a diversity of ephemeral content — Instagram stories, ever-changing websites, now-deleted tweets — that could provide future historians with rare insight into the changing public mood over the course of the pandemic.

Iemma’s archival intervention is just one of many current efforts by students, faculty and staff at Brown to capture and preserve stories from the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolds.

Brown’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women recorded conversations about the pandemic with female, transgender and nonbinary University community members as part of the Pembroke Center Oral History Project. Kate Mason, a medical anthropologist at Brown, partnered with colleagues at the University of Connecticut to launch the Pandemic Journaling Project, which collects journal entries in text, audio or photo form submitted by members of the public worldwide to aid current and future research about this era. And the Brown Library is building a pandemic collection in its Digital Repository in part by soliciting contributions to a COVID-19 community archive, which they hope will feature pandemic-related podcasts, artwork, poems and more from the Brown community.

“This is an extraordinary moment in world history and in Brown history, because it’s something we are all experiencing together,” said University Archivist Jennifer Betts, who is part of the library’s effort to record the events of the pandemic. “We wanted to seize the opportunity to capture a wide range of experiences of students, faculty, staff and alumni at different points during the pandemic. It’s critical to capture that raw emotion people are experiencing right now.”

Anticipating scholars’ needs

In April, when the Brown Library prepared to launch its community archive, not many other colleges and universities had begun to embark on similar projects — so Betts and Andrew Majcher, the library’s head of digital services and records management, looked to local governments and nonprofit organizations that serve underrepresented groups, such as domestic violence resource centers, for cues on how to begin the work.

screenshot of COVID-19 archives
Twenty-six female, transgender and nonbinary students, staff and alumni have shared their pandemic experiences in interviews as part of the Pembroke Center Oral History Project.

“Just before we switched to remote operations, just as we were beginning to grasp the magnitude of this pandemic, I thought, ‘How do we capture what’s going on right now?’” Majcher said. “It was just me at first — I was grabbing screenshots and data from the University website and all the University press releases. When we started thinking about collecting people’s stories, we had to ask difficult questions that other organizations have to ask all the time: When do we ask permission to include content? What’s the statute of limitations on keeping stories anonymous?”

Majcher and Betts were assisted by Robin Ness, a senior library specialist at Brown. Ness had spent several months as a graduate student delving into the University archives to understand how the 1918 influenza pandemic played out on College Hill.

“It was interesting to get her take on what she thought would be important for future researchers — what people will want to look at 20 or 50 years from now,” Majcher said.

To understand the emotional, psychological and human toll of the 1918 pandemic, Majcher said, academics have relied heavily on handwritten letters exchanged between friends and family members during that trying time. He believes gathering similarly conversational, confessional thoughts during this paperless 21st century pandemic could prove more challenging.

“The real, honest communication that’s happening right now is happening in so many different formats — through text messages, Facebook chats and Zoom calls,” Majcher said. “To collect that, we have to be proactive. We have to put the idea of capturing thoughts in people’s heads now. Most of this communication isn’t tangible like a letter, so it could disappear.”

That’s precisely why, he said, the library is asking for submissions of any kind from members of the Brown community — journal entries, “quaranzines,” memes, research papers and everything in between.

While this is the first time the University has proactively collected stories about a major world event, people at Brown have a long history of gathering personal accounts that they believed could aid researchers in more fully understanding turbulent times on campus, Betts said. Since 2010, the library has maintained a Vietnam Veterans Archive, which features interviews with Brown alumni who served in the Vietnam War, scans of their personal correspondence, photos and more. And more recently, the Pembroke Center commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Black Student Walkout by collecting oral histories and photos from alumnae who participated.

Centering diverse perspectives

As helpful as it can be to hear people’s recollections of significant historical events many decades later, those who study the past agree it’s more difficult to gauge the zeitgeist of an era after it has receded from view. That’s largely because most surviving accounts of times of global upheaval come from public records, such as speeches and newspaper op-eds, or from private letters. In both cases, the wealthy, powerful and highly educated classes are overrepresented, and the experiences of average people are often lost.

“Historians are always trying to figure out what people on the ground were feeling,” said Mason, an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown. “That’s difficult because history is usually written by the powerful. People who are well-educated and in positions of power tend to be the ones who leave tangible records.”

Mason, who has studied the SARS and H1N1 influenza epidemics in China, wanted to make sure scholars like her had the tools to tell a more diverse story about the COVID-19 pandemic. So she partnered with University of Connecticut anthropologist Sarah Willen to create the Pandemic Journaling Project, a website that lets anyone with a smartphone chronicle their pandemic experiences however they like.

“Part of what we wanted to do was collect information in real time, in an organized way, so that historians in the future can read about this time from a wider range of people,” Mason said. “My colleague asked historians, ‘If you could pre-design an archive on this pandemic, what information would you want included?’ A lot of them answered: ‘We want to reach the most affected populations: low-income people, essential workers, people of color.’ This is the result: A journal you can use even if you don’t have a computer, even if you don’t speak English, even if you don’t want to write.”

After visiting the Pandemic Journaling Project website, Mason said, first-time participants are asked to fill out a 6-minute survey about themselves, their views and their household’s experiences with the novel coronavirus. Then, once a week, they receive a text message or email prompting them to answer two questions using photos, an audio recording or text. The first question asks people to chronicle their feelings and experiences over the last week in whatever form they prefer. The second question changes each week; past prompts have called on participants to address changes in their jobs, family life or mental health in the midst of the pandemic.

Mason said all participants’ personal details are kept confidential. And unless participants wish to share their journals immediately on the Pandemic Journaling Project website, their responses will be stored in a secure data repository and will only be made available to researchers through a data-use agreement on a case by case basis, After 25 years, the entire collection of journals will be converted into a publicly accessible historical archive and donated to the libraries at Brown and the University of Connecticut.

Mason said she hopes the feeling of anonymity encourages participants to respond as candidly as possible.

“We desperately want to know what people are experiencing right now, but we don’t want to be intrusive,” Mason said. “We’ll miss so much if we call people up and ask them for a formal interview. This is a way to allow people to share what they want to share, however they want to share it, as they try to grapple with so many serious and overwhelming challenges.”

Mason, Iemma and Brown Library staff are all hopeful that their efforts to gather diverse snapshots of life in the era of COVID-19 will help future historians paint a nuanced, inclusive portrait of this unique moment.

“There was a real sense of urgency in the creation of this archive, a desire to ensure that as many voices as possible were represented,” Iemma said of her students’ spring project. “Things have changed so much over the past five months, and it seems crucial to capture those changes, whether they are material, emotional, or otherwise, as best we can.”