We are still living through the COVID-19 pandemic—and are likely ready for it to be ancient history—but local museums and libraries are thinking about how to preserve the moment for future generations.
“It is such a history-in-the-making moment,” said Carolyn Parsons, head of special collections and university archives for the Simpson Library at the University of Mary Washington. “Back in March, shortly after the university was asked to close, we really just started thinking about how this moment is currently here in time and we wanted to preserve it so future researchers could have it before that content was lost.”
Back in May, Parsons and her team, which includes a digital resources librarian and a records coordinator, launched an effort to collect and digitize a variety of COVID-19-related materials. They are asking anyone affiliated with UMW to contribute to the effort.
“When I went back to look and see what was [the university’s] experience during the Spanish flu, I was really surprised that there wasn’t a lot,” Parsons said. “I had to dig. Where I found the most was in former President [Edward] Russell’s papers, and it was really just his reports of what had happened on campus. What I would have loved to have found would have been personal experiences from students and faculty. So that’s the type of thing we’re hoping to collect now. That’s what you want to find when you look back—those very detailed accounts.”
Parsons said UMW’s COVID-19 collection began with the personal account of reference librarian Peter Catlin, who was to have been married in Virginia Beach in May. But the governor’s stay-at-home order canceling public gatherings meant he had to quickly change plans, so he and his fiancé got Fredericksburg’s circuit court clerk to marry them on the sidewalk outside the courthouse.
The collection has grown from there to include faculty blogs about working from home under quarantine, student journals about campus life cut short, photos of daily life in the age of coronavirus and artwork inspired by the current moment.
It will also include transcripts of “COVID in Context,” the free, open course UMW offered to the community earlier this year.
The UMW library’s “call to contribute” website contains suggestions for capturing the moment, including writing a poem or short story, recording a video or audio clip, starting a podcast or creating a piece of art.
“Paint, sculpt, draw, photograph, bake, design, animate, or stitch your feelings and we can digitize the physical and preserve the digital,” the website states.
Parsons said students who journaled over the summer for the project wrote about not only their reaction to the pandemic but also to the protests for racial justice that began after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd during an arrest by white police officers.
“The summer has encompassed so many things and [we saw] the narrative intersection of racial justice and COVID,” she said.
Parsons and her team have been transcribing the submissions and everything will be stored in the Simpson Library’s digital repository. Preservica, the company that provides the platform for the digital repository, donated an extra 250 GB of space for the COVID-19 collection.
UMW’s COVID-19 collection aims to capture the current experiences of the UMW community, including alumni.
The wider community can donate objects and documents related to the pandemic or the local protests against police violence to the Fredericksburg Area Museum.
“We’re asking people to save anything—homeschool lesson plans, pictures of quarantine projects, anything like that, we’re asking for people to save and consider donating to the museum,” said FAM Director Sara Poore. “Even if you don’t think it’s relevant, let us make that decision.”
Poore said the museum started collecting these items in the spring and is making another push for donations this month.
“We’re also collecting stories to go on our website,” Poore said. “How did people respond to going to the grocery store early on in the pandemic? If all of a sudden you’re finding yourself the caretaker of someone who is high risk, so you yourself can’t go out, how are you getting the things you need? How are you entertaining your family during quarantine?”
Poore said the museum also welcomes objects and documents related to the racial justice protests that have been occurring locally on a regular basis since May 31, when Fredericksburg Police deployed tear gas against protesters downtown and on Cowan Boulevard.
She said empty tear-gas canisters and water bottles carried by the protesters are already part of a local Black Lives Matter collection.
Posters advertising the regular protests and personal narratives of participants will also be welcomed, Poore said.
“Collecting stories and pictures is so important to be able to tell the whole story,” she said.
All donated items and documents will go before the museum’s collections committee to ensure that the submissions tell all parts of the local COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter stories, and how they fit into the national stories of this time.
“It’s a very exciting and interesting time,” Poore said. “You’ve got both of these huge movements. It’s just very interesting to watch it play out and talk to people and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s a very exciting time, and we can only hope it will build a better future.”
To contribute to UMW’s COVID-19 collection, visit libguides.umw.edu/online/scua/contribute.
To contribute to FAM’s collection, visit famva.org/documenting-covid-19-in-the-fredericksburg-area/.
Adele Uphaus–Conner writes for The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg. Contact her at 540/735-1973; firstname.lastname@example.org; @flsadele.
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