We Asked, You Answered: Documenting Life During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Why is the Diary of Anne Frank one of the most important works of literature of all time? How did this book influence how we remember World War II, the Nazi Regime, and the Holocaust? Although the Holocaust can be viewed as a shared experience, not everyone was a young Jewish girl hiding in an attic with eight people hoping not to get caught and tortured by an enemy. Anne Frank wrote her everyday observations of life in hiding during the Holocaust. It was proof of a time, a place, a people, and an event. Currently, our lives are being dictated by a silent enemy, coronavirus, and we are in fear of the enemy catching up to us and causing tremendous harm.

Archives hold photographs, audio and film recordings, textiles, ledgers, and other types of materials that paint a picture of what it was like to live in a certain period of time, to know a person, and to experience a place. When these materials fail the test of time and are not made widely accessible, we as a people lose the chance to learn and improve from the knowledge of the past. Collecting Covid-19 materials, like the AHC Covid-19 Collection Project hopes to do, is a way of gathering evidence that this historic time existed and how it impacted our communities at individual, state, and national levels and, finally, at a global scale.

Yard sign from the University of Wyoming found on lawn in Laramie, Wyoming, provides a message of hope.
Photo taken by Sara Davis.

The AHC’s Covid-19 Collection Project collects materials that reveal our community’s views on this pandemic through direct donations or via a guided survey. The survey guides participants through a series of questions that prompt reflections on what has made us happy or sad during this time, what changes we have seen, and what we want to be remembered about this time.

As of May 14, 2020, the survey has attracted 26 participants ranging in age from 18 to 85 years and includes a mixture of ethnicities, nationalities, and genders. The responses reflect the diversity of the participants and the different ways this pandemic has affected their lives.

A yard sign at Laramie's Linford Elementary School depicts a message of caring to the community. It reads, "Our Hearts Are Together Even While We're Apart. Always a Linford Lion." Photo taken by AHC Archivist Sara Davis.
Yard sign at Laramie’s Linford Elementary School depicts a message of caring to the community.
Photo taken by Sara Davis.

One survey participant who contracted the coronavirus shared an overview of the experience.

It was not nearly as bad as others get. I did not have to be hospitalized long term. I spent most of my time at home. But it was one of the worst illnesses I have ever experienced and I do not want to ever get it again.

Another participant shared:

Things that make me happy include watching dogs walk by my house. Seeing everyone doing their part to take care of their communities and donate towards finding a vaccine or cure for this disease is making me hopeful that I’ll be able to visit and hug my family again sometime soon.

Others expressed frustration:

[I’m] angry that as I walk into Walmart or the Loaf and Jug people are wandering around with no mask. If you don’t care about your own health, fine. But care about your fellow man and protect them. Getting the virus once does not mean you are immune and can’t get it again…we have to protect each other.

These responses show the human side of pandemic and inform others of the complexity of the situation.

Kiowa Park in Laramie, Wyoming, is closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo taken by Sara Davis.

Another purpose of the AHC’s Covid-19 Collection Project is to provide a safe space for people to share their experiences with the hope that others will find comfort and peace in the knowledge that they are not alone and the community is here to listen. In addition to the survey responses, the AHC received a few poems, a short essay, and an inspirational quote that fits this second goal. Carol Miller from New Mexico submitted the following quote that has been inspiring her while she writes her thesis:

We must learn to sing our songs in a strange land. We may feel abandoned in an empty, merciless wilderness full of detritus and death, but we who are left must travel through the in between timespace listening, seeing, attending afresh. We need to develop a thriving, forward-looking age by compassionately transforming the mournful terrain into a realm of wisdom, hope, and love. We have the responsibility to faithfully search for the possibilities and implement the discoveries that will bring us into a newly imagined dimension of interconnection with and understanding of each other and our world.

Like many of the submissions the AHC has received thus far, Miller’s contribution helps tell the story of our community’s camaraderie, support, and sense of hope for the future during this pandemic.

In the article, “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity,”[1] published in 2000, Elisabeth Kaplan argues that identity can be asserted through the types of historical documentation that are kept inside the walls of archival institutions. As archivists, we collect, preserve, and make accessible diaries, correspondence, news clippings, photographs, and other materials that document a certain period of time, person, and place. If there is no record, there is also a lack of evidence to prove someone or something existed. Similarly, if there is not access to these records, no one will know what and who came to pass. We do not know how long this pandemic will last or the ramifications and eventual outcome, but we can determine how this historical time is remembered by documenting through writing, photographing, and creating artwork that reflects our observations and emotions during this time and then collecting these conceptions in a place where they can safely be preserved and accessed for the long-term.

UW yard sign found on lawn in Laramie, Wyoming, encourages a sense of community.
Photo taken by Sara Davis.

To contribute to the historical record of this momentous time or learn more about the project, please visit the AHC Covid-19 Collection Project webpage at https://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/covid-19-collecting.html. #COVID19WY #alwaysarchiving

  • Post contributed by Sara Davis, University Archivist, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[1] Elisabeth Kaplan, “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are: Archives and the Construction of Identity,” The American Archivist vol. 63, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2000): 126-151, accessed May 14, 2020, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.63.1.h554377531233l05.

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