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How does the history of COVID-19 look after a year of archiving?

By

Rachel Bunning

On March 13, 2020, former President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, thus marking the beginning of the pandemic for many Americans. On that same day, just a little over a year ago, history faculty head and Professor Catherine O’Donnell reached out to the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Richard Amesbury and Associate Professor of history Mark Tebeau with an idea. 

She suggested that the public history team facilitate a repository of, what she referred to as, “this strange time,” for future historians to use for projects and research. Tebeau and Amesbury wrote back almost immediately to express their support for the idea. Thus, “A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19” was born. It was named after Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which documented the experience of the bubonic plague in London in the year 1665.

Tebeau began assembling a website and reaching out to colleagues at other universities, such as Northeastern University and George Mason University. The journal had over 160 contributions after being up and running for only one week. 

“That first weekend, it was just me, Mark and Richard taking pictures and uploading them,” O’Donnell said. “But Mark and then partners elsewhere, especially through George Mason University, created the human and digital infrastructure for it and it grew and grew.”

The archive’s team grew as undergraduate and graduate students from Arizona State University and the other universities joined the team of faculty members already involved. The growth of the journal was also enabled by the Institute for Humanities Research and The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean of Humanities Jeffrey Cohen who helped to provide funding for the project.

In the year that has gone by since the launch, the archive has grown and now holds almost 13,000 contributions from people across the world. People have sent in photos, paintings, videos, written stories, classroom lesson plans, news clippings and many other forms of media to document their unique and shared experiences. 

“It's humbling to see people's determination,” O’Donnell said. “But I should add that I also am impressed that people are willing to share their struggles. Putting them in context isn't denying them, and I'm glad people are willing to write about how they're bored, or frightened or despairing.

“I think the archive gives people a vehicle that is neither public nor private and it connects their individual experience to a communal one. The pandemic has created both extraordinary isolation and extraordinary collective efforts, and the archive is a testament to that.”

As the archive continued to reach milestones in the number of submissions, those curating it began to notice how it evolved as events happened or news stories broke. Clinical Assistant Professor of history Kathleen Kole de Peralta, one of the faculty members at ASU working on the archive, mentioned this.

“Every time we turn a page in the pandemic story there's a flurry of submissions to the archive reflecting that change,” Kole de Peralta said. “The archive reflects the pulse of the contributors. It shifts and changes in real time, most recently the archive reflects the intersection of the pandemic with social justice issues and concerns about gun violence.”

The team also began to notice where there were silences within the archive. Wanting to make sure the project was as inclusive and expansive as possible, they actively set out to find the voices that were missing. 

“People have come up with all kinds of themes around which to collect and that has meant greater, though still not sufficient, inclusion of rural communities, older people and communities of color,” O’Donnell said.

A few other groups the team is looking to include were mentioned by postdoctoral scholar and American Council of Learned Societies fellow Marissa Rhodes, a curator of the archive.

“Though this work has just begun, we now have collections from around the world that highlight the experiences of Indigenous people, incarcerated people, and others whose stories aren't typically included in traditional archives,” Rhodes said. 

This goal to include the voices of those who have been left out of other archives has been a mission of the journal from the beginning.

In an article published by ASU News when the archive first launched in March 2020, Tebeau said: “In a sense, this is kind of guerilla history. We want stories from everyone: those who are not as digitally active, older folks who are at the greatest risk, communities of color, which may be impacted differently than others. The best archives are those which are most representative.”

As vaccines begin to roll out around the world, the pandemic and its effects are far from over. The archive going forward must consider not only when to stop collecting materials, but also how to preserve all of the submissions. 

“Next steps definitely include continuing to curate and organize existing collections, ensuring that the archive will be safely preserved, a challenge with digital materials,” O’Donnell said.

It is a challenge to preserve digital materials as technology is constantly evolving. This creates the possibility of the technology used to create the archive to be obsolete within a few years. Luckily, the archive team has kept this in mind and are going forward with this challenge in mind. 

Submit content to the COVID-19 archive, or browse through it.