Documenting the Living History of COVID-19

The Tufts community is invited to participate in an effort to keep a rich record of life at the university in the midst of global pandemic
A cannon painted with the word “corona” on the Tufts campus. The Tufts community is invited to participate in the COVID-19 Documentation Project, an effort to keep a rich record of life at the university in the midst of global pandemic
A sign of the times. “One goal of this project is to encourage people to shift to a more participatory approach—understanding that we are preserving history and being part of writing history,” said Jane Kelly. Photo: Ana Sophia Acosta, A20
May 21, 2020

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What does the coronavirus pandemic mean to you? How has your life been impacted by social distancing, illness, or remote learning, among other changes? How are you living your daily life? How are you staying in touch? These are among the many questions driving a university-wide initiative called the COVID-19 Documentation Project.

The project, initiated and organized by Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), seeks first-person accounts from alumni, students, faculty, staff, and parents about how this historic moment is changing—and challenging—our lives by disrupting routines and upending plans.

Just as individual experiences widely vary, so too can documentation formats, including journals (written or recorded as audio or video), as well as photographs, graphic novels, or oral history interviews of friends and family. All contributions are submitted via a web form found online at the Documentation Project page.

To learn more about the planning and thinking behind the project, Tufts Now spoke with DCA staff closely involved with its genesis and progress: Dan Santamaria, director; Jane Kelly, records and accessioning archivist; Margaret Peachy, digital archivist; and Adrienne Pruitt, collections management archivist.

Tufts Now: Do we know how Tufts responded to the previous pandemic in September 1918, when the flu pandemic swept through Boston?

Dan Santamaria: We know that Tufts delayed opening until mid-October, but documentation is pretty limited, especially when it comes to personal accounts of what it was like to be a student, how it impacted their social lives and their families. Part of the reason we’re doing this documentation project now is to make sure that narrative gap doesn’t happen again.

Will people be able to see what is being submitted?

Santamaria: Yes, absolutely. All of our collections in the archives are here to be used. We have had several submissions so far, mostly from students, and when we feel we have a critical mass of submissions, we’ll start sharing them online  as more come in. We’re also willing to discuss privacy concerns and closing individual submissions for a period of years rather than opening them immdediatley.

The empty Medford/Somerville campus in late March. “Tufts is landscape—its buildings, its spaces for learning like labs and classrooms—and naturally we look to those things to show the ways the university works and has developed over time,” said Dan Santamaria. Photo: Ana Sophia Acosta, A20

How did you get the idea for the project?   

Adrienne Pruitt: When we started seeing institutional emails alerting everyone to the situation, we thought, “We’re going to want to document this—but how?” The university records will come to us, but how will we document what’s happening with students and other members of the Tufts community that won’t be in the official administrative records? We saw other universities coming up with models, like University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and we started talking about how to implement one here.

Santamaria: It’s a natural extension of our work to document and support the Tufts community. We’re well positioned to undertake projects like this because of our staff’s archival expertise and work on vital systems and digital preservation. Adrienne and her team very quickly started thinking about the best way to approach this project.

One seemingly vital stream of information comes directly from the web, as it is posted.

Margaret Peachy: We knew we would collect all the university records about the pandemic, but we also wanted to archive all the university’s web communications. Tufts set up the COVID-19 information website early on, and we wanted to capture those daily updates, plus the Tufts Daily and what other schools around campus were posting.

It’s a more curated web collection than what we normally do, because we’re targeting specific articles instead of crawling a site in general. So we’re continuing to build out a comprehensive Tufts Response to COVID-19 collection on the Archive-It web archiving service.

Jane Kelly: The other stream of information is from the community itself. Before coming to Tufts, I worked on the #metoo digital collection at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. I’ve tried to take some of the things that I learned from that work to this historical moment by asking myself: what will people be interested in researching, thinking about, and talking about in the future? We’ve tried to be keyed into those kinds of questions, even as we’re all dealing with the situation day to day, in our work and at home.

Pruitt: What’s important is that we capture history not only from a top-down perspective but also from the perspective of everyone who makes up the Tufts community. We’re very interested in perspectives from students, staff, faculty, and alumni, because we want to provide a fuller view of history.

Why is that breadth of perspective important?

Santamaria: One of the reasons we collect and preserve university records is to help people make better decisions, whether it be the administration, students, or faculty, as we go through a crisis like this.

The administrative records are evidence of what the university values, but you get a different perspective—and it really helps emphasize the impact on people—when you have people’s individual stories and their personal narratives. We want to understand how people feel the impact of these events and of the decisions that the university is making.

It seems as though lots of personal experiences would add depth to how future researchers also come to understand this global event called COVID-19.

Santamaria: They do. They often tell stories that administrative records can’t. We’ve often seen, when working with researchers, that people form really deep connections with the material in archives.

We’ve heard a lot from groups traditionally underrepresented at Tufts that when they encounter records of people who look like them or have similar backgrounds, it helps them feel a connection, both to the people who came before them and to the community as a whole. It enriches all of our lives to know that there were people who dealt with similar issues and had similar thoughts, feelings, and goals.  

And you’re looking for any kind of contributions—such as photographs or videos—that tell the fuller story as well?

Peachy: We’re deliberately not prescriptive about how people choose to participate. If someone expresses themselves through art—photography, poetry, a video—or through a traditional journal, we’re accepting all forms of expression.

That speaks to our hope that this project will connect with people in the future. There might be someone in a hundred years who will watch one of the videos and think,  “Yes, I can connect with that person through that mode of communication.” We encourage everyone to express themselves however they feel comfortable.

How do you motivate people to share with the project?

Kelly:  One goal of this project is to encourage people to shift to a more participatory approach—understanding that we are preserving history and being part of writing history. We can help people tell their story and see their story as integral to that of the whole university.

It’s really exciting and meaningful to me to encourage people to participate in documentation projects, and I hope people will see that they have an important part to play this project’s success.

Dan, on this Zoom interview I’m looking at your choice of background, a nineteenth-century photo of West Hall—the university’s first dorm. It’s still very much a dorm—and it makes me think that physical spaces have traditionally defined the university. How does this documentation project create a new way of telling and preserving the larger story of the university?

Santamaria: Tufts is landscape—its buildings, its spaces for learning like labs and classrooms—and naturally we look to those things to show the ways the university works and has developed over time.

It’s interesting—the campus may be quiet now, but most of us are still very busy. There is still all this activity that’s happening on networks and across all the schools. We’d like to capture all that in words, video, and photographs. We hope people will pause and help us create a broad and richly detailed portrait of Tufts today.

Go to the COVID-19 Documentation Project to learn how to participate.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.