Unprecedented. Uncharted. Trying. Interesting. Whatever you want to call these times we’re living through, they are certainly historic — the moment of a mysterious novel coronavirus pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people and ground our daily lives to a halt. And when historic moments disrupt our version of reality, it’s in our nature to document them in the hope that future generations can learn from our mistakes and benefit. Four local institutions share with us their approach to archiving COVID-19.
The City of Los Angeles Public Library: Safer at Home
The City of Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) has been asking Angelenos for everything from photographs, drawings, paintings and poetry to correspondences, diaries, blog entries and signs for its Safer at Home Archive. They’ve received over 100 submissions; from a poem about being in a grocery store (“SLICED BREAD” by Constantin Preda) to a photo series of musician Bobby Hurricane Spencer — who had already been homebound due to a stroke — by his partner, Retha Petruzates-Spencer, to a selfie by Heather Johnson, a pregnant woman who had to wear a mask during her check-up at the hospital.
“The Safer at Home Archive documents the creativity and resiliency of Los Angeles community members in how they coped with the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Suzanne Im, acting senior librarian of digitization and special collections at the library. “We see the methods people have devised for combating the illness, the ensuing economic downturn and the upending of everything else in our daily lives.”
Im says that the upending of our daily lives is readily apparent in many of the submissions.
“Physical distancing behaviors are shown through photographs taken from afar,” says Im. “We have multiple series of family portraits taken with people posing on their front porches or behind windows. Children and grandchildren are engaging with elderly family members from balconies or through videoconferencing. We've seen submissions that show changes in daily routines and interactions such as parents telecommuting and children tele-schooling.”
Beyond our behaviors, Im says that even the way we present ourselves has changed drastically.
“The archive helps to demonstrate that this was a period when wearing face masks became socially acceptable in L.A. and across the country,” says Im. “Prior to the pandemic, it was rare to see someone locally wearing a face covering, unless one was in the San Gabriel area. We’ve received an abundance of photographs of people wearing N95 or homemade masks, or people making masks for distribution, throughout L.A. County. People had also developed regimens for the occasion of leaving home, ensuring they had gloves, sanitizer and other effects that would help combat the virus.”
Cal State LA: Pandemic Diaries
Cal State LA’s Pandemic Diaries contain a more focused approach to archiving COVID-19. The university is asking its student body to send a video diary that answers prompts like “What is your daily life like during quarantine?” and “What does your new workspace look like?”
“The idea behind the Pandemic Diaries is to capture the student experience and campus community through the form of oral history,” says Azalea Camacho, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Cal State LA. “This project allows students to reflect and capture a moment in time that will be beneficial for future research. Moreover, it shows students that their voices and their perspectives matter. Our student population is heavily diverse, and it is extremely important to capture their stories and their experiences, which are lacking in the historical record. We are collaborating with faculty to include the pandemic diaries within their class instruction. In the future, we would hope to make these available through a digital asset management system to be used for research, exhibitions and awareness of the student experience at Cal State LA.”
Listen to one student's diary below.
Camacho says that some of the students are experiencing many of the same things as the school has moved from an in-person experience to a mainly online one.
“The major similarities I have noticed is that [the students] live with their families and are very tied to their communities,” says Camacho. “Some of the topics discussed are being first-generation, experiencing inequality, mental health, culture, family life and the virtual learning/environment. The students are expressing very similar emotions, which relate to the challenges of learning in a virtual environment.”
The USC Libraries Special Collections and University Archives: Collecting COVID-19
The USC Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives are asking their student body (and L.A. residents) to contribute to Collecting COVID-19, an open-ended collection of writings, photos, audio, video and artwork related to COVID-19.
“Most of what I’ve seen are YouTube-type videos,” says Claude Zachary, USC’s university archivist. “Cellular phone videos — people are doing journaling in that way. A few written documents, stories about a trip or experiences with relatives.”
Suzanne Noruschat, the regional history librarian, says that the submissions reflect a range of emotions that people are going through during the pandemic.
“It depends on personal circumstances — those who have lost jobs and are coping with the fallout to those who have had more minor inconveniences,” says Noruschat. “I think we’re all collectively worrying, but in the submissions that I’m seeing, trying to gauge the emotional tone of these submissions, it has been mixed.”
It can’t be ignored that the protests against racist police violence against Black people has added more pressure to the day-to-day lives of Angelenos.
“There has been discussion amongst our colleagues on moving forward to collect a separate collection of the protest movement — the George Floyd-related protest — and the heightened sensitivity and awareness to the inequity throughout our country since the beginning,” says Noruschat. “We’re seeking protest signs and an outpouring of support of this particular crucible of time, so hopefully the public is becoming aware of it and making changes for the first time in our history. It’s [a] confluence of stress and hope.”
The Autry Museum of the American West: The West During COVID-19
The Autry Museum of the American West is rolling its archives of the Black Lives Matter protests into its “The West During COVID-19” archive initiative to create “The West During COVID-19 - Black Lives Matter Protests in the West.” Tyree Boyd-Pates, associate curator of western history at the Autry, couches them in the same conversation on the Autry’s blog.
“As COVID-19 has heavily impacted African Americans, the pandemic has also laid bare how racial inequality affects this community,” Boyd-Pates writes. “Particularly, how African Americans — despite shelter-in-place orders— still disproportionally face racial discrimination, bias, racial profiling, and the leading cause of deaths for young Black men is via encounters with law enforcement throughout the country.
“Due to these inequities, viral videos and accounts of Black Americans' deaths extrajudicially have dominated national headlines,” he continues. “The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (25), Breonna Taylor (26), and Tony McDade (38) have caused segments of the country great pain and angst. However, the crescendo was the viral video of the death of George Floyd (46) by law-enforcement, ultimately leading to national protests and uprisings over 12 days.”
The Autry has already begun sharing its archives — including a series of photos of families wearing facemasks — on its blog, and will continue to do presentations of masks, signs and other ephemera as this unprecedented year continues to unfold.
Top Image: Photo of a couple celebrating their anniversary wearing homemade masks by Tori Tingley Ryan, submitted to the Autry.