History in real time: special collections team’s effort to document COVID-19

The Special Collections Research Team hopes to generate a chronological archive that can be accessed by scholars of any field (Vendila Yang / The Collegian)

Since March 2020, the Henry Madden Library Special Collection team spearheaded efforts to document the impact of COVID-19 on the Fresno State campus in real time.

The Fresno State COVID-19 Archive began shortly after the closure of the Fresno State campus in March.

Piqued by intellectual exploration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fresno State history professor Ethan Kytle began looking into the digitized archives in Fresno to understand how the city has tackled pandemics in the past.

“The single most important reason that I choose to do it is because I’m a historian,” Kytle said. “I tend to process contemporary events particularly the COVID-19 [pandemic]. I tend to process events through what I know and what I can learn about from the past.”.

What started off as just academic curiosity slowly evolved into what Kytle called “dispatches” in which he periodically recounted the events of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, drawing striking parallels between the past and the present.

After writing a few “dispatches” on Facebook to friends, Kytle noticed the dispatches began to gain traction amongst followers so he decided to publish his findings on a history website called Topics of Meta.

Adam Wallace, special collections and archives specialist in the Henry Madden Library, attributed the idea for the COVID-19 Archive to research conducted by Kytle on tracing the daily impact of the 1918 Spanish flu on the city of Fresno.

“That got us to thinking about the current coronavirus pandemic and what historians and other researchers might find 100 years from now, in 2120, and what they might learn about the pandemic,” Wallace said. 

Unlike previous collections, the COVID-19 Archive is attempting to document the pandemic in real time. Normally, collections are created after the event happens.

The members behind the COVID-19 archive are Adam Wallace, special collections and archives specialist; Julie Moore, catalog librarian for special collections; Karina Cardenas, special collections and archives assistant; and Tammy Lau, head of special collections research center and university archivist.

“This is the first time we have attempted to document an archive in real time, so that is a bit of a new process and way of thinking for us in Special Collections,” Wallace said.

This new process of collecting sources for the archive is tailored to a more community-driven approach whereas traditionally items submitted to the archive come from third parties such as donors, campus units and individuals.

“As a community-created archive captured in real time, we want it to be as organic as possible and that means we accept any material created by or is about the campus community in relation to COVID-19,” Wallace said.

The COVID-19 Archive currently features a range of primary source documents including oral histories, videos, campus websites, emails, letters, press releases, social media posts and photographs.

As of the time of reporting, over 100 items both physical and digital have been submitted to the COVID-19 Archive collection thanks in part to ongoing efforts by faculty and students on campus collecting material.

Students from Fresno State professor Jenny Banh’s anthropology classes have submitted a total of 120 letters based on their COVID-19 experience. The letters titledLetter To My Descendants” cover topics such as the pandemic’s psychological impacts, economics and racism experienced by Asian Americans as a result of COVID-19.

Professor Tim Drachlis of the media, communications and journalism department and the special collections team collaborated on a project in which Drachlis’ students interviewed and collected oral histories about the pandemic from each other.

The Henry Madden Library Special Collections Research Team hopes to generate a chronological archive that can be accessed by scholars of any field.

The COVID-19 Archive is described as “… formed from the nexus between race, class, culture, politics, medicine, science and psychology,” Wallace said.

The Special Collections Research Team expects the digitized archive to be partially available by the spring 2021 semester.

“For the most part we are done with collaborations at this point and moving to other projects. What we have as far as that goes is what we get,” Wallace said.

The prospect of having a regularly updated archive project would allow scholars better understand the complexity of historical events as they unfold with its wealth of data that otherwise would have been lost in time.

Devra Saxton, anthropology professor, found the COVID-19 Archive to be incredibly helpful for the field of anthropology.

“Anthropology, as a holistic discipline, uses many different methods of investigation, including spending time with people to learn about how they are experiencing phenomena like pandemics and disasters, interviewing them, analyzing the things we create and leave behind … sometimes in the dirt and dust, and sometimes in a formal archive,” Saxton said.

“Archives are a helpful tool to help us reflect on and learn from the past, analyze our current situation from different perspectives, and to create a better response in the near future and to anticipate and prepare for disasters yet to come.”

For Kytle, the COVID-19 Archive offers historians an opportunity to “democratize history” by including many different perspectives.

“20 or 50 years from now when people are going to study this, what Anthony Fouci – and other prominent individuals – had to say is going to be readily available … that is not the case for everyday experiences,” Kytle said.

“This archive the library is putting together has a lot of potential to be able to tell a broader story of our current crisis than historians are often able to do about earlier crises like the 1918-1919 [flu] pandemic,” he said.

The Special Collection Teams’ efforts to document the COVID-19 pandemic would allow for future scholars to observe the daily impact of the pandemic on ordinary citizens.

Had the 1918 Spanish flu been documented similarly to the library efforts, Kytle would have been able to look into whether or not there was a disproportionate impact on communities of color or low-income Fresnans and Americans.

The Special Collections Research Team is currently reaching out to anyone on the Fresno State campus to submit items to the archive. To contribute to the COVID-19 Archive, individuals must submit a Fresno State COVID-19 Archive Submission Form to the Special Collections Team.

The list of items requested by the COVID-19 archive are available on the Henry Madden Library Special Collections website regarding the COVID-19 Initiative.

The COVID-19 Archive is expected to continue seeking items for years even after the pandemic ceases to become a daily fact of life.

“We can say, however, how proud we are to be able to preserve this history and be part of the historical process,” Wallace said. “Just because something isn’t documented doesn’t mean it didn’t exist or didn’t matter.”

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