Thursday, April 30, 2020

From the Director: Journal(s) of the COVID year

Dr. David Ware
In March 1722, a book appeared under the stark title A Journal of the Plague Year. Written by Daniel Defoe, it purported to be an account of one man's experiences of the year 1665, in which the bubonic plague struck the city of London in what become known as the Great Plague of Londonthe last such epidemic in that city. The book was presented as an eyewitness account of the events, but the author was himself only five years old in 1665, when the Great Plague took place. Instead, the book was possibly based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, a London tradesman who had lived through the epidemic, augmented by other contemporary reports. 

The book is mainly chronological and has the feel of truth, or at least accuracy: Defoe identifies specific neighborhoods, streets and even houses in which events took place. Additionally, it provides casualty figures and even discusses the credibility of various accounts and anecdotes supposedly received by the narrator. The consensus of scholars is that A Journal of the Plague Year is less history than a good historical novel, based on scholarship; Sir Walter Scott’s judgement that it was “one of the peculiar class of compositions which hovers between romance and history” is a fair one: it is a piece of art that tastes of truth. 

I have Defoe’s historical confection on my mind as I listen to and read coverage of the COVID-19 crisis. I wonder, how will this episode be remembered, 50 years or more in the future? Much of what historians make of our time and our response to this health emergency will depend upon what we decide to collect and preserve now. Archivists, librarians and curators around the nation are already grappling with the questions of what to collect, how to store it and how to organize it for latter-day use. One challenge facing us is that, unlike in the 17th or 18th centuries, we generate not just a few records, but overwhelming numbers of them, almost all existing mainly in digital formats. Much of the record of the COVID pandemic is being written, not on paper or recorded on film, but on servers, flash drives or somewhere in the Cloud. What of it can we save, and how do we save it? Aye, there’s the rub. 

For individuals, families, companies or organizations, deciding to document is the first step.  As for the next one, here are a few ideas, which I have adapted from suggestions compiled by Kathy Marquis, Wyoming state archivist. 

  • Start one or more COVID-19 files for documents specifically related to this time. It can be a folder in your computer’s storage, or a folder in your e-mail or, even, a paper folder for printed stuff. The important thing is, have specific places to save COVID-related documents, and get in the habit of saving things into them. Practice, practice, practice.
  • If you communicate via social media, chances are that some of your posts have to do with or refer to COVID-19. These are worth preserving. One direct way to do this is to take screen shots of your posts or interactions with other posters, then save these as pdfs in your COVID folder.
  • Paper documents to save may include almost any or all “snail mail” correspondence, plus, for businesses or organizations, documentation of in-house remote work, social distancing and health-monitoring plans, plus other printed communication with a bearing on the pandemic conditions.
  • Graphics: photos, videos and other visual documents of life at home, in your street or even at the office, (if you’re not working remotely) are worth saving.  Also worth saving are screen shots of video conference call grids: how many people will look this awkward at once on a single monitor ever again? In addition, closure or reduced-service signs—at your office, or ones encountered—will be powerful reminders in the future of the frustrations of the present.
  • Evidence of outreach: any relief or charitable work during this time of shared vulnerability (for instance, collecting or donating supplies to a hospital or food bank, or making masks for friends) is worth marking and remembering. Take pictures and save correspondence about it.
  • Clippings: Once upon a time, people could clip stories from their daily or weekly newspapers, pasting them into scrapbooks to create a sort of tangible diary of events. The dwindling of print editions has made this less easy than in the past, but it is still a good idea. “Internal” documentation  that is, related to your family, company or office  needs the “big picture” context provided by news reports.  If your clipping takes the form of screen captures from your online daily paper, well, that’s becoming part of the “new normal.” 

Any individual, family or organization’s archive of the COVID pandemic must necessarily be incomplete, but this is not to say that it is unimportant.  Archives are made comprehensive not by having a single great collection, but by collecting and preserving many collections that, together, tell a story greater than their individual ones. The story of the Pandemic of 2020 will be a huge, great one  and by documenting their part of the story, individuals, families and groups ensure that the latter-day successors to the mantle of Daniel Defoe will have at their disposal the raw materials of which both romance and histories are made.