Archiving the pandemic: catharsis, trauma, and responsibility

It is American Archives Month, and today is also #Ask An Archivist Day on Twitter. It seems fitting to write specifically about the work of archivists. The Covid-19 pandemic as created a strange temporal space in our lives, one that many of us encounter when we talk about events before and during the past almost two years.

At the beginning, many archivists felt the push/pull to document what is happening; this came from two places; primarily, the knowledge that the 1918 influenza pandemic had far less of a historical record, and that with our current skills and tools, especially digital abilities, that we felt responsible to document what’s happening around us for the sake of the future.

Second is the pressure to do what we are trained to do – collect and archive the stories of the world around us but in this case, in real time. This “real time” collecting has become more of a norm, but it has consequences, including those of compromised privacy, and the potential commodification of other’s lives and experiences.

For those participating in archival professional organizations, many of us began meeting regularly to have a space to work through issues and commiserate, and plan work in archives throughout the pandemic. One area of work became the roll out of many initiatives at different types of institutions to create collections focused on the impact of the virus on our communities. As University Archivist, I felt a responsibility to create a place for our campus community to contribute to the historical record, and to have an outlet for what had become a dangerous and chaotic existstance. Following other archivists’ work, I enlisted with our Digital Archivist to create the Covid 19 FSU Community Experience.

While all of that is well and good, other factors are in play; it’s not that simple, nor should it be. Our approach to working with materials that reflect a major global event, how it changes our daily lives, as well as trauma and death has to be nuanced with consideration and compassion. As Eira Tansy wrote in June of 2020, “No one owes their trauma to archivists…” As of today, there are 4,547,782 documented deaths. These represent the devastation of individual lives, families, and communities.

Since its inception, the project has garnered great interest, though submissions have slowed considerably. Fatigue brought on by a life with quarantine, illness, isolation, and death has changed us, and I believe that is reflected in the slowing number of submissions. For me as an archivist, and as someone also experiencing the pandemic, I can empathize. At this point it’s important to let the initiative lie, but live on indefinitely to be revisited. Submissions that reflect recollections are just as important as those that are contemporaneous.

More about the development and our thoughts in creating the Covid-19 FSU Community Experience Project can be found in this interview by the FSU English Department.

SUPPORT IS AVAILABLE

We know that the pandemic has affected our community emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially. Staff and faculty can visit the Human Resources Employee Assistance Program for COVID-19 resources that may help to cope with the emotional and financial effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Students can visit the University Counseling Center for information on how they may seek counseling services, as well as resources on how to manage COVID-19 related stress and anxiety.

MORE ABOUT AMERICAN ARCHIVES MONTH

Make sure to follow @fsulibraries on Twitter and Instagram to see everything on #AskAnArchivist Day, Wednesday, October 13th, 2021.

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