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Living Through History: The University-Wide Effort to Preserve the Pandemic

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Brendan J. Kiely ’23 began keeping a “coronavirus diary” on April 18, about a month after he and fellow undergraduates had been dismissed from campus due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“After we got the news, everyone scrambled to get plans together, to store stuff and get stuff home,” Kiely said. “Nobody was super concerned about classes for the rest of the week. There were lots of parties. That's what I remember best.”

Kiely was one of approximately 225 students to record their personal experiences during the pandemic, as part of a journaling initiative launched by history instructor Zachary B. Nowak.

Twice a week, Nowak sent out prompts designed to encourage Harvard affiliates to reflect on their memories of the ongoing crisis and challenges they have faced. Student diaries have documented the first time they heard about COVID-19 and took it to be a serious threat and about changes to their end-of-semester and summer plans.

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The project aims to preserve stories and evidence of this historical moment for future generations.

“The prompts are things that I'm interested in, things I think future historians will want to know,” Nowak said. “It's a little nudge to students twice a week to take a moment and not just write on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok or whatever. Not that those are bad things, but they're just ephemeral.”

Francesca M. Hess ’20, a participant in Nowak’s initiative, said her diary has attempted to capture not only her own experiences but also her many interactions with friends, family, and even the elderly she serves as part of Meals on Wheels in New York City.

“I document a lot of the conversations I have with them, such as one in particular with a woman who was unable to leave her house for over 70 days,” Hess said. “And she talks about how living through World War II has given her the toolkit to live through this.”

Hess added that she is trying to purposely include other peoples’ narratives in her journal.

At the end of May, Nowak hopes to collect the participants’ diaries so they can be added to the Harvard University Archives.

“This is one of a number of different efforts to really capture the student perspective, and to some extent the staff perspective, of this epidemic, because in 100 years, it's going to be super easy for any historian to write the institutional history, the response of the Harvard president and the administrators and the deans,” Nowak said. “All that stuff makes it into the archive very easily. But it's much less likely that students’ voices will be in the archives, so I really wanted to try to do that.”

‘Steward of Human Experience’

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Harvard Archives mostly preserved administrative documents, instead of records affiliates’ personal experiences.

“One of the first things we did was look back in time in Harvard's history to look for similar situations, in order to understand how the University reacted at that time,” University archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff said.

“There were aspects of what happened in 1918 that weren't particularly well-documented,” she added. “We had an opportunity in hindsight to fix that, this time around.”

The solution, Sniffin-Marinoff and her colleagues decided, would be the Community Archive, a platform for students, faculty, alumni, and staff to submit “materials that were perhaps a bit more personal” and “less official.”

“What we're getting is more of an emotional response to the incident rather than more of an administrative, ‘how do we deal with this’ response, which is the normal part of our work,” Sniffin-Marinoff said.

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Several other Harvard-affiliated institutions have undertaken similar efforts to preserve relics of the pandemic. Harvard Business School has been documenting its faculty’s research on the pandemic, according to Business School Archivist Rachel Wise. Harvard Medical School has been conducting oral-history-style interviews with faculty and staff at Harvard-affiliated hospitals.

“I think that people are very conscious that they're living through a very momentous experience, and conscious of taking photos and recording stories and making sure that the documents that are being created are sent or saved and sent to the archives,” Wise said.

The varied submissions to the community archiving projects — including Snapchat images and electronic calendars filled with Zoom meetings — have already painted a complex picture of the emotional effects of the COVID pandemic on Harvard affiliates, Sniffin-Marinoff said.

Wise said her favorite submission so far is a photo depicting a completely empty subway station, sent by a staff member at the Business School’s Japan Research Center.

“I think it's a mixture of confusion and a little bit of grief,” she said. “There's hope in there too. Some people have submitted information that is related to people they know who have passed away during this period, which is very sorrowful. Other people have experienced people surviving it, and so there's joy in that as well. It's a mix of emotions.”

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University Librarian and Vice President for Harvard Library Martha Whitehead wrote in an email that the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the importance of libraries and archives.

“I think one role of libraries is to serve as both a witness to and a steward of human experience,” Whitehead wrote. “With that in mind, right now we’re doing our best to capture history even as we’re living through it.”

The Classroom as the Archive

In a spring course taught by English professor Beth Blum, students were tasked with writing a chapter of their “own Harvard novel.” Not surprisingly, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic became a popular subject.

“They were very quick to find insights and skills to make their own contribution to Harvard's literary archive of this moment,” Blum said of her students.

After students in ENGLISH 90HN: “The Harvard Novel,” were dismissed from campus, they began to contribute to a class-wide quarantine diary posted on the course website.

Rachel F. Tropp ’20, a student in Blum’s course, said she went from solely reading about previous students’ experiences at Harvard to becoming an active contributor to the University’s narrative and the author of her own Harvard story.

“We all seemed to realize that we might also be living in a time when it's interesting to write down things that we're feeling — like loneliness and anxiety — in our diaries, and it might actually be relevant and interesting to future readers at Harvard,” Tropp said. “A lot of people in the class were also seniors, and we found that leaving Harvard was a good chance to reflect on Harvard.”

History of Science lecturer David S. Unger also encouraged his students to contribute to the preservation of Harvard affiliates’ memories of the pandemic.

Unger’s course HISTSCI191: “Harvard’s Changing Landscape” featured an oral history capstone project. Rather than having his students document the SEAS campus’ move to Allston, Unger asked them to interview fellow undergraduates, resident deans, and graduate students about their experiences with Harvard’s campus closure this spring. Video recordings of these interviews were compiled on a website called “Harvard from Home.”

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While the course project is currently being maintained in partnership with the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Unger said he hopes to connect with the University archives and establish an “institutional home” for his course’s project.

“I would love to make sure that we work with all of these different groups to make all this stuff visible, so that if in the next year or five years or 10 years, someone’s writing a senior thesis about experiences during the pandemic, they'll not have to search odd corners of the internet,” Unger said.

Unger acknowledged that current historians cannot “see the big picture” in the way that future historians will, which is why they need to document as much as possible now.

“Time passes, and you lose things. You forget things, and although at the moment this all seems so intense, it'll fade, it'll be fuzzy, we'll forget little details,” he added.

Alex S. Cohen ’20, another student in Blum’s course, said he thinks keeping records of this pandemic will help prepare for a future global crisis.

“To see the last time the United States had a really serious pandemic like this with significant social ramifications, you probably have to go all the way back to the Spanish Flu, whereas countries in East Asia have recently been exposed to other illnesses in a pandemic setting, like SARS,” Cohen said. “They already are doing better than us, because they have had recent experience to learn from and take necessary precautions.”

‘Gangbusters into the Digital Realm’

While historians, archivists, and students alike have focused on preserving records of the ongoing pandemic, the closure and subsequent phased reopening of Harvard libraries, museums, and laboratories has also raised new questions about the accessibility of pre-existing archival records.

With the public stuck at home, the Harvard Library had the perfect opportunity to launch its first crowd-sourced transcription project spanning archives across the University. This initiative, seven years in the making, aimed to digitize over 700,000 pages of 17th- and 18th-century manuscripts in Harvard’s collections.

J. Ross Mulcare, a University archivist, said the number of contributors to the transcription project doubled when it was opened up to the public. According to Mulcare, five to 10 new individuals are now signing up to work on the project each day.

“The project is sitting — sort of its genesis and its reason for existing — in this moment of the Library still trying to connect to the public,” Mulcare said. “We want to make sure our material is there when people need it, and that they can sort of feel like they have some agency in enhancing the collections.”

Likewise, Harvard Art Museums Director Martha P. Tedeschi noted that Art Museums staff have found digital avenues to engage broader audiences.

“This situation of having to close our doors to our visitors, as well as the Harvard community, has really been the opportunity for us to zero in on what we can do virtually, to engage those same audiences and to also help with remote teaching, to serve remote research,” she said. “So we have gone gangbusters into the digital realm.”

Sniffin-Marinoff said the University Archives are also exploring ways to preserve digital materials, such as more frequently archiving Harvard-affiliated websites with messages about COVID-19. Still, she said physical materials are here to stay.

“I kind of expect when we get back, there'll be a giant pile of mail that we're going to go through,” she said.

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Cristina Morilla, associate paintings conservator at the Harvard Art Museums, wrote in an email that while staff have not been able to work directly with pieces in the collections, conservation efforts have still proceeded amid the pandemic from staff members’ living rooms.

“The hands-on component of conservation has been stopped, obviously, but this is just part of our job,” Morilla wrote. “Before starting any intervention we have a lot of work to do: analyze and document the painting, interpret the results obtained from scientific analysis (X-ray, and infrared photography, for example), and discuss among colleagues the treatment to be performed.”

Prior to the enforcement of stay-at-home guidelines, conservators at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums would conduct hands-on treatment of more than 7,000 pieces each year, according to an email from Straus Center director Narayan Khandekar.

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted not only the way art is conserved but also the way it is created. Artistic work will play an important part in the recovery from the pandemic, according to Emily R. Novak Gustainis, the deputy director of the Countway Medical Library. The Medical School has partnered with the American Repertory Theater to develop performances based on the oral histories they are collecting.

“The idea is that the art and humanities can help people process the experiences that they've been through and essentially help with the healing process,” Gustainis said.

Tedeschi reaffirmed the importance of art created during the pandemic, even if the only audience right now is the artist.

“I think for so many of us who have never worked remotely before, who are isolated from our colleagues, who are isolated from our public, our audiences, our clients, it’s hard to think on a daily basis that what you're doing is still important,” she said. “But I hope that that doesn't make people feel that there's no point to preserving what they're doing.”

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at oliver.riskin-kutz@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.

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