As COVID-19 Reshapes the World, Cultural Institutions Collect Oral Histories

Universities, libraries and museums are among the organizations seeking personal stories about the pandemic’s effects on daily life

Empty Times Square
Times Square stands largely empty on March 22. Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The world has only known about the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, for a handful of months. But this fast-spreading pathogen has already left an indelible mark on each of us—and organizations around the country want to understand exactly how.

Over the past several weeks, archivists at universities, museums, libraries and other institutions have begun to put out calls for oral histories from people weathering the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. These contributions, several sources write on their websites, add depth and context to the accounts that will inevitably end up in history books—and, for their creators, may provide some solace from the chaos.

One of the most ambitious endeavors so far is led by a team of historians at Indiana’s IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute. The group’s aptly-named COVID-19 Oral History Project invites researchers and members of the general public to share their stories, either through an interview with a trained project volunteer or through submission of an audio file via an online form.

Modeled on the “rapid-response collecting” approach that organizations previously deployed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches, the project aims to amass accounts in real time.

Similar calls for stories have appeared on other university websites, with varying degrees of commitment. Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics is specifically seeking tales from 1,000 residents of New York, the state currently hit hardest by the virus. Half of participants will contribute regularly to the project in the form of written testimonials for up to 18 months, while another subset will be recruited to give audio-visual oral history interviews. Though members of the general public are welcome to contribute, the site specifically calls for institutional decision-makers, public health officials, emergency managers, frontline workers and critical infrastructure workers whose jobs have become essential in recent months.

Other institutions are seeking contributions that are entirely internal. At Brown University, for instance, archivists at the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women are collecting stories from institution affiliates who identify as women, transgender and gender non-binary, inviting these individuals to speak via video chat about their experiences. The University of Arkansas’ initiative offers both approaches, asking faculty, students and staff to contribute to one project and state residents to another.

Across the country, museums, too, have begun to document the pandemic in real time—in part through artifacts and objects, but also through digital records. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has formed a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force aimed at assessing the pandemic’s impact on “individuals, institutions and communities” through objects, photographs and documents, according to a statement released Wednesday. The Chicago History Museum, meanwhile, has asked city residents to send in recordings describing how the pandemic has changed day-to-day life in ways big and small. The prompts contain hints of unexpected levity and hope for the future: “Is there anything you will miss when stay-at-home orders lift?” the organization asks on its website. “What are the moments you won’t forget?”

Regional efforts sparked by organizations like Missouri’s St. Joseph Public Library and Foxfire, a heritage preservation group based in southern Appalachia, have sprung up as well. Also seeking content are the Indiana Historical Society, which is accepting short video contributions, and the Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate in Pittsburgh.

Regardless of the source, the requests share two common characteristics: a call for personal accounts of the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted daily life and a way to share those stories online, from a respectably hygienic distance.

“This is a unique time in our collective history,” says Amy Allen, an archivist at the University Arkansas, in a statement. “We feel it is important to document events and stories from our community.”