Katie Carey, an archivist at La Salle University, wanted to know how the Philadelphia school experienced the 1918 flu epidemic and began looking through old records.
She was stunned at how little she found.
“We really didn’t have anything about how the university dealt with the pandemic,” she said.
This time will be different.
La Salle is among universities around the country, from Harvard to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to Haverford, the University of Pennsylvania and Villanova, that have begun documenting the impact of the coronavirus on students, staff, faculty and in some cases, alumni. They are seeking submissions, including photos, videos, social media posts, documents and anything else that may illustrate for generations to come how the higher education community weathered the pandemic.
“People not in the field of archives think of dusty boxes in dark basements,” Carey said. “But these are living things, added to all the time. History is being made now. ... It’s important to collect these things now so they are not lost.”
Colleges are hoping to create digital archives that will be there 100 years from now, when maybe the next pandemic hits. Submissions have begun to roll in.
At Haverford College, rising junior Alissa Vandenbark submitted a photo collage of rocks she collected and painted for each day she spent at home in Wisconsin since leaving campus on March 21 until the semester ended on May 15.
It started, she said, when she and others were “naive” about how devastating the virus could be and hoping the shutdown would last only a few weeks. “Each day I would go for a walk, bike ride, or run, and find a small rock somewhere along my path, often in my own yard if I didn’t find any elsewhere, and paint it,” she said.
Her inspiration shifted. Some days it was the rock, or a color combination, or the weather or simply her mood, said Vandenbark, 20, a psychology major.
Haverford also received poetry, photographs and a web comic, most of it from students, said Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger, archivist and records manager.
While the effort will help future historians, the college hopes it’s also a helpful outlet for people coping during the pandemic, she said.
One was used by Penn to open its virtual commencement last month. It featured 80 performers in individual recordings, playing about 20 different instruments, including drums, brass and woodwind, said Steven Birmingham, a 1991 alumnus and trumpet player who helped organize the effort.
Participants created their videos at home, making sure they had the right lighting and cellphone setting and the proper distance from the microphone. Then they uploaded the videos to an online folder. Audio and video mixers synced the recordings.
“It was a lot of trial-by-fire in the very beginning,” Birmingham said.
Not all band members had their instruments at home. Some drummers improvised, using pot lids. Alumni sent instruments to some students.
“I shipped my own personal trumpet to one of the undergraduates so he would have one,” Birmingham said. “So I’m going down to the post office with a trumpet during the pandemic.”
He’s happy that the work, though created during a stressful and difficult time for students, will be preserved in Penn’s pandemic archive.
Colleges are looking for a range of materials from all segments of the campus.
“What we generally get in our archives is the raw data of an institution’s history, the decisions that are made, when certain things happened,” said J.M. Duffin, Penn’s acting university archivist. “We rarely get anything that’s part of the human side. … In order to understand the human side, we need to try to get people’s direct testimony of their experiences."
Villanova is casting its net especially wide, also seeking pieces from donors and parents of students, said Kristin Curley, a spokesperson. Among the submissions were Friday night virtual play readings by members of the university theater department.
La Salle also is hoping for a swath of submissions, from freshmen to seniors of different majors, from faculty and the staff who had to shut down the buildings, Carey said.
English professor Jamie Jesson submitted a photo of his honors students logging in to Zoom for a virtual field trip of the university art museum. Students sent posts about moving out of their dorms and transitioning to online classes, Carey said.
She envisions submissions coming in through the fall, maybe even the spring.