Making a Mark on History: COVID-19 Community History Project

The theme to this year’s Honors Beacon focused on “making a mark on history” and we are continuing that theme with this last blog post of the year. We are focusing on the University Archives’ COVID-19 Community History Project currently going at Minnesota State University, Mankato which involves student workers and university archivists who are working to curate the new library collection. Working closely with the project are two former Honors Program directors, Dr. Anne Dahlman and Dr. Chris Corley.

It goes without saying that it is important to learn about and reflect on history, but it is just as important to document the history we live in, especially during an unprecedented global pandemic like the one we currently face.

With this in mind, the University Archives has started the COVID-19 Community History Project. As the name suggests, it is a project where submissions are open to all students, staff, and faculty who wish to contribute. The pieces can range from photos to art projects to personal reflections to interviews with people.

“We would like to capture a broad example of students, staff, faculty, and what’s going on,” Acting University Archivist Heidi Southworth stated. “We’d like to capture that and make the available in the University Archives for future historians and researchers who want to write about what happened and what was going on with social history.”

Capturing history is something that the Archives has done since the start of the university in 1868. The Archives contain records on what was happening at that time, while also containing records on what was happening when the university was going through the 1918-20 Spanish Flu.

COVID-19 has often been compared to the Spanish flu, in terms of it being a global pandemic that has forced worldwide shutdowns. While creating the “Spanish Flu” section of the university’s 150th anniversary book, last year, the Archives found records from the time of the Spanish flu that show how universities shut down statewide, much like what has been done in response to COVID-19.

“The only reason you can know much about what happened is because we have the records of the normal school,” University Archivist Daardi Mixon said. “It’s important that we take this opportunity to do that today so that with our next anniversary book, there will be a section on this and how the university responded.”

Taking time to document history as it happens is important when dealing with the emotional aspects of it. Much like the nature of the world and how it is ever-changing and evolving, people’s emotions are doing so too, which change their perspectives.

“As time goes on, people’s memories can become changed or impacted by it so in the moment we’re looking to capture the raw emotions and experiences as it’s happening,”  University Archives Technician Adam Smith said. “We can also document how those people are thinking about in the future how they think about the past and how those experiences have changed over time.”

Change has also come to the Archives in the way they’re conducting their work. They have introduced new tools to the process that were in the works already, such as utilizing Zoom to conduct and record interviews, as well as usocial media capture and automatic audio transcription capabilities for other purposes.

Student workers are getting the chance to use these tools to not only fulfill their employment but also gather materials and interview people, as a part of their role within the project. Students get trained in a way allows them to learn new concepts while they’re employed.

“As part of their training, a lot of those student workers in this project are being asked to go through a list of oral history resources that Heidi [Southworth] put together for students to learn how to conduct an oral history and what an oral history means,” Smith said, “so there is an opportunity for students to learn about historical resources.”

The project is also also a part of a new library collection being curated which meant that getting student workers involved in the internal processes was tested at the library before it fully started.

“We tested this with our own library student workers before we subjected anyone else to it, in order to work out the kinks,” Interim Dean of the Library Chris Corley said. “A lot of the library student workers are writing journals about their experiences and emotions, so what we’re going to have is a lot of first hand accounts from students in how they experienced this.”

Corley is not only Interim Dean of the Library, but is also a former Honors Program director. Corley credited his experiences with Honors to having a greater understanding of the broader purpose and importance that the project serves in telling individuals’ stories.

“One of the things Honors taught me was to pay more attention to how singular events that have happened in history affect people in different ways,” Corley said, “so while all of us are experiencing the COVID pandemic, we’re all experiencing it in different ways because of our race, ethnicity, gender, and social status.”

A group facing the COVID-19 pandemic different from many other students is international students. International students not only make up a sizeable portion of student workers at the university, but also a sizeable portion of the overall student population, with there being around 1,200 international students who attend the university. During this pandemic, many of them are unable to go home due to travel restrictions. With finances being tight and influence on public policy often being minimal, these students have been facing struggles. This is where the project becomes an important opportunity for international students to fulfill a need for employment and have their voice be heard.

“Not only to utilize their experience as a launching pad but then to provide them an opportunity for hope to get employment to pay bills, buy food and do something meaningful that’s not a hand-out,” Dr. Anne Dahlman said.

Dahlman is a former Honors Program director, originally from Finland, who now serves as Interim Dean of Global Education. In her role, Dahlman has helped international students in beginning to work with the project and has connected closely with their experiences in doing so.

“International students are very proud in terms of resourcefulness and ability to take care of themselves because they would not get a student visa if they didn’t show they don’t need the help of the U.S. public,” Dahlman said. “They’re treated as very capable workers and as researchers, and are providing valuable input to the history of our campus, our region, and our country.”

Journals and written pieces are valuable project contributions, but they are valuable to students who often view constructing such pieces as an outlet of relief. For international students, this is especially true being so far from home in such an unprecedented situation.

However, as Dahlman noted, “They say that especially when you are very emotional that you go to your first language so the reflection would be very different if they went to their second language.”

While this can be a barrier to those who do not know the writer’s first language, it also provides a way to show the diversity of the student population and keeps intact the goal of gaining people’s perspectives as history unfolds. In doing so, there is great importance in being sensitive to people’s emotions and connections during this time.

“When people reflect, I hope we give that we are able to allow them the space and modality that allows them to reflect, so we are not just having them share their thoughts,” Dahlman said. “This will give students a way to talk to people back home and include them in their reality in a way that’s constructive and has a lot of potential.”

For those who are interested in putting forth a submission for the project, it is important to note that no piece is ever taken for granted.

“Sometimes, some things come to us and we’re like, ‘What is that?’, Archives Technician Anne Stenzel said. “Sometimes something will come in and be donated and it may not appear to be important, but sometimes somebody will ask us a question and that particular document provides that exact answer.”

“The things that you donate may not appear to be valuable but they are to us and they may provide some value to someone someday.”

Ultimately, the COVID-19 Community History Project serves a purpose that is greater than the sum of our parts, in terms of how these submissions will tell the tale of who we are to future generations, long after we’re gone.

To learn more about the project, please visit https://libguides.mnsu.edu/covid19historyproject

 

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